Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A la Hora Peruana

Have I ever written about "Peruvian time"? Oh yes. Here, here and here.

So it is with considerable amusement that I read in an almost Onion-like article from the Associated Press that the Peruvian government is launching a "plan to combat lateness"

According to the article, "schools, businesses and government institutions will be asked to stop tolerating 'la hora peruana', or 'Peruvian time' - which usually means an hour late". On March 1, it was intended that sirens would sound and church bells ring out, alerting 27 million Peruvians to synchronize their watches.

In part, this appears to be political points-scoring by president Alan Garcia, who likes to contrast his own punctuality with the notorious tardiness of former president Alejandro Toledo.

But to the extent that it's sincere, just synchronising watches and requesting everybody to turn up earlier for work is not going to change Peruvians' deep-seated, fatalistic attitude to time. Rather like life, it's seen as a force that is nebulous, only partly controllable, and prone to unexplained discontinuities.

Some of this perception is captured by the expression "ahorita", a word used from Mexico through Central America to Peru and Bolivia. As a dimunitive of ahora (now), you could be forgiven for accepting the dictionary translation, which defines it as "right now". But, as anyone who has lived or travelled in these countries will tell you, instead of applying more precision, the dimunitive serves to make the meaning more fuzzy or liquid, spreading out the "now" until its boundaries are no longer discernible.

When someone says that something will happen "ahorita", they are usually indicating that, though they are hopeful that the event will occur soon, they will not be held responsible for designating any specific moment.

"Ahorita vengo", for example, would be literally translated as "I'll be right back", but someone seeking to truly understand the import of the phrase should take it as meaning something like "I may be some time".

There are numerous examples of Peruvians' strange conception of time, of which I only have space to cite a couple. Among the many occasions when my Peruvian ex-girlfriend made we wait an unreasonable amount was an afternoon when had we agreed to meet at 4:00 pm to go to a movie. We decided that she would pick me up after her university classes at the office of Incaventura, where I was explaining trekking and climbing expeditions to groups of tourists.

At 4:15 I got a call to the office; it was Paola. "Hey, it looks like my lecture is going to run over time", she said in an apologetic tone. "He's already kept us here longer to explain something and it'll be another ten minutes before we get out. Sorryyy"

I was puzzled. "But what time was your class supposed to finish?", I asked. "Four o'clock", she said with a hint of impatience, as if I should have known that.

To get from the university to the tour office required her to take two minibuses and then walk several blocks. In the absolutely best combination of circumstances, it was twenty-five minutes away. Exactly which wormhole in the space-time continuum she had ever planned to crawl through to meet me at 4:00 pm, I'll never know.

Lest one take all this personally - and in the case of my ex-girlfriend it was so frequent and exaggerated that I did - it's worth observing that the same approach is routine even for esteemed individuals or for very important events

In my most recent trip to Peru, I attended a wedding in Arequipa, which was scheduled for midday Saturday. Some friends of mine from New Zealand, travelling through the Andean countries, also happened to be in Arequipa at the time, and one of them had experienced some health problems which required a specialist appointment at the local private hospital.

The appointment was for the same Saturday as the wedding, at 9:00 am, and I was to attend as a translator. I went to the hospital on Saturday morning already in my suit, thinking to be on the safe side I would plan to go straight from the hospital to the wedding.

By the time the medical issues were sorted out, it was getting late (the doctor had arrived at the hospital twenty-five minutes after our appointment time). The church where the wedding was to take place was only six blocks up the hill, so at 11:45, when everything seemed to be more or less ok, I left the hospital and hurried up to the church.

Arriving about 11:59, I was the second person there. I introduced myself to the bride's aunt, who was standing outside, and we went into the church. People started to drift in; about 12:10, the bride arrived - surprisingly early, and before the groom - and not long after, the ceremony started.

I can recall looking around and feeling a bit disappointed for Chriss that the beautiful colonial church was only one third full for her wedding. But about fifteen minutes into the ceremony, I turned around again and saw that most of the pews were full. People continued to arrive through the readings and the hymns, and eventually it was packed.

Almost last of all arrived the bridesmaids, who strolled into the church about 12:30, looking only very slightly embarassed, and took their place in one of the front pews.

So the lateness has no real rhyme or reason, and can't even be relied on to be consistent. In at least one case I found myself in an embarassing situation when someone I was relying on to be half an hour late actually arrived twenty minutes early.

It would be easy to assume that this is a result of a relaxed, straw-in-mouth approach to life by people who like to take it easy. But in fact the notable thing about Peruvians is that they often seem to be in a terrible hurry. People bump into each other rushing out of shops. Waiters and shop assistants are frequently harried and impatient. Inter-city buses speed along winding mountain roads, taking the curves with more haste than is necessary.

For people from other cultures, all this can be bewildering and frustrating. But once expectations are adjusted, "la hora peruana" begsin to grow on those of us who also tend to feel that time is a fluid and slippery beast. The amusingly passive Spanish verb constructions beloved in Latin America, like "se me hizo tarde" ("it got late on me") capture this feeling well.

I do have some sympathy with the Peruvian government's attempt to stigmatise chronic lateness, which is part of their general modernising drive to get the country to shake itself up and learn to solve its own problems. And yes, it's partly about respect for others, acknowledging that other people's time is valuable to them.

At the same time, it would be a less idiosyncratic, colorful society that gave itself entirely up to the mechanistic observances of schedules. To maintain an ambivalent, uneasy relationship with time's measures is, in part, to assert that they're not all that matters. The day Peru marches to the beat of the clock, it will have lost some of its unaccountable charm.

Fortunately, I don't think there's much chance of that happening in the near future.

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