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Originally published Sunday, August 17, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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‘Indonesia Etc.’: an island nation of remarkable contrasts

Elizabeth Pisani’s book “Indonesia Etc.” is a personal tour of a country of extremes, from the urban hive of Jakarta to the remotest of the country’s 13,500 islands, where people still live without electricity or water.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation’

by Elizabeth Pisani

W.W. Norton, 304 pp., $26.95

Indonesia is perhaps the most overlooked country in the world. When it declared independence in 1945, it famously declared that it would “work out the details of the transfer of power, etc. as soon as possible.” It’s been working on that “etc.” ever since.

In “Indonesia Etc.,” Elizabeth Pisani takes us on a very personal tour of the world’s fourth most populous country. Pisani lived and worked in Indonesia as a journalist, and then later as an HIV epidemiologist. But to write this book, she took 13 months off and traveled 26,000 miles throughout the 13,500 islands that make up Indonesia, living with locals and traveling by every conceivable means of transportation, from overloaded commercial ships to rickety buses following their own schedule.

Indonesia is a study in remarkable contrasts. Jakarta, its capital on the island of Java, could not be more different from its far-flung islands. It was home to 600,000 people at independence and has grown 17 fold since that time, now hosting more than 28 million — the second largest urban center in the world behind Tokyo. Jakarta tweets more than any other city on Earth. Yet 40 percent of the city is below sea level and the entire city floods every year.

By contrast, more than 80 million more remote Indonesians live without electricity or water. The island nation is home to more than 300 ethnic groups, many with strong independent traditions and little contact with the slick amenities of modern life. Although Indonesia is the largest country in the world to consist entirely of islands, the Word Economic Forum ranked its port infrastructure 104 out of 139 countries. And that’s only the start of a massively crumbling or insufficient infrastructure and a government structure riddled with corruption and inefficiency.

Indonesia was a Dutch colony, but declared its independence after liberation from the Japanese occupation during the war. Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding president, balanced the military against the Communist Party of Indonesia, but ultimately lost control after an attempted coup was violently crushed by the army and General Suharto seized control. He ruled the country until his resignation in 1998.

Indonesia’s far-flung islands host a remarkably diverse range of subcultures, languages and ethnic religions. But in each, although an utter stranger, Pisani was warmly greeted and made to feel at home, often invited to stay with the family of whomever she happened to meet on the ramshackle bus or crowded boat deck.

Pisani does an excellent job of describing her travels with colorful detail and interesting stories. Her first-person focus, with interesting statistics thrown in for good measure, ultimately limits her book’s potential. Like a long letter home, “Indonesia Etc.” gives you an excellent sense of how Ms. Pisani spent her year abroad, but one is left longing for a larger focus on this unique country.

Maybe that’s precisely because Indonesia is so elusive, even after 13 months’ study. Looking back on her year, she observes that “I waited for boats that were eighteen hours late with little more than a shrug ... When I did ask questions, I often settled quickly for the most common answer: Begitulah. ‘That’s just the way it is.’ Over time, I grew to accept that there is a very great deal about Indonesia, the world and life in general that I will just never know.”

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.

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