Summer Stories: Just Dirt

Before arriving in Coober Pedy I read of The Breakaways, an accessible scenic spot of some sacred significance. Once in town I asked directions. These were simple enough to alarm me: ‘Turn right at the Stuart Highway, turn right at the signposted track and drive to the end of the road.’  And – ‘You  best get there in time for sunset or sunrise, when the colours are stronger. Other times it’s bleached by the sun.’

The Stuart bisects our continent. I’ve never found myself alone on the Stuart before. The road roars with lorries and road trains that hug the tail of your smaller vehicle at their permitted 110 kilometres an hour. But this early morning my car alone moved through the dark along the Stuart. Cloud covered the stars. The car radio was silent. A velvet cloak sat upon the earth. I knew I was alone.

The kilometres slipped behind me as I raced to catch a doubtful sunrise. A tiny signpost flashed into sight and out. Had I missed the turnoff? I laughed aloud at my famed ability to get lost. But no – a few minutes on a large sign read: THE BREAKAWAYS. So-named, I read, because chunks of the planet appear broken off from the surrounding scarp.  One or two locals, indigenous people, shrugged when I mentioned The Breakaways: ‘Never been’, said one. ‘Just dirt’, said a second.

The velvet was breaking up. Teal blues split the clouds, a lightening over my shoulder from the east, the dark surface now reddening, the black grasses greening. Earth awakening, but everywhere, silence, stillness. The dirt track shifted beneath my tyres, the car, tipsy, slid from side to side, my passage never quite controlled, not fully skidding. Up a rise, the end of the road. Once out the car the first sensation a blast of wind, night-cooled, but warming towards today’s 46 maximum.  A wooden barrier separated me from a sudden void. The earth fell away at my feet, a vast valley, roughchopped, opened before me. The wind tore up the slopes and away. Nothing else moved. No sound. No life. Stepping forward felt like sacrilege.

I stood still and gazed, astonished. Unprepared for an encounter none could prepare for, I simply stood. My eyes flew up the slopes of table-topped massifs and followed the fall of abrupt clefts. Hills of caramel pink and nude rocks of white ochre in a repeating pattern of rise and fall, fall and rise. And no sound at all. Was this the birthplace of the world? Would that scrubby shrub at the valley floor burst into unconsuming flame?

I stood for some time as one at prayer. I knew an aloneness and a silence and a stillness that must have spoken to my soul. In time I returned to time and I took up the elements of my ritual dawn prayers and I prayed and I gave thanks. I felt kin to others who have stood here over the millennia and contemplated creation. I made my poor homage.

At length a living thing came to me in the stillness, a blowfly. The fly sniffed and sipped, and finding my skin dry, it went its ways. The wind whipped my tallith which made to join the insect in flight. Alone again, no human on earth today had better access to his Creator. If a voice had called, ‘Howard, Howard’, I believe I’d have answered, Hineni.

My prayers done I walked to the display that detailed the nearby salients. The text, authorized by a local elder, hinted opaquely at their sacred significance. The place has its true name, Kangu. Behind me at a short remove was the bearded dragon, Cadney, over there was Pupa, two dogs lying down.  And in front was Kalayu, the emu, father caring for his chicks. The area is an initiation site for young boys. Its elaborated meanings are secret, forbidden. This is meet. Sufficient to be here in mystery.

A side track to Pupa beckoned and I ran. Ochreous powder cushioned my feet. The track took me down and around. Soon I was at the valley floor and the mighty forms rose up, thronging about me. This was ‘just dirt’ and I human clay, a small thing in all the greatness. I thought of the miracle of being, I thought of annihilation. So easy here, to slip, to fall, to break an ankle. In a day or two the heat would finish a crippled runner. The thoughts carried no drama, little colour. Death in this valley would be ordinary; it was living and moving that were out of the order of things.

I was alive and moving. I turned and I ran back up the hills.

Lights off in the City of Churches

We are driving along a principal Adelaide artery. Dusk has fallen and passed. It is dark now. This main road carries a lot of traffic along its numerous parallel lanes. Unfamiliar with Adelaide and totally devoid of any sense of direction, I pay close heed to my guide, Georgie, a native of the city.

 
‘Merge left,’ commands Georgie. I obey. On my right a larger car swoops close, overtaking me. Studiously attentive to my own lane, I concentrate on the road ahead.
 
Georgie explodes. Pablo guffaws. They point: ‘Look! Look! Look over there!’ I look over there. Over there is the car that swooped by a few seconds ago. Indistinct movement from the roof of the car. Lines of cars in our many lanes slow now to take a bend and we close on the vehicle of interest. I sneak another look. There is movement: a head and torso project up through a sunroof.
 
