One perfect day

Our last day of living here felt complete. It started with a visit to D, with a carload of things for her and her family; clothes, linen, toys, books and kitchen things. I unloaded it all in her carport, like some kind of free-for-all garage sale. D and her relatives sorted through it, distributing the haul. I was thankful that neither L nor R freaked out as they saw their things unpacked and handed out. At one point, L said, “Look, my Thomas the Tank Engine bowl and cup.” I waited for the meltdown but miraculously it didn’t come. We took photos with our family and D said she’d visit us in Darwin soon – she often goes there for work, so funnily enough we may even end up seeing more of her there than we did when living half an hour down the road.

The next stop was the park in town, for a playdate with a friend and her kids. Then we went home and I ducked up the road for a chat with A, one of the first friends we made here. J took the kids down to the oval to watch the football and I joined them later, lazing in the shade with friends and soaking up the community vibe, something I have missed in recent months. Part of that is due to knowing we’re leaving; my mind started checking out. Part of it was due to the weather; the wet season came late this year, and we’ve had drizzles even into this month. But now the sun is coming out and so are the people. Things are happening. Everyone smiles more.

Finally, we dashed into town for dinner where the miners eat. It’s a place we’ve only discovered in recent months. I can hardly believe we lived here two years without ever coming. It’s cheap and tasty, and kids eat free. We headed home with full bellies, slept soundly and woke early, excited to be off on our holiday to Cairns and the Daintree, before moving to Darwin. A friend arrived to drive us to the airport…only for us to get there and be told our flight was delayed…by seven hours.

So. Seven hours. A whole day.

L wasn’t impressed, of course. He kept asking when we were leaving. I saw signs of Mr Angry surfacing on his face. We tried to break the news gently – we wouldn’t be leaving until the afternoon. But that was okay, because it gave us another whole day in Y. We could have an adventure. It was like a day out of time.

There was no point going back to our now-empty house, so we drove into town for coffee and a takeaway second breakfast. I had been secretly hoping to go back to a beautiful beach called Galuru before we left, but hadn’t had the time. I checked my phone and, miraculously, it was just about to be low-tide, the perfect time to visit; sand bars create safe shallow swimming holes, and you can walk across hard ripples of sand to a small island that is otherwise inaccessible. It is where D and her family lived when I first visited, many years ago, before the council forced them to move to the houses where they currently live. It is, for me, where it all began…and a perfect place for it to end.

The friend who had driven us to the airport came with us. He’s a teacher from New Zealand who has only been in Y for a term, and hasn’t had a car. He’d never been to Galuru, so it was a pleasure to share it with him. We scampered up the huge boulders ringing the island, up to the top, where you can get a clear view down the beach towards town. The day was bright and sunny, with a cool breeze. Perfect. Standing on top of those rocks I was hit by a wave of nostalgia; when I first visited East Arnhem Land I was a young carefree woman with no kids. And now, here I was, standing on a place I explored in those early trips, with my three children and husband, and our friend. So much time has passed. So much has happened.

After a few hours of exploring we retired to our friend’s place. He generously let us rest and made us lunch. We talked about what had brought us to live in an Aboriginal community; living in a community is something I have wanted to do since I was fifteen years old. But talking to him I realized, with sadness, that I haven’t had the experience I was hoping for. I wanted to be immersed, learn the language, go on week-long bush trips, visit homelands, really experience Yolngu culture. I had thought having young kids would help – that it would be a common bond with other women in the community. But instead, if I’m honest, it has served more as a barrier. With young kids, you can’t just take off to far-flung homelands at a moment’s notice. You constantly have to think of safety, food and logistics. In our first six months, I went on outings with our Yolngu family anyway; the kids came along, even if it meant carrying them through the hot bush for hours on end, or distracting them with endless snacks and promises of guku. But as the kids got older their own demands grew louder; they didn’t want to be traipsing through the bush or sitting around fishing, they wanted to be with their friends.

The result is that I don’t feel finished here. The experience doesn’t feel complete. And I’d like to come back one day, perhaps to a more remote homeland. Maybe when the kids are older, in upper primary school, or even when they’re fully grown.

At the same time, I couldn’t have written my book if I hadn’t experienced a feeling of disconnectedness. Before I came here, I never would have guessed that it would be possible to live in an Aboriginal community but have extended periods of time when you feel outside it all. When you wave to passing Yolngu faces but are not really part of it, as you drive from your fenced yard to town and back again. It is not the experience I wanted to have….but it has been a valuable lesson. Of course there were fantastic times too, when we felt a part of something bigger, but these moments were interspersed and not as regular as I might have originally hoped.

Finally, it was late afternoon and we headed back to the airport. We said our goodbyes, and boarded the plane. I watched from my small window, as the cut red earth of the mine blurred into bush…and we flew further and further away…leaving it all behind us…

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