I still work in remote Australia. In a top right-hand corner of the Northern Territory. Like all far away places choices are limited. On the Gove Peninsula it’s luckier than most because there’s Woolworth’s (and a hospital…no late night emergency call outs for the nurses who work here). Until recently, if I wanted lunch I had to make it everyday and bring it to work, eat it in the small clinic kitchen or try to find a quiet nook somewhere out of the summer heat. This year there’s a choice…an Op-Shop (Second-hand goods) has been opened in Yirrkala by an employment company to give the local women an opportunity to learn how to sort, arrange and display donated clothing and a variety of general goods. But best of all, on Wednesday and Thursday they open a cafe for lunchtime, and learn to cook, serve customers and plate food tastefully on local banana leaves. It’s a welcoming haven for customers, to the background of Gurrumul’s songs, we choose from the menu which includes baked filled potatoes (cheese and bacon), fried rice, fruit skewers, toasted sandwiches, local bush lime juice or brewed coffee. Prior to it’s opening there was no place, apart from the local art gallery, where the community, locals and those who travel to work here could mingle informally. It’s managed by the vibrant warm Ali, whose personality draws you imperceptibly towards, her just to see her smile. I enjoy browsing through donated books, DVDs and music and donating back. To say this old banana shed-turned occasional cafe, is a good thing for the community, is to understate the power of creativity, thought and effort to enhance the lives of others. My Thursday lunchtime baked potato and browse is the highlight of my week. Thank you Ali and the girls!
Losses and griefs of all kinds fade a sense of beauty out of our lives. We forget what we once appreciated and held dear, even what we love and who we are. During the past two weeks remote area nurses in Australia have grieved the murder of one of our colleagues. After the first few days of shocked incomprehension someone on our Facebook site encouraged us to post photos of things that captured our reasons for doing the hard work that we do. The beauty in those shared photos was varied, individual and ultimately uplifting…some were of landscapes and adventures, others were of new-born babies and healthy mothers.Many of us will always see beauty in the shape of a Royal Flying Doctor plane coming in to land after a long night of waiting. Beauty is as unique as a snowflake, it’s to be cherished and nurtured in our lives wherever we find it and however we define it.
I’ve had my share of losses and difficulties since I began this blog site. I had a desire to share my experiences and insights from my remote area life, but beauty quietly disappeared for a while and all I could see and sense around me was a dull, drab landscape. The gentle energy of beauty hid in the shadows from me…until the past few weeks, for all kinds of reasons, and none in particular…colours are appearing again and curiosity beckons me forward. Life is interesting and I’ve picked up my camera and wandered outside.
I’ve written in a journal for years, not daily, but often. During the years I’ve worked as a remote area nurse I’ve jotted down thoughts, events, names and places. It helped with all the changes that were happening, to feel real and solid, the events able to be processed and not to disappear into nothingness.
Writer, Joan Didion, stated that notebook-keepers “are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
I wrote because I didn’t want to ever lose the experiences, because I never wanted to forget the names, because one day I knew I would want to read my own stories.
Reverse Culture Shock
I worked in Aurukun at the top of Cape York, Queensland on a five week contract before deciding to apply for a permanent job in the clinic. After I was interviewed and got the job I was flown home to South-East Queensland for 10 days to pack my things to be shipped back for the three-bedroom house I was to move into.
En-route I stayed overnight in Cairns. There were too many people at the airport, the shops and the motel foyer. There seemed to be more cars on the roads than when I was there five weeks previously. The colours were brighter, there was too much choice in the shops and everyone seemed to be talking loudly. I felt strange just walking around Cairns Central looking at the shops. I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong.
When I arrived home and met up with family and friends their questions sounded trivial to me, or their lack of questions widened a gap I felt was opening up between me and everything I’d considered normal before I left home.
I didn’t know it then but I was feeling the effects of reverse culture shock.
When a person returns home after being in another country or social environment it takes a whole other set of adjustments to when they first encountered the new setting. People assume because their friend or family member who’s been away, looks and sounds like the person they knew, that they still belong to all they left behind. But often things have changed in their absence and they have experienced life outside their previous norms in the time since they left home. They can, in fact, be quite disorientated on return.
Being aware of reverse culture shock, being prepared to experience boredom, isolation, disorientation and annoyance on arrival home will help a person to readjust. It’s a good idea to keep in contact with new friends made from the host culture and to talk to people with whom you can relate. It’s also often helpful to use creativity to incorporate the new cultural experiences into one’s regular life by writing articles or creating a photo exhibition, or simply by bringing art or cultural items into one’s home as a reminder of the time away.
Asking yourself what you’ve learnt and how you’ve changed help you to be more aware and to adjust and for the time away to have a positive effect.
I have to admit though that while these ideas are helpful, coping with reverse culture shock takes a much longer time than you’d think and if a person moves between cultures fairly regularly it doesn’t seem to get any easier. In fact one often feels like an in-between person not quite belonging anywhere.
