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Latin Standard Time (Hora Latina): A Survival Guide

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One of the benefits of escaping the rat race to go live in a foreign country for a year is that you get a little cultural enrichment along the way.  But despite what you may have been told, cultural enrichment isn’t always fun.  There are wonderful benefits, such as unique music and new foods.  And there are interesting sights and new experiences that make daily life so much richer than the same old routine you’re used to back home… But then there are drawbacks too: cultural habits people have that are about as fun as that taste you have when you throw up a little in your mouth.  Here in Latin America, one of those little drawbacks is Latin Standard Time – The Hora Latina.  For a corporate accountant like me who is used to rules and numbers, the Hora Latina is pure unadulterated hell.


What is the Hora Latina?

Basically, it’s an hour that can be added judiciously to just about any scheduled meeting, appointment, event, or otherwise previously agreed upon time.  For example, if you have a lunch date for 1pm, under the Hora Latina, your friend won’t show up until 2pm.  It’s nothing against you, and it’s certainly not a reason to get upset – it’s the culture.


Inevitably, there will be some half-bred excuse for running late, perhaps some completely unexpected traffic, a surprise encounter with someone they haven’t seen in ages, or an emergency trip to the market to buy some papayas (yes, this happened).   Whatever the excuse is, it will be there as sure as the sun rises in the East.


How Can I Fight This Evil?

This is a cultural experience, right? I should be happy about it, yes?  Well, I’m not.  I cannot deny who I am: a corporate accountant infused with a solid protestant work ethic, and a devotion to my promises like a dog to a bone.  Nope, rather than adapt to the culture, I tried to fight this evil.


So, at first, I fought the Hora Latina by just setting my watch an hour earlier.  If it’s 2pm, but I think it’s 1pm because my watch is early, then I’ll be perfectly on time, right?  That was the thinking.


No son, it doesn’t work that wayBecause the Hora Latina is not an equal opportunity rule.   Some appointment times are honored, and some are not.  If you don’t want to risk missing your appointment, then you’d better show up on time…. But if you do show up on time, then you run the very real risk that you’ll be sitting on your thumbs for an hour waiting.


So, you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.  The trick is learning when to add the Hora Latina, and when not to – and how to survive it when it happens.


The Hora Latina – A Survival Guide

I have come up with three rules of thumb to help me survive Latin Standard Time.  Live by these rules, and you too should be fine:


Rule Number One:  Apply the Hora Latina when you have leverage.

Here’s an example: if you have a doctor’s appointment with a good doctor who has a full schedule, then you don’t have leverage.  If you miss that appointment, you have to reschedule according to the doctor’s availability, not yours.


On the other hand, if the doctor clearly does not have a lot of patients, then you have all the leverage.  In that case, apply the Hora Latina.  Go get yourself some papayas, and show up an hour late.  The doctor will still see you, and you won’t risk waiting on her for an hour.


The same analysis can be applied to any type of appointment or meeting.  A lunch date…. Do you need something from your friend, or is your friend seeking something from you?  If you have the leverage, then you should show up late.  But if you need a favor, show up on time.  If it’s truly a balanced relationship, then split the difference, and show up 30 minutes late.


It’s that simple.  Show up late if you have leverage, don’t if you don’t.


Rule Number Two: There is a Direct Exponential Relationship Between the Hora Latina and Your Distance From The Nearest City.

If you are in a big city in Latin America, the Hora Latina may not always be so obvious, especially in the centers of power.  In big business and political environments, people tend to honor their appointments.  But the further away you get from the centers of power, the Hora Latina increases exponentially.  Not only is it more common, but it increases in length too.


In remote places far from the cities, the Hora Latina is no longer measured in terms of hours.  It is often measured in days.  For example, if you’ve agreed with your friend to work on some project together, she may not show up until several days later.  That’s perfectly normal – and not a reason to get upset at her.


Recalibrate your expectations to this reality.  If you’re far outside of the city, then just plan on several days’ delay anytime you agree to do something.


Rule Number Three: Rules numbers one and two are often wrong, so you’d better sharpen those waiting skills.

This is the final piece to the puzzle to surviving the Hora Latina.  After all, the Hora Latina is unpredictable.  So, you’d better sharpen those waiting skills so that a few hours’ delay – or even a few days – doesn’t phase you.  Oh, and since the internet here sucks, do it without a cellphone.


They say that challenges make us stronger.  Once you sharpen those waiting skills, you will be better prepared for many of life’s inconveniences, even back home where folks don’t usually have so many excuses.


Follow these three rules, and you too will survive the Hora Latina.  And once you do, you will have earned yourself some mad waiting skills.


Mad Waiting Skills

And so, there is the silver lining.  I’m proud to say that after just a few weeks in Bolivia, my kids too are learning to wait.  They stare down an hour wait like Don King at a prize fight.  Two hours to wait for an appointment?  What-ev!  Three hours waiting for a bus ride? Call me next Tuesday.  Those kids wouldn’t complain about a few hours’ wait if it woke up and slapped them in the face.


Yup, my kids have now got mad waiting skills! I knew this whole cultural experience thing would have some benefits.  I’m so proud!



Jojo Bobo


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