The Wisdom of a Wanderer
Thankfully Elizabeth Pisani is now back at her public health consultancy in London.
Had 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. 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 Dr 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 other languages.
She was also gifted with gall – an essential quality for all serious reporters. At a cocktail party she confronted General 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 Defense Minister had 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 Ministry of Health.
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.
Earlier this decade she took time out from talking HIV 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 Declaration 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,” Dr Pisani notes. Indeed. The 1945 event was momentous and the resolve grand but the document remains a work in progress.
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.
That’s not the case with Indonesia Etc. Although built round the author’s 13 month wanderings west from Papua, the references to her earlier experiences as a reporter, including revisiting interviewees, give her surveys substance.
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 criticised 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 Hezbollah.”
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 authority. Outraged by some apparently flippant aside? If there’s no supporting reference in the text it will be on her website.
Making this book so valuable is the author’s candour. 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 weak.
Dr 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 governments.
“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.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 August 2014)