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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Shaking up infrastructure and politics in Aceh and Papua

Poor David Cameron; something always seems to steal his thunder. During his visit to Indonesia today, it was two huge earthquakes in Aceh. I’m in Aceh just now, and was watching his press conference on Indonesian TV when the room started to shake and we had to tear ourselves away from his platitudes. The UK Prime Minister is reportedly looking for business for UK companies. If investment decisions were based on need, or on the impact they might have on the daily lives of poorer people, Cameron might encourage UK businesses to turn his blah blah about bridge-building into something more concrete. In the last couple of months I’ve been in two of Indonesia’s richer provinces, Aceh in the extreme west, and Papua in the far east. In both, there are shocking lapses in investment in infrastructure — lapses that make life miserable for kids on their way to school, women on their way to sell vegetables in the market, people trying to scrape together a living running motorbike or pick-up truck taxi services.

The high-wire act that passes for a bridge near Tangse, in northeast Aceh, shown in the video is the remains of a wooden bridge washed out by a massive flash flood in early 2010 — what the locals call “our tsunami”. Although there are still millions of dollars sloshing around in unspent funds donated for reconstruction after the 2004 tsunami, nothing had been done to fix this bridge 18 months after its evaporation. You’ll have to excuse the shaky filming — I had to keep one hand on the wire as I crossed….

A woman carries vegetables to market across a half-collapsed bridge in Wamena, Papua, Indonesia

A woman carries vegetables to market across a half-collapsed bridge outside Wamena, Papua

This other photo was taken in Wamena, in the stunning central highlands of the country’s richest province, Papua. Wamena is the main town in the highlands, and this bridge is on the main road out of town, linking the hospitals, markets and high-schools of town with the rural hinterlands. Or rather not linking them; motorbikes can get across but it has been months since a truck or minibus made the leap.

It’s sobering to see the people of Aceh’s reaction to today’s earthquakes, even in the hills where I am just now and where there’s no risk of a tsunami. The girl I was talking to went so faint that she to had to be helped out of the building for the second earthquake, 8.8 on the Richter scale. A little later, still shaky, she told me that she had lost several family members in the 2004 tsunami. She also agreed with someone’s only half-joking suggestion that this was the earth’s reaction to Monday’s elections in Aceh. These were comprehensively won by Partai Aceh, the political offspring of the GAM guerilla movement improbably directed out of Sweden. Though they’ve been widely accused of election-related manipulation, violence and intimidation, Partai Aceh played the Peace card in this election. But they played it upside down. Rather than say: “if you vote for us, we’ll keep the peace”, the rank and file, at any rate, were saying: “if you don’t vote for us, your precious peace will be no more”.

I rather suspect Partai Aceh would have won even without the scare tactics. But Earthquake-Girl’s reaction to my idiocy (as I wandered back in to the shaking building to get my computer) reminded me of this fact: the more people know the bitter taste of fear, the more effectively it controls their behaviour. The people of Aceh spent the 15 years to 2005 finding corpses by the roadside in the morning, trembling at midnight knocks on the door from guerillas and soldiers alike, being shaken down for cash, rice, a motorbike. They’ll vote for anything that avoids a return to that.

The essentials of life: handphones where there's no power

A shop offering phone charging services in Enarotali, Indonesian Papua

Just a couple of years ago, it was a source of wonder: “Wah! In Indonesia, even the hookers/farmers/becak drivers have cell-phones!” The citified loved to take photos of small buffalo-riding Javanese children or half-naked Papuan adults busily chatting on their cell-phones (HP, or “hah pay” in Indonesian, from the English Hand Phone). Now, cell-phones are such a universality that no-one even bothers to take note. But I still find it amusing that cell phones have entrenched themselves quite so firmly even in places where there’s no electricity. This has led to a whole secondary industry, illustrated by the roadside stall in the small town of Enarotali, in the highlands of Papua, pictured above.

CASS HP: what can it mean? In Indonesian, “C” is pronounced “Ch”: Chass HP, the local rendering of Charge HP. This shop will fill your battery for you, for 5,000 rupiah, about 50 cents. You’ll find stalls like this all over Indonesia, and plenty of people using them even in areas with no phone signal, especially near areas where electricity is sporadic or non-existant. Because after all, even if you can’t talk to anyone on it, a charged phone makes a very good torch.

What's wrong with Indonesian penises?

A statue outside a health centre in Enarotali, in Indonesian Papua

Reading the newspapers in cities across Papua, I cannot help but notice the full-colour ads for penis extensions. In only half an hour, with no invasive anything, men can see their organs grow, thicken, harden, for ever. The ads are explicit about the results, down to the last half centimetre; clients can choose both the length and girth of their organ, up to 20 cm by 6 cm (the more modest promise diameters of just 5.5). All of this with just some magic oil and a few prayers, guaranteed free of side effects. The “Specialists in Vital Organs” promise services for women, too, tightening up our fannies “until you are like a maiden again”. And for both sexes, they will pray away our sexually transmitted infections.

Why the obsession with sex organs, and why especially in Papua? Are people encouraged by the blatantly erotic sculptures that are common in these parts? Do migrants from other parts of Indonesia feel inadequate on arrival in Papua, or do they feel the magic will be especially potent in the nether regions of the nation? And isn’t it mildly ironic that all of the people offering their dick-swelling charms claim to be from Banten in western Java, where mystics sometimes break their fasts by eating light-bulbs? They offer other mystical services too: tying down your spouse, implanting a protective aura, ensuring you get promoted or elected. But most of their force is expended on delivering: “What other people only promise, we prove with results that are Large and Long”.

