When Elizabeth Pisani set out to research her book, “Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation,” she passed up any ambition to pin the vast archipelago nation down in a pithy manner.
“We don’t even know how many islands there are,” Pisani said.
Some officials say 17,000 islands; others, 15,000. “It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing for even its own government to get its head around, let alone an outsider like me,” said Pisani.
Which is why Pisani made just one rule for herself during her travels in Indonesia: Say yes to any invitation, whether it was to a wedding or “to have tea with that dog liver and glass of rice wine,” she said. “That took me into very interesting directions.”
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Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Pisani.
Q: Where do you begin in a country as vast as Indonesia?
A: Java is a natural place to start. It makes up only 7 percent of the landmass, but is home to nearly 60 percent of population. The largest Buddhist temple complex on the island is Borobudur. Less well known is another stunning complex of Hindu temples called Prambanan.
Jakarta, the capital, used to be a few little islands of air-conditioned, steel-and-glass splendor that rose out of these rat-run back streets, little low-rise cobbled-together houses. Very neighborhoody. Now that’s almost all gone, replaced with a lot of marbled malls, 7-Elevens, high-rises and everyone’s walking around with their iPad.
Q: Where can you see a different side?
A: The Banda Islands are relatively accessible, and they bring together the things that are really captivating about the country. There’s fantastic snorkeling and diving. And there’s history: It is where the colonial enterprise all started. They’re the only natural home of nutmeg, and the first of the Europeans to arrive there looking for this spice were the Portuguese, then the Spaniards, the Brits then the Dutch. There are still cannons on the side of the road. You can still see the Dutch East India Co. logo on wrought-iron gates.
There is a tiny museum called Rumah Budaya Banda Neira, and they’ve made a real effort to present colonial history. One of the things the Dutch did in establishing their monopoly was genocide, and they did it with the help of Japanese samurai, and there’s a painting that depicts this.
Q: There are 700 languages spoken in Indonesia. Do you need an interpreter?
A: Everyone speaks some of the national language, Indonesian, but not many speak English. If you get even a little off the beaten track, students who want to practice their English present themselves as guides. Since the beginning of recorded history, you’ve got people going through the islands. The earliest records come from Chinese travelers. That’s made Indonesians very welcoming, very outward-looking and drives this amazing hospitality.
Q: Any other tips?
A: There’s not much point in planning anything. Any plan you make will be disrupted because of nonexistent airplanes or something wonderful happens to you and you get whisked off in a completely different direction.