Back to
Students in a long tail boat in Indonesia. Photo by Aaron Slosberg, Indonesia Semester.

Javanese time

The instant I found myself entranced amid the bustling cultural capital of Java, I realised that nothing in Yogyakarta is linear. A maze of colourful streets lined with delectable food carts and blooming with graffiti art intersect in complicated networks; a torrent of cars and motorcycles dart in haphazard swerves seemingly from every direction — ungoverned by traffic lanes or regulations — in a choreographic dance of chaos. With a bag of sweet tea in my hand, and my sweet homestay sisters by my side, I spend my evenings traversing through the labyrinthine, rustic roads snaking through the Yogyakartan neighbourhoods, always reverberating with animated “Hallos!” from smiling passers-bye.

But it’s not just the geographic layout of this ever captivating city that refuses to adhere to linear order; In traditional Javanese philosophy, the very concept of time, too, possesses no structured orientation. When the Javanese Mystical Guru, Danu, first introduced me to the Javanese perception of the passage of time, weaving together complex concepts with broken English and intense, smiling eyes, I felt as lost as the first time I attempted to navigate the dusty avenues encircling my home-stay. While the Western epistemic model commonly understands the passage of time as a forward-flowing linear progression which can be quantitatively defined by measures like seconds, days and weeks, the Javanese traditional view instead understands a life as a loose collection of structure-less moments, guru Danu explained.

“So you don’t think about your own life as a function of the past, present and future?” I inquired, both captivated and stultified by the a philosophical paradigm that fundamentally clashed with the manner in which I’ve always structured my own existence. Shaking his head, Guru Danu beamed. “Moments,” he solemnly whispered. “I perceive my life as an assortment of space-less, shapeless moments — each one its own entity — which I understand by its relative significance in my journey, not by its chronological placement.”   Intoxicated by this concept I couldn’t quite grasp, I approached my Javanese instructor Rita, seeking her perspective. I explained my concept of time as a forward marching, measurable dimension of life, to which she giggled. She noted that, in her eyes, quantifiable measures like a week or a year are just illusory constructs imposed as an attempt to structure an inherently structure-less journey. “People always ask me: ‘Rita, what are your plans for the next five years?'” Rita remarked. “Plans? I don’t think about time in terms of years or a future trajectory. I worry about this moment. I think about now.”

It’s been fascinating to witness and analyse the vast manifestations of the the Javanese perception of time in the Yogian interactions, households, and prevailing culture at large. In Yogyakarta, people don’t fret about arriving punctually to appointments or planning future events; like their view of time, the Javanese move fluidly through their days, without excessive attention to schedule.  I’ll wake up at 3 a.m. and sheepishly stumble to the bathroom, to find a boisterous household with my Ibu cooking up a storm, while my Bapak hangs laundry between prayers. In a city untethered to time- days, nights, work, and family time melt together into a beautiful alchemy of just living.

But the distinctive Javanese model of structureless time has also gifted me a wondrous lens through which I’ve begun to examine my own experiences in Indonesia. I reflect on the powerful moments that have inhabited my journey thus far –so joyful, so distilled, so poignant– and find myself unequivocally agreeing that a simplified measure of time can’t fully capture the significance they carry, and the intensity with which I experienced them.

Pondering time as a function of individual moments, I find myself swimming in a swarm of sensations from the memories i’ve so far cultivated in the beautiful archipelago:

The moment on the very first night of arriving in the tropical province of Aceh: My roommates and I stood on the porch,  bathing in the large, globular droplets streaming from the moist sky. In silence, we faced directly into the blackness that curbed our immediate vision, yet seemed to unfold for ceaseless miles beyond, as the discordant cacophony of insects and birds pulsated from the heart of darkness. With the water from our bottles, we brushed our teeth, spitting animatedly off the precipice of our balcony, and silently marvelled at the scene which would unravel before us–the bright colours, the river who’s delicate rushing timber promised its presence from beyond– when the morning glow reigned in the black, mystifying curtain.

That very first night of anticipation, while only a number of days ago, feels like a lifetime in the past.

The moment in Ketambe jungle when we sat in tremulous stillness under a swarm of angry hornets sweeping through the sky like a buzzing tornado, trying our best to breathe calmly, (but forgetting to breathe all together as fear escalated and our frantic guides plunged into the river).

And again, I find that the notion of time fails to adequately capture the feeling– the frantic fear endured. We must have sat there, petrified on the fateful tarps, for no more than 10 minutes before crawling on our knees to the rivers edge, but the moment under the spattering of black nevertheless felt eternal.

The moment on the first night of my homestay when I sat in a red, peeling room with 5 giggling girls of age 15. Sitting in a circle atop sprawled prayer mats, we watercolored, witnessing how the lively strokes of our communal drawing compensated for our stunted verbal communication. Together, belting Adele songs between eruptions of laughter, we created art.

Lost in the mellifluous tune, the long evening of singing now rings in my mind like a single, blissful second.

When trying to trace back my memory to the most impactful moments, I’ve begun to realise that they, too, no longer mould to the rigid structure of time I’ve always imposed upon my life. Around me, I hear everyone counting the days since we departed from home, tossing around measures like “three weeks already!” and “two months to go!” But looking around at my fellow travellers to whom I feel connected as though we’ve known each other for years, I can’t imagine our journey can be labeled with a number of days. Reading emails from loved ones at home, I can’t comprehend that the acute pang I feel from missing them stems from only a couple weeks apart.

As Indonesia has continuously swept me off my feet, time has seemed to dance around with me– stretching, contracting, waltzing and occasionally halting. Admiring my vast array of immeasurable memories, I nod at guru Dantu. It all boils down to moments. And in this moment, I feel as though I understand.