“The Avocado Republic of Chile, because it’s too Cold to Grow Bananas” is Chile’s ultimate tour guide. Laugh-out-loud funny and insightful. American writer sick of the pollution and noise in Santiago moves to the country for peace and quiet. What he did not know is when you move to the country, you exchange one set of problems for another. Click through the arrows to read.
In Chile, a clock is only an approximation of the actual time and the actual time only an approximation of when events are going to transpire.
There is a reason that the meridian runs through Greenwich, England and not, say, São Paolo: it is the Latin indifference to time.
I speak from experience; this is no stereotype. Having lived in Chile 4 years continuously now, and having commuted back and forth for 5 more, and having married (and divorced) an Ecuadorian, and then married a Chilean, I know what I am talking about.
There is a long list of how Chile’s indifference to the correct time or the agreed schedule plays out in the world of business and culture compared to the developed world.
Setting a schedule and sticking to it is vital in the matter of, say, airline schedules. When you buy an airline ticket from, say, Washington to Santiago, the arrival time is always shown in the destination time zone. Sometimes this leaves weary travelers scratching their heads and confused as they wonder how many hours have transpired and when they will arrive, having already spent what seems like an eternity on such a long international flight. The passenger is too sleepy and dehydrated to take the destination time and add or subtract the correct number of hours to figure out how long they have been travelling and when they might get there.
Chile makes this particularly difficult because they keep changing the local time without informing the rest of the world.
This week, the energy and environmental ministers are trying to decide whether to again extend Day Light Savings (DST) Time. Because Chile has suffered a severe drought for several years, the country decided to extend DST to save electricity, since there is less snow melt to power hydroelectric energy production.
The problem is a country cannot do this on a whim. It takes several years to coordinate such time change with the rest of the world and allow time for each device that has a computer to update its software.
Right now the time zone on my cell phone is set to the Argentina time zone, which is currently 1 hour ahead of Chile. This is because Chile delayed the change to daylight savings time to save power and the Android software that powers my phone does not know that. This has been the case for the past three years. In the Northern Hemisphere, countries, except for those, like Ecuador, that are close to the equator, push back their clocks in the fall and then push them forward again in the spring. The reason for this is to change the start and stop time of work and the school day to more closely match the rising and the setting of the sun. But in Chile, they do this 4 times per year. In summer, we are 2 hours ahead of New York. In winter, the time in New York and Santiago is the same. But in the fall and spring, Chile moves ahead of New York by 1 hour. None of the computers I own know anything about this.
I worked on the computer systems at the Bank of Chile, when I first moved to Chile. Having worked as a programmer for many years I can tell you that it is vital that two computers talking to each other show the same time. If one is even one second ahead of another, programs will begin to malfunction. But there we had computers that were hours apart. The issue was that, say, Microsoft might have rolled out a patch to adjust for Chilean Summer Time, but Oracle had not. Plus the bank would apply the patch to some computers, but not all of them. So we did what I did with my cell phone, which was to change the time zone to Argentina or back. But you cannot change the time on a computer that is running mission-critical functions of the bank while tens of thousands of people are using that. So some applications would log you out right after you logged in, saying that your log in session had expired. To the clock on the computer, you had been sitting idle for 2 hours, whereas no time had passed at all.
Even Google at times does not know what time it is in Chile when you type “current time Santiago” into the browser.
It’s not just the mechanics of the chronometer that matters, it’s adherence to accepted norms.
In the developed world, when someone says they are having a meeting at 10:00 AM, that means at 10:00 AM they will have a meeting, not at 10:05, not at 10:15, and definitely not at 10:30. This is especially important for a conference calls where people dial in from different locations. But in Chile, most business is face-to-face, since most business is located in the same city: Santiago.
Having worked for two different companies here in Chile, I can tell you that a meeting set for 10:00 might get started at, say, 10:45, if that. The punctual gringo of course arrives on time, or even early, but others wander in and out many minutes later, and, only when there is a critical mass, or what you could call a quorum, does someone take up the mantle of leadership and gavel the meeting into session.
