IN GUATEMALA, TIME IS A PLACE
By Marylou Shira Hadditt
In Guatemala, time is a place you live in. As a dimension it becomes quite different. Essentially, time is slower.
The bus leaves when it is full.
The boat comes when it comes.
You sit forever at a restaurant after you’ve eaten. It would be rude for the waitress to bring you a check.
Time allows people to see where other people are. To relate to absolute strangers in a friendly, patient manner. Never, in any of our interchanges with all variety of service people – hotel and sales clerks, bus drivers, sellers of merchandise on the street, waiters and waitresses – all were pleasant and good humored. No one was ever the slightest bit impatient.
My daughter Gail is my traveling companion. We go to the bank to change travelers checks; the line is long. We wait, we don’t look at the clock. there is no clock to look at. When it becomes our turn, we are warmly greeted by the clerk: “Buenos dias, senora, ” or “Buenos tardes, senora”. Guatemalans always use the honorific. We follow, likewise, using manners we often forgot at home, “por favor, senor/senorita” and “muchas gracias,
senor/ senorita. ”
We wait for the ferry boat to take us across Lake Atitlan. We signal , waving from a hill above the shore. A small Chris Craft with a smelly outboard motor pulls up to the dock. I struggle, dragging my wheeled suitcase along the sandy path. A passenger jumps out of the boat, runs up to me, takes my suitcase to the boat. “Me gusto:” he says. Another passenger helps me, “la abuela,” (thd gandmother) climb in to the boat. The ferry waits until we are comfortably seated before leaving the dock.
We enter a restaurant in Antigua, relax at a table in a garden courtyard, We laugh at the mermaid fountain, water spraying from her nipples. We admire the carefully planted hibiscus, fuscias, day lilies. Someone has taken a great deal of effort planting and caring for this garden. The waitress give us a menu. This is not a microwave restaurant. Our meal is individually prepared. Sooner or later dinner appears. Sooner or later we eat. Sooner or later, we ask for the check. The waitress won’t bring the check until its asked for. Doing otherwise is rude like asking us to leave before we are ready. Before we leave, we exclaim how good our meal was and everyone says, “Gracias. Muchas gracias.”
The bus to Solola leaves when it is full. Along the route many more people board carrying bundles on their heads, on their backs, in their arms. The bus becomes crowded, people are squashed against each other. Those who are sitting two to a seat, squeeze together to make room for a third. If someone has a vacant lap, a nearby child is invited to occupy it. These bus passengers have time to notice their neighbors and to make acts of kindness an everyday occurrence.
Children are everywhere — accompanying parents on the buses, in the market place, in restaurants, in church. Babies up to two or three years old, cuddle in brightly colored rebozos against their mother’s breasts. I never saw an angry short-tempered parent tugging or yelling at a child. Instead, I saw children contentedly playing with siblings in the corners of market stalls, boys and girls as young as six helping parents by carrying a load of firewood or a basket of grain. Being useful. These gentle people took time and patience with their children and the children behaved in a relaxed, non-threatening way. Contrary to my Western misconceptions of machismo in Latin countries, fathers were often seen carrying the children.
We sit at a tiny four-table restaurant for breakfast. We order a papaya liquado (smoothie) with two straws, one for each of us. Almost two weeks later, we return to this same restaurant for breakfast. We order one liquado and one panqueque. The liquado arrives with two straws. The waiter had time to remember, even though we were strangers.
I felt physically different in Guatemala. I hardly wheezed even though I was climbing steep hills, and my leg didn’t hurt from walking on cobblestones. My back, which usually aches every morning, didn’t. Now that I am home, I realize that I need to reevaluate my time, how I perceive it and live within it – to learn to idle productively. Finding time to relate to the world around me in a more sensitive manner.
I question my own values, my pressing needs. For instance, is my life so much better because I plop my soiled clothes in a white porcelain box, push a button and they come out clean, than that of a Mayan woman who joins her friends to stand in a clear mountain lake,, minnows tickling her feet while she scrubs the family’s clothes on a rock, lays them out on the grassy shore to dry in the sun?
When I am delayed in an endless line of late afternoon auto traffic. I take a deep breath, say “oh well”, settle back listening to a tape, not looking at my watch. That’s what I learned in Guatemala. Those five or ten or even twenty minutes don’t matter that much.
The bus leaves when its full. The boat comes when it comes and the groceries will be waiting on the shelves when I get there.