Talking to Strangers

I went with Rainer on his weekly town run to Alice Springs a couple of weeks ago. One of the challenges of running an outback shop is getting the wares to you; things like fresh vegetables and eggs need to be picked up on a weekly basis. Every week, he drives the eight hour round trip and stuffs the truck beyond capacity. The return trip over the unpaved and pitted roads felt like trying to walk through an earthquake carrying a stack of plates. He offered to bring me this time so I could get a little break from the isolation of living out bush; a civilization break.

I expected a bit of counter-culture shock, akin to the daze I experienced in Argentina, after traveling through Bolivia for two months. When we first arrived in Salta, my travel buddy Roisin and I wandered stupefied by the traffic lights and sparkling white floors and bright lights in the shops and the plethora of choices at the supermarket. I remember watching a girl standing at the counter of a shop, being quiet and looking bored, and thought it was strange – how did she expect to sell us anything that way? In Bolivia, the vendors were markedly more proactive about getting your business.

The contrast between Red gum and Alice Springs did not hit me nearly that hard, however. It seems whatever expectations I have, whether based on experience or not, are always proven wrong. At any rate, I did discover something that I have been missing, something I hadn’t put into conscious thought, let alone anticipated missing: talking to strangers.

At Red gum, I see the same faces every day. And where in most retail situations, small talk figures prominently, this is not the case with my customers. Even for those who do have a strong command of English, small talk just isn’t a thing, unless you count talking about the disconcertingly large snake tracks outside. Really, there isn’t much small talk fodder, as I know it, to be had. For one, the weather is always the same – hot yesterday, hot today, hot tomorrow. And I had no idea I’d missed it.

*

Alice Springs is a small town with an old west feel to it; an oasis of tenuous civilization in a vast expanse of desert. The wildness of the outback laps at the buildings like an anarchic tide. After five pm, the shops close and the streets empty; it’s easy to imagine tumbleweed somersaulting across the asphalt. Dotting the modest center strip are the usual malls and cafes, aboriginal art galleries, travel agencies touting Uluru treks, and the eccentrics that the bush attracts. A lurching man wearing a misshapen wreath of artificial flowers on his head stopped me in the street and told me, “the world is a violent place”.

I went to Vinnie’s, a second hand thrift shop, and while I was chatting with the clerk and asking where the Salvation Army’s store was, an elderly man buying jean shorts offered to drive me there, telling me that it was far too hot to walk. His random act of kindness reminded me of the Taiwanese who bent over backward to help me out. He, too, accepted my thanks with a bashful shrug; “no worries, mate.”

Later that day, after I’d exhausted my limited capacity for shopping, I sat outside at a cafe, drinking coffee and reading a magazine. A woman came over, asked to sit with me, and with no preamble, recounted some stressful encounters she’d had that day. Upon hearing my accent, she began telling me about her American friend. Australians are quite funny about the Canadian-American thing. Our accents are for the most part, indistinguishable, but they never fail to become embarrassed if they mistake me for American. She asked what my star sign was and said, chirpily, “Of course, the cute ones are always Virgos! You know, your aura is so open right now.” She told me, as a Wiccan, she believed that the East (Red gum is to the North East of Alice Springs) brings illumination and that earth signs, like us, thrive when connected to nature.

Say what you will about “New Age” types (for lack of a better descriptor), they’re always really positive and cheerful. She reminded me of the farmer that I worked for in Esperance – a man riddled with debt and a flock of sick lambs who nevertheless woke up every morning grateful and thrilled with his lot in life. I went away from that conversation feeling the familiar, delicious pang thrumming underneath my rib cage – the one conjured by travel’s little miracles of connection with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

 

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