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


Contact




Medicine man: a market education

Medicine man in a market in Boawae, Flores, Indonesia

Last year, the Wellcome Collection in London had a glorious exhibition of anatomical models, called Exquisite Bodies. They were accompanied by banners from the fairs and markets where these models used to be shown. In the prudish Victorian age, they were often the only glimpse people got of naked bodies other than their own. Part education, part pornography, all entertainment.

Anatomical model, bodyAnatomical model of head and face

In the country markets of Indonesia, these models still take pride of place, though I’m not sure “exquisite” quite describes them. The sellers of herbs, patent medicines and quack cures are the only people in the market with loudhailers, sometimes even electronic sound systems. They hang their stalls about with photos of largely naked inhabitants of Papua, Indonesia’s Eastern-most province and the source of many miracle cures. And they use their models to illustrate the many benefits of whatever it is they are selling. My personal favourite was the gentleman who covered his bets by selling large heaps of tobacco as well as “Raja Gunung”, the King of the Mountains, a herbal remedy guaranteed to cure lung cancer.

Two fingers up for family planning

Family Planning statue

Family Planning? F off!

When I first lived in Indonesia, in the not-entirely-golden age of Suharto, family planning was one of the government’s core priorities. So much so, they’d take people on safari for free. These family planning safaris involved laying out the camp beds, slapping women down on them and shoving an IUD up them. Though the programme improved hugely in later years, it remained sullied by its coercive infancy. When responsibility for reproductive health devolved to the districts, it was a rare Bupati who dared to make contraception a priority.

One of the results is that Indonesia’s population has just passed the 241 million mark. That’s one in 30 of the people on this planet. Another consequence is that one very rarely sees any public support for family planning. So I couldn’t resist stopping to photograph this hang-over from the Suharto years, which stands outside the central Flores town of Ende. (I took exactly the same photograph in 1989 — the fuck-off gesture amused me even then). The statue refers to the campaign’s central slogan: “Dua Cukup!” (Two is Enough). It was often accompanied by another hand gesture, the universal gesture for “Stop here!”, an open palm held out at arm’s length.

The two fingers flicked, then five fingers in your face gave its name to the state-sponsored brand of condom: 25 (Dua Lima). This somehow tickled me, and I mentioned it to my riding companions, two medical technicians from Jakarta who were installing equipment in the hospital here. The younger of the two looked completely blank. “Huh? Family Planning? I thought it was a peace sign”.

It’s surprising to me that the only places I’ve seen any sign at all of the family planning programme (now with the slogan Two is Better), is in Flores, the only Catholic-majority island. In many other places, the family planning programme seems to be completely moribund. Lamentable. Dua Lima condoms have vanished, too. A lot less lamentable. Especially when they’ve been replaced by cheap and high quality brands such as Fiesta and Sutra.