Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani

Indonesia, Etc. is an intelligently written travelogue doused in sociological observations gathered from 13 months' travelling through the sprawling archipelago and islands of the world's fourth most populous country. Able to also draw on extensive periods of time previously spent living in the country, Pisani showcases the history and people's of this extremely diverse and complex country, and goes some way to explaining how this kaleidoscopic nation has been able to remain united for so long.

Pisani has had what one would easily classify as a long association with the country of Indonesia. From initially visiting the country as a backpacker in 1983, she was then posted to Indonesia by Reuters in 1988 and spent close to three years reporting on the country before having to leave after a disagreement with the military around her accuracy of reporting on the unfolding civil war in Aceh.  This short forced hiatus, however, did nothing to curb her fascination with the country. Referring to the country as her "bad boyfriend", Pisani continued to revisit Indonesia for extended periods of times on numerous occasions up until and including her journey on which this book is based in 2011.

Indonesia, Etc. begins in the south east of the country on the island of Suba. Travelling onward in a roughly anti-clockwise direction, Pisani traipses through the eastern islands and then onto Sulawesi, Borneo, Sumatra and lastly Java. While travelling throughout this vast country (7th largest by combined sea and land area), Pisani managed to clock up some 21,000 kilometres by motorbike, bus, car and boat and a further 20,000 kilometres by plane.

Pisani allows herself only one rule: "Just say yes". It is this attitude that enables her to travel to some of the least visited of Indonesia's 13,466 islands in a country where there are an estimated 1,992 indigenous groups and 76 separate languages. Her outgoing attitude, fluency in Indonesian and open-ended timetable enables her to genuinely enter into the lives and lifestyles of those whom she encounters. Funerals, bride-price negotiations, jousting matches, whale hunting, Indonesian soap operas and local rituals and customs (adat) are all examined along her journey in the various corners of Indonesia. In addition to his, Pisani also looks at Islam and the other other religions, including animism, and the part that they now play in modern day Indonesia. 

Make no mistake, this book is more about trying to understand the country and its people, than about the actual journey itself. Hardly a mention is made of the notoriously difficult public transport system that Pisani utilises in reaching her destinations and where 10-hour delays are par for the course. Likewise, there is next to no commentary on the sights that most people would associate with the country and for which most people would come to visit. Instead, Indonesia, Etc. provides plenty by way of modern history and sociological observations on the country.

A warning then, that if you're seeking insights as to which places you might want to go and visit, then this book will not be the one for you. However, if you're after a greater understanding of how Indonesia is able to function as a country and some of the thinking behind its inhabitants, then Indonesia, Etc. will definitely provide you with some of the answers. 

Pisani has written an extremely thought provoking book on the world's most populous Muslim-majority country and its 14th largest overall. It is a book saturated with modern history, both under the Dutch and post its independence when ruled by two of its most well-known Presidents, Sukarno and Suharto. But mostly, Indonesia, Etc. demonstrates a non-homogenous nation that, whilst at times riven by rebellions and secessionist activities, has managed somehow to hold itself together against all the odds.

3 and a half stars out of 5

Credit: Banner photo by Me