Africa · Books · China · Travel

Intriguing travel reads on Indonesia, Nigeria and more

Rather unusual in travel literature (or any other kind of literature for that matter), there’s an entire new book about Indonesia – Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani. I haven’t read it yet but it seems an attractive future choice, based on the reviews about it. I admit I’m one of those guilty of not knowing or caring much about the world’s largest archipelago nation and fourth most populated. As Pankaj Mishraj says in his review, “on our mental map of the world, the country is little more than a faraway setting for earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.” The Guardian and New York Times also review it.

I’ve actually read a previous book by Pisani called “The Wisdom of Whores,” which was a critique of policies used to fight against AIDS, based on her knowledge and experience, that included working in Southeast Asia and getting to know prostitutes. Pisani is actually a epidemiologist, and before that a foreign correspondent, who has spent many years in Indonesia and decided to take a year off from her regular work to travel around the nation and experience its vast diversity and quirkiness. Indonesia Etc is the result of her travel.

Besides Indonesia, there are other developing countries which might be similarly fascinating, complex and dynamic but sadly get little attention from global media and entertainment circles. As much as I am interested by China and India and can’t get enough about books focusing on them, I wish there were more books about nations like Indonesia and similar major developing nations. Specifically, books that focus on a country and combine travel and social commentary.

Another such book is about Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and arguably dynamic country. There was a book released two years ago called Looking for Transwonderland written by Noo Saro-Wiwa. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because her father was the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995. Looking for Transwonderland is both a travel book and about Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return to Nigeria (she grew up in England) in an attempt to understand her homeland and come to grips with what happened to her father.

I’m definitely interested in the preceding books, and there have been a few other travel titles that I haven’t been able to read that cover a similar scope.

When it comes to Africa, there are several books that seemingly take on the entire continent, or rather a number of countries that are taken to represent the whole continent. Paul Theroux (first with Dark Star Safari, then this one) and South African Sihle Kumalo, a rare black African travel writer who has written 3 books covering trips to different parts of Africa, have put out books about this.

Punjabi Parmesan is an Indian author’s look at Western Europe, which seems an intriguing concept. The author Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist who also lived in and wrote a book about China, which was also a rarity – an Indian writing a travelogue and commentary on China.

About China, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China is rather self-explanatory from the title, but its scope is quite complex, ranging from the Northeast border with Russia to turbulent  Xinjiang to a “narco-state” in the jungles of southwest Yunnan province. It explores the farthest, wildest and least populated parts of the nation, which are largely populated by ethnic minorities. Another book Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands, published 5 years ago, has a similar concept, focusing exclusively on ethnic minorities.

I have to say I haven’t read any of these books, except Theroux’s first Africa book Dark Star Safari, yet so I’m doing a bit of speculating in assuming that they’re good. I trust my assumptions are correct otherwise I’d be a fool recommending books I haven’t read that aren’t much good.

If any readers have recommendations, especially on nations like Brazil, Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa etc, let me know.


2 thoughts on “Intriguing travel reads on Indonesia, Nigeria and more

  1. Too many coincidences here to leave alone:

    1) We leave for Indonesia on 1 Sept and yesterday I was bemoaning the lack of a book to read on the country… downloading Ms. Pisani’s book on the Kindle as I type. Thanks.

    2) Last night I received an email from my brother-in-law in Chile, thanking me for the book I’d sent him. At first I couldn’t remember what I’d sent – it’s been months – then recalled it was Sihle Khumalo’s “Almost Sleeping My Way to Timbuktu.” He’s one of the funnier travel writers I’ve read, a little coarse on occasion, but oh well, and one of the most memorable scenes for me was when he toured one of the largest slave-trading ports in Western Africa (don’t remember the country). He noted some African-Americans who were having a really emotional experience seeing the place and commented how much more personal it was for them having ancestors who’d been forced onto boats at the spot whereas for him it was just another site commemorating something awful. It was another travel moment of my own, realizing “ohhhh, not every African has a deep personal connection to the slave trade.” I like it when a writer can make a few more scales fall from my eyes…

    3) Another blogger recently posted 2 books on Turkey which I’ve added to my wishlist – maybe you’ll find something interesting here:

    I would add Thailand to the list of woefully under-represented in book aisles. Search “Thailand” on Amazon and you get literally hundreds of titles… about how to meet a Thai wife or worse. Really?! I eventually settled for a history tome but confess: I fall asleep after 10 minutes each evening.


    1. Wow, that is a lot of coincidences. I hope you enjoy Indonesia Etc and I hope it helps you on your trip.
      That’s cool you actually read Sihle Khumalo. I saw his books in South Africa but I didn’t buy it since I chose other books, and I regret not
      buying one of his. Your description of his writing makes me want to get one soon. That is an interesting anecdote from his book and it does show how different Africans (south, west, east etc) and blacks (African-American, African) can be.
      Thanks for the link about the Turkey books and that author.
      Yes, Thailand is another country that doesn’t get written about too much. I’m surprised given how many expats visit and live there. Then again, that explains all those books about meeting a Thai wife and similar stuff you found.


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