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Elizabeth Pisani & her giant bad boyfriend, '€˜Indonesia'€™

  • Desy Nurhayati

    The Jakarta Post

Ubud, Bali | Mon, October 13, 2014 | 12:27 pm
Elizabeth Pisani & her giant bad boyfriend, '€˜Indonesia'€™

Anggara Mahendra

Elizabeth Pisani lightheartedly shared her love-hate relationship with one of the most diverse countries on earth.

The author of a newly launched book, Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation, spent 14 months covering 22,000 kilometers across the country that has fascinated her for many years. She always found different stories in every single place she visited.

'€œ[The relationship with] this giant bad boyfriend that I call Indonesia is something that makes you laugh, smile and feel warm inside, but then it tells you endless low-grade lies that make you want to slap it upside the head because you know it'€™s going to end up in tears, but you keep coming back for more anyway,'€ she said, expressing her tongue-in-cheek description of the relationship.

For all of that, the very reason she wrote the travel book in the first place was because she wanted to share the glory of the country and make other people in the world admire her '€œboyfriend'€.

As an outsider researching Indonesia, she found it very frustrating that this vast archipelago was little known for a country of its size, richness and importance.

When she discussed her book during the recent Ubud Writers and Readers Festival '€” where her books sold like hotcakes '€” she revealed to the audience the secret of her survival in the journey exploring cities and rural areas all alone without any detailed plans.

'€œI didn'€™t have a plan when I started this. The modus operandi is always the same: just go and be interested in people. Most of the time I just waited for the adventures to come and adventure did happen because people are so open to you as long as you'€™re open to them.'€

Every time she found herself rocking-up somewhere, she knew that someone would always take her in, that the people she met would always be kind to her and that she would always be able to find something to eat.

Never setting any rules in her journey, she enjoyed sitting for hours in Soekarno-Hatta International Airport because of delayed flights, or being forced to cancel her trip on a ferry in Sumba because of an unclear schedule.

'€œNo need to be stressed. Ya, kadang-kadang bete banget memang (yes, sometimes it is frustrating), but it'€™s like my mind has switched to have different expectations when I go out there,'€ said the American epidemiologist who has added Indonesian to her own language.

But she always made the most of any opportunities, like when she was invited to join a trip. '€œ'€™Just say yes'€™, is kind of my mantra. Why bother making plans if it'€™s eventually not going to work?'€

The most important thing she kept in mind is that in Indonesia, '€œsemua bisa diatur'€ (everything can be set up).

While setting out to explore Indonesia, Pisani felt very aware of the way the country had traditionally been written about.

'€œThe vast majority of what'€™s been written about Indonesia in English focuses on Java and Bali and then there'€™s a separate literature on Papua. Although 60 percent of the nation'€™s population does indeed reside in Java, it is the very diversity of cultures, languages and ethnicities that make Indonesia what it is. You could just go on for your whole life discovering new, amazing things.'€

So she made the decision to leave the looming giant of Java and instead set out for the island of Sumba.

It all began 25 years ago, when she was having tea with a dead person. In the late 1980s, Pisani found herself in central Sumba. It was a hot day and she was walking down a dusty road when a child invited her in to meet his granny. She accepted the invitation and did indeed meet granny '€” only to discover that granny had been dead for two days.

'€œAnd I sat and had tea with her and she invited me back for her funeral. And I thought, wow! Indonesians are so friendly that even after they are dead, the generosity continues.'€

As a result, her book explores the good, the bad and the ugly and ends up far transcending escapist travel writing. On the other hand, Pisani celebrates the open-mindedness and amazing generosity of the Indonesian people.

'€œThis is not blowing smoke up anyone'€™s skirt. I have traveled around the world and I genuinely believe that Indonesians are the most generous and hospitable people on the planet. Even complete strangers you meet on the boat tell you, '€˜Come stay with me'€™.'€

It did not happen much in cities, but in rural areas the generosity is absolute, she added. And, without any doubt, this is what she likes most about the country.

But sometimes she also found the outspokenness a bit annoying and tiring, like when people always start the conversation with, '€œWhere are you from?'€ and '€œWhy are you traveling alone?'€

'€œWhat I don'€™t like so much is the other side of that [openness].

There'€™s a script that you have to go through, like questions about husband and children, and sometimes you go through that 40 to 50 times a day.'€

Facing people who say things like, '€œWow, you must be rich; you can travel a lot'€, or '€œYou must have been so pretty when you were young'€ are just a part of the experience she has to encounter on a daily basis.

Aside from having the intention to visit many places across the archipelago that she had not yet had the chance to, she also sees herself going again to the places she has been before, especially these days, as the political situation in the country has changed a lot.

But for now, Pisani '€” who holds a doctorate in infectious disease epidemiology '€” will go back to her day job at UK-based Ternyata Ltd., which provides consulting services in public health.

'€œSo many places to see. Tapi sekarang mau kerja dulu (I will get back to work). Writing a book is a glorious way to stop,'€ said Pisani, who wrote her first book, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS, in which she argued that the fight against HIV was derailed because institutional interests trumped scientific evidence and common sense.

'€œThere are lots of places that I haven'€™t visited on this trip that made up the book. I didn'€™t go so much to Kalimantan. I haven'€™t seen all that much of North and Central Sulawesi and South Sumatra. I'€™m curious to see more of those areas.'€

Asked whether those places would be the destination on her next trip to Indonesia, she shrugged her shoulders and replied, '€œAs you know, I don'€™t plan.'€ Then she smiled as we concluded our conversation.

Pia Vuolteenaho contributed reporting.

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