Tunggu Sebentar

Of all the Indonesian phrases I’ve racked up in my 6+ years of living on this isle (and there are oh-so-many!), one captures the essence of Bali in ways that others don’t: Tunggu sebentar.

You’ll ask your driver’s wife Made, to pick you up at 7:30. She’ll agree. She won’t show up at 7:30. You’ll call or sms Made. She won’t pick up. She won’t respond to your text. The time will pass. The waiting is endless. No sign of Made.

You’ll call the driver, Putu.

You’ll inquire as to his wife’s whereabouts.

He’ll say she is on her way.

Truth is, she probably forgot, likely hopped on her bike when she saw my number.

No apology.  No explanation.

“Tunggu sebentar,” will say Putu.


I once dreaded hearing those words. Meaningless. Frustrating. No straight answer. Then, I slowly awakened to the fluidity of meaning behind those words – which led me to better appreciate the unexpected ebbs and flows of Balinese life.


Tunggu sebentar.

In translation, it means wait a minute.

But the Balinese are not known for their punctuality. In fact, Bali runs on a different time zone altogether, even apart from its closest neighbors: it’s known as jam karet (‘rubber time’).

Actually, it’s more of a mentality about time, than it is a zone.

Tunggu sebentar has an indefinite range of meanings.

It could, for example, mean that any minute the person that you are waiting for, might appear – or might not appear.

It could also mean that they have no idea how long that person will take to show.

There’s also the possibility that you will continue to wait for a very long time, hours indeed, before you even hear from the person you are expecting to show up any minute.

It’s a catchall,  a default used in place of uncertainty; coupled with a cultural taboo, wherein locals will take great pains at saving face. Nobody utters the words: “I don’t know.”

Tunggu sebentar.

It’s nearly always spoken with a wry smile.

Easy way out. Don’t shoot the messenger.

No responsibility. No accountability. No rush.

Pelan pelan. Slow down.

Tidak apa apa. Don’t worry, because…

If you have patience and have all the time in the world to loiter around, maybe sit down for a cup of kopi, shoot the breeze, forget what was so urgent; then, if you’re really fortunate, the person you are asking about, might perhaps (but you never know for sure) show up.


  1. Many cultures have similar attitudes regarfing time.. in Iran they say: farda ( tomorrow) which could be any tomorrow! However should they say: farda Inch’Allah…. it might never be…,

  2. I think it would take me a while to adapt to that mentality, haha. 😉 I like punctuality! Then again, I speak Spanish, the Mediterranean culture of Spain appeals to me and many Hispanic countries have a similar attitude to time, so maybe I should be more relaxed. 🙂

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