Time Is Elastic

By Mariela PT

Time is elastic. We know this. I have just woken up from a nap that felt like a restless fifteen minutes but, by the clock, was almost an hour. Whether it’s because of that last hour of work limping by or the assignment you swear you had way more time to finish, we have all experienced the fickle nature of time.

Time is elastic. We know this. Ethiopia, home to the ancient remains of humans and one of the most ancient alphabets still in use, runs on its own measure of time: the calendar sees a year made up of 13 months, and the day starts at dawn (a subjective moment with great annual variability). It is called, officially, Ethiopian Time.

In this world there exists plenty of other “Times”, as well. However, the teeming majority of these times are culturally alternate, rather than officially different measures. I think a key element of this is due to differing values and lifestyle emphases—but before I explore what it means more deeply, I want to examine what these different times look like.

Time in sprawling México City (CDMX) is unusual. The city itself is a dazzling paradox of old and new; as the downtown colonias fuse their traditional, folkish charm with more modern, alternative flavours, the impoverished communities of ‘old’ Santa Fe are struggling to persevere alongside the choking construction and developments of ‘new (and improved)’ Santa Fe. In these budding commercial zones of CDMX, universities and formal companies run like an oiled bike chain: lectures never run overtime (a very new experience for me); business people clock out at 5 pm on the dot; and if an established business says it opens at 8 am you can bet it won’t be opening its door until that second hand reaches the 12.

But this city is spilling with people, almost splitting at the seams, and most of them don’t live in these flashy new districts that track time to the second. As a result, lines of professionals and students wait to cram themselves into buses that don’t have a schedule to run to—a nice albeit frustrating concept which means they can never be said to run late, nor early. Then—the opening expanse of a night that offers the world: bars open until they morph into cafés to satisfy the late-night reckless and the early-morning restless alike; 9 pm, the time I normally begin my pre-sleep unwind, finds dinner barely even starting.

Here, life goes on, always. Here, the twenty-four hours of a day are stretched and kneaded, crammed full and pushed out. With a population of 24 million people trying their best to get by on a minimum wage of 88 pesos (about $6 AUD) per day, it’s not difficult to see why time in CDMX is so expansive—a paradox of passing so slowly it’s almost luxurious and yet filling each day with as much work as possible. This is Mexican Time.

In recent years, scientists and researchers have been focusing in on the concept of time; particularly how we conceive it in our Western cultures: as a universal law, unchanging and constant, dictating every element of our day. The results are marvellous, if not devastatingly indicative of how ignorant we are to the ways of the universe. Clocks tick slower in a stronger gravitational field. We cannot truly share the present moment with anyone, because of the time light takes to travel. Time is not linear; it does not travel from past to future. The present, in universal terms, is not thin but “horrendously thick”, or so argues theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli in his lecture on time at the Royal Institute, London.

To understand this, contrast Mexico’s paradoxical valuing and use of time with the languid and lackadaisical Paraguay; a tiny, land-locked country nestled into the heart of South America. Here, the days are hot and the humidity almost oppressive—at the height of summer, daytime temperatures can reach the mid-forties with humidity at more than eighty-five per cent. The siesta punctuates the daily routine of almost every working Paraguayan: a post-lunch nap to escape the hottest part of the day. And yet, the knowledge that this pause is constant in its quotidian approach does nothing to rush the people here. The WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised/Individualised, Rich, Democratic) concept of exponential growth—professionally and personally—does not exist here, or at least not to the same extent.

In Paraguay, it is generally acknowledged that things take time, and people are more than willing to oblige. As in México, there is no official timetable for public transport—but in Paraguay, there aren’t even official bus stops. Step beyond the main highway running through the capital city of Asunción and a bus stop might be a tree on the corner to make the most of the shade or out the front of a despensa so you can lick on an ice cream while you wait. Shocking to someone who has grown up in a culture so strictly regimented that, even if delays do happen far too frequently, we are updated in real-time about exactly when our bus or train will arrive—yet everyone in Paraguay gets to where they need to be. An hour-long commute into the CBD at 5:30 in the morning is a lightning flash when you can sit with your head against the jolting glass and fall back to sleep, or sip your ice-cold tereré to gently wake up.

The value in Paraguay isn’t on productivity, or exponential growth, or success—at least not in the way we understand these terms through the lens of late capitalism. My family in Paraguay, every day, reminded me of how lucky they were: to have a roof over their heads, to have the freedom to drive through the lush countryside come the weekend, to be making money from their own businesses that allowed them to work as they like, to have their country free from dictatorship and imperial presence, and to have their families. Time, and the pressures that arise from keeping it strictly, doesn’t factor in to any of that which they find a blessing. This is Paraguayan Time.

In the hazy, sunken heat of a Paraguayan evening by the river, time passes differently. As the chipa vendor cycles past, selling his hot and cheesy wares, despite it being just before dinner time on a Wednesday afternoon, you buy one. You sink your teeth into it, tongue blistering as you sit next to someone you love so dearly, and they laugh at you: your impatient, time-hungry self. This is the unconsequence of time. This is the richness of our timeless, human existence.

Spanish Terms:

Colonias = neighbourhoods; suburbs

Siesta = nap, generally taken mid-afternoon or after lunch

Despensa = convenience store

Tereré = a quintessential Paraguayan drink made with mate tea leaves and best enjoyed out of a personalised thermos

Chipa = South American hot cheese bread