‘Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation’ by Elizabeth Pisani

This is a fascinating book about a year spent travelling around the Indonesian archipelago, written by a multilingual British woman who has spent much of her adult life in this diverse nation. She began her career as a journalist, then became an epidemiologist employed by the Indonesian Ministry of Health. In 2011, she decided to take time off to travel and learn more:

'Indonesia Etc' by Elizabeth Pisani“I only had one rule: ‘Just say yes’. Because Indonesians are among the most hospitable people on earth, this made for a lot of yesses. Tea with the Sultan? Lovely! Join a wedding procession? Yes please! Visit a leper colony? Of course! Sleep under a tree with a family of nomads? Why not? Dog for dinner? Uuuuh, sure. This policy took me to islands I had never heard of. I was welcomed into the homes of farmers and priests, policemen and fishermen, teachers, bus drivers, soldiers, nurses. I travelled mostly on boats and rickety-but-lurid buses that blared Indo-pop and had sick-bags swinging from the ceiling. Sometimes, though, I lucked into a chartered plane or rode cocooned in a leather car-seat behind tinted glass. I can count on one hand the number of times I was treated with anything other than kindness. I can also count on one hand the number of days that I did not have a conversation about corruption, incompetence, injustice and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

This is saved from being one of those ‘patronising white person blogging about their year of backpacking though a developing nation’ books by the author’s wide-ranging and first-hand knowledge of Indonesia. She displays genuine curiosity and warmth as she visits each community, but she’s also able to draw on her previous experiences. For example, there’s an excellent chapter on Aceh, the province that’s been wracked with separatist violence for decades. She provides a good summary of its complex post-colonial history, explaining why Aceh’s separatist movement is completely different to those in East Timor and West Papua, but she also relates anecdotes from working as a journalist in Aceh in the 1990s:

“At the time, it was impossible to tell who was behind the attacks. Only once, we saw a letter addressed to Indonesian newspaper editors, claiming responsibility for this wave of raids. Written entirely in lower-case, the letter was an eccentrically spelled mish-mash of anti-Javanese invective, childish threats, wounded pride and separatist rhetoric […] People called the troublemakers the GPK, just as the government did, and they had many theories about who they were. Most involved some combination of the following: disgruntled former soldiers who had been fired in a short-lived campaign against corruption in the military; thugs who wanted a bigger share of the marijuana trade (saus ganja was once a common ingredient in the cuisine of the region, and Aceh remained a centre of production for the crop); hot-blooded separatists back from training in Libya. It seemed wildly improbable to me that an organisation that didn’t have a shift key on its typewriter and couldn’t spell its own name would be linked to international terror training networks; it was only years later that I found that some of the fighters were indeed graduates from Middle Eastern training camps, though all the other theories also proved to be true.”

Much of the conflict in Indonesia that’s reported in the Australian media as being due to ‘the rise of Islam’ turns out to have a more complex, but also more prosaic, explanation. For example, the gangs of leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding thugs previously employed by politicians in Jakarta to attack student demonstrators have now

“begun to appear in turbans or knitted skullcaps, long white robes and straggly beards [to] selectively smash up those bars, nightclubs and brothels that don’t pay them protection money. A friend in the music business told me they demonstrated against Lady Gaga only after her promoters refused to pay them to provide security for her concert. But they do not choose their targets indiscriminately. They never vent their wrath on the porn industry, for example, because it is said to be controlled by the military.”

Most of the book, though, is not explicitly about politics but about the lives of ordinary Indonesians, trying to earn enough money to raise their families while dealing with a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy, but also doing what people all over the world do – attending school, playing games, visiting friends, celebrating birthdays and weddings, and, even in the remotest islands, Facebooking on their mobile phones. It’s all related in a warm, entertaining style by an intrepid traveller. I think even readers who aren’t much interested in Indonesia will enjoy this book.