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

Rubber time: new departures for an old concept

Many of you will be familiar with Indonesia’s approach to timekeeping, affectionately known as “rubber time”. Like rubber (and the patience of many Indonesians), it can be stretched almost infinitely. Unlike rubber, it tends only to stretch in one direction. Buses start filling up on a notional schedule but don’t leave until they are full; ferries board passengers from a given time, but probably won’t ship out until the tide is right. Meetings are set for time x, and start at time x plus however long it takes the most important person to arrive.

I’ve had the pleasure of waiting 18 hours for a Pelni passenger ferry (and Pelni is historically probably Indonesia’s most reliable transport company). So I wasn’t surprised last week when I arrived at the port at Belitung, in Western Indonesia, to see no boat. I scanned the horizon; it wasn’t even in view, which means it will be another three hours at least. I was a little more surprised not to see any other passengers, but then my Pelni experience had all been on the other side of the vast gulf that divides neglected Eastern Indonesia from the sophisticated West. There are four direct flights a day from Belitung to Jakarta — not an option in most of Eastern Indonesia. They are cheap, take only an hour, and some of them even leave on time. With that on offer, why would anyone choose to spend 12 hours rolling about on a boat, and untold hours waiting for it?

I want to take the boat precisely because I want to compare the Pelni experience in Eastern and Western Indonesia. The port staff are there; one is asleep, the other fanning himself with a newspaper. Oh dear, I might be here a while. And the dock is 30 kilometres from town, so I can’t even sit gossiping while I wait with the owner of my favourite Belitung coffee shop, who happens to moonlight as a parliamentarian. “So when might it grace us with its presence?” I ask the news fanner. “What, the boat to Jakarta? Aduh! It’s already left, bu!” And then, reassuringly: “But don’t worry, there’s another boat next week.” I can’t believe my ears. I’m sure they couldn’t believe theirs, either, when they heard my colourful response. The ferry left four and a half hours before the scheduled time published on the internet that morning, and three and a half hours before the time printed in the newspaper the day before. Twenty four years into my co-dependent relationship with Indonesia, I have learned that rubber time can indeed stretch in both directions.

Motorised transportation...

…takes a front seat in some of Indonesia’s smaller islands.

Johnson in a becak