This is Part 2 of a two-part entry. Missed the first one? Read it here. I just had so many thoughts and emotions.
“Everyone has a relevance to this world, an importance, they just don’t see it.” – Renato, an inmate at Berrimah Prison, in Prison Songs.
I saw a petite woman with a diamond stud in her left nostril sitting at the table. She had jet-black hair and wore it up in high bun.
“Allison,” said another workmate, “This is Carla, the one who was just in Europe.”
“Ah!” I exclaimed, “You’re the one who was just in Portugal! Isn’t Portugal just amazing!”
Without emotion, she nodded. “When Portuguese men come to East Timor in ’99 we in love, ooooooh, all the girls we in love. Portuguese man so beautiful!”
She is referring to the unintendended consequences of international peacekeeping troops landing in her country during a political crisis. This would become a pattern with Carla. Instead of discussing the painful details of her birth country’s shaky past, I notice she marks important political timelines with which group of military men from which country came into her life.
Rebecca sat next to us, nodding but visibly tired from lack of sleep. It was my first day back and their first day on night shift. We clocked on and headed out to our vehicle. On the way, a previously somewhat subdued Carla already began to speak, and at a rapid speed- almost as if she was on a game show where whoever spoke the fastest won. Even though she’s been in Australia for more than ten years, she still has a thick accent, so much so that I have to concentrate while she speaks. Even though I often hear grammar mistakes, she seems to have learned the most important phrases of the Australian English dialect.
“Yeeeei, before we four people! Now we only three people, f*ck that!” She shook her head. “I’m not busting my ass for $19.00/hour, f*ck that, I’m serious, I’m not doing that.”
We slammed the car door shut and in the five minutes on the way to pick up milk for the mine site I had already gotten the latest gossip from the events of my week off. Old colleagues unfairly becoming supervisors, old friends betraying her trust, a pay cut (from a lucrative $37.00/hour cleaners are now getting $19.00/hour, a subject of deep resentment) and generous name dropping of all the “big bosses” of the mine coupled with the latest they had done in their personal lives. Yes, this was the gossip queen, and she wasn’t afraid to admit it.
“I know everyone, I bin livin’ here long time,” she explained. “You sleep with a man and next day eeeeeeverybody knows. Yeeeeiii.”
She knows all, and people probably know all about her, too. Glued to her phone as she sat in the backseat, she multitasked liked a crazed teenager, making calls on speakerphone to an auntie in London while and the same time she chatted with Rebecca and I, or texting so-and-so from the mine while divulging all of the details of another so-and-so’s recent split from his wife. As we pulled up to the parking lot of the mess to get our stock of milk, she saw a man walking up to the door.
Rolling down the window, she screamed, “HEY! Where my buffalo!?”
The man walked over and she explained to us, “He always come my house, bring me buffalo.”
After the milk we made a quick stop by the BP so Rebecca could buy some cigarettes. Rebecca parked to the side and ran in, and I stayed in the car with Carla. Before long, Carla was already up out of the car, yelling at some aboriginal people. From the front seat I watched her cross the through my vision of the windshield and pat a stumbling aboriginal man on the shoulder. I heard her say to him, “Heeeeei, why you drink?!”
Rebecca jumped back in the car with her cigarettes and we watched her speaking to the group of men.
“Ah, she is a talker. Come on, Carla!” said Rebecca, knowing that her cries wouldn’t be heard from across the parking lot. “People always ask me, ‘are you getting your ear torn off?’” she laughed.
Carla jumped back in the car said, “That man always drinking! But when I work at BP before he ask me, ‘can I borrow $20?’ I always give him and I say ‘You give me back when you get paid’ and he always give me back $20.”
As we sat at the crib room table, I looked at Carla’s ID photo. It was off center. Whoever took the photo wasn’t very skilled – her head is just peeking out from the bottom right-hand corner of the square. She looks distant, even empty like a day-of-the-dead calavera, her gaze somewhere else than at the camera. Looking at that photo, you wouldn’t guess that the same woman who stood in front of the orange sheet for her ID photo was the one sitting in front of me now, speaking her native tongue one second with her cousin in Uganda and occasionally jumping in our conversation, all while eating homemade chicken and rice porridge.
Even though I by the end of the night listening to Carla’s endless chatter exhausted me, I see the invaluable perspective I’m learning. And it’s more than how many times I can hear her say “F*ck that, I’m serious, I tell her straight, I serious, f*ck that.”
I’m hearing about small town life in Northern Territory. The “immigrant experience.” Customs and culture from her native East Timor. Her endless talk of money, wages and purchase, speaking to a greater insecurity stemming from having grown up with little. Her flirtatious spirit – “I have all American Marine on my Facebook, you watch, they come to Darwin, they add me!” She came to Australia with her husband, a man who had picked her up in a bar in East Timor. Not speaking English, she went from learning phrases from The Wiggles to being the unofficial mayor of this microcosm of a town.
…F*ck that. I serious.
Rebecca and I split from Carla to do another section of the mine while she handled the laundry. We were mopping one of the big crib rooms when I saw The Koori Mail sitting on the table. “100% Aboriginal-Owned and 100% Self-Funded” I read across the top. I recognized the word Koori from a book I just read called The Crocodile Hotel by Julie Janson. I should have looked it up before, but instead asked Rebecca.
“Does Koori just mean aboriginal?” I asked her.
“Nah, yeah, Koori is the mob down south, near Sydney and that,” she said.
She stopped her mopping and came over to look at the paper. Commenting how great it was, she lamented the lack of media outlets for “us.”
“Oh, are you aboriginal?” I asked her, surprised I didn’t pick up on it before.
“Yeah, well, I’m half. Dad’s white, mum’s a blackfella,” she told me.
From that moment, it all sort of came together. It’s why she says certain words with a distinct accent, like the smooth and tonal way she pronounces “country” seems distinctly indigenous.
She opened up the conversation and dialog, giving me the chance to finally ask some questions I’d been pondering, especially relating to aboriginal culture and its inherent conflict with the mining industry. (For her it was never an issue. In fact, she grew up in a mining town and her father was a miner.) And, like other aboriginals and other “half-caste” Australians, she explained how difficult it was to encounter racism and at the same time, be treated better than the majority of indigenous solely because of her lighter skin that sometimes allows her to pass for a different ethnic group.
“I used to be embarrassed, but now I’m proud to be aboriginal,” she said.
She told me stories of her grandmother, who was part of the stolen generation and didn’t see her own mother again until she was 70 years old. And Rebecca’s own mother didn’t finally become an Australian citizen until she was 21 years old. Around Alice Springs, Rebecca told me, there are still pubs where aborigines have to go in a back entrance and hang out in a separate area from the whites.
“They let me in the whitefellas’ area, but I go sit with the blackfellas,” she said.
Around our mine, she’s already made a connection with the “mob up here.” A few nights ago at the pub, she was amazed at their generosity and welcoming spirit. She relayed to me that they told her, “Sister, we all look after country because it’s not just my country or your country, but all our country.”
“We are all one,” she explained to me, “and they see it.”
Featured photo originally published in this post about Sydney, Australia.
Didn’t read “It’s Round Three And These Chicks Are Crazy, Part 1”? Well, get on it! Missed the previous Mine Camp Diary? Here it is. Read the rest of the diaries here. Very confused? Read the first Mine Camp Diary entry!