The tune of Suwe ora jamu blared out of the station’s speakers one February afternoon in 2019. It was one of the “ciri khas”, a series of special identifiers of each place in Indonesia. This tune belongs to the Eastern part of Central Java. Announcements were made in 3 languages: Indonesian, English and formal Javanese.
I piled in with my family into the car for the last leg of our journey to Blora. We debated whether we were going to visit the local restaurant which specialised in fried frogs or drive straight on and eat Sattay at Pak Samiran. The latter won.
Blora is a small town in Central Java, surrounded by teak forests. My grandmother lives there, and it was tradition to visit her every year. Each leg of this journey felt like puzzles that fit themselves into a familiar pattern of history.
When I grew up, the annual pilgrimage comprised making rounds of the food vendors, exploring the outdoors and listening to adults telling stories about this place and its people.
Javanese history comprised thousands of years. Kingdoms have risen and fallen, leaving their marks in stones, heirlooms and manuscripts. To know them is a privilege. But It has an ugly side too. There are well-salted rifts between the Indigenous and Chinese descents as well as between Muslims and Christians.
Kingdoms have risen and fallen, leaving their marks in stones, heirlooms and manuscripts. To know them is a privilege. But It has an ugly side too.
I grew up on the wrong side of the divide. My ancestors migrated from China, I was baptised a Christian and to spice things up, I’m blind. I’ve done some travelling around Australia and the UK, looking for the ciri khas that form my mental picture of places.
As a newly arrived migrant, my Mum took me on a tour around Australia in 2007. There were no culinary maps in the thousand-kilometre-long road between Sydney and Bundaberg. I had no words to ask, “what is the local craft, special dance or famous feature of this place?” Those we passed: The Big Banana and the Giant Prawn were exaggerated and unreal, especially to someone who can’t see. It didn’t meet the criteria of the ciri khas of this new country. And in the tabula rasa of no words and images, I was left with the strange names of those places. They drew me.
In the years living in Sydney, I’ve become a collector of place names. The roll call of Macquarie, Darling, Cooke and Flinders are scattered across streets, parks, suburbs and landscapes. Those in Sydney CBD are cast in braille on traffic light poles. Other names reveal a longing for another land whose pale imitation they make in this non-Terra Nullius. That longing motivated me to travel to Britain to find their roots.
On my first day in London, I came to King’s Cross station – even before I visited Westminster Abbey, the London Eye or Pal Mal. I’ve built a mental picture of the UK through novels and the places they marked in Sydney. But it didn’t take me long to get disoriented.
I’ve built a mental picture of the UK through novels and the places they marked in Sydney. But it didn’t take me long to get disoriented.
The thing which unsettled me was how expectations overlaid reality. Lewisham and Petersham ought to be next to each other, like in Sydney Train’s routine roll call of stops. In London, they’re miles apart. Paddington, which is notable for not having a train station is a major railway junction where, running through the tunnels with a friend, I just managed to board the 11 am train to Devon.
Names make more sense when there’s a history to them. King’s Cross, Oxford, Cambridge denote landmarks. Others, such as Greenwich, Westminster and Waterloo are of historic significance. I’ve come to know them through the loose web of stories, acquaintances and good days where, if I’m lucky, I can arrange sighted-guide assistance 24 hours before I board a train – a requirement in UK’s rail network. Sometimes a helpful Tube station staff would tell me things about the tunnel I’m passing through, such as the Victorian Grand exhibition that long ago lined the echoing tunnel of South Kensington station on the way to Victoria and Albert Museum.
Back home, I walked the land: up and down the Sydney streets and along the ancient tracks in national Parks. There are parts of the City I can navigate on my own, with a long cane or more often a guide dog. Friends or support workers would bushwalk with me – calling out instructions to step up, step down, duck or pivot between rocks and tree trunks. Often, I’d stop to work out a plant by its leaves, flowers or other ciri khas.
There are parts of the City I can navigate on my own, with a long cane or more often a guide dog. Friends or support workers would bushwalk with me – calling out instructions to step up, step down, duck or pivot between rocks and tree trunks. Often, I’d stop to work out a plant by its leaves, flowers or other ciri khas.
I’m still learning the stories of Pemulwuy in whose land I live and work. It might help me walk across this land with confidence yet tread lightly.
During these walks I finally found the ciri khas of this place. They are there all the time. To find it is to sift among the pain, the sorrow, the guilt and the shame – of both sides.
To become an Australian is to be the beneficiary of its luck. But seldom do migrants talk about bearing its pains. Yet most of us have come across the seas. Whether in the convicts’ ships, the gold rush or the mining boom. And we share some things in common: our connection to the land is shallow, and we struggle to understand the rift between New and Old Australians – the First Peoples of this country and those who settled here.
In Java, where cultural distinctions are celebrated, I see what Australia could become. Soon after, I was welcomed by Auntie Rhonda Dickson in her Gadigal language. With ochre on my face, Laurie Bimpson of the Guringai people took me to the special places where his ancestors feasted and learned about our country. I was surprised and humbled when he offered to guide my hand to feel the grooves etched on the Guringai sandstones. The lines of the carvings were no longer sharp, worn by weather and neglect. This was the closest I came to finding this country as a blind wanderer: through my fingers.
Ria Andriani is a Braille specialist by day, a musician and writer by night. She advocates for accessibility in the arts and enjoys having adventures with her guide dog Max.