Straightening up now, I resume driving as Pablo and Georgie shriek ever louder: ‘Look! Look!’ I do look. The moving torso has arms. The arms wave frantically. The face appears to be female. The torso is manifestly female: with every wave of her arms the waver causes her breasts to wobble wildly. I know all this because the waving woman is naked from the waist up. What is more, the waving lady seems to be performing specifically for us.
 
This is puzzling. Unfamiliar with local road culture, I wonder whether we are witnessing a species of road rage. In fact the waving and the wobbling – and quite likely the undressing – are all the opposite of road rage: road love, in fact.
 
Jumping and wobbling and waving in the cold of this winter night the woman mouths words in our direction. We cannot hear. Quite frantic now the dancing mime of The Great Northern Road redoubles her tempo. Surely we will notice her, surely we must hear.
 
The traffic lights turn red and all cars come to rest. The swooping car has swapped lanes, drawing directly alongside us so the terpsichorean gesticulator can make herself heard. She makes a winding movement with her right hand. She mouths her message. Windows slide downward in the car on our right. We lower our own. Voices are heard, a chorus from our neighbours: ‘Your lights! Turn on your lights!’
 
We turn on our lights, smile, wave and mouth our thanks. The lights turn green, the dancer disappears from the sunroof and we drive our ways.
 
 
 

The Princeling and the Premier

Mum has a brand new car. It’s not the Rover of Leeton days, it’s a Holden Premier. But it’s pretty fancy for a Holden – green duco with a metallic sparkle, luxurious bucket seats in rich tan leather.

Dennis’s close friend at Swinburne is Aly Ong, direct descendant of a line of Malay princes. One day Aly tells Dennis he has a date. Instantly Dennis offers Mum’s new car to Ali. Aly is amazed: ‘I can’t take your mother’s car!’
‘Yes you can.’
‘No I can’t. It’s brand new.’
Uncharacteristically, Dennis asks Mum’s permission.
‘Of course, Darling. With pleasure. Tell Aly to have a lovely evening.’

Is Aly a cautious driver? Has he a license to drive? Mum doesn’t think to ask.

At midnight Aly returns, knocks on our door looking desolated. ‘I need to speak to your mother. It’s terribly late, I hate to disturb her, but something terrible has happened.’
Night and day are one to Mum. She comes down the stairs, delighted to see Dennis’ friend: ‘Hello Aly. Did you have a nice time?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg… I ,mean yes. But something terrible has happened…’
Mum, concerned, her face softer than ever: ‘What, Aly? Are you alright?’
‘Yes, Mrs Goldenberg, I’m quite alright. But your car is not. I crashed your car!’
‘But you’re not hurt, Aly?’
‘No, not at all, but I’ve spoiled your lovely car.’
‘Thank goodness you’re not hurt, Aly. Come and sit down and I’ll make you some supper.’

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A Trip to Cuba – Part 2

English: Apartment building facade and residen...

Habana Vieja, Havana. December 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 December 2, 1999.

We land at Jose Marti airport in La Habana on a mild and sunny day. In the course of this day we will learn a lot about the country during our hours at the airport. We learn quickly that the hot, steamy Cuba of fiction is just that: the truth is an anti-climatic surprise. We learn that Ron de Cuba is not a person but a beverage, rum to be precise. And we learn that Capitalism is rapacious, that a Capitalist will sell his mother if the price is right.

This last little lesson is learned by watching the large TV screen which is set up in the spacious area where incoming passengers are obliged to spend their first day in Cuba. We see a brilliant little cartoon in which the hero outwits all rivals, enemies and friends by his cleverness and ruthlessness. His mother congratulates her boy who rewards her by taking all her life savings then selling her to a band of passing Ishmaelites. Although the manner of presentation is lighthearted, the subject matter is food for serious thought, and soon I am wondering what price I might get for my own mother in Cuba…

Annette and I stand patiently in one of the dozen or so long lines of travellers waiting to be interviewed by IMIGRACION. Every twenty minutes or so a new visitor to Cuba is admitted into a closed booth for interview. The official is apparently a member of the military, to judge by the uniforms and the moustaches. The booth is constructed so that the interviewing officer is seated above the interviewee and largely concealed from view. I surmise that the interviewers are Army Intelligence operatives and are meant to be intimidating.

 While standing in line I read the word BANOS printed above the doorways which lead respectively to the Caballeros and the Damas. In the doorways stand two pretty young women. Every dama and every caballero must pass by them to enter.

 After a little while spent waiting in line, passengers become bored and begin to think that a visit to the toilets will be a welcome relief or a change of scenery. One or two venture to the Banos, others follow out of curiosity, yet others out of lavatorial solidarity. Soon a trickle becomes a movement as we are visited variously by inspiration or simple genital envy.                                                                                                                                  Sooner or later many of the caballeros and every one of the damas will ask one of the young doorladies is there any toilet paper. And the young lady will sell some to her captive customer, a foreigner who pays in foreign cash. Now I begin to realise how the Cuban Revolution gets its hard currency. The longer the delay before we are interviewed by IMIGRACION the greater the cashflow. The cameras track our movements and we are only admitted once we have succumbed to this systematic brownmail.

