Archipelago diaries |

Words With Elizabeth Pisani

Archipelago Diaries | 18 October 2016

A writer, a journalist, an epidemiologist and an avid explorer, Elizabeth Pisani is undoubtedly a fearless lady of many missions. The American-born Pisani spent many years working on the HIV scourge, served as an advisor for the Ministries of Health of Indonesia, China, East Timor as well as the Philippines and provided analysis to numerous world health organizations.

As a journalist, she had the chance to visit and explore many interesting sites worldwide, including Indonesia, the country she eventually fell in love with. Her profound love of this archipelago shines through in her second book “Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation”, which invites readers to see the fascinating side of Indonesia through the eyes of a curious foreigner. Elizabeth will be joining this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF), and before she gets too busy with all the preparation, NOW! Jakarta had the chance to have a quick chat with this inspiring woman.

You first came to Indonesia in the 1980s as a journalist. What do you think are the biggest differences between Indonesia now and then in terms of its people and culture?

One of the things that amazes and delights me about Indonesia is how little the essence of the country changes. I don’t think people’s way of thinking has changed very much; most people still value community and family above all, and there’s a fundamental egalitarianism which is only now beginning to be eroded in the larger cities. The one big change is that people are now much more likely to say what they are thinking. That’s in part because the process of democratization allows for much greater expression, but I think it’s also because of a growing self-confidence. People feel their opinions count more nowadays.

In several interviews, you often called Indonesia your ‘bad boyfriend’, how is your relationship with this bad boyfriend today? Is there anything you would like to change about him?

Well, I’m still in love with his beauty, his natural wealth, his good humour and his generally relaxed attitude to life. But sometimes he’s a bit too relaxed. I find it mildly amusing that it has taken an Indonesian publisher a year and a half longer to print an already-translated manuscript of “Indonesia Etc” than it took German, Polish, Italian or Taiwanese to translate and publish it!

You’ve adopted Bahasa Indonesia as your second language. Do you also speak Bahasa Indonesia slang known as bahasa gaul? Tell us some phrases that you think every foreigner should know.

I learned most of my bahasa gaul from the waria and drug users that I was working with when I supported the Ministry of Health of Indonesia in developing HIV surveillance and prevention programmes. I think the most important phrases in Indonesian are probably “istirahat dulu” (take a break), “sabar dong!” (please be patient!), “tenang aja” (just relax) and “semua bisa di atur” (everything can be easily managed) – usually in that order. And if that sequence doesn’t go as planned, there’s always a shrug and “Begitulah Indonesia!” (that is Indonesia!), the title I chose for the translation of Indonesia Etc. 

How do you define Indonesian culture based on its unique language?

Let’s not forget that Bahasa Indonesia isn’t the first language of over 80% of the population, and regional autonomy has reinforced the use of local languages in many settings. So for a lot of people, Bahasa Indonesia is the language of authority (especially school), of sinetron (soap opera), and of commerce with ‘outsiders’ – a strange mix! But I’m always fascinated by the words that I find hard to translate, such as “oknum”, for which there’s no real equivalent in English. It tells you a lot about Indonesian society. Someone is a policeman, or a soldier or a member of the DPR until they do something naughty, then they become an “oknum” which refers to the institution that takes no responsibility for any bad behaviour, even when the bad behaviour is actively facilitated by institutional structures.

Tell us about your session in this year’s UWRF? What will you share with the audience and what is your expectation from 2016 UWRF?

Actually, I’ll probably be talking about “oknum”, because I’ll be participating in a session about things that you can only say in Indonesian, which should be fun. It’s always interesting to know what words strike people as odd, amusing or special. It always tells you a lot about a person. There’s another session about “screen addicts”, where we’ll discuss how hard it is to interest people who grew up with visual forms of storytelling such as wayang kulit or sinetron in the printed page. I’m interested in this because I worked for a whole year on a multi-media version of “Indonesia Etc” that includes videos, slideshows, scans of old letters from generals – lots of fun stuff. I was very proud of the result, but then found that my publishers in the UK and the US were totally uninterested. For them the printed word is everything – even the tiny line drawings that I proposed for chapter headings were considered a distraction. Here, where the visual rules, I expect to find a lot more innovation on the part of publishers.

What kind of advice would you give to the first-time travellers to Indonesia? Please share with us some Dos and Don’ts of living and traveling in Indonesia?

The very first thing is to learn Bahasa Indonesia. It is an easy language to learn, in part because you will find 250 million willing teachers. Indonesians are very encouraging and forgiving, and your efforts will be rewarded many times over. Next, I would repeat the mantra that I adopted for myself on my last long journey around Indonesia, the one that covered 42,000 kilometres: Just say yes! Almost every invitation is sincerely meant, and both you and your hosts will enjoy the interaction and learn from one another. Thirdly, make a point of going somewhere that none of your Indonesian friends or colleagues have ever been to, I can promise that will leave a LOT of places to visit, and you will discover another Indonesia. Then: “go with the flow”. Things very rarely turn out as planned, so either don’t bother planning, or don’t get upset when things go off course. As long as you keep smiling, semua bisa di atur.

The full line-up, program and tickets to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (26-30 October) are now available via