Everyone experiences loss, in different ways and at different times. Each loss has a different meaning. I’d worked in Aurukun about a year and a half and decided I’d stay for another year and a half. I bought a Toyota landcruiser, rescued a camp dog puppy and was given a scrawny bedraggled looking black kitten, with a car and pets I was ready to settle for a bit longer in a place far from home. Fasi and I nursed our puppy named with the Samoan word for baby, Pepe, to health. We delighted in her antics, Fasi even let her sleep on him. When she was about six months old I went to Samoa for a few weeks to visit Fasi as he’d returned to care for his elderly mother, and arranged for a nurse who lived next door to care for her.
Apparently all went well until the day before I was due to fly back into the community, Pepe became unwell with gastro symptoms. I wasn’t contacted. I had only her to look forward to seeing when I returned, as Fasi had left Aurukun permanently. I kept imagining her joyful welcome during the long flights from Brisbane to Cairns to Aurukun.
As soon as I reached the gate to my yard in the semi-dark of a Cape York evening I knew there was something wrong. The manager of the clinic came across and told me she put Pepe to sleep herself that morning. She hadn’t bothered to phone me.
I walked away and up my steps and sunk to the floor once inside and sobbed. I phoned Fasi in Samoa to tell him and we both cried. It seemed such an unnecessarily cruel thing to do, normally the nurses do all they can to save each others dogs.
I lasted a few days and handed in my resignation, I couldn’t work with the attitude of that manager.
There isn’t just one side to a loss. I felt Pepe’s death keenly, especially the way she died and the thoughtlessness of a nurse from whom people would expect better. After a few days Fasi rightly pointed out that Pepe would have kept me in Aurukun had she lived, I couldn’t travel with a dog. So I reluctantly turned to the next stage in my remote area nursing journey and took up life as an agency nurse, travelling over the top end of Australia experiencing places and people I barely knew existed.
Thank you Pepe.
There was a breadfruit tree In Aurukun. Fasi and I found it one day when we walked along the back track to the store. He pointed it out with excitement. He always saw food on land and sea. The tree was in the middle of a block of land covered in long grass, enclosed by a broken wire fence. The fruit, round and green, the size of small basketballs were ripe. No-one seemed to own the land or showed interest in the tree. We found a way in through the wire, Fasi fashioned a long forked stick and jabbed at where the fruit joined a branch until they fell and caught them before they hit the ground.
He showed me how to scrape the skin off, cut them in quarters, boil them till almost soft and finish off the cooking process by oven baking. The kitchen filled with a warm baked smell, we ate it with a curry, dipping it into the spicy juices.
The tree isn’t native to Australia it was found originally in New Guinea and the islands of the Pacific, the Aurukun one would have been planted by visiting islanders.
We heard later that the overgrown block used to be a market garden which grew a variety of vegetables, possibly overseen by an islander. Garden cultivation is not a traditional part of the lives of Indigenous Australians but where an islander lives there is usually fruit or vegetables growing nearby. There was something comforting about the sight of that breadfruit tree, maybe it was the memory of the baking smell or simply the knowledge that in that remote place food could be found somewhere else other than the local store.
My first remote area nurse Christmas was in Aurukun 2008. Well….it was meant to be, but I ended up flying to Townsville for a CT scan of my right wrist. All the preparations were made….I had tinsel, lights and decorations posted from home. My then 16 year old daughter was flying up for two weeks, presents bought from before I ran away from home and ready to post from the top of Cape York and all the ingredients I needed for a boiled fruitcake were in the local store. I was set to enjoy a tropical wet season Christmas in the middle of “nowhere”.
But late one afternoon my desire to explore got the better of me. My daughter, Fasi and I walked about an hour along a bush track next to the Archer river…admiring the lush growth of pandanus on one side of the red dirt and mangroves on the other. I walked in the middle while the other two talked….suddenly they were still talking and I was flat on my back in sticky mud….trying not to make a fuss about the sharp pain in my wrist. They helped me to my feet as if I was an old woman, made a few jokes and wondered if we should keep walking or return home. The clouds were darkening and the tide was washing across the river bank. We pressed on, only, to be soon drenched in a heavy shower of rain. Fasi took that opportunity to closely peer into the water looking for fish, then made a hasty repair to an old net hanging in a tree while Mel and I were shivering with cold and water dripped off our noses and down our backs.
We walked home in semi-darkness feeling a bond forged by the experience….still making jokes! We still talk about it five years later as if it was a big adventure.
My arm was plastered back at the clinic, Fasi flew back to Brisbane, we enjoyed a clinic Christmas party and a few days of the house being lit up, then flew to join the family in Townsville. It was Christmas with a difference alright and one of the most memorable.
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.