©2000 Andrew Thompson
It's Spring 2000 and despite my protests, I find myself working in Darwin for the next five weeks. Into this unknown outback capital, I am thrust.
It's my first night in Darwin, eleven o'clock, and I'm sitting in a Mitchell Street cafe attempting not to look like a tourist, yet simultaneously taking in the town's atmosphere. Even at this hour, I'm able to pull up on the sidewalk and grab a damn fine soy cino to wash down the slab of barramundi I scored for dinner.
I overhear two waiters talking about a contingent of five thousand US Marines arriving in a day or so, and then a Belgian
force a few days later. I interrupt and apologise for eavesdropping. I ask them if this has something to do with East Timor.
The nearest guy grins, "You're obviously not a local - don't worry mate, this happens all the time".
At the next table, a group of 40-ish men are talking in some unfamiliar tongue. They're in military pilot jackets, and I sneak a subtle peek at the nearest arm-patch to discover that they're Brazilian Air Force. My eye is suddenly distracted by an amazingly attractive guy walking - no, mincing - across the road, seemingly oblivious to the traffic. He makes eye contact with me and I freeze. He beams a friendly smile, then disappears into the milling masses, apparently content that his gaydar is working very nicely.
Three Aboriginal guys suddenly appear out of thin air then sit on the ground next to my table. They look pretty shabby and street-worn. I give them some cigarettes and a ten dollar note, which evokes copious enthusings of gratitude from the more vocal of the three.
He sits on the chair across from me, and starts extolling tales of my virtues and generosity. I realise that he's just trying to say thank you, but I feel something else stirring inside me. A magic long forgotten. The way he speaks, his story telling skills, his tone that carries countless generations of Dreamtime tales. I feel like an innocent, sitting around a fire listening to the words of an elder.
A waitress suddenly appears – pretty, British accent, a backpacker I assume - and gives my new-found friends some bread rolls. They all grin blissfully and excuse themselves, then weave across the street towards their waiting kinsmen. Cars slow down to let them cross. No honking horns, no abuse, just patience.
By chance, I see the cute queer guy again, now walking hand-in-hand with another guy who I assume is a longstanding boyfriend. I watch them retreat into an open air pub that's playing Cold Chisel through scratchy speakers. Apparently they haven't seen the group of drunken teenage rednecks at a table nearby.
I'm thinking, "Oh shit, the poofs are going to die." But nothing happens. They get up and dance on the footpath amongst all the straight couples. My God, they're dancing to Jimmy Barnes! And dancing fag to boot! Don't they know it's a straight pub? The song ends and they sit down. Still nothing happens.
I order another coffee and chat to one of the Brazilian guys whose English is as good as my Portuguese. We resort to a weird mix of talking slow and using sign language. We laugh a lot, mostly at each other's confusion, which is way cool.
I hear the two waiters chatting again. One casually asks the other if he'd heard the news. Another surfer taken by a crocodile. I think, "Huh? Surfers are eaten by sharks, not crocodiles." I bite my tongue, coz I don't want the waiter telling me again that this sort of thing happens all the time.
The gay couple leave the pub, once more hand-in-hand and occasionally tongue-to-tongue. Still nothing happens. I'm confused, and eventually give up trying to work it out.
I leave the cafe and visit the night-markets across the street. I listen to a Dutch guy playing the didj – he claims to spend ten months a year living with a tribe of Aborigines in Central Australia - his musical skills would at least attest to the fact.
The guy beside him is selling crocodile skulls - one of them a metre long. I watch a Swedish guy unroll three grand US for it. God knows how he's going to get the thing through customs.
A group of American soldiers walk hurriedly by, then suddenly start running. Two motorbikes pull out of nowhere with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Two MP's - one Yank, one Australian. Somebody's done something. The Dutch guy laughs at the goings-on as if he knows some private joke, then just starts playing the didj again. I wonder briefly if I've entered the twilight zone. I throw some coin in his hat and move on.
I pass the open air pub. One of the teenage rednecks leaps up from the table and starts running towards me. He
stops two feet away, well inside my personal space. He smiles straight-cutely. Yes, such a smile exists – I watched him invent it. He asks me politely for change of a hundred, then smiles again even though I can't help.
"Thanks anyway Mate," he says in cheery farewell, "Have a good night."
I'm reminded of a passage from the long-ago abandoned bible about not passing judgement.
I unlock the car and cast a glance back down Mitchell Street. More soldiers, this time Egyptian - all talking in clipped Oxford English. More buskers, this time Indonesian. A dozen or so US Marines are standing around two ancient Aboriginals playing didgeridoos and clak-claks. My ears prick. I never imagined that "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" could be played on the didj.
The Yanks are tapping their feet and really getting into the music, tossing handfuls of notes and coins onto the ground, while an Aboriginal toddler maybe three-years-old scurries around collecting the cash and stuffing it into his nappy.
It's one o'clock on a Tuesday morning yet the crowds are still growing. No-one's angry. No-one's stressed. Everyone's respecting everyone else's individuality. I realise with a shock that everything I knew before tonight, wasn't real. Until now, I'd been living inside a cocoon.
I go back to the hotel and sit on my bed, my mind still trying to process all that I'd experienced. I remember the Aborigine who sat at my table uninvited. Why didn't I get offended? But I didn't. Instead, I listened and at no point did I feel uncomfortable. He affected me in no small way.
And the redneck youth with the smile. Why didn't I feel threatened when a half drunk stranger ran towards me. If this were my hometown Rockhampton or any other town of Darwin's size, I'd be beaten and left in a gutter somewhere. Hell, even in Brisbane. Especially in Brisbane. But I didn't feel threatened, not for a single moment.
And the two gay guys dancing in the straight pub, kissing on the sidewalk, walking hand in hand. Only now do I recognise the emotion I felt when I saw them. Envy. That could have been me with my boyfriend, as prone to public displays as we are. But our PDAs are always tempered and chosen with care, and I hate that. We can't enjoy the relaxed moments that those two guys shared. They knew that they were safe.
I've only been in Darwin twelve hours. It's changed me, brought me back to who I truly am. I'm left wondering if there's any place in the world more pristine. More cosmopolitan, more accepting. Less prejudiced, or less touchable.
I'm no longer jaded, no longer scared, and I know that I never want to leave.