It’s Rubber Time in Indonesia


TANGKAHAN_MAY_08 006The bus rolled like a storm-tossed ship, careening through villages and stopping suddenly for people to board with baskets of muttering chickens and hairy coconuts. Then we were off again, lurching round corners and crashing into potholes, making the garland of big plastic peonies bounce in the windshield.

I thought the ride would never end, but finally, into the sixth hour, it did. With a startling pop the ancient bus groaned and wheezed to a halt. When the dust cleared I saw with dismay a long ribbon of empty dirt road stretch into the mountains.

The driver turned and shouted something in Indonesian to the passengers. One by one they got off and ambled onto the road, leaving me with the chickens scuffling dust under the seat. It seemed they were just as restless as I was. At this rate I wouldn’t make it to Tangkahan, a remote eco-resort in the Sumatran jungle, before nightfall.

I had no choice but to resign myself to my fate. Rubber time again. Might as well get used to it.

My Indonesian guide had explained rubber time when I first came to Sumatra as a volunteer to help protect endangered orangutans. When he arrived a couple of hours late with the trekking gear and saw our crew of western volunteers anxiously checking our watches, he just smiled serenely.

“Jam karet,” he explained. “Everything happens in its own time. Why rush?”

You might not know it from the hair-raising traffic, but the stretchy-bendy nature of rubber time is an integral part of Indonesian life. Here, time isn’t linear but elastic. Life goes on at an unhurried pace, and even the simplest things take longer than you’d expect.

At first, it drove me nuts. When I got a job teaching English in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, students would wander in at any old time during class. If there was a sudden downpour, the entire city came to a standstill, people waiting in dripping doorways to get back on their motorbikes. Sometimes the power would go out for hours and we had nothing to do but sit in the dark.

I noted that my Indonesian friends calmly took these major inconveniences in stride and used them as an opportunity to relax and socialize. To save my sanity, I decided to follow their example. Students late? Understand that in the Indonesian language, verbs have no other tense but the present. Monsoon? Oh, well, let’s just sit at this coffee stall and chat while we wait it out. Blackout? Just another opportunity to see the stars.

Once, on a walk through a grove of rubber trees, I came to understand rubber time a little better. Rubber exports are a major industry in Sumatra, and it could be that the tires you drive to work on originated here. Each tree is carefully scarred to release the white inner sap, and coconut shells are secured to the trunks to collect it slowly, drop by drop. The entire process takes time and patience—two things I didn’t have a lot of before I came here.

Rubber time is also about building harmonious relationships. Almost without exception, every house I’ve seen has a front porch with two chairs and a table where people sit and chat for hours. Often when I walk past my neighbors they call out hello and invite me to join them. It’s a lost art of living I had never experienced in my frenetic, wired world at home in Canada.

Back on the bus, I reminded myself of this golden opportunity to reconnect. Rather than sit and fume with my forehead pressed against the window, I went outside to join the other passengers and practice speaking Indonesian. Together we watched as the bus driver, disheveled and sweaty, tinkered behind the wheel. Finally, he called out to us: the tire was fixed and we were ready to go.

The bus sputtered and roared back to life like an old farm tractor. We all smiled, settling into our seats. Time snapped back into place and we were on our way again. In just a couple more hours (fingers crossed) I would be in my bungalow overlooking the river, lounging in a hammock and listening to the cicadas sing in the jungle. Rubber time at its best.

About the Author:  Wendy Bone is a Canadian writer with a passion for travel. So far she’s hung out with orangutans in the jungle, swum with sea turtles in the Indian Ocean and danced with her friends on the Great Wall of China. She currently lives in Bandung, West Java, where she’s dreaming up her next big adventure.

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