Those two security guards employed at the Aurukun clinic weren’t Tongan, they were both Samoan. Same thing you probably think, just as the Director of Nursing probably did if she stopped to think about it at all. It’s not the same thing, similar Pacific island culture that shares a few common words, but very different places, history and people.
Before I started to work with Indigenous people in out-of-the-way parts of Australia I thought of “Aborigines” as a whole group. I had no concept of different family and clan groups, different languages and customs. The way the phrase, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”, rolls out of the noise of the media so smoothly lulls most of us into thinking all Indigenous people are the same. It’s a falsehood and one that serves no good purpose to any Australian. It stops us from understanding our own people and therefore our history and land.
When we consciously or unconsciously assume a group of people outside our own culture are the same, we narrow our understanding of the world, we limit our own possibilities to learn and to have our experience of life enriched. We are often too lazy to pay attention or to listen to someone different, or maybe too busy, or worse, too bigoted and stuck in our own or our parents attitudes towards certain cultures.
I’ve caught myself assuming, not wanting to hear and thinking I know better, but as I get older and encounter more people from other cultures and other clans of Indigenous people I want to close my mouth and open my mind and be amazed at the variety of languages, customs and attitudes flourishing outside my experiences.
One of those Samoan security guards became my soul mate and opened up a world for me I barely knew existed, and helped me see close up cross-cultural communication at it’s best and worst.
Before I flew into Aurukun the Director of Nursing at the Health Clinic told me she employed two Tongan security guards to keep the nurses safe in the clinic on after hours emergency call outs.
When I arrived in 2008 I was taught how to lock the ambulance securely in a shipping container. Prior to that idea ambulances had been stolen and wrecked by local youths hungry for adventure.
I soon became accustomed to carrying several keys for various secured doors and the padlocks of closed heavy metal gates.
The word security means the state of being free from danger or threat, it comes from an old Latin word, securitas, which means “free from care”.
Aurukun over the past 20-30 years has had a history of violence, riots in the streets and fighting between families and clans. The reasons are too many and complicated for this post. But it’s resulted in the need for high security measures for all who work there.
It’s an odd thought that to be safe and free from care actually requires a large amount of resources, planning and attention. It’s just another paradox I’ve encountered as a remote area nurse.
I was collected from the airstrip by an Aboriginal health worker from the clinic in a white rodeo ute, he tossed my luggage in the back and drove without speaking to the flat I was to stay in. It was about a kilometre up the main bitumen road, Kang Kang road. The block of three flats was across a red dirt track from the clinic.
Six foot high barbed wire fencing surrounded the flats, the sturdy metal gate was padlocked with a chain around it. I wondered if the stories I’d read of violence in Aurukun were really true. Perhaps I had good cause to feel mounting fear, the pounding in my chest was maybe an accurate warning.
A few days later when I took photos of my surroundings and emailed them to friends and family everyone was surprised at the need for such security. One person commented that the photo of the flats looked more like South Africa than Australia. Fasi told me later that I looked scared of everything when I first arrived.
There were skinny, mangy dogs lying listlessly in the heat, everywhere. The Australia I knew wouldn’t have allowed the cruelty of ribs showing and bald patches. Local people yelled at each other up and down the main street until late into the night. There were limited places to walk before you met the sea or the thick bush of pandanus and gum trees. Small children were fluent in another language with harsh staccato sounds. I felt trapped in strangeness and didn’t have a clue what to expect, none of the behavioural rules I was used to seemed to be important there. Anything could happen.
I was driven to the store soon after landing by an agency nurse. It was a large square plain building, dark and musty smelling inside. Sweaty bodies milled around, lined up at check outs or stood around the entrance mostly speaking words I’d never heard. There was little fresh fruit and vegetables, I chose a few cans and bread and wanted to get out. As I was being served by a white woman she asked if I was new and if I’d worked in an Indigenous community before. I told her I was a new nurse there for 5 weeks. She advised me to google culture shock, her kindness made me want to stay near her, but there was a queue behind me so I had to move on. I must have looked as scared as I was beginning to feel.
In her book called “Other People’s Country” Maureen Helen wrote of her arrival in a remote desert community in Western Australia in the nineties…”Life’s experiences had not prepared me for the sudden loss of personal congruency. Disorientated and sick from culture shock, I couldn’t fathom what ailed me. It made no sense that I could experience such disorientation in the country where I was born and raised.”
It’s an oddly dislocating feeling to suddenly realize you’re a stranger in your own country. No-one had prepared me for that and that shop assistant has been the only person to even mention culture shock to me in the five years since arriving in Aurukun.
Arriving somewhere new, for a holiday or work or to meet someone is often accompanied by varying emotions and have layers of meanings. I’ve often people watched at airports and wondered what was going on in different people’s lives at the time. Airports and train stations are places of transition, arrivals and departures are portals into another life and with any journey the traveller never really knows how their lives are going to be affected by their destination.
When my partner arrived in Aurukun, a few months before me and before I even knew that he existed he wrote in his diary after landing “This is a strange place.” A short sentence but filled with many meanings that he was yet to discover, as would I too, months later.
