The Prayer of the Traveller

Many of us are on our travels as I write this. Today I will resume mine – one hundred and fifteen kilometers by road before a flight of forty minutes (in the air we register time not space), then a break before resuming for the next seventy minutes of flight. Finally thirty kilometers of suburban roads. Then home. Home – that word for an idea that houses our love; for the island we build to grow a couple into a family. After two stationery days I’ll skip from the continent of my birth to the land of the free – three flights, ten security checks (eight of these in the US) – eighteen hours in the air.

Long before the Malaysian airliner disappeared I had my misgivings. The loss of a civilian passenger aircraft over Donetsk did nothing to comfort me. And now the AirAsia tragedy. Travel is dangerous. Out here in the Outback, the roads are full of kangaroo, wandering stock, feral donkey and camel, species which share with the shahidi a zest for homicidal suicide. Air travel, far, far safer, remains hazardous.

Travel has always been thus.

If you are a wuss (I am) and if you have a prayerful bent (I am severely bent in that way) you might pray for a safe arrival – and if you are needy or greedy (I am both), you’d slip in a word for your safe return home.

The following comes from the ancient Traveller’s Prayer recited by Jews. The text catalogues a surprisingly contemporary list of hazards:

May it be Your will to direct our steps to peace, to allow us to reach our desired destination in life, in joy and in peace.

Rescue us from any enemy, ambush and danger on the way and from all afflictions that trouble the world.

Let us find grace, kindness and compassion from all who see us.

You can fill in your own particular concerns. (Afflictions that trouble the world are plentiful. I think of Ebola. I think too of violence of all kinds – both abroad and within our domestic walls.)

An anxious Jewish traveller (Jewish people are past masters at anxiety), having completed the lines above, might feel the need for elaboration or emphasis. Such persons follow on with Psalm 91. I do. I love this one: I loved this one and I quoted it to my shell-shocked teenage daughters after two hilarious hoons chucked rotten eggs through the girls’ car window, breaking on and altering the grooming of their lovely long locks.

Five years ago, grandson Toby, famous in these pages for his flirtations with danger, drew a picture in vivid primary colours. The picture, three inches by one and a half, was intricate, pulsing with the vibrancy of his four-year-old being. Toby presented it to me: ‘This is for you, Saba.’ Since that day it has sat between the leaves of my travel prayer book. It guards the place of Psalm 91.

One who lives in the shelter of the Most High abides in the shade of the Almighty. He will save you from the trap of the hunter and the deadly pestilence. You need not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day; nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand may fall at your side, even ten thousand at your right hand, yet unto you it shall not come nigh.

I am not simple – or faithful – enough to believe that simply reciting these words will guarantee my safety. Saying the words is not the equivalent of completing the enrollment forms in supernatural travel insurance. I am not insured. But it is in the beauty of the poetics; in the relief of putting fears into words then filing them away; in the unspoken reminder that in matters in which I am powerless there is no point fretting – in these I find comfort, acceptance.

I am not insured, just assured.

I wish us all safe travels.

Two Doctors in Doomadgee

Letter from Doomadgee

27 January, 2014.

 

Dear Australia,

 

Before I arrived the only thing I knew of Doomadgee was the name; that was the surname of the man who died on Palm Island. That name seemed compounded of doom and tragedy. But of the community itself I was glad to know nothing in advance of my arriving.

 

Steve the factotum drove me from the airfield. The aged street sign said:

 

Welcome to Doomadgee

Population 1200

 

Steve said: “More like 2000.”

I met the young Aboriginal doctor. He said: “More like 3000.”

 

A road sign said:

 

NT Border 103 KM.

 

The weather forecast said: Cloudy. Maximum 34 degrees.

That night the nurse said:” It felt hot so I looked at the thermometer on my verandah. The thermometer said: ‘52 degrees.’”

 

I said to the young Aboriginal doctor from Mt Isa, himself a grandson of respected elders of this community: “I’m the wrong doctor. I don’t have the language, the cultural currency…You are the right sort of doctor.”

He said: “There are nearly one hundred of us now. There were quite a few of us in my year at James Cook.”

The two of us spent most of Saturday together indoors. Between snatches of cricket and tennis on TV and poring over Murtagh’s tome on General Practice, he wanted to talk about religion (his new found Christianity, my old found Judaism), about work, about vocation. He asked me to name my favourite story from the Bible.

He told me his. I waited for a parable. Instead he said: “Jephtah and his daughter. I read that story and I put the book down and I said, ‘Lord, I need time to come to terms with this.’”

We spoke of our families and our upbringing, how he hankered for some city life while knowing his destiny lay in the country – on country – this country, this country his father had shown him and taught him and inculcated into him from early years; and I told him of my lifelong hankering for life outside the city while knowing my destiny lay there.

I said: “I wrote a book about my father – he was a country GP – and about my childhood in the country. And another book about my experiences working in remote Aboriginal communities. You can get copies of those books if you’re interested.”

He said: “No. I don’t read books. Only medical textbooks.”

I looked at him.

He conceded: “I did read two other books. My teacher said if I didn’t read them I couldn’t pass English.”

I looked at him again. I said: “I know you read. You read all the time – the Bible.”

Yes. Yes, that’s so. I’m always reading the Bible. But books, they’re not in my background. We didn’t have books at home.”

After hours of searching conversation my colleague posed a question. He preceded it with a statement. He said: “I want my work to mean something. I want my working life to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.” He swallowed the consonants whenever he spoke that word. He softened the ‘g’ in ‘Aboriginal’ so it was like a triple ‘n’, gutturalised. He paced and paused, paced again. He said: “I want to ask you a question. You’ve been a GP for a long time; I am just starting. What should I do? I mean what should I do now, while I’m completing my training? What particular field should I try to master? What will be most useful for Aborinnnal people?”

I offered some answers, thinking aloud, feeling my way through a variety of ideas. Eventually I said: “Any answer I give will be less important than the question.”

What do you mean?”

I mean, you aren’t asking a casual question. This is a quest. So long as you keep asking I think the quest will lead you where you need to go.”

Then I said: “You know we whitefellas do our best but we never achieve what we set out to do. I think the answers won’t come from whitefellas alone; some of the changes have to come from blackfellas. It will be like cancer – you don’t find the cure, the single thing that wipes out the entire problem; you find an improvement here, a sectional breakthrough there. So the Pearsons and Yunipingus and Langtons and the others, they’ll come up with some initiatives; and some of those will take root and some might bear fruit.”

My friend nodded hard. He said: “Exactly!”

 

***

 

On Australia Eve, the rain belted the roof all night. Australia Day dawned bright, cooler. We went down to the river. At the spillway the Nicholson flowed a kilometre wide. Warm brown water, shallow. Steve had said: “No big crocs here. Only little snappers – freshies.”

I trusted him. I waded with the younger doctor through warm shallows down to the waterfall. Everywhere we went in those shallows Aboriginal toddlers paddled, babies sat on the laps of slender young mums. The Nicholson flowed a thin caramel around and over shiny brown bodies.

The young doctor spoke to all he met. All were, one way or another, his kin. He said: “Hello brother”, and “Hello sister.”

He said, “Hello Aunty”, and “Hello Uncle.”

He knew what to say, how to say it. He found connections with strangers.

He knew his country; he was the right doctor; he had the language.