Thursday, March 01, 2007

Canberra spotlight on travel writing

"Bowling is far from the caricature foreign correspondent, braving bullies and bullets to "get the story". Instead he reveals himself as the sensitive family man.."

Tracks of Asian life on divergent paths - from The Canberra Times 24/02/2007

TWO BOOKS about Australian journalists coming to grips with Asia - and there the similarity ends. Mark Bowling's is a story about the usual hardships, frustrations and more than occasional dangers involved in reporting for the ABC on Indonesia during one of the most troubled periods in that country's recent past - descriptions sharpened in the context of renewed attention to the fate of the Balibo Five during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor more than 30 years ago.

lain Finlay and Trish Clark, as befits a late middle-aged couple who have lived and worked together for four decades, travel at a gentler pace. Not a gun is raised, or a blow struck during their stay of more than year in the Vietnamese capital as workers for Australian Volunteers International: their greatest dramas involve severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and bird flu. The battles they describe are now part of history.

Bowling is far from the caricature foreign correspondent, braving bullies and bullets to "get the story". Instead he reveals himself as the sensitive family man, constantly concerned about his wife, Kim, and children left alone in their temporary Jakarta house while he rushes from one trouble spot to another. "Kim feared for my safety, she feared that my work would consume me, that the close-knit family life we cherished would be blown apart, and that our relationship would crumble," he writes.

At other times he describes eloquently the panic that any reporter feels when threatened with becoming "part of the story": literally running for his life when spotted by a wild mob of pro-Indonesian militiamen in Dili: tear-gassed during student riots in Jakarta - "I remember the soldiers' clenched teeth, the look of hate in their eyes." Bowling arrived in Indonesia just in time to cover the last days of President Suharto. He saw the short, doomed reign of Bachartuddin Habibie, the mounting crisis around his successor, "Gus Dur" Wahid, and the rise of Megawati Sukarno Putri, and the first Bali bombings form a bloody epilogue to his four-year assignment.

He was present for the birth pains of East Timor: he looked into a mass grave in Aceh and experienced the fry of sectarian strife in Ambon, yet still found time for "colour" stories on exorcism Indonesian-style, starving Sumatran tigers and the misery of Jakarta's garbage-dump dwellers.

Somehow Mark's relationship with Kim survived Indonesia and they have settled with their four children in Darwin. I am left with the impression that Running Amok has been written as a form of catharsis, and that he will not be thirsting for more adventure any time soon.

Finlay and Clark, two of the founders of the long-ru ning television program Beyond 2000, were fulfilling a long-held promise to themselves to do some overseas volunteer work when they accepted an assignment in Hanoi with the English-language service of the Voice of Vietnam radio network.

There is really nothing in Good Morning Hanoi that the average working tourist might not discover and experience during a prolonged stay there. The couple get a taste for the culture and make many good friends among their Vietnamese colleagues, neighbours and other overseas volunteers, especially Rebecca Hales, a young teacher.

They give seminars and lectures, and start a program featuring news of entertainment and other events around the country which they bequeath to a couple of their younger colleagues, delaying their departure to take in the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phil, which ended French rule in the country and ushered in the "American War". Finlay and Clark are two good-natured Australians with a genuine desire to reach out to the people they have come to help, and only occasionally do the frustrations with the stultifying Vietnamese bureaucracy show through. There are a few dark moments and historical slip-ups (Richard Nixon was not the United States president during the 1968 Tet Offensive) but mostly everyone has a jolly good time. Good Morning Hanoi will be useful to anyone planning an extended visit, or even just a holiday, but that is about the sum total - a kind of superior guide book with a lot of anecdotes attached.

Graham Cooke is a former Canberra Times journalist.


Wendy said...

An amazing thing the internet is...and blogging is just one of the amazing things you can do with it. Just reading through a couple of blogs on East Timor, and saw your comment and link. Mmm...the name Mark Bowling sounds familiar...old school friend? a student that I have taught? .. no. of course, I've heard your reports on TV. Congratulations on your new book. I hope it sells well. But....using a blog to promoste it unashamedly ??!! law against it I suppose!!

Kim said...

thanks for visiting, Wendy.

I am fresh from writing Running Amok, so my site contains a fair few postings that are reviews about the book. But my interest in writing about Indonesia, Timor Leste, and North Australia is a long one.. so as my site develops there will certainly be less about Running Amok and a lot more news and detail about the places I love to visit, and write about. (of course this is the subject of Running Amok anyway).

Wendy said...

thanks mark/kim, i was not meaning to be critical, and I look forward to reading more of your blog. I'm so glad of FOS and Squatter's blogs at the moment, to be able to keep in touch with the situation in ET. (I have friends there). It certainly seems to be "running amok" there at the moment!!!