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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What to get the kids for Christmas? A mango stone helicopter

While Indonesia’s Christian churches do their best to get people excited about Christmas, the pine tree iconography has a hard time competing with the palm tree reality. Local Christmas trees are mostly made of hoops of ugly white tinsel, like the tattered hooped skirt of some antebellum Cinderella. I did, however, like this variant made of discarded water bottles which I found in Kisar, in Maluku. Quite by chance, whiling away the night on a dock on another island with a little rant about litter, I commented on this inspired use of rubbish. It turned out that Bpk Elis, who I was talking to, was the designer of the very tree I was describing.

Though I’m in the most stoutly Christian part of Indonesia, the frenzy of consumerism is mercifully muted. This was certainly true in the village of Ohoiwait in the Kei islands where I spent Christmas with no electricity or phone signal, no gift-giving, but some desperate showing off of frilly new dresses at the three church services I went to in two days. In villages like Ohoiwait kids are used to making their fun from whatever is at hand. Tyres whipped along with sticks are still popular among boys, and spinning tops provide hours of competitive fun. But for sheer something-out-of-nothing genius, this helicopter sort of thing, made from a hollowed out mango stone, a whittled stick and a piece of string, which I found in a three-house hamlet in West Sumba, surely rates right up there.

Indonesia is rubbish

I’m always happy to see the Boys in Brown (in Indonesia that’s the police) supporting a good cause. Right now, they’ve decided to take on what I think is the biggest blight on this gloriously haphazard nation. Not corruption (that would be a stretch for the police), not a bloated and ineffectual civil service (ditto), but litter. Indonesians have gone from wrapping food in banana leaves to dressing food, drink, shampoo, sweets, virtually everything in shiny plastic wrappers. The national obsession with buying things in tiny quantities — just enough hair gel to achieve the Bus Station Lout look for a single spiky Saturday night — means there is an awful lot of wrapping around. And all of it gets discarded on the spot, as soon as its contents have been consumed.

Out the bus window, onto the floor of the airplane, over the side of the ferry into the sea — the possibilities for littering are endless, and all enthusiastically embraced. On an otherwise gorgeous and totally deserted beach in East Sumba a couple of weeks ago I counted 57 discarded plastic drinks containers in the shade of a single tree. A big tree, but still. At sea, those people who obey the “Keep this Ship Clean” signs and dutifully put their empty drink can in a bin can be forgiven for wondering why they bother — when the bins are full, a staff member will himself dump their contents over the side of the ship into the sea. Comments about this behaviour draw only blank looks: what behaviour?

So I’m thrilled that the police have nice new banners trashing litter. “Let’s work together to support and carry out the CLEAN INDONSIA MOVEMENT!” It would be more convincing, perhaps, if the police had spent as much time clearing up the garbage in their own yard as they did putting up the banner.