Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation Paperback – 7 May 2015
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Exuberant and wise Pisani is an exceptionally resourceful observer of the ongoing battle to define Indonesia. --Pankj Mishra"
About the Author
ELIZABETH PISANI was Indonesia correspondent for Reuters and the Economist from 1988 to 1991. She worked with Indonesia's Ministry of Health from 2001 to 2005 as an epidemiologist, and spent 2011 travelling the archipelago. Pisani is the author of The Wisdom of Whores (Granta, 2008), and speaks several languages, including Indonesian.
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She speaks fluent Indonesian, used to drive around Jakarta riding a motorcycle and now in this book she travels around Indonesia - from NTT, to the eastern islands around Maluku, to the big islands of Sulawesi, Sumatra, Kalimantan then the "main island" of Java - visiting the remotest regions, blending-in with the locals, even participating in numerous hard-labour works and various local festivals along the way (I'm still curious on what she did with that "request" in Mount Kemukus).
In every part of the nation that she visits, she describes the local customs, social hierarchy and economy in great detail. She also elaborates on the many problems facing with every single village, island and province - from corruption, exploitation, poverty, inequality, to transportation, infrastructure and even cultural problems.
And between the fascinating local stories she also give various facts, statistics and history of this great country to give us the bigger picture ("The ties that binds" chapter, in particular, is world class), and shows how the Indonesia that we thought we always knew, and the Jakarta-centric (and java-centric) one we see daily in national TV, is perhaps just 1/10th of the actual country.
Unlike any other western books on Indonesia - like special chapters in John Pilger's New Rulers of the World, Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and even Andre Vltcheck's Indonesia: Archipelago of Fear - who tend to have a brilliant but one-sided view, Elizabeth Pisani can show both the good side and bad side of nearly everything Indonesian and then elaborate in great detail on how it work out in reality.
For example, the many corruptions in the country are rightly seen as a bad epidemic by many, but Pisani also acknowledged it as one of the unlikely ties that weirdly binds the nation together, as a "new normal" way of life, whether we like it or not. Furthermore, like many authors before her Pisani portrays founding father Soekarno as a great charismatic leader, but she also pointed out the messiness of his presidency later on that led to a hyperinflation. She also portrays the "32 years dictator Soeharto" as a great leader that brilliantly tied the diverse nations together for the first 20 years of his presidency, but started to look "dictatorial" (with every stereotypes that come with the label) after his kids grew up.
Indeed, reality is a hard-to-swallow concept for a complex country like Indonesia, where the line between right or wrong, and taboo or normal are often blurry. And in this book Pisani taught us that we need to see the many different issues facing the country from many unfiltered angles to really understand what the country is all about. The underlying truth about Dayak-Madura ethnic conflict in Kalimantan, the "religious" violence in Maluku, and the birth of Police-backed extremist group FPI, for instance, are different compared with the way the mainstream media are describing.
With that in mind, this book is truly an eye opener, a well-balanced Rosetta Stone for my Western-educated train of thoughts and values, which often struggles to understand the complex reality of my own country. Not anymore.
She travels through the backwoods and centers of Indonesia. Years of inside knowledge, personal contacts, language skills, historical, social, and political insights go into the narrative. Memories from earlier trips add a time axis to the trip.
I recommend the book. The agenda is determined by a healthy skepticism against religions and politicians, by a commitment to conservation causes, and by sympathies for the underdogs. I assume the book is most valuable to people who have some knowledge of Indonesia. It is not an introduction for novices.
For the question that moves most people (which role will political Islam play in the future of the country?), the book gives information that can improve our understanding. The author is not an alarmist, but she is not crazy enough to deal in prophecies. On key environmental issues like deforestation, she is not optimistic.
Many chapters about different parts of the country touch the subject of past outbreaks of violence, be it between religious or ethnic groups, or the big outbreak of murder lust in the 1960s. A subject with many explanations, but beyond comprehension.
Indonesia Etc will challenge a lot of stereotypes that people have about Indonesia, but Pisani does so in her own unique and characterisitically whimsical way. Whilst travelling in a broad sweep around the Indonesian archipelago Pisani travels on overcrowded buses, the back seats of motor bikes, rides on horseback and travels on the decks of passenger ferries or whatever might chaotically pass for transport on any given day.
In roughing her way around Indonesia, Elisabeth Pisani has created a gonzo journalistic account of her meetups with a whole cast of characters - some of the more memorable who might include include members of Indonesia's political class, fishermen, sex workers, transvestites, member's of women's groups, handicapped people, police, and dispossessed tribal people of the jungle.
No subject is taboo in Pisani's book. And this is where Pisani invites her readers to look at Indonesia in a new and often confronting light.
Indonesia Etc begins a little prosaically, but within a few short pages the book really hits its pace and maintains it relentlessly to the very end. Anyone who has ever done any backpacking their way around the world will love this book, and I'd recommend it to anyone who thinks that they might have a flair or interest in writing a journalistic or traveller's tales type account of their experiences in foreign countries.