Throughout my time in Peru, I will be writing occasional columns for The Fond du Lac Reporter, my hometown newspaper. The following piece originally appeared in the Jan. 28, 2013 issue of the Reporter and can be found at http://www.fdlreporter.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013301300034&nclick_check=1
My thanks to Gary Clausius and Mike Mentzer for editing these articles and helping with this project.
Though I have been living in Peru for more than a year, I rarely finish a day without noticing another way I stick out. Such is the curse of a 6-foot-3-inch “gringo.”
These distinctions show themselves in everything from how my classroom management skills contrast with those of my colleagues to the way my Peruvian friends pass a bottle of beer around a circle rather than each buying their own.
Some of the greatest dissimilarities appear in how I treat time.
It would be a serious faux pas if I said too much about how we from the U.S. see time, for efficiency and a “keep-it-short-stupid” mentality are the modus operandi of how we conduct most human interactions. Who can blame us when we are only allotted 140 characters to make a point? In the U.S., time is money, and as Bob Dylan said, “Money doesn’t talk; it swears.” How quickly something is completed is sometimes valued more than how well it is completed.
Things are a little different in Peru. Mark Adams, a North American author whose wife is from Lima, aptly explains “la hora peruana, Peruvian Time”: “The statement ‘I’ll be right back’ can mean just that, or it can mean that the speaker is about to depart via steamship for Cairo.”
It is not that Peruvians do not care about commitments. It is simply that new commitments pop up and take precedence.
A Peruvian might be rushing to a meeting when she bumps into a friend. Suddenly, she remembers her friend’s wife is pregnant. When is she due? She had the baby? Of course, she would love to meet the little guy!
Readers who are worried that this woman will be in trouble for her delay should know the meeting will probably begin an hour late.
I have had a tough time adjusting to la hora peruana. Like many North Americans, I am used to impatiently counting the seconds as I wait for someone who is running late, which they are obviously doing to annoy me.
That said, a major part of my role with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps involves setting aside the norms I grew up with and looking for lessons.
In that spirit, la hora peruana has made me more aware of what really counts. What Peruvians lack in punctuality, they make up for in prioritizing what is directly in front of them. A coffee date in the U.S. is often disrupted by texts and the sense that one or both parties are thinking about emails they need to send. When I speak with Peruvians, I feel like I have their undivided attention.
Upon my arrival, I was struck by how communal the country is. The dinner table is still a significant gathering place and holidays are events celebrated by entire communities. I puzzled over this collective sensibility for some time, but I eventually saw its connection to the lateness I found so irritating.
While tardiness is taken as a sign of disrespect in the U.S., in Peru it is more indicative of availability to the people and moments at hand. Though Peruvians may check fewer items off their “To Do” lists, they tend to hit the marks that matter most—appreciation for loved ones and finishing truly necessary tasks.
It would be unrealistic to suggest an overhaul of the way we perceive time in the U.S., and that really is not the point. Trying to draw wisdom from la hora peruana does not mean it is perfect. But if I return to the U.S. slightly less distracted and a little more present to my friends and family, I will have gained a worthwhile insight — even if it sometimes makes me late.