Forget the dictionary definition, the most precise translation of mañana is “not today.” The term al rato means “in a while,” al ratito, “in a little while.” The word ahorita can signify right now, a few minutes from now, or any time in the foreseeable future.
Grasp the imprecision implicit in these terms and you’re well on the way to contented assimilation in the Mexican time warp. Balk and you’re doomed to suffer constant aggravations.
The ballet folklórico show is billed to start at 5 p.m. If you arrive a half hour early so you can nab a choice parking spot and a front row seat, chances are your bum will go numb before the curtain opens.
When the plumber tells you he’ll come Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. to fix a leaky pipe, consider it an approximation. Glue your eyes to the clock and you’ll be huffing, puffing and furiously tapping your feet by the time he appears. You’re better off settling down for a good read while you wait. Before you know it, you might finish plowing your way through the entirety of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.”
It’s not that people here are intentionally late, it just that they’re not fixated on punctuality as a priority. Maybe the dance troupe’s lead performer missed the bus or the sound guy had to deal with an unexpected technical glitch. The handyman might have been forced to go to three suppliers before finding all the needed spare parts, or altered his agenda to take a sick relative to the doctor.
As a journalist, I take comfort in knowing I can usually head off to cover a government event exactly at the appointed time, get tangled in traffic, cruise around searching for an empty parking space and still arrive right on cue.
When it comes to attending Mexican social gatherings, timing tends to be extremely flexible. Whatever the hour given to get the party started, the hosts expect that their guests will arrive an hour or more after that and stay on until all the food, booze and physical energy has run out.
On the flip side, invitations to expat parties stating specific hours, such as “join us for cocktails from 4 to 6 p.m.,” are a complete anathema to Mexicanos. Why would anyone shoo their friends out the door just as the fun gets rolling?
A few years ago there was a fashion trend among well adapted expats who dressed in tee-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I’m on Mexico Time.” They wore them as badges of pride for mastering the country’s easy going rhythm of life.
Once you’re really in the groove you recognize nuances of that concept. For example, there’s Mexico Country Time, a more laid back approach to counting the hours based on the movements of sun and shadows instead of the face of a wristwatch. And Mexico Indigenous Time, followed by native tribes like the Wixáritari (Huichol people) who seem to depend upon mysterious powers of the universe to move them.
Perhaps it all goes back to ancestral roots of New World civilizations that viewed time as a circular rather than linear phenomenon. Whatever the reason, foreigners fit in better when they learn to relax and go with the flow, keeping in mind that in this land, time remains a relative matter in most spheres of society.
Remember that patience is defined as the virtue of enduring suffering, misfortune and hardship with tranquility, tolerance and understanding, and without complaint or rebellion. One wonders whether Job of Biblical fame put up with his many trials after doing boot camp in Mexico.