This delay causes lots of problems for those working in international organizations, where such lack of respect for punctuality clashes with expected norms. I made the mistake of going to work for a Chilean offshore computer programming company that was rotating employees in and out San Francisco for one month at a time. I did not last long there: three months. The client complained that I did not know the computer language there were using. But my employer knew that. They hired me, because I could speak English and knew other programming languages and could learn that one. Anyway, I always got to the client office promptly at 9:00 AM, in part because the client had an employee restaurant where I could order actual eggs, pancakes, and bacon, which I could not get easily in Chile. The client told us to come to work at 9:00, but the 10 or so people I was travelling with usually showed up at 9:30. Since our meetings started at 9:00, that caused the Americans to sit around for 30 minutes wondering where the Chileans were.
Another issue is the TV schedule. Here, as in the developed world, the cable TV channels list their timetable on the internet. You can also see what is playing when you press the guide button on the remote control. But what is showing there has almost no relevance at all to what the channels in Chile will actually broadcast at what time.
My wife and I like to watch Chilean telenovelas (soap operas) and the news discussion programs. The telenovelas run nightly Monday through Thursday. They show in the day too, but prime time starts at 8:00 PM. The news is at 9:00 PM and the most popular series start at 10:30 or 22:30. (Here the clock is written in military and European fashion: 9:00 PM is 21:00.)
If you watch soap operas, you know you have to watch the program regularly to enjoy it, as it takes some time to learn who the characters are and to catch up on the plot. Once you get to know the story and the actors, you can begin to enjoy the show. But in a country as small as Chile, you not only get familiar with the story line, the actors themselves becomes like close friends, because while there might be a new TV series every 3 months, the same actors rotate in and out. It’s as if Charlie Sheen (Two and a Half Men) and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) were on every show. The faces remain the same, only the story line changes.
There is fierce competition here between the channels for ratings and, of course, little regard for the time programs stop and start. So when I flip the channel to TVN, Chilevision, Mega, or Canal 13 to watch a drama or comedy at 10:30 or flip it again at 11:30 to watch Tolerancia Cero or El Informante news discussion programs, more often than not, the previous program is still playing. There is no indication when the next one might start; the earlier show could overrun its time slot 40 minutes. During ratings week, the situation is worse, as the producers shorten the series to drag it out, lengthen the commercials to increase revenue, and delay the broadcast until that critical mass of people I was talking about earlier forms the most profitable quorum.
This is highly irritating for the foreigner. For the Chilean it is par for the course. But as my wife and I also like to watch international programming, this irregularity is a problem, as we do not want to miss Game of Thrones, Masters and Johnson, or Homeland. But we have an advantage: her father works as a technician in the control room of one of the major channels. So instead of waiting for our show to appear, we call him and ask him when will the program we want to watch will actually start.
The last thing I have to say on the issue of time is about the broadcast schedule for the major networks like Fox, Sony, Warner, AXN, and FX. They usually set their schedule to the time zone in the larger countries, like Mexico. So they will say, for example, that Breaking Bad will be broadcast at 21:00 in Mexico, 22:00 in Colombia, and 23:00 in Argentina. Chile only has 18 million people, so we do not always count in their arithmetic.
In the case of Breaking Bad, the last year of the series was broadcast perhaps 6 months after the USA. I tried to avoid reading about it in the American newspapers to not spoil the ending. AXN broadcast the first 2/3 of the season at 23:00 in Mexico. But then market conditions in Mexico changed: the network wanted to move the show to a new time slot. Breaking Bad is perhaps the best TV show in the past 20 years. Millions around the world wanted to know what would happen to Walter White at the end. The network suddenly changed the broadcast time for the last 5 episodes to 01:00, i.e. 1 AM in the morning. That was 3:00 AM in Chile. That’s too late for us. I joked with my wife that people in Argentina could watch it with their breakfast. So we did not watch it at all until months later when it came out on Netflix.
Now, Chile has now agreed as of March 2015 to stop changing the clock at all. Our new time zone will be GMT-3. That puts us in the same timezone as Greenland. That does not make sense for a country that is roughly the same longitude as Boston.
(7) Readers Comments
April 24, 2017
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April 06, 2017
Judging a creative writing contest is to pretend authority and, even m
Anita! I know someone who wants to work in Chile but as electrician. D
I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about my own predisposit
Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th