One of the most striking things I’ve observed in Northern Chile is the attitude towards time, so distinct from the breakneck pace of our North American lifestyles.
If you want to go out to a cafe and order coffee in the morning, you will first be seated. Then, you will be brought a menu. (I’ve never seen a menu posted on a board behind the cash register in this town.) After 10-15 minutes, the waitress will take your order for the coffee. The coffee will be carefully constructed for another 20 minutes. 30-40 minutes later, you will finally receive your coffee in a porcelain or glass mug, and be invited to sip it for as long as you want. (In all fairness, it is possible to get a coffee within 15-20 minutes of entering a cafe – as long as you order immediately – but certainly no sooner.) I have never seen a coffee served in a “to go cup” except for at McDonalds, and although the McDonalds served me a coffee in a styrofoam cup, it didn’t have a lid. I assume because no one would ever consider actually walking around with it. Even the McFlurries don’t have lids around here… ice cream to go? Unheard of!
Restaurants will never rush you to order, will take their time before bringing you the food, and then take their time to bring you anything else you request (ketchup, etc.), and certainly will never check in on you or rush you at all while eating. Many waiters seem shocked when my husband jumps up as soon as he’s done eating to pay the bill. Lunches and dinners can easily stretch on for 2-3 hours; waiters assume you want that experience when going out to eat.
Even routine errands are accomplished in their own good time. Chileans have to go to a little office called a Servi-Pac that are found around town – kind of like post offices or post office outlets would be set up around town back in the U.S. and Canada – at least once a month to pay bills. There is no reliable postal service and few to no opportunities to pay bills online, so when Chileans receive their electricity, water, phone or internet bill, they march that paper bill down to the Servi-Pac to pay in person. Often the Servi-Pac lines have a good two dozen people waiting. Since there are, to my knowledge, no opportunities for online banking, credit card bills and routine bank transactions are also conducted in person, with lines at bank branches often stretching out the door and spilling onto the streets.
This patience towards time is reflected in a larger scale as well.
I have mentioned the student strikes in universities throughout Chile. Universities and public high schools are effectively shut down at the moment as a result of a protest that began in May and culminated in July with students “seizing” campus. Universities are currently in their fourth month of closure: students without classes to attend, professors with no access to their university offices.
While American professors here are visibly growing increasingly antsy and worried about ever returning to work, if Chilean professors are similarly worried, I haven’t seen any evidence of it. I sense – based on my casual conversations with them and opinion pieces in the newspaper that I’ve read – that many of them feel that this strike is something that needs to happen, and the time it takes to unfold is inconsequential compared to the potential payoff it could provide to society as a whole and the future of the country. Similarly, as some of the American professors who maintain some contact with their Chilean students have reported to me, if students are worried about these past few months being wasted, most do not betray any evidence of impatience.
This attitude has some wonderful silver linings for Chilean families. Parents seem keen to spend long weekend afternoons with their children, relaxing on the beach or showing them how to fly kites. I see families enjoying long, leisurely dinners together, laughing and talking. Chileans even seem to stroll through the sidewalks at a remarkably slower pace than I ever walk, taking in the scenery and appreciating the time they’re spending outside with their loved ones. Families will even wait in line together, chatting to pass the time, at the Servi-Pac or bank.
I’ve been conditioned to believe that faster is better. I will admit to often missing my “old” life that operated at a breakneck speed. I long for the Starbucks Latte, presented hot and fresh in under 5 minutes. I relish for the instant gratification of online banking and quick, one-click online shopping. “Time is money,” we’re often told in North America.
But to many Chileans, time seems to be worth something much more valuable than money.