The Guatemalans in San Marcos seem to be living at such a pleasant rhythmic pace that I can’t help but be in awe of the ease with which they effortlessly carry on their daily affairs. They go about their normal day, going to work in the morning, raising their children, cooking and cleaning -- all the same things that we do, but no one’s ever rushing or even seen walking fast. No one ever says, “I don’t have time or let me look at my calendar to see if I can schedule you in for the Thursday after next.”
Growing up in the Bay Area, life has always revolved around deadlines, meetings, spending hours in traffic, hours on email, and too busy a social calendar to keep up with everyone. The days are crowded with activity and yet most of us live with this overwhelming guilty feeling of not getting enough done in a day. We console with the latest self-help books on time-saving techniques, even attend courses on time management, or email others just to put the “ball in their court” so it’s off of ours. Heck we often enjoy crossing things off our lists more than completing the task itself, just so we can move on to the next item (on our never-ending-to-do list). We’ve become a culture of people used to running around at a dizzying pace trying to achieve the un-achievable. Why? Well, since everyone else seems to be in the same predicament, it must be “normal.”
One can understand my astonishment at arriving in San Marcos, where people are beating to a different drum all together ... completely oblivious to the fact that their neighbors up north are sprinting through their lives like their tails are on fire. So I can’t help but ask: what are we missing? What does an average Guatemalan know about time that an average American hasn’t figured out yet? After weeks of looking at them with scrutinizing eyes and making mental notes of their every move, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two simple reasons for our wide differences: contentment and living with rhythms of nature.
Although they work hard to have a better quality of life for their families, they never lose sight of what’s important. On the busiest tourist day of the year, they will not hesitate to shut down their restaurants, close down their shops, and go home to celebrate Easter with their families. They will not worry about missing out on a months’ worth of profits; instead they go to church and give thanks for what they have. In the US, this might be translated as un-ambitious but here they’re working off of a totally different grid all-together. Brand names mean very little since most families weave their own clothes. No one has a car. The small cobble streets aren’t even wide enough for motorized vehicles. It’s considered pretty snooty to have more than your neighbors (quite opposite of “competing with the Joneses”). Everyone borrows from each other at one point or another, for a wedding, a celebration, or a religious holiday. By the end, everyone owes everyone else in the village. Rather than a sign of weakness, this is considered a sign of community that connects everyone. And humility is a trait that supersedes all others.
Nature is also a central part of the Mayan culture so there’s an inherent connection to it in their daily lives. They live close to the lake; Wake up when the sun comes up to the sound of the birds chirping and the roosters roosting; Go to sleep when it gets dark. I’ve never seen a Guatemalan cram more into their days than comfortably possible. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of the term “multi-tasking”. I’m sure they would think it was a crazy idea. They’re not just doing things, they seem to “really” enjoy the process of simple everyday tasks, and never seem to be in a hurry to get to the next one but you know that they eventually will.
While we almost always chew more than we can swallow, they seem to have a built-in system for interruptions. They chat with neighbors; they talk to the grocers; they even have time enough to be curious about the random traveler that drops in on their town. They’re the most courteous people I’ve ever met, no matter how young or old, no one will let you pass by without saying a hearty “Buenas Dias” or “Buenas Tardes”. I’m almost certain that they think that Americans are a pretty antsy bunch, demanding a meal or a room before fully enquiring how their day is going. A little “como estas” (how’s it going?) goes a long way here.
They seem to allow space within all their exchanges, to sanction things below the surface to come up and permeate their lives. Just as you can’t hurry a bamboo tree to grow, you cannot rush your own natural rhythm of life. No matter what, a woman will take nine months to give birth to a child, a dog will take two months, and an elephant will take over two years. There’s a natural flow for everything. Interrupting it inevitably leads to the devastation of certain other parts of our selves. Maybe we wouldn’t need as many drugs and therapists in the US if we harmonized with our natural rhythms instead of the ticks of the clock.
On describing a typical day in San Marcos to a friend back home, he joked that Americans would’ve gone around the world five times by the time I finished a meal at a restaurant here. But then we pondered: after going around the world five times, we’d still end up in the same place, so what’s the rush. Where are we going after all?