It turns out that the penis obsession is not, in fact, confined to the tens of thousands of immigrants from the rest of Indonesia who have been sucked east by Papua’s booming economy. I learned this when I asked a Papuan nurse in one of the province’s largest hospitals what brought men to outpatient services. Three things, he said: injuries resulting from violent fights, injuries resulting from traffic accidents, and prison. Prison? Do people get sick in prison? “No, that’s the penis stuff.” Prisoners, Papuans and others, are operating on one another’s members — inserting ball bearings and biro parts, threading hair through the urethra. A doctor friend who ran an STI clinic in Papua for many years says he saw a lot of penises embellished with horse hair, but the nurse said since that’s in short supply in prison people weave ornaments from their own locks. Not surprisingly, many of these go septic, hence the hospital visits.

My doctor friend blames the porn industry for the penis-plumping craze. “People watch these porn films where everyone has a giant dick, and they begin to think that that’s the norm.” Certainly porn films are enough of a norm in Papua to have their own nickname: “film o-ya”. The name derives from the script, which in many films does not go much beyond the repetitive groaning of “Oh yah!, Oh yaaaaaah! Oh yaaaaaaaaah!

A more serious aside: data newly released by the Indonesian Ministry of Health show that one in four of the Papuan women who are selling sex to their men-folk on the streets of the Papuan highland town of Wamena are infected with HIV, while well over half have another STI. Perhaps because condoms don’t fit snugly over the horsehair, three in four of these infected highland women are not using protection with their partners.

Note to Papuan politicians: Democracy is for grown-ups

Full-page apology from the district head in a Papua newspaper

When a senior Papuan politician said recently that Papua was not ready for democracy I was mildly shocked. “The people are not mature yet, neither are the political elite. They are not ready to accept defeat, which results in them resorting to violence. Organizers of elections in the regencies are terrorized and intimidated. People are prone anarchic acts,” Yop Kagoya, the deputy speaker of Papua legislative council,told the Jakarta Post.

There’s no shortage of vociferous calls for self-determination for Indonesia’s easternmost region. But the more one reads the papers here, the more one tends to agree that if Papuan politicians and voters really want to determine their own future, inside our outside of the embrace of Indonesia, they have a bit of growing up to do. In Tolikara district, elections that have already been postponed for two years were put off again this month as running battles broke out between supporters of different candidates. Today’s paper reported 46 people killed in the last couple of weeks; the death toll in Puncak in recent months has been even higher. When I heard that the Vice Bupati (Vice Regent, i.e. Number Two in government) in Wamena, the biggest city in the populous highlands of Papua had been wounded by an arrow and his adjutant killed, I assumed they were attacked by political opponents. (In fact, they were trying to put a stop to a brawl that began with an unpaid motorcycle taxi fare, and turned in to a riot several hundred strong.)

Looking for news about the Wamena incident, I came across the full-page ad pictured above. It was taken out by the Bupati of Teluk Wondama district, Albert Torey. He’s apologising to the graduates of a local institute of higher education for calling them all “gutter-snipes” (more specifically, he said they had crawled out of the Konto river, a stinking, garbage-strewn drainage canal in the West Papua provincial capital of Manokwari). His comment was apparently prompted by his disgust with his running-mate, the Vice Bupati, who is a graduate of the school. The Vice-Bupati ran the shop in Teluk Wondama for the eight months that the good Mr. Torey spent in rehab for drug use –he and his wife were caught taking meta-amphetamines last April. According to local journalists I happened to gossip with in a cafe in Manokwari, Mr Torey (now comfortably back in office) is snarky because his deputy did such a good job when he was away. Nothing like a bit of good governance to make your superiors uncomfortable.

The college was so upset by the gutter-snipe comment that it threatened to sue for defamation unless the Bupati printed an apology. This is a slightly more grown-up way of dealing with conflict than reaching for the bows and arrows, but it still smacks of kids fighting in the sand-pit. Needless to say, the constant squabbling and even outright violence that appear to be the hallmark of Papuan politics are a drag on development. As much out of habit as anything, Papuan voters still tend to blame development failures on the wicked government in Jakarta. But sooner or later they are going to have to take a closer look at their own leaders, and indeed their own behaviour, and ask themselves what role they play in holding back development in one of Asia’s richest territories.


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Which is worse: HIV or corruption?

Indonesian poster declaring war on corruption, drugs and HIV

West Papua will lead the fight against corruption, drugs, and HIV/AIDS

After another giant geographic leap (roughly the equivalent of London to Tehran) I find myself in Manokwari, West Papua. Tanah Papua, Indonesia’s eastern extremity, has the country’s highest rates of HIV, and also its highest levels of stigma. Which makes me wonder who came up with this commitment, made on an ageing poster that has pride of place outside the provincial Governor’s office. It declares:

The West Papua government will lead the fight against:

    KKN (Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism)
    Narcotics and illegal drugs
    HIV/AIDS

Though hopeful donors have been pushing voluntary testing and counselling clinics on Papua for years, all the clinics I’ve visited in the last week report that the truly voluntary “I’ll just go along and see whether I’m infected” walk-in client is rare. Most are referred to the clinics by health staff who see signs and symptoms of AIDS — often, in other words, after people have been walking around with HIV for a decade or so. Why don’t more people want to get tested? Perhaps in part because we still tell people AIDS can’t be cured. But also because we are equating HIV with distinctly undesirable things like corruption and illegal drugs. It brings us back to the eternal prevention dilemma. We want people to think HIV is undesirable, because we want them to protect themselves from infection. But we also want to stop treating it like some horrid plague which deserves to be feared (and financed) more than any other inconvenient, chronic, treatable disease.

If you’ve been reading this blog much, you’ll have gathered that the parallel with corruption is not actually so far off for Indonesia, in that corruption is also an undesirable, inconvenient and chronic disease. At least HIV is treatable.


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