I read in The New Yorker a month or two ago that the people of Peru lose a collective nine billion hours each year to tardiness. It must be a regional thing, because – my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, you know what I’m talking about – Ecuadorians are constantly running late. Hours late. They call it “la hora ecuatoriana” which translates to “the Ecuadorian hour.”
To be fair, or to be more culturally sensitive, I guess I shouldn’t start off a blog entry by saying “Ecuadorians are always late.” It is, maybe, all a matter of perspective. So the whole country has a different method of keeping track of and perceiving time, who am I to judge? All I know is that this, like pretty much everything else, definitely took some getting used to. Or I should say that it’s been a process of ongoing adjustment.
The thing is, I don’t think this Ecuadorian hour is something that you can adjust to. It’s not an exact science; it’s something you have to just kind of know. Let me explain. When we first arrived at our site, we would naturally show up to meetings and whatnot when people told us to. Huge mistake. We would have something at, say, 8:00am. At 8:00am, we would be there, ready to go. We’d be lucky if the first person showed up before 9:30.
You know what they say, fool me ten times, shame on me, right? So I’d start fixing my arrival times. I’d start showing up fifteen minutes, half an hour, and even an hour late. Still, I can never seem to get it right. I think Ecuadorian time really means let’s making the gringos wait around for a while.
One of the first town socials since our arrival was this huge dance for All Saints Day. All the signs around town said that the party started at 8:00. We showed up at around 8:30pm and stood there by ourselves for about an hour and a half until people started trickling in. So the next time there was a dance – it was maybe a few weeks before Christmas – Jo and I made sure not to show up until at least 10:00. They must have been on to us, because, again, we were waiting by our lonesome for another hour or so.
The problem is that I’m even bothering to look at the time in the first place. My idea that I can time my arrival an hour or so late – and therefore be “on time” – is doomed to failure specifically because I’m not actually adjusting to the lax time standards; rather, I’m just setting my watch back. I’m convinced that the people here don’t have any clue what time it is when they decide to get going. They can just feel that it’s time to go.
And nobody’s shy about being late – really late – either. In fact, it’s almost publicized. A big custom here is that, upon entering a room or meeting a group of people, one must greet everybody individually, that is, handshakes all around and kisses on the cheek for all the women. You might think that if a meeting is already well under way, than this process could be skipped, as you would try to discreetly slip in so as to not disturb events already in progress. Again, wrong.
When you’re involved in any group function here, people will walk in whenever they feel like it and make a gigantic entrance. First will be a general greeting, “buenas tardes!” really loud to let everyone know to stop everything for a second. After the speaker or whatever business being conducted comes to a halt, the latecomer will then go around and say his or her hellos to every single person in sight. Then the speaker or whoever will start up again, only to be interrupted probably about ten minutes later.
This rant of mine may seem like a huge complain, but actually, I’ve grown rather fond of the Ecuadorian hour. In fact, I feel like this is the system of time that I was naturally meant to follow. I’ve never much been a fan of letting calendars or schedules dictate the layout of my day. Now I don’t have to. Our town is so small that I can just kind of see when everybody is gathering, and I’ll go and join them. Nobody’s ever sitting me down for discussions about how my tardiness is affecting my performance. On the contrary, people here are always telling me to loosen up.
I feel absolutely great showing up two hours late for a meeting. And if it has already begun? Well, I’ve always loved grand entrances and stealing the spotlight anyway, so everything just feels right. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m meeting someone two hours ago and I really should go take a shower and get ready.