22 November 2009

Time is Funny

Last Monday, November 16th, marked the day I would have left Spain, if this had been my study-abroad semester in Spain and not my work-abroad year in Indonesia.  That is to say, when I studied abroad in Madrid during the fall of my junior year at Princeton, I left the country 3 months and 14 days after I arrived -- and November 16th was the day that heralded the 3-month-and-14-day mark after I arrived in Indonesia.  That is to say, if this adventure abroad had been intended to last the same amount of time as that other adventure abroad, it would have been over 6 days ago.

What is interesting to me about this personal benchmark is how relative time becomes in the face of it.  Everything that Spain was to me -- all of the books and poems and friends and travels and hunks of cheese and bottles of wine -- happened within a span of time that then seemed so expansive, but now seems so short.  When I left Spain, looking back on everything I had learned and all the ways in which I had changed, I felt as if an entire lifetime had occurred within those three and a half months.  (This became complicated when I returned to Princeton for the spring semester, and couldn't figure out how it was somehow still the 2007-2008 school year.  Surely Europe did not exist in a time warp, and just as many years had passed back here in the United States?)  Now, however, looking back on these past three and half months in Indonesia, I feel like I'm still at the beginning -- or if not the beginning, at least still within sight of the starting line.  I'm still somehow fooling my students into believing I know what I'm doing at the front of the classroom.  My Indonesian is fledgling, at best.  While I'm definitely more skilled at The Art of Crossing the Street than I was in August, I have yet to master it -- a fact of which I, along with half the motorcyclists in Yogya, am more than well aware.

The obvious question thus arises: how can three and a half months both entirely encapsulate one life-changing experience, and constitute only the first few laps of another?  How can this fixed length of time have the ability to be both the whole of something, and just a piece of something else?  How, after living only this long in Spain, could I ever have been ready to leave?

Quite conveniently for the philosophers among you, there exists in Indonesia a concept known as jam karet -- literally, rubber time. Here, time is neither linear nor rigid.  Rather, it stretches and snaps with an elasticity that would make most Americans nervous, and I'm not just talking about the Type A ones.  Conversations initiated with the intention of obtaining one small piece of information can go on for hours; the act of stepping out to run a quick errand will inevitably become a meandering adventure that takes most of the day.  If someone tells you they will do something tomorrow, it might mean they will do it on the day that immediately follows this one, but it could just as easily mean that they will do it on any day that might follow this one at any point in the future.  It could also just as easily mean that they will never do it, ever.

Living in a society where time is likened more accurately to a rubber band than a ruler has the general effect of slowing one down.  If Time isn't in a rush to get on with its day, why should people be in a rush to get on with theirs? They shouldn't, of course -- and in Indonesia, they aren't.  The Art of Slowing Down is one that (like The Art of Crossing the Street) I have been practicing continuously since my arrival in Indonesia, but one particularly noteworthy example occurred earlier this week when, to fill our afternoon off, Luna and I decided to pay a visit to the Affandi Museum.  

Affandi, a famous West Javanese expressionist painter who died in 1990, lived in Yogya in a self-designed Gaudí-esque compound of buildings on the banks of the Gajah Wong river that now functions as a museum to display his paintings.  After touring the museum's three small galleries, admiring the three-dimensional paintings Affandi created by squeezing tubes of paint directly onto the canvas in a style he has acknowledged is "similar to Vincent Van Gogh" (thanks, Wikipedia), and exploring the grounds of Affandi's old digs, Luna and I found ourselves pretty much Affandi-ed out with the whole afternoon still ahead of us. 

What to do?  Seeing that the museum's cafe had a small collection of board games up for grabs, we decided it was time for some Snakes-and-Ladders.  We passed another happy half an hour thus, reliving the golden days climbing up ladders and sliding down snakes while being taught important moral lessons that all children should know, such as if you do something bad (we couldn't understand the Indonesian for this one) you will fall down the body of a snake to the sad world of a gameboard square where you do not have any friends ("Tak punya teman").  Tragic.

After I won the game and received my congratulatory pat on the back, Luna and I found ourselves pretty much Snakes-and-Ladders-ed out with the whole afternoon still still ahead of us.  What to do?  Hearing our tummies beginning to rumble, we decided it was time for some makan siang (lunch) and took our leave of the Affandi museum, heading over to an Acehnese restaurant that Luna knew about for some North Sumatran food.  While we were en route to lunch, it started to rain.  (It should be noted here that, since my last blog, rainy season seems to have arrived in Indonesia.  This means that it more or less monsoons every afternoon, giving me one more reason to arrive at any given location looking like I have recently exited a large body of water -- however, in this case, it is because I actually have.  The large body of water being, of course, the one that begins to fall from the sky everyday between noon and 3PM, and doesn't cease for several hours.)  Needless to say, we arrived at the restaurant a little worse for the wear, but figured we'd have time to dry off while we ate.  While we did indeed dry off (for the most part) while enjoying our duck curry and spicy beef noodles, however, the rain continued, and after finishing our meal Luna and I found ourselves pretty much makan siang-ed out with much of the afternoon, as well as the second half of a monsoon thunderstorm, still (still still) ahead of us.  What to do?  Well, wait.

Waiting for the rain is a phenomenon of jam karet (and of equatorial weather patterns) that might warrant its own blog, so suffice it to say that on our afternoon off, Luna and I made ample use of the rubberiness of time.  (For the record, there was still enough time later that day to sit around in the house for a good long while while, do an hour of yoga, go out to dinner, procure 3 delicious doughnuts from Dunkin Doughnuts, and spend a good 45 minutes singing along to Youtube music videos of Disney classics.)  Such is life in Indonesia.  

However, I'd like to think that there's more to jam karet than just making use of the stretching hours of the afternoon to fit in a game of Snakes-and-Ladders.  If time is flexible, maybe its expansions and contractions aren't just random -- after all, it didn't matter that Luna and I had to sit around for an extra 40 minutes to wait out the rain, because we didn't have anywhere to rush off to.  Maybe, as it turns out, time expands and contracts according to how we view our relationship with it -- maybe we're given exactly as much time as we need.  Or maybe, on the flip side, we unconsciously shape our expectations for our experiences based on the time we have available to us.  If that is the case, then it makes sense that three and a half months in Spain was enough for it to feel complete -- it had to be enough.  Three and a half months never would have been enough for me here, because I knew I could have more (and with jam karet, who even knows how much more).  The whole metaphorical afternoon, it seems, is still (still still still) ahead, which is fine by me.  As long as it includes at least one more game of Snakes-and-Ladders.  Or two.


  1. great title, although in my opinion you should have worked rubber into the title... time is rubber instead of money... time to change your rubber tire... time to spare tire! perfect.

  2. iknow i'm late, catching up on reading about your life, but this is really amazing fiona! i feel like I'M learning through YOUR experiences! we've been talking around here about doing an art show of our friends, and i think you should hypothetically do some readings about this in addition to other art in your lovely collection. i'm starting to plan!