On the 1st September 2008 and a few hours after landing in Aurukun this is partly what I wrote in my diary:
“I flew into Aurukun today, the first day of Spring. From the sky the area around is criss-crossed by dirt roads and rivers. Dense bushland, small fires spiralling up smoke, odd patches of semi-cleared ground…and still more flying time left. How far away is this place I’ve come to work in at the top of Cape York. I have no idea what to expect. I don’t know what my curiosity has landed me in this time. A place I’ve never heard of and couldn’t even find on the map. I don’t know what a paediatric nurse is doing in a place like this. I climbed down the stairs of the plane and walked into thick heat, dust and dark-skinned faces tinted dusty red by the gritty wind. There were people everywhere, standing about, shouting, waiting, kids on bikes, skinny, mangy dogs and police checking bags for alcohol…while I waited my turn to have my bags searched curiosity dissipated the shock of strangeness.”
We both described Aurukun as strange immediately on arrival. I felt afraid, Fasi was intrigued, we told each other months later. It was a place like no other we’d ever seen, nothing in my experience as an Australian prepared me for it and certainly nothing in Fasi’s experience as a Samoan had even come close. Neither of us had a clue how our lives would change after the long journey there.
Perhaps there’s more than one reason people feel apprehension at the beginning of a journey, for themselves or those close to them. And maybe it’s not always the hope for a physically safe trip…it’s because travelling and arriving has the potential to change our lives. There’s no guarantee that the person who arrived will be the same when they’re ready to depart.
The photo here is of the airport shelter at Aurukun place of so many arrivals and departures and in the wet season, the only way of entry.
I’m looking through my Aurukun photos for an image to represent the change in my life when I began remote area nursing. But I should go back in time about a year to 2007 when I divorced, sold up and divided my assets with Stephen, and bought a small house in a country Queensland town with our 14 year old daughter.
I took a series of photos, then, of packing boxes and furniture waiting on the timber verandah of our colonial cottage to be transported by a removalist to the modern two bedroom hardiplank house in Tiaro. The photos showed lives in transition. They weren’t taken on a digital camera so I have no way of accessing them while I’m working here in East Arnhem Land, two flights from home.
In the few months of divorcing, moving and setting up home as mother and daughter I worked in a nursing home. My new neighbours were all retired, attending their gardens and driving caravans on long holidays around Australia when the weather was better somewhere else. I wasn’t ready for a change that involved reminders of reducing my life to old age and retirement. I enjoyed creating a home for us, filling it with as much timber, cane and cushions that I could and anything ethnic to add character. I painted out it’s boldly purple walls with soft greens and built a garden to look out at. Once I was satisfied with the result I craved a bigger life, an enlarging change.
Apart from the packing box photos and before and after photos of the new house I don’t have any visual images in my mind or in print of the changes that led up to me running away from home. Words about change appeared in bold in unexpected places. A friend sent me a card with a butterfly on it and the words “Without change there’d be no butterflies”…in the preface of a book by an Australian rehabilitation doctor called ‘Cry of the Damaged Man’ the words “What was has changed, what is will change”. Those words, and others, held my fears at bay long enough to allow my curiosity to explore possibilities.
I put my contact details on the Queensland Health website in the expression of interest in remote and rural nursing section. The Director of Nursing in Aurukun rang me a few days later.
I think a photo of Aurukun from the air will be just right for my change image. Finally after an almost two hour flight from Cairns on a Skytrans plane, over trees, red dirt tracks and meandering watercourses this was the image I saw and it was then that I realized just how far away I was from home and where change and curiosity had brought me.
“I was curious, that’s why I came. The Director of Nursing at the clinic told me to read all the bad stuff about Aurukun and get back to her. I did and I couldn’t believe that any place in Australia could be as desperate as the internet described it.”
Hi, my name’s Sharon and welcome to my blog and my first post. The above are the opening lines of a memoir I’m writing about the past five years of my life as a remote area nurse in Indigenous communities in Australia.
It was curiosity that led me from being a Paediatric nurse in a Base Hospital to my first job in Aurukun on the west coast of Cape York at the top of north Queensland. It wasn’t a cold, detached or clinical curiosity. It was warm, caring and almost passionate. I wanted to see the hidden places in my country. I wanted to experience and understand Indigenous culture. I think I also wanted to learn what it meant to be a real Australian! That was the preoccupation of my high school English classes where we perpetually searched and questioned Australian literature in the quest for our national identity. But I always had the feeling that the reality of the identity wouldn’t be found in books, plays and poems but in traveling the country and knowing it and its people intimately.
It’s been an amazing five years and my passion to understand it all has led me back to books…to reading, writing and photography. And curiosity still won’t let me go. I’m about to embark on a new journey. I’ve enrolled in university next year to study creative writing and photography.
My blog is about change, curiosity and following your passion. Come with me on a virtual journey and glimpse the hidden Australia and maybe you’ll be inspired to take the first steps toward what’s beckoning you. As the Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”