Friday, June 6, 2014

Indonesia Etc. Book of the Year

An instance with Elizabeth Pisani, author of Indonesia Etc. published - yesterday! Congratulations Elizabeth!

We were deep in Borneo, on the cusp of Lake Sentarum. Hornbills overhead. Kingfishers in riverbank shadows. Our thin canoe cut crisply up the jungle river.

We didn't have much: a small bag each. Author Elizabeth Pisani had an old brown helmet with a strip of blue batik around it and a handful of notebooks; I had a couple of Nikons. One of Elizabeth's worn black shoes was tied to her ankle with a purple ribbon. Someone put a live, wet pufferfish on my rucksack.

We docked at Nanga Lauk, a hamlet halved by the river and joined by a long, high cable bridge. The riverbanks were steep and sheer and ascended by gangplanks. The entire village was built on stilts, with paths on long, spindly legs linking the wooden houses, mosque, and school.

Splayed, salted fish sundried along the raised walkways. Soft-bellied women in teddy-bear pajamas squatted on the walkways eating fried banana dumplings. Followed by children, Elizabeth and I walked across the bridge. It bounced and whined. The river was a long way below. Way down in the brown water floated wooden platforms holding gardens, bathrooms, and submerged fish cultivation traps.

“I’m going to jump in,” Elizabeth stated.
“I’ll photograph you.”
And I cowardly retreated and knelt on the riverbank, watching her through my lens and wondering how deep the water was.

Elizabeth was barefoot and dressed in black. She looked tiny up there. She climbed over the cable and casually stepped off the bridge with a chirrup of thrill. Down she dropped. Click. Click. Click. She fell 40 feet into the water, and came up swimming hard against the current, hauling herself up and onto one of the floating platforms, where a man in yellow underpants was washing his bottom.

This confident, easy, casualness was typical of how Elizabeth traveled. When I first met her she’d been on the road for 10 months and was researching her new book. She was after a will-o’-the-wisp: the benang merah or red thread that binds the disparate cultures of Indonesia together.

Elizabeth traveled 13,000 miles by bus, boat, and motorbike - exploring 26 of Indonesia’s 33 provinces. Then she hunkered down in a garden in Bangkok and, peeling and eating hundreds of quail eggs, wrote Indonesia EtcExploring the Improbable Nation, published by Granta Books this June.

The timing is deliberate: a shade before Indonesia’s presidential elections in July.

Framed within a travel narrative and wittily told, Indonesia Etc. weaves together analysis of Indonesia’s recent history, corrupt politics, traditional cultures, and religious identities with the stories of Indonesians she meets on the road. Author Amy Wilenz calls it, “A masterpiece of its genre – and so much fun.”

Indonesia Etc. will be in bookshops this June with a translation in bahasa Indonesia following. For those of us in Indonesia, this is the book of year.


  1. I am reading Elizabeth's book now, just got to her mention of this blog. Having spent the last 13 years as an expat American wandering around Indonesia, I recommend the book to anyone interested in the broader state of Indonesia outside Jakarta.

    I've been to some of the same places as Elizabeth and was probably close to her 1 or 2 times while she was out in the villages. Also been to quite a few places she hasn't. She definitely catches the flavor of the people and while each place is different, in some ways they are all the same.

    1. Hi Philip and welcome to Gangs of Indonesia.

      I'm pleased you enjoyed Elizabeth's book. I found many of the places and encounters she described so familiar, it often felt like reading my own memories.

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