About
In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. She was on the road and the high seas for a year, covering dozens of islands in 27 provinces. This site records photos and musings from that journey and beyond. See more about the project


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Farewell to PortraitIndonesia.com; greetings to IndonesiaEtc.com


We have moved to IndonesiaEtc.com
Please join us there…


Old lady carries wood in Central Java - Indonesia

It’s over two years since Portrait Indonesia went on the road. For several months now I’ve been rather quiet, hunched down over a computer, trying to pin Indonesia’s riotous diversity to the page. The book that will emerge in June 2014 will be called Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation. It will be published in the UK by Granta, in the US by WW Norton and in Indonesia by Godown, an imprint of always-inspiring Lontar.

The title Indonesia Etc is taken from Indonesia’s declaration of independence, which reads, in full:

We the People of Indonesia declare the independence of the Republic of Indonesia. The details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out as soon as possible.

As Indonesia gears up for the 2014 elections, it is still working on its political “etc”. “Democracy by trial and error” was how one retired company head described it to me with a mirthless laugh. How far will decentralisation go? Will independent candidates and local parties be allowed? Much is still up for discussion or re-discussion. And yet the improbable nation muddles along remarkably well for such a young country. Re-reading Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address today, I was reminded that the United States, at a similar stage after its own declaration of independence, still had a bloody civil war ahead of it.

Though it looked touch-and-go for a few years at the start of this century, few people now expect Indonesia to face that kind of chaos in any of its vast territory (except, perhaps, Tanah Papua). In honour of Indonesia’s ongoing Etcs, and of my forthcoming books, this site is migrating to http://indonesiaetc.com.

  • If you’re signed up to Portrait Indonesia by e-mail, you should now get notifications of new posts on Indonesia Etc.
  • If you’re signed up by RSS feed, you’ll need to add http://indonesiaetc.com/feed/ to your reader of choice.

Thanks for sticking with the journey so far, and selamat jalan to the next incarnations.

Indonesia: a miracle despite itself

I’m nearing the end of the first (nine-month long) leg of my Indonesian Odyssey and I don’t feel much closer to understanding the heart of this torturously complicated but endlessly fascinating nation. I’ve done my best to try and sum up some of my thoughts in the June issue of Prospect, one of UK’s more intelligent monthly magazines.

For what they are worth, you can now read my reflections on culture, corruption and corpses on Prospect online. And no, Oliver, I don’t think it is at a crossroads…

The drill in Aceh

I happen to be in Aceh for the local elections. These are interesting times, with rivalries between former comrades in the para-political movement formerly known as GAM hotting up. It’s a sensitive topic in a still-fragile part of this increasingly centrifugal nation; I’d say a lot more, but I have promised the Indonesian intelligence services that I won’t report on the ins and outs of local politics.

Indonesian Intel checks me out at a campaign rally in Aceh

Heri, an Intel agent in north Aceh, takes my photo on his iPad while his boss checks my papers.

True to my word, I’m going to write instead about Aceh’s creativity with power tools. A regular household drill can be used to make one of the province’s breakfast specialities — whipped raw egg with coffee, as well as to whip up support at campaign rallies.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Elizabeth Pisani Indonesian Press Card 1989

There’s only so much of one’s time one can spend thinking about other people’s sex lives. I feel as though I’ve been doing it for a very long time — there’s more than you want to know about it over at The Wisdom. Now for something completely different.

For the next year or so, I’ll be rediscovering an old passion: Indonesia. I brushed against it 30 years ago, and fell properly in love in the late 1980s, when I worked here as a correspondent for Reuters news agency.

After a couple of years the Suharto regime and I had something of a tiff (it was a bit like squabbling with the in-laws) and I left in a huff. But I was seduced back again a decade later, this time to work for the government. More adoration, more frustration, more tiffs and huffs. In 2005 I left again.

Now I’m back, older and probably no wiser. I’ve been in Jakarta and Bali for a few days, doing the things one does before setting out on an epic journey. Trying to teach myself to use a camera, for example:

Startled self-portrait: learning to use a new camera

Then deciding that even my less startled, oh-that’s-what-happens-when-I-press-the-shutter-button moments, I’d probably be better off with less hair. So a visit to the incomparable Wim Soeitoe, who, in the 23 years he’s cut my hair, has never been allowed to take it all off before:

It works well with a crash helmet, if nothing else. Tomorrow, we hit the road.