To plagiarise Paul Morand, we waste so much time understanding time. It’s a tempting conclusion. Time lives inside us, though we rarely invite it in. We need to immerse ourselves in time, cherish it, hate it, maybe smooth the edges so as to better reconcile ourselves with it. But to truly apprehend what the sands of life mean, we need to step back from our daily routines, and put obligations and responsibilities on hold. And what better way to give time to time than to disappear for a few months. To laze under leafy boughs and travel without fear of wasted time. To see how other people, on distant horizons, relate to the relentless passing of time. Distant yet so very close to home. Three snapshots of three chance encounters during an Asian peregrination; a brief insight into what makes them tick…
Hom in Laos
For Hom, a tourist guide in Pakse in southern Laos, time comes in two packages: time spent waiting, and time spent wishing. She’s never heard of Jacques Brel or L’Ostendaise, but they’re on the same wavelength. Every day it’s the same refrain. Pakse isn’t exactly a tourist hot spot. The choice of excursions is limited to the Bolaven Plateau and its impressive waterfalls, or the 4,000 islands dotted along the Mekong, near the Cambodian border. Hom knows them both by heart. Each of the groups she takes there is treated to the same spiel. Sometimes, she can be a little vague as to certain dates, peppering her speech with approximations such as “a long time ago” and “once.” Hom doesn’t get bogged down in details; she cuts to the chase.
Once the tourists are safely back in their bungalows for the night, Hom reflects upon a different life. Barely ten years ago, hardly anyone visited Laos. Hom spent her time waiting for them. Now things have changed, and sometimes she wishes they would go back to where they came from. She feels more and more she is wasting her time here. Ten years go slowly. Especially ten years spent watching the Mekong flow by. Despite her misgivings, Hom is already looking forward to the rainy season, when the mighty river will fill with water. Until then, she’ll bide her time.
Ruben in Malaysia
Ruben flies a Boeing 747. He is a captain with Singapore Airlines. Cruising at 10,000 metres altitude, he has ample opportunity to reflect on the meaning of time. Each change in time zone brings him sharply back to reality. He loves crossing over into a new zone, gaining or losing hours depending on his route. Notions of hours and minutes don’t mean much to him. Of course he has a schedule to respect. Ultimately though, too many outside factors come into play, such as weather conditions, wind, the weight of the plane, or landing and takeoff slots. What’s more, the pilot no longer has the same influence at the commands. Computers have taken over.
According to Ruben, time is elastic and frivolous. After each flight, he leaves Changi International Airport behind and heads home to Johor Baru, in Malaysia. As the crow flies – and Ruben knows what he’s talking about – it’s barely twenty miles. However, monster traffic jams at the border mean that at peak times, the journey can take a full four hours. “I can fly to Bangkok and back in almost the same amount of time,” he fulminates. Nor can his Breitling Aerospace do anything about it. Ruben is a man of action. His definition of time would be “he that can his time abide all his will him shall betide.”
Pedro will always laugh at the idea of wearing a watch. All that counts for him are the tides, dawn and dusk, storms and surf.
Pedro in Indonesia
Pedro is a fisherman, a sort of modern-day version of the Old Man and the Sea. In Pedro’s family, fishing is a trade handed down from father to son. His small boat, as flimsy as a nutshell and older than Pedro himself, is moored in the harbour at Manado, at the northernmost tip of Celebes, in Indonesia. An ugly place, and yet over on the horizon sits the paradise island of Bunaken. Pedro has seen too much of life to still believe in a miracle catch. Time has chipped away at the dream. And yet his eyes still sparkle with the joy of being alive, and of spending each day on this beautiful, irreverent, colourful, fleeting sea. A little like time itself. Soon Pedro will hand over the helm to his son. Like Hom and Jacques Brel, Pedro has never heard of Louis Aragon yet he still has one word of advice for his son: “By the time we learn to live, it is already too late.” He’s promised himself that, once he has hung up his nets, he’ll give himself just a little more time. Time to watch the sea, but from dry land. One thing is for sure: Pedro will always laugh at the idea of wearing a watch. All that counts for him are the tides, dawn and dusk, storms and surf. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, they dictate his days.
Time that drags, time that flashes by, time spent in vain, but always a universally human time. In a memorable advertisement, a plastic-happy watch brand said that time is what we make it. Something which these “slices of life” readily confirm. To travel is to glean experiences. Once our basket is full, what lessons can we learn? Wait a moment though… I almost forgot. After such a long journey, these words by Jules Renard ring especially true: “We can never get back lost time so we should carry on doing nothing.” All the while gleaning new experiences and watching time slip by on the dial. Of a Swiss watch, of course.