Indonesia Etc by Elizabeth Pisani


Indonesia Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani

Never hesitating to let a complete stranger take her home, in the opening scene of Indonesia Etc. the author is invited into a house to meet someone’s dead grandmother. From that moment on, the reader is captured. In her discursive and wide-ranging travel book, covering hundreds of topics and destinations, Elizabeth Pisani manages to almost make sense of this maddening 4200- km-long string of islands that she describes as a “giant bad boyfriend” and “one of the most invisible countries in the world.”

Having spent a total of 25 years in Indonesia, this hard-working and dedicated journalist is eminently qualified to serve as a knowledgeable spokesperson for Indonesia and an eloquent interpreter of its diverse cultures. Even before embarking on her research for the book, Pisani had already earned her stripes as a Reuter’s correspondent assigned to this sprawling country. Though the book is first and foremost a travelogue, there are generous dollops of geography, history, politics, sociology, ethnology, anthropology and pop culture. Vivid, visceral descriptions of landscapes, bus rides, interiors of buses, bus stations, drivers, restaurants and their patrons, native cuisines and the sounds and smells of the open road permeate her narrative. Like a 19th C. adventure travel book, you’re able to follow the writer’s zigzagging journeys on route maps that precede each chapter.

This woman is one tough traveler. Crisscrossing the archipelago, leaving the comforts of Java behind, she deserves high praise for putting in those tens of thousands of punishing kilometers. When the mode of transport she was expecting isn’t available, she will climb aboard virtually any contraption to keep on moving. Patient, even-tempered and unfazed, she wedges herself among hostile passengers on the crowded decks of cargo ships, opts for smelly cattle boats or wooden sailing schooners if a ferry isn’t running, hitches construction trucks and ojek motorcycle taxis for grueling rides. Surely it must be from a sense of journalistic duty that possesses her to dutifully immerse herself in a rambunctious political campaign, visit a salt maker on a faraway beach and endure a day long journey out to an open-pit asphalt mine at the end of a terrible road.

The book is filled with surrealist anecdotes, quirky chance encounters and odd and ambivalent relationships with the powers that be. It is an unput-downable running narrative with a fast pace and no let up of wit, a constant stream of irony and an uncommon skill in pointing out Indonesia’s numberless paradoxes. She becomes the trophy guest of a frizzy-haired matron living halfway up a volcano, seeks out a crocodile whispering shaman, visits a whale hunting village and hunter-gatherers in the Sumatran jungle, grabs a planting stick to help garden with her hosts, sleeps in Dayak longhouses and stilted dwellings of Bajo fishermen, hangs out with sex workers, rent boys and gay men while surveying risk behavior among HIV-exposed groups.

Her 400-page account is interspersed with random, fascinating facts: Jakarta is home to 28 million people living on 661 sq. km of land, 40% of which is below sea level; 4 million Indonesian laborers work overseas in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia; Pontianak is the only city in the world sitting exactly on the Equator; a parliamentarian’s main job is just to perform the “Four S’s,” i.e. “Show up. Sit Down, Shut Up, Salary” (“Datang, Duduk, Diam, Duit”); not one university in the world’s 4th most populous nation is rated among Asia’s 10 best; no Indonesian has ever won a Nobel Prize; 95% of the country’s civil servants don’t have the skills needed to do their jobs; the World Economic Forum ranks Indonesia 104th of 139 countries for its port infrastructure, even though it is the largest country in the world consisting entirely of islands.

In her bias towards the Outer Islands, Pisani places the proper emphasis and balance. Rightly so. Bali and Java are overwhelmingly the focus of reporters, travel and guidebook writers, but for this writer those two islands receive scant attention. And therein lies the book’s value. Although Java has historically been the archipelago’s most important pivotal island, it’s only a part of the whole. Tens of millions of non-Javanese are wary of Javanese imperialism and stranglehold on power. The book can actually serve as a travel guide to the Indonesia’s far-flung islands, helping you decide whether or not visiting such backwater places such as Halmahera, Kisar or Buton is worthwhile.

Though incidents from the writer’s past experiences in Indonesia are included, for the most part Indonesia Etc. is an account of one year’s travel (2011-2012) in which Pisani logged 21,000 km by motorbike, bus and boat to 26 of Indonesia’s 33 provinces, 4 of its largest islands, dozens of smaller ones, some too tiny to appear on maps. With her particular fondness for frontier towns, it’s almost as if she prefers to carry out her journeys the hard way, confident that the adversity would be more interesting to write about.

Her deep and abiding love for Indonesia borne from living years in the islands gives her an insider’s view. But it is not always unrequited love. Pisani doesn’t always paint a pretty picture. She is blistering about the sorry state of Indonesia’s infrastructure, the government’s devastating environmental policies and lack of control over its vast forests, the nation-wide culture of littering, the educational system and woefully unqualified teachers, Indonesia’s venal illegal loggers and corruptors, violators of heinous human rights, hypocrisy of transactional politics, the blithe indifference of Jakarta’s effete upper class posers.

To appreciate the scope of the book’s coverage, take a glance at the professionally executed index, which includes entries on places, nouns, arts, history and events as various as batik, ceramics, cloves, Kei Islands, English language, army, oil palm, Ternate, etc. and even the names of obscure characters she meets. Editorially, there’s a nagging overuse of dashes between compound words that don’t need to be there: orang-utan, south-east, hand-woven, look-outs, bold-faced, etc.

No country portrait published on contemporary Indonesia in the last 40 years – not since Wilfred T. Neill’s magisterial Twentieth Century Indonesia (1973) – matches Indonesia Etc. in sheer scale, breadth and thoroughness. To anyone who ever asks me what is Indonesia is like, I now at last have a book that comes the closest to answering that impossible question.

But as Pisani herself concedes at the end of her kaleidoscopic survey of the nation, even for this astute chronicler of an ever-changing society, there are “thousands of other Indonesians yet to be discovered.” As she barrels down yet another bumpy road or wades ashore on another remote island, this indefatigable and relentlessly curious author admits that Indonesia is a country that she will never truly know.

Indonesia Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani, Lontar Foundation 2014, ISBN 978-602-70255-0-9, softcover, 404 pages, Dimensions 14.5 cm X 22.5 cm. Available for Rp195,000 at Periplus (www.periplus.com) and Ganesha bookstores (www.ganeshabooksbali.com).

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