I really hate to be late. I am a punctual person. I drove my children crazy when they were growing up. “Hurry!!” I’d yell. “We’re going to be late!” as if that were some federal offense.

We’ve all heard the stereotypes of Latina culture – manana is soon enough. Si, si, mas tarde, I’ll get to it later. In Brazil they even have a verb – adiar – which means “to put off until whenever.” But recently, my frustration has come to a head. I’m having real problems dealing with the Latin attitude toward time and schedules.

If class starts at 1:00, not only do many students arrive at 1:20 or 1:30, but they cheerfully burst into the classroom with a hearty “Buenas!” for one and all. “Ah, como estas?” everyone answers. “Excuse me?” I bleat haplessly. “I was speaking.” In the USA, if a student enters that late, she or he at least tries to slink unobtrusively into the room.

The principal of an elementary school asked me to do an English class with 6th graders on Friday at 8:00. I dutifully planned my lesson and arrived promptly to discover that there was no English class on Friday mornings.

Where 7 means 9
The first week we arrived to our community we were told, “Oh, you must come to the school’s annual dinner tomorrow at the convention center at 7:00.” Fine. We arrived. The building was dark. Do we have the right place? The right day? Yes, said the guy who was sweeping the atrium. They’re not here yet.

We walked around for awhile. People started to arrive at 9:00. We clustered around the entryway until they opened the ballroom doors at 9:30. A few nuts and crackers were out to munch on while tributes, awards and speeches continued until dinner was served at 11:30. Yawn. Why do they call this a dinner, I asked, if it’s almost midnight before we eat? “Oh,” everyone laughed, “you’re not used to Panamanian time. Also, if they put out the dinner first, no one would stay for the speeches.”

We needed to go to another community to meet with other Peace Corps volunteers. Oh, don’t bother going to the terminal and paying bus fare, said Doris, our “mom.” Jose is driving there. He’ll give you a ride. When? we asked. Ahorita, right now, she said. Two hours later, Jose showed up on his way out of town. Good thing, too, since we had missed the buses.

Countdown to 2009
Peace Corps gives us vacation days. We can’t use them during the first or the last three months of our two-year service. That leaves an 18-month period to plan our trips. “Where is the calendar for 2009?” we asked in the school’s main office. “We don’t have it yet,” the secretary said. “But it’s almost December now. When will it be announced?” “We don’t know.” “But when is the first day of school in 2009?” Answer: The Ministry of Education will tell us when they decide.

A very special graduation ceremony was designated for Thursday afternoon for the English For Life students. This is a wonderful government program for English acquisition that is the brainchild of someone in the current administration. If another party wins the presidency in the May elections, this and all other programs from the prior administration will likely be discontinued. We showed up an hour early to find that it had been held at 8:30 because the Minister of Education, who was the keynote speaker, had to change his schedule. “Oh, didn’t you hear that it changed yesterday?” our colleagues asked.

My husband and I started a citywide English club for all students of English at any school – private or public, university or high school. We publicized it on all campuses. We listed the time, place and agenda. We specified that it was hora americana, not hora panamena and that if you were late, you’d miss all the fun. What do you know – they arrived on time. We followed our agenda. We ended as scheduled. It was a tremendous success. Everyone wanted to increase from monthly meetings to bi-monthly. Maybe things can slowly change by our example.

Meanwhile, I have to lighten up. I cannot let these cultural differences get the best of me. But sometimes my only reaction echoes the great quote from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts gang: AAUGH!!!!