By Duncan Graham
Thankfully Elizabeth Pisani is now back at her public health consultancy in London.
she remained in Indonesia a chance encounter in some remote village
could have tempted some despairing hack to spike her drink with a potion
strong enough to scramble her syntax.
How else to make the
author of Indonesia Etc., recently released in local bookstores,
understand the envy of others? The lady’s an American epidemiologist.
What business does a lab rat in a white coat have revealing the
archipelago’s mysteries and contradictions with lavish applications of
clarity, wit and style?
Note to Immigration: Ban this woman to
protect the vapid mutterings of resident writers recycling shadow puppet
metaphors and “dark forces” clichés.
Yet Pisani wasn’t always at
home among the viruses. Before shaking test tubes she was shaking up
Reuters’ office in Jakarta. That was in 1988 when it seemed that sphinx
Soeharto would remain forever.
The newbie was 24 and had studied
Chinese at Oxford University. She’d backpacked five years earlier and
found the republic “somewhat schizophrenic”. She added Indonesian to her
She was also gifted with gall — an essential
quality for all serious reporters. At a cocktail party she confronted
Gen. Benny Moerdani and asked if she was being denied access to Aceh
because the military was killing civilians.
She got her pass,
though looking back such effrontery now makes her feel “queasy”. The
general had allegedly overseen the extra-judicial killing of criminals
in Java and was “not a man to be crossed lightly”.
Why didn’t her
editors superglue this multi-faceted gem to her keyboard? Maybe they
felt threatened. Perhaps the journalism on offer didn’t provide
sufficient intellectual excitement. Interviewing humbugs is a downside
of the job.
So she returned to university and shifted to public
health, becoming an international expert on AIDS. In Indonesia she
worked with the Health Ministry.
Her 2008 book The Wisdom of
Whores was a kick in the groin to those arguing for a moral approach to
stop the spread of sex diseases. Unsurprisingly her views haven’t been
well received by the “Just Say No” ideologues.
decade she took time out from talking AIDS to revisit Indonesia and
upload her tales while travelling. Those fortunate enough to have found
her blog will be delighted to know her insights have been enhanced and
pressed between hard covers.
Unfortunately the book is being
promoted as a list of quirky encounters, which is wrong. It’s much
deeper and far more substantial; entertaining without being trite,
informative yet never tiresome.
The title refers to Indonesia’s
Proclamation of Independence. This should have been a magisterial
statement hewn from the granite mountains of soaring hopes. Sadly we get
foothill prose: “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,” Pisani notes. Indeed, the 1945 event
was momentous and the resolve grand but the document remains a work in
Travel writing is rarely done well. Proof is on
Internet sites where tourists rabbit on about their experiences. These
tell more about the paucity of visitors’ vocabularies than their
appreciation of history and culture. “Superb”, “very nice” and “just
lovely” add nothing to our understanding of difference.
not the case with Indonesia Etc. Although built round the author’s 13
months of wanderings west from Papua, the references to her earlier
experiences as a reporter, including revisiting interviewees, give her
With her language and people skills she knows
how to get inside stories, yet after several months of back country
frustrations she was almost ready to give up. Paradoxically, such
honesty gives her work more authority.
Twenty years earlier in
Aceh she’d been criticized by both sides in the brutal civil war for
allegedly biased reporting. Now she sees former enemies embrace and is
stunned by the turnaround. “This really did my head in,” she writes.
“It’s like a senior Israeli general becoming campaign manager for
But this recalibration of relationships is classic
Indonesian, and seldom understood by outsiders. Likewise with
corruption: “Patronage is the price of unity.” That will jar with
Transparency International. “Adat [traditional customary law] and
education are incompatible,” will rile anthropologists but this writer
can stand her ground.
Anecdotes illuminate wisdoms, reveal
truths. Some are funny – like the intel (intelligence) operator who
calls her hotel room to ask if she’s seen the skeleton key he lost. Many
are just plain sad.
Other arts include the ability to make
statistics memorable. On infrastructure: “Even landlocked countries such
as Zimbabwe, Switzerland and Botswana reported better access to ports.”
On communications: “Around 64 million Indonesians use Facebook –
that’s more than the entire population of the UK. But 80 million live
without electricity (all of Germany) and 110 million live on less than
two dollars a day (all of Mexico).”
This is the book that probes
Indonesia without destroying the allure. It’s written breezily by a
“hard-drinking occasional smoker who could flirt at a bar in several
languages and was competitive, even in yoga”, yet retains academic
Outraged by some apparently flippant aside? If there’s no supporting reference in the text it will be on her website.
this book so valuable is the author’s candor. Yes, the people can be a
delight and the land is often lovely, but those who step off the tourist
track know other paths are not so pleasant. Her particular dislikes
include dissembling politicians and hoons hanging around to exploit the
Pisani is neither Pollyanna nor pessimist. “Like all Bad
Boyfriends Indonesia certainly has its downsides,” she writes before
taking a swipe at corrupt cops, bastard bureaucrats and capricious
“But Indonesia’s upsides — the openness, the
pragmatism, the generosity of its people, their relaxed attitude to life
— are ultimately the more seductive traits, and the more important.”
'Indonesia Etc. Exploring the Improbable Nation'
Elizabeth Pisani Godowin (Lontar) 2014
Duncan Graham is a journalist and blog editor on Indonesia Now. His article originally appeared in The Jakarta Post 4 August 2014.