Declaring independence in 1945, Indonesia said it would “work out the details of the transfer of power etc. as soon as possible.” With over 300 ethnic groups spread across over 13,500 islands, the world’s fourth most populous nation has been working on that “etc.” ever since.
I bought this book in a charming London bookshop shortly after learning I would be moving to Timor-Leste. There were no books about Timor, but there was this appealing book about Indonesia, written by Elizabeth Pisani, who also wrote The Wisdom of Whores, which I recommend to everyone. She spent years as a journalist, epidemiologist, and public health advisor in Indonesia (and briefly talks about Timor in Wisdom, too!) and her writing is detailed, clear, and fascinating. So I knew this would be good.
This is a travelogue, written as Pisani gamely finds her way (by boat, foot, van, motorbike, taxis, microbus…) across the thousands of Indonesian islands, seeking to identify “Indonesia” in all its chaotic glory, from the art galleries of Jakarta to the farmers of Papua. Indonesia does literally have thousands of island, so she can’t cover them all, but this is a good start. Starting in Jakarta and Surabaya, she goes on to travel to 20 provinces and the four main islands Sumatra, Sulawesi, Indonesian New Guinea aka Papua, and Kalimantan on Borneo. At each interlude, she describes political, cultural, religious, geographical, and historical points that illuminate Indonesia’s current situation: diverse, chaotic, unified, antagonistic, unique.
This is a bit of a slow book, rich in details. Her path is slow and meandering, with delays, long rest stops, and cancellations and frustrations. Which, yea, seems about right. Timor (which was occupied, brutally, by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999, and still shares the island with West Timor, as part of the Indonesian Nusa Tenggara Province) is much the same! Reading this I could see cultural similarities, but also noticed frequently how distinct Timor is, despite a shared history and geographic space. And that’s also really interesting to me, having lived here now 2.5 years! I would be reading along and thing, “Oh, yea they do that here too…oh wait, not quite, definitely not like that.”
Anyway, if you’re interested in Indonesia, and some charming, funny, storytelling, and just an overall illuminating guide of Indonesia’s past and present, this is a great place to start.