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Better Late Than Never

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Written by Matt   
Thursday, 22 February 2007 08:57

I sat at Hotel El Panama in the open-air lobby under the frawns of a droopy palm tree and looked hopelessly at my watch. When you're waiting alone for someone in a public place, sales it is easy to look like a loser and I was getting just that vibe from a gaggle of American tourists gathered beside me who, health as a group, eyed me with pity as if to say, sick “At least we have each other.”

In an effort to appear busy, possibly even influential, I pulled out the only thing studious that I had—a calculator—from my bag and pretended as if I was mulling over some financial quandary: looking into the sky, then confidently typing arbitrary numbers into the keypad. Sometimes I'd pretend to be surprised by the final number. Sometimes delighted. Once or twice furious when I'd shake my head in shame. “That's just not gonna cut it” I'd say in a loud whisper, “the costs are way too high”. I had been waiting for my meeting to start for thirty minutes and still, none of the people had arrived. The tourists were on to me. I had dropped a bottle of Banana Republic cologne in my bathroom earlier and was enveloped in this fragrant scent, I can only describe as modern. The tourists could smell that too.

The “manana” or “tomorrow” mindset in Central America is something I originally adored: this relaxed mentality so deliciously distant from the regimented world that I left behind in the States. It was, to me, this mysterious phenomenon that oozed from cracks in Panama; the way that people down here accomplished tasks at a magic, haphazard pace. That mindset has transformed for me though, from a once-whimsical yearning to a downright annoying facet of Panama living, and something that pisses me off almost every day.

From a very early age, I associated being late with bad things. If I didn't turn in my homework on time, for example, I was subject to detention. If I didn't arrive home before curfew, I would be grounded. Time was an important thing, a precious thing, and I was always taught that wasting mine or that of anyone else was about as bad as throwing away good schnapps. So when I arrived in Panama and realized that being late is part of the culture, it was extremely difficult to adjust.

Asking a Panamanian to estimate something is like asking a gnome to slam dunk a basketball—it's not something they do very well. Specifically when it comes to time estimates, Panamanians are about as bad as I've seen and their accuracy can be characterized by one word: psycho. Ask them for example, how far away they are from your office. “Oh, just five minutes” they'll tell you, “I'm almost there.” At this point you should always ask whether they're referring to five real minutes or five Panamanian minutes being that Panamanian minutes, like dog years, are significantly distorted.

For the most part in Panama, meeting etiquette is completely different as well. I've found deadlines and time limits to be indefinite and not taken seriously in some cases. Taking cell phone calls during a meeting, an act despicable at home, is an everyday occurrence here, done with the nonchalance of a high five. It's not the most pleasant custom and one that you should definitely be prepared for before you're ready to make the move. Factor in forming relationships with locals, real estate project punctuality, business consequences.

Maybe it just takes some getting used to. Maybe time isn't really so important after all and I could learn something from this norm. Maybe people are too uptight to start with in the States and that's just what they need: a bit of relaxation and stress reduction. A bit of leniency in their lives, I don't know.

So there I sat in the hotel lobby. Tapping away at my calculator almost to a desperate degree. Thirty minutes had passed since my meeting was supposed to start, and I was still waiting for the people it required. Then, just as I was about to give up, a taxi with my colleagues arrived. Under normal circumstances, I would have said something weighty about the disrespect of being half an hour late. “A phone call would have been considerate” I might say. “I would have appreciated an apology.” I didn't want to embarrass myself though, because after all, the tourists were watching.

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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 23:11