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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The Great Divide: inequity on Indonesia's highways

The Kalimantan busThe Java bus

After many months on the high seas and highways of Indonesia I’ve finally made it into the Javanese heartland, and I’m in shock. The cause of my shock is, principally, shock absorbers: those things that I had assumed had been rattled out of every bus in the archipelago. The bus on the left is one I took earlier this month between Simitau and Putussibau through uninterrupted hours of oil palm in West Kalimantan. But it could have been virtually any bus I have taken over the last year. (The driver, squatting under his rust-bucket for unscheduled maintenance, is fitting a cleaner oil filter with the help of a screw driver and a flattened out Red Bull tin. Which allowed me to go and do some maintenance behind a bush.) The bus on the right is one I took last week, along Java’s southern highway. Not only does it have shock absorbers, it has free juice and buns, air conditioning and flat screen movies. It stops in special rest stations with rows and rows of sparklingly clean loos.

I could (and will) write at some length about the disparities between Java and the rest of Indonesia. But for now I think the stats are enough:

Kalimantan BusJava bus
Distance travelled110 kms105 kms
Time taken10 hours3.75 hours
Cost100,000 rupiah40,000 rupiah
Bruise factorOuch! Very ouch.Bruise? What's a bruise?

On the other hand, the flat screen TVs on the Java bus play those really annoying “innocent people being surprised by stupid gags” videos, on a loop. Where as in Kalimantan, I got to spend my 10 hours contemplating the special positioning of the windscreen sticker montage. The implication, obviously, is that the Father of the Nation had public health on the brain…

Winshield wonders

Waiting for SBY

The most common activity for any traveller in Indonesia is, without question, waiting around. One of the next most common activities is guessing WHY we’re waiting around. Sometimes, the ferry captain forgets the waters are tidal and a ferry will get stranded on its belly for six or eight hours. Sometimes, one has to wait until the bus driver’s mother-in-law has finished her dinner. This weekend, I spent several hours waiting for The President.

Me, I just had to wait until Bali aiport opened again after President Susilo Banbang Yudhoyono’s plane had landed. But the rest of the country seems to be waiting for him to do something, anything, even vaguely presidential. Besides handing out cabinet seats to soothe all the political parties that are getting itchy ahead of elections which aren’t even due until 2014.

Even after shuffling friends and relatives into his final cabinet, Suharto topped out at 36 cabinet level posts. The ranks have since been swelled by 18 deputy ministers, each with their offical car, squads of flunkies, time at the trough. The older denizens of Jakarta roll their eyes at the bloating in an “it was ever thus” sort of way and note that SBY is only half way to the high-water mark set by Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who at one point stuffed 111 people into his cabinet.