UBUD Bali (Reuters) - Elizabeth Pisani produced her remarkable book “Indonesia, Etc. Exploring the Improbable Nation” after a 13-month journey around the archipelago during which she followed one rule: Just say yes to any invitation.
For instance, on her way to a boxing match in Sumba, an island closer to Australia than to Java, she asked for directions from a guy who decided to show the way himself.
But first they had to stop at the house of the village school teacher, the most respected person in the village. A light was hooked up to a motorcycle engine because the village had no electricity.
She joined a group of men drinking a fairly intoxicating coconut toddy. The women in the kitchen were preparing a feast, which featured a blackened piece of meat.
“So you eat dog?” the school teacher asked after Pisani had tucked into the meal. “No, I don’t like to eat dog,“ Pisani recalled answering, ”and I especially don’t like to eat dog liver,” which is what she was eating.
That was one incident she did not include in the book, which is filled with other such random and unexpected encounters.
Pisani first went to Indonesia as a reporter for Reuters in 1989. She left to work on an advanced degree in epidemiology and medical demographics, returning to Indonesia for four years at the start of the century to work on an HIV project with the public health ministry. That led to her first book in 2008, “The Wisdom of Whores”, a frank account of her field experiences.
Reuters caught up with Pisani at a writers festival in Bali.
Q: Why did you want to write this book?
A: I found there was plenty written about Indonesian politics and the military, but very little about culture and society, especially in the outer islands. And for a country of its size, the fourth-most populous in the world, few know about it.
Q: You’ve been a frequent visitor to Indonesia over the past 20 years? What’s the allure?
A: Indonesia is like a bad boyfriend: generous, exciting, warm and welcoming in the beginning; then turning nasty and hurtful...You know it’s going to end in tears, and yet you keep coming back for more.
Q: Did you have a big question you were trying to answer?
A: There is no thesis for Indonesia because it is a nation that logically should not even be one. That’s why the subtitle is “Exploring the Improbable Nation”.
Q: So where does “Indonesia, Etc” come from?
A: From Indonesia’s Declaration of Independence in 1945. Part of it says “Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible”. They’re still working on that “etc”.
Q: Did you start out with a travel plan?
A: The journey stretched for 13 months over 2011-12. I started in Sumba and travelled east in a rough counterclockwise circle...I deliberately left Java for last because Java historically has tended to be the colonising force for the outer islands and Jakarta dominates over Java...If I had done Java first I would have inevitably seen Indonesia through that lens.
Q: How did you get around?
A; I travelled mostly on boats, ferries between islands, motorbikes on the islands, rickety buses blaring Indonesian pop and had sick-bags swinging from the ceiling. Sometimes I lucked onto a chartered plane.
Q: Did you have rules in your travel reporting?
A; I had two rules. One of them was a core principle of epidemiology, which is random selection...The other rule was ‘just say yes’ to invitations.
Reporting by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Michael Roddy and David Gregorio