Indonesia, Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

Story By
Kevin Riel

Above all, Elizabeth Pisani teaches us that Indonesia is not only diverse, it is multilayered, multifaceted, and in all forms complex - to the point that even native Indonesians couldn’t grasp the level of its cultural intricacies.

Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani is more than just a reference book about Indonesia and its people. It is a love letter to the country and its people - written by a reporter, a public health advisor, and most importantly, a person who has lived both in and out of Indonesia for more than 30 years.

This book tells the story of Elizabeth Pisani’s thirteen-month journey across a country that’s known for consisting of 17000 islands and that are home to 300 ethnic groups with a distinctive set of customs and cultural objects. Throughout her journey, she stops at several different cities and villages, coastal towns, mountainside hamlets, and settlements in the middle of jungles to explain at length her encounters with the local populace with an enthusiasm that seems to be reciprocal.

Reading this book, one can easily see the fascination and delight at the people and customs she encounters. She attends weddings and funerals, sees how cities glow and dynamically flow, and speaks with wayward, entrepreneurial minds seeking to make their mark on the country’s industries.

Pisani also speaks to survivors of various natural disasters that have stricken the country. She includes people and activists affected by illegal logging, massacres, corruption, and transmigration policies. Everyone has their own story to tell and some will be more familiar than others.

It is notable that while Pisani gets by well enough in places that use Bahasa Indonesia - the lingua franca of the country - she’s unable to communicate properly when it comes to local languages and dialects. This serves as an allegory for the Indonesia that she experiences. There is no singular, defining “Indonesia”-ness. Instead, she discovers a thousand Indonesias scattered amongst the islands. The common cause is almost intangible, but the spirit of collectivism is the same. The constant differences, variations and changes are what make Indonesia the country it is today.

The author does very well to communicate this idea by dividing the book into several parts, sequentially ordered and following her geographic route. The scope of her discussions widen as we journey on, but all are wrapped up before continuing. Every part is a neat combination of personal experience, relevant historical narrative, and various inputs.

Overall, this book works as an introduction to the intricacies of a nation and its diverse populace. Trying to catalogue and build a general perspective of how relevant the phrase “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (unity in diversity) is a large undertaking, but Elizabeth Pisani manages to create more than just a travelogue. Indonesia Etc. is her tribute to a country that’s constantly in flux, never constant, but blessed with resources and a spirit that strengthens its collectivism.