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Required Reading for Indonesia
on 9 March 2015
Indonesia etc is a fabulous travelogue covering Indonesia in nearly 400 hardback pages. It is an expertly written tale by former Reuters correspondent Elizabeth Pisani taking in an array of people, places, and cultures across the remarkably diverse country that is Indonesia. Pisani's writing style is effortlessly easy to read making this such an accessible introduction to a strange land. It is required reading for anyone with an interest in Indonesia.
Pisani introduces the reader to a range of fascinating issues affecting Indonesia by telling each story through encounters in a particular location. The idea of Indonesia as a nation is challenged in some of the outer islands comprising part of the east of the country for instance where a radically different people live in circumstances so different from metropolitan Jakarta.
It is the people who stand out most from this tour of the country. The generosity of spirit in almost all the locations Pisani finds herself in is really heartwarming to read about. Pisani herself seems quite capable of taking advantage of such generosity, talking her way into all kinds of weird and often-times wonderful situations. As a travelogue it is fascinating to read of Pisani's adventure, taking boats without any real sense of direction for instance. The waiting around for things to happen is something any visitor to Indonesia will be familiar with. Taking that further to see the relaxed attitude as almost spiritual is quite intriguing. There is almost a sense Pisani has accrued a set of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that some peoples are just more industrious than others.
Weaving a narrative around such a disparate set of peoples is a remarkable skill. Pisani's ability as a writer is tremendous. She does not use overly-emotive language to describe the places she finds herself in, there is relatively little description of the environment because it is contained in the conversations she reports. The world is seen through the eyes of Indonesians rather than the author, an excellent way to construct a travelogue.
Indonesia is of course a place of many different peoples. Fundamentally though there is a huge gap between the Malay west and the Melanesian east. Pisani starts her journey from the capital Jakarta heading way out east. She takes in small islands in Nusa Tenggara Timur starting with the distant island of Sumba, a place where the locals carry machetes for their everyday work and where it is a bit too hot and too under-developed for the emerging Javanese-led industrialisation. It is the place where the strapline of taking tea with a corpse takes place. The more community and family-oriented lifestyle of Sumba contrasts so strongly with the gleaming towers of a place like Jakarta. Central Jakarta does not seem like a developing country. Pisani's description of Sumba is much more in-tune with an older and somewhat slower pace of life.
Travelling out of Sumba to the even more distant island of Suva is fascinating. Pisani challenge the notion of Indonesia as a unitary state. The federalism slowly being rolled out across Indonesia has yet to make real difference except for the emerging political class. The insights into Adat and into the ties that bind people into the system are excellent. It is the best description of how Indonesia really works yet made available.
Taking various boat trips adds real value to Pisani's work. Her interactions with other passengers are great but also tell both a social and a travel story. The social story of migration patterns around Indonesia is great. It helps to explain how easily Indonesians see their country as being enough. Indonesians do not really travel much further because just going around their 1700 islands is a lifetime's work. The travel story is fun. Pisani's careening around various island tracks on a small engine motorbike is a good laugh at times. She's clearly adventurous, the motorbike is the best way to get around but it is quite intimidating to be around.
Pisani delivers a series of wonderful insights through her travels. The generosity of most Indonesians is amazing. Pisani stays over with people she hasn't seen in maybe a decade or more yet they remember her and are thrilled to see her again. The way Pisani writes it really seems genuine and in no way the author aggrandising. Stopping over in some remote part of the world for Christmas is the stuff great travelogues are made of. Her insights into the role of patronage are brilliant. Corruption is a poison that corrodes progress and success. It is also the way in which family-based communities naturally operate. A family, tribe, clan etc needs to support one another in order to survive and prosper. This is not the same kind of corruption as acquisition of personal wealth but it still has an impact.
Democracy is a relatively alien concept in a society which still venerates elders. Pisani's analysis of various localised forms of the democratic process is hilarious. Getting elected is costly. Pisani tends to hang around with those who do not make it to the top which gives a brutal insight into the harsh reality for those who absorb the cost but none of the success. The local big-men who do make it seem really quite keen to run projects in their area while also ensuring their own living arrangements are well catered to. More and more local government areas spring up, each of them adding layer upon layer to the complex web of Indonesian bureaucracy.
It is impressive to read Pisani's accounts of issues that she might not necessarily be neutral on. Her praise of a mining company comes with lashings of qualifications but is amusing nonetheless. Pisani's insistence on the moderate nature of Islam in Indonesia is great and she evidences it well during her travels including in less tolerant Aceh. Her explanation of jilbab wearing as a means of retaining an attachment to a community in a time of great change is eminently believable. Until that is a reader might happen across hordes of identiki schoolgirls dressed in white jilbabs and come face to face with the reality of an increasingly Islamised country.
Pisani also does not really engage all that much with the most traditional denizens of Indonesia. She does not really invest a huge amount of time in longhouses for instance. These remain the domains of telegenic travellers traipsing through jungle.
During Pisani's travel she does mention the pre-Presidency Jokowi. He is a by-product of her journey in that he wins the election in Jakarta against hardline Islamic opponent. Pisani does note that it is the affluent middle classes who support Jokowi despite his slightly socialist inclinations while the poor vote for the tough-minded muslim despite his economic conservatism that would put him at odds with their financial interest. Amusing that Jokowi is just a by-stander in Pisani's story - did Pisani foreshadow what kind of President he would become?
Pisani does touch a little on deforestation, one of the critical issues facing Indonesia. The tribespeople who live in the jungle being demolished around them are one of her stops. This is not though the story of the forest, it is the story of people.
The final stages of the journey seem a little more rushed than the earlier going. They are still worthwhile with Pisani exploring non-Jakarta Java and finding a very different place. The city of Surabaya works in ways that Jakarta does not. Rural Javanese still take in the Wayang even if they do not appreciate the use of shadows in the way Pisani describes her first encounters with that medium.
As an introduction to the country, Indonesia etc is required reading. It is the best travelogue and social commentary available. Elizabeth Pisani has done a tremendous job tying together the disperate peoples and places into a spellbinding tale. A fascinating read and one absolutely worth indulging in for anyone with any interest in Indonesia. An outstanding contribution.