Wot’s …. Uh The Time?

Apologies to Pink Floyd and their “Obscured by Clouds” album.

When I was at school learning Indonesian I was introduced to the concept of “jam karet” or rubber time. This is loosely defined as the idea that when an Indonesian says he will turn up at 10 o’clock he may well turn up at 10.15 or 10.30 or a week from Tuesday. Time does not constrain him nearly as tightly as it does us, well me anyway.

This concept can also be applied to our New Guinea guides on the Kokoda Track who, when asked how much longer we would be walking, might reply with, “Two and a half hours”. We would then be pleasantly surprised when we turned up at our destination after only two or maybe even one and a half hours. As they had all walked the Track many, many times (158 times for our cook, or so he told us) we assumed they knew pretty precisely how long it took to walk from one village to the next. We thought they were probably factoring in our slower pace and tendency to get tired or maybe they were exaggerating in order to spur us on. The mind is a funny thing and, when told it will be driving the body for another two and a half hours, it knuckles down and gets on with the job. If the time happens to be shorter than expected this is a very welcome surprise. Watch out if the opposite occurs, however.

One memorable afternoon we asked for an estimate of remaining walking time and were told, “45 minutes to an hour, depending on how fast you walk.” It actually ended up being three hours, the final 30 minutes of which was down an almost vertical ravine! This was agony because the mind had prepared the body for a brisk 60 minute walk, which it expected to finish shortly thereafter. Because of this expectation the walk became a much greater slog than if we had been told from the outset that we would be hiking for three more hours.

None of the New Guinea guides wore watches and I suspect their concept of time was a rubber one indeed. But then none of them had to catch trains, attend meetings or be anywhere at any specific moment. You walked when it was light and stopped when you arrived or it got dark. What else was there to know and why did these pesky tourists keep asking these stupid, irrelevant questions?

Dr. F. Bunny


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