Lost in Time?

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?


  1. Grrrr:

    As always, you are sharp-eyed observer of your own present -- and it results in a gift to the rest of us.

    The most fascinating take-away from your astute observations is the cause-and-effect relationship between two non-obviously connected things: the sense of community and the sense of time. You may be on to something significant.

    If I had to guess at the relationship between community and the feeling that the day does-or-does-not have a sufficient number of minutes or hours within which to meet our perceived needs, it would be this: the feelings of well-being that stem from being wrapped within the fabric of community displace other needs that are either more time sensitive or time consumptive. We give ourselves so devoutly to satisfying the requirements of our employers and engage in busy-making activities that bring us individual satisfaction because the community-derived satisfactions are increasingly rare.

    Was there ever a time in our lives as objectively deadline-filled and otherwise crazy-busy as college? And yet, amid the incessant time pressures, we invariably found the time to indulge in the pleasures of being engulfed in community.

    If there is anything lacking in our modern, urban lives it is that sense of cohesion you describe in San Marcos. The venn diagram of our communal relationships depict a number of small, frequently non-intersecting circles within a pretty large void. In a place like San Marcos, the salient feature would be the one large, encompassing circle, which might itself contain other inclusive relationships.

    The problem of creating community within an often alienating social landscape is difficult. We experimented with creating community with our SOMAsala project, years ago, and found it very difficult to get people completely comfortable with giving themselves over to a sense of community -- even when others were doing all the hard work of community building for them. The obstacle-in-chief: the feeling of insufficient time to participate in the communitarian endeavor.

    Much love,


  2. Hi Mark,

    Wonderful to hear your reflections as always. :-)

    Community does a play a huge role...one thing that differentiates the people from this region is that they've been here ALL their lives, so in that sense community is inevitable for them. Whereas our communities often move around and are now even becoming hugely virtual which changes the whole game and comes with its own pros and cons. :-)

    Much love,

  3. Guri, this post is awesome .. Reminds me of my travels in Bhutan :) I noticed similar things there :) Bhutanese too are totally in tune with their lives and nature :)

    thanks :)

  4. Anonymous4/15/2010

    beautiful reflection on your experience there -- and enjoyed mbjesq's thoughts on it, too!

    reminds me (surprise, surprise) of a quote by Stephan Rechtschaffen:

    "Our ability to shift gears, to shift our rhythm to meet that moment and be present in it, is what allows us to experience the fullness of life - to create our life in the way we want it to be."

    Full passage: http://www.ijourney.org/index.php?tid=577

    hope to have your reflections flowing in!


  5. Gurrr, great post. As always dropping the knowledge. I had similar insights/experiences in Latin America and Spain.

    Shine on girlie!