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Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 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.
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different groups are essentially living at different points in human history, all at the same time.’

Indonesia is a country of between 13,466 and 17, 504 islands, depending on whose figures you accept. Of this number, between 6,000 and 7,000 are inhabited and they stretch over 5,200 kilometres Aceh at the north-western tip of Sumatra to Papua in the south-east. This vast nation of islands hosts hundreds of different languages, six recognised religions (differentiating Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism) and many different ethnicities. Indonesian, a form of Malay, is the official language. Java, with just 7% of the landmass, is home to 60% of Indonesia’s 260 million inhabitants. In 1945 Indonesia declared its independence from the Dutch:

‘We the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.
Indonesia has been working on that ‘etc.’ ever since.’

For just over 12 months, Elizabeth Pisani travelled around Indonesia where her fluency in Indonesian and willingness to take part in the lives she visited and stayed with stood her in good stead. Her curiosity and capacity to fit in, to accept difference and to observe what is going on around her makes this book particularly enjoyable. There’s information about family and clan, about the importance of gifting, obligation and food, cultural and religious observance. There’s also a wealth of information about the effects of politics of democracy and decentralisation. And a wealth of observations like this:

‘Two-thirds of households in Savu don’t even make it to Prosperity Level I, the lowest of Indonesia’s four wealth classifications; they are, in the government’s delicious phrase, ‘pre-prosperous’.’

I enjoyed reading this book, about learning of parts of Indonesia in addition to Jakarta and Bali. It’s an energetic democracy, with many challenges - and opportunities - ahead. Confusing and contradictory, memorable and vibrant.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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on 10 March 2015
It probably goes without saying that if you have been lucky enough to travel to or through Indonesia then you will probably have a more vested interest in reading this. Even if you have never been I would still recommend this book.

Pisani is obviously a clever and very brave cookie, being fluent in the main language and aware of most of the customs, she sets off around this fascinating part of the world, at times it's a little over written but she fills the pages with so much passion, colour and life it's hard not to indulge the odd lapse. She really paints a clear picture of a muddied and conflicted part of the world and excels as a tour guide as much as author and you may come away with as many questions as answers.
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on 7 August 2014
For this fascinating book, journalist turned HIV epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani spent more than a year travelling to all four corners of the Indonesian archipelago. She talks to all sorts of people from the many ethnic and religious groups who live on the thousands of islands spanning over 5,000 kilometres to find out what makes Indonesia and its inhabitants tick. Giving us a nuanced socio-cultural tour with just the right amount of political and historical background, she brings this complex and increasingly important nation to vivid life, travelling mainly by motorbike and boat and receiving generous hospitality from the locals. The lack of photographs is more than compensated by excellent maps.
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on 4 September 2014
I could not put the book down.It is beautifully written , highly entertaining and illuminating throughout.I knew little about Indonesia and could not recommend a better book for getting a flavour for this extraordinary country.And am so glad the author had to do all the hard work to give us the images and insights as she really had to tough it out to do so.Even if you are not yet interested in Indonesia I would recommend this-travel writing at its best.
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on 1 January 2015
Everything you've ever wanted to know about Indonesia, told with a fluent, amusing, insightful and literary voice. A must-read for anyone who has anything to do with that country and its people
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I didn't have the author's command of the language but I travelled in Indonesia at roughly the same time, but to different places. I can attest though to the extreme kindness of the people. Maps (in the 80s) were considered state secrets, but I just walked into the Geographic Survey in Bogor and walked out with (free) A2 maps of the volcanoes I wanted to climb.
The maps were largely useless but I enjoyed camping and getting lost as I climbed from paddy field to forest to scrub, and sometimes to cinders where the peak was in view.
This book shows a fair picture of the country (better than the maps, anyway). It has immense charm, has perhaps the greatest potential riches of anywhere on earth. Limitless beaches, coal and oil fields, agricultural land where, as the saying goes, you can put a walking stick in one day and get ten out the next. I once hitched a ride on a truck which was transporting square cabbages to market. They'd been planted that close together.
I was a naive young man and I never got any hassle, but females beware. If you think this is a travel book (and it is) you should look out for the danger of being raped. I was also a lucky young man. Indonesia erupts in senseless violence about once a generation and I just happened to be visiting in a time of peace.
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on 9 October 2014
Accurate, insightful and current review of the state of Indonesia, its culture and ethos
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on 7 June 2015
very interesting book for people interested in Indonesia
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 August 2014
A huge undertaking to try to make sense of a very disparate part of the world which is not widely known let alone understood ....Having lived near Indonesia for a number of years I realise now that I had a rather fearful preconceived idea of what Indonesia was and stood for so I was fascinated to read Elizabeth's incredibly well researched and thorough publication. It made me want to revisit with new eyes. An important book which everyone with an interest in the area should read, from politicians to tourists and all those inbetween.
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