The River Guide: One of many Stories

These days I’ve become rather neglectful of this blog, not because I’ve lost the urge to write, far from it, but I’m trying to put the finishing touches to a book. The working title is Seeing And Not Seeing: Australians Encountering Their Region From 1914 

In the past I’ve curated some of the work on this blog, but the desire for perfection caused me to withdraw it.

Beginning in 2007 I started to make notes on a variety of subjects that engaged me. Initially the energy to begin this project came from the need to de-brief and self sooth after the trauma of the Bali Bombings of 2002. Making sense of that experience was easier when I could locate it in the broader context of my life and our regional history. Hence the book.

Drafts and Re-drafts
In the last week or so I’ve been using the brilliant tool Wordle to help refine my language.

We all have our favourite terms, for me its words like seems, although, just, small, probably, time and so forth. There is nothing wrong with these words, I just over use them. I’m also working on syntax and cadence, and word choice certainly influences this.

Here is a Wordle for my story about a trip up the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan, The River Guide.


Seeing and Not Seeing – A synposis
These stories and essays explore ways Australians have encountered and engaged with Asia and Melanesia. Although drawn from the stories of my own family, and my direct experiences in the region, they are not biographical in purpose using the characters to reveal a path through the unfolding history.  This is a principally a historical work that draws extensively on geography, botany, ecology, anthropology, politics economics and spiritual traditions. The writings are chronological and incremental.

I begin this journey in 1914 with Sid Thompson and D Company an account of my maternal grandfather’s life. As a 19-year-old youth from Bondi, Sid enlisted in the little known Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF), the first Australian force to engage the enemy during WWI, undertaking landings in the Bismarck Archipelago aimed at disabling German radio communications. ANMEF’s action was months before Gallipoli and not only represented Australia acting within its own sphere of influence, but set in train events that have had lasting impacts. Little is ever said of this expedition, yet it uncovered manifest examples of our failure to see what really surrounds us.

Men line up for their dose of quinine.
Men line up for their dose of quinine, 1914 in Sid Thompson and D Company

Sid was never bitter about the burdens of war, his response to the tragedy was remarkably adaptive he sought neither glory nor compensation; his response follows in Red Poppies and Janur.

The work moves through WWII with Sandal Wood, Silk and Ivory, and the Britishness of the 1950s, with Made in Japan and Joss Sticks and Cracker Night. The transformations associated with post-war decolonisation follow with Encountering White Australia, Surviving The Sixties, One! Two! Three! Four! We Don’t Want War and Baby Boomers And Japan.

The Kek Lok Si Temple 极乐寺 Templer of Supreme Bliss, Penang. Visited in 1972
The Kek Lok Si Temple 极乐寺 Temple of Supreme Bliss, Penang, 1972, in From the Sublime To The Horrific

First Landfall and From The Sublime to The Horrific are personal accounts of first contact with Asia that attempt to explore our changing understandings and the challenges of engagement.

Continuing travel through the region, 20 years of regular commuting between Sydney and Indonesia, maintaining a household in both places, travelling over much of Indonesia, from North Sumatra to West Papua, other journeys into Europe and the Middle East and now residing in Singapore, shape my understanding of Asia.

The period from the 1980s through to 2002 is covered with twelve of different stories. The content of this section ranges from the village to the ministerial, from the scientific to the metaphysical, covering a broad range of contexts and events throughout Indonesia.  It begins with The Thief and The Angels and concluding with Pemilian Umun – The General Election.  The latter is an eyewitness account of Indonesia’s first democratic election after the fall of Suharto’s New Order.

Grandmothers from Rukun Damai, 1988, from The River Guide
Grandmothers from Rukun Damai, 1988, in The River Guide

My direct involvement in the relief effort following the Bali Bombings of 2002 was a watershed experience for me. An Unusual Kind Of Thunder and In The Charnel House, are graphic accounts of the bombings, their impact on victims, survivors, those around me and myself. Unspoken Realities is a broad, and I hope well researched, critique of the Howard Doctrine written in the aftermath of the bombings and historically paired with Inequity Shall Abound a more spiritual work dealing with asylum seekers and children in detention.

My Second Meeting With Jonathan is a story about meeting the family of a man whose body I identified in the morgue at Sanglah Hospital. It’s a spiritual and metaphysical work.

Headland is an attempt at holistically seeing a place I visited with my grandfather that’s now the site of Sydney’s Bali Bombing monument.  Originally this was the last story, but now I’m writing Singapore Transformed.

Reflections of contemporary Singapore
Reflections on contemporary Singapore in Singapore Transformed, 2014

Philosophical Background To This Work
A central premise of this work is that encounters with the other, that which is beyond our immediate cultural understanding, might appear to occur in tangible and rational ways but are frequently negotiated in intangible and non-rational ways. Foucault’s notion of the third space comes close to defining this process.  He describes spaces of otherness, that are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental.  I’ve attempted to include the spiritual, to broaden this again.

Having come to know Indonesia and Bali in particular, I learned that the Balinese people have a deep and explicit sense of the interplay of the seen and the unseen realms, they refer to Si Kala, Nis Kala – The Seen, The Unseen. (Eiseman writes extensively on this)

Precisely what comprises the unseen realm varies, throughout the region.  In Asia and Melanesia matters that many might interpret as mere micro-ecology can have a spiritual explanation.  In Australia we are likely to eschew the entire notion of magic, yet in Asia and Melanesia what we might regard as myths and misconceptions can have the power of reality.

There is another sense in which I’ve used the unseen world; this is its application in the political domain.  During the Howard years, and central to the Howard Doctrine, was a type of Ptolemaic system, comprising several basic beliefs that could only be held as reality if one was to completely ignore the elephant in the room. It was convincing but utterly wrong

While governments might change, there is a basic and enduring relevance to the interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds.  This is of great significance to those of us from the land that’s girt by sea.  While we might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.

My country has now re-entered an era infused with much of the Eurocentric sense of nationalism that was the foundation of the Howard Doctrine and the global visions of 19th century classical economists. It is my sincere hope that some of my insights might help my own people come to understand what surrounds them in a more holistic sense.


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