Articles by Elizabeth Pisani

A tale of two stereotypes: Chinese Indonesians at work

I arrived back in Indonesia just in time to see Jakarta vote for its Governor. It’s not a small job, wrestling some sanity into a city that crushes nine million official souls into its alleys, backstreets and blossoming apartment complexes, swelling to nearly 18 million on work days. The election was hotly contested. I witnessed the voting first outside the official Governor’s residence, in rich and (relatively) leafy Menteng. Well-coiffed women in their high day and holiday batik knocked back…


Indonesian President signs off on semen

In the windswept west of Ireland, I’m struggling with notebooks written in “Bahasa Gado Gado” — a mixture of English and Indonesian which at times catches me by surprise. This bit, for example: “Local rich people count their capital in hewan, dan dengan ratusan ekor pun tidak bisa beli semen”. Which translates as: “Local rich people count their capital in cattle, and even with hundreds of cattle you can’t buy semen.” Oh wait, no, you can’t buy cement. The moment…


Olympic diary: Proudly Indonesian?

The day before the Olympics began, I ate at a warung nasi Padang hidden at the end of a grubby corridor on the upper floor of a central London shopping mall. Opposite us, a canny Chinese stall-holder had stocked up on flags that visitors could buy to wave around in enthusiastic support of their athletes. Ethiopia, the US, Italy, Cameroon: they were all there. But no Indonesia. Sold out, perhaps? No, said Firdaus who runs the warung; they never had…


Reflections on Indonesia’s collective amnesia

Last month, at the Makassar Writers’ Festival, I had the great privilege of meeting one of the giants of modern Indonesian literature, Ahmad Tohari. His triolgy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, was for years censored by its Indonesian publishers Gramedia: they removed a large chunk of writing about the killings of suspected Communist sympathisers by government troups in the mid-1960s. It was only after the book was translated in full as The Dancer by the fabulous Lontar Foundation that Gramedia dared to…


A healthier Indonesia: Up in smoke?

It’s a pleasure to meet people who are happy with their work. I met one such on Sunday. “Praise God, I can’t complain. I’ve been in this business for 47 years, and it’s allowed me to put four children through college.” So said the gentlemen in the photo; his business is selling tobacco in the markets of South Sulawesi. He offers me a great slice of rolled tobacco “enough for a week” for 8,500 rupiah, just less than a dollar….


Indonesia: a miracle despite itself

I’m nearing the end of the first (nine-month long) leg of my Indonesian Odyssey and I don’t feel much closer to understanding the heart of this torturously complicated but endlessly fascinating nation. I’ve done my best to try and sum up some of my thoughts in the June issue of Prospect, one of UK’s more intelligent monthly magazines. For what they are worth, you can now read my reflections on culture, corruption and corpses on Prospect online. And no, Oliver,…


Truant teachers make for stupid vandals

In theory, every child in Indonesia gets at least three years of English teaching in primary school, and several years more in middle and secondary school. So it’s initially surprising that the majority of Indonesian kids can manage nothing more than “Hello Mister!”, and the occasional “wossyonem?” Perhaps more surprising still that so many seem to aspire to English language graffiti….


Is having sex safer than going to work?

As part of the Makassar Writers’ Festival, I’ve been asked to give a talk about HIV in Indonesia at the faculty of public health at Hasanuddin University. I’m reluctant. I’ve been wandering Indonesia without any thought of focusing on HIV for over eight months now. In that time I’ve met a surprising number of widows, orphans and middle-aged couples who have lost a child. Only one of those deaths has been HIV related. The rest are all in traffic accidents,…


Indonesian infrastructure: Paved with good intentions?

Asphalt. It’s not something I’ve ever given much thought to, except to wish there were more of it under the wheels of my car (Kenya) or motorbike (Indonesia). But now I’m in Buton, the island in Southeast Sulawesi which is one of the world’s largest suppliers of the stuff of which dream highways are made, so I thought I’d go and see an asphalt mine…


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…