An elucidating journey through the myriad-island republic.
Journalist and epidemiologist Pisani (The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS, 2008) took a year to trek among the archipelago nation she grew to admire more than 20 years before, when she posted there as a reporter for Reuters news agency. Branching out from the dominant island of Java, home to 60 percent of all Indonesians, and its modern capital of Jakarta, the author found among numerous smaller and less visited islands—as there are nearly 13,500 islands containing over 360 ethnic groups, by her estimate, she could only visit a fraction—a richness and diversity. She discovered much that was “friendly” but “schizophrenic,” “shambolic” and “unpredictable,” a vying for modernity and traditional values with plenty of elements still being figured out. Declared independent in 1945, after the defeat of the Japanese occupiers, and before that, the deeply resented Dutch, whose merchants had exploited for centuries the rich spices (cloves, nutmeg) and pearls along the archipelago, Indonesia is a nation cobbled together by the long tradition of trading, by the lingua franca of Malay, and by the astute charisma and nationalist philosophy of its founding leader, Sukarno. As a woman traveling solo, Pisani encountered some frustrating questions from villagers—e.g., why she didn’t have children—but she was usually embraced by the familial hospitality of the people she met. She unearths interesting material about the surprising, delightful and frequently bewildering spectacle of adat—a prideful tradition—which encompasses obligations, spirituality and poverty. Speaking the language and living among the villagers helped Pisani navigate this delicate system of barter and honor. She finds Indonesia gaining democratic agency after a troubling history of authoritarianism, separatist movements, the tsunami of 2004, a mismanagement of natural resources and an urgently needed bolstering of the education system.
A brave, lively writer opens up a wondrous, changing nation.