 At last I am admitted for my interview. My inquisitor is a little jockey of a guy in a uniform far too big for him which badly needs a wash. He is half my age and not fierce at all. I start to feel sorry for him, not least because he must put up with my Spanish. He decides, after a wrestling match with his computer, to let me into his country. Muchas Gracias, senor, I say, and wait to see whether mi amiga Annette will likewise be admitted. Luckily, she is, and we go off together in search of a taxi driver to rip us off.

We have been forewarned that in Cuba there are taxis and taxis, some official, some otherwise. Among the official cabs Panataxi is the name to go for. So we go for it, and find ourselves seated in a tiny little Citroen driven by a bulky lady of about my age. We give her the address of the Casa Particular (literally, “private house”) where we have a reservation. Our driver takes a look at the address and snorts: “Habana Vieja! Why do you want to go there? Centro es mejor, muchas mejor!”

Well, there are lots of reasons why we want to go to Habana Vieja – Old Havana: Annette has researched this city and determined that Habana Vieja is close to the Sinagoga, close to the places of interest to us, and furthermore we have contracted with a Mister Selim Tache of the Havana Jewish Community to stay there. He has reserved the flat for us.

But our lady driver knows better. This Boadicea brooks no dissent. She knows a very fine casa  particular in Centro. She will take us there. By now we have been driving for about fifteen minutes, in who knows what direction?  For my part, I have a strong prejudice in favour of the Old City – any old city – because it will be authentic, and (hopefully) charming, even if it turns out to be an authentic slum. So I tell Boadicea to drive her chariot to numero 518 Aguacate in Vieja, and bugger Centro.

While we drive, we watch the scenery. Quickly the countryside gives way to a built-up area where Comrade Stalin has designed some atrocious, soulless blocks of flats in an attempt to quell the Cuban spirit. They certainly quell mine.

We come to a large roundabout in the airport freeway where la campanera conductora (our comrade driver) points out the Institute of Sports. This ugly circular block of cement is the home of the bureaucracy that administers fun-running (and sport in general) in Cuba. One look at this deadly structure tells me that it exists to take the fun out of running, and that my dream of running in a race here will be difficult to realise.

 The Cuban Consul in Sydney had advised me that I would encounter this office on my way into town from the airport. So at least I have my bearings now, but the Consul’s advice that ‘the esport in Cuba is centrally planned, senor,’ tolls a doleful sound in my imagination.

I watch our driver. She has a singular method of fuel conservation whereby we crawl up hills then cruise down with the gearbox in neutral. Although we save fuel, we do not spare the horn. The horn is sounded at every lane change, at every turning and when a Vespa or a horse and cart or a cyclist impedes our passage.

Now we are passing through an older area, with crumbling colonial dwellings and narrow little streets. If drivers were horn-happy on the freeway, they are like Joshua at Jericho here. The slower the passage the greater the hornplay, but curiously, it is a message without menace that says simply: “I’m here, citizen cyclist/sister pedestrian/ diesel-belching truck/ancient chevvy/pony cart/mother with pusher; be careful, merge right please, and I’ll pass you on your left.” In this way, a heavy truck overtakes a pedestrian at close quarters, and the walker doesn’t even turn around to assess the hazard coming from behind.

I notice that our fearsome conductora is actually a benevolent fellow-citizen on these inadequate calles, as the streets are called. This is our first experience of how poverty in Cuba creates an amity and freemasonry  between the men in the street.

 The roads are buckled, the footpaths broken, and all are congested with movement and with lack of movement. Broken down people, cars and bikes slow the traffic, but no-one gets heated, no-one gets hit. It all works.

 Eventually our driver parks on the footpath of a little side street, honks her horn, lowers her window and bellows someone’s name. A window is opened a crack, some shouts are exchanged and our driver discovers that the person she is after is not at home. Then the centavo drops inside my head: we are not in Habana Vieja at all; this is Centro, and we are here at the casa of our driver’s particular friend. Sudden indignation gives me sudden fluency as I emphatically direct the panataxista to Aguacate, 518.

Unabashed, muttering mildly “Vieja mas mal, Centro muy bien”, she drives us to Aguacate and help us with our luggage. Will she rip us off for the detour to her friend’s place?, I wonder. No, there’s no extra charge for the extra tour. Smiling and friendly, she departs, the first of a number of benevolent bandidos we are to meet in Cuba. They try to con you, and whether they succeed or no they hold no grudge against you for their trying.

It’s like a sport: you acknowledge the effort of your opponent and you honour the contest and play in good spirit.

We knock on the door of Aguacate 518, identify ourselves to the young girl who admits us, and go inside where we meet Jesus and Maria.