Sunday, January 13, 2008

Playing the Waiting Game

“How much of human life is lost in waiting?” asked Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my favorite philosophers.

A surprising amount in Argentina, I’d say from my experiences here. Argentines wait and wait and wait. . . and then wait some more.

An anthropologist form Mars might go home saying that waiting is the national sport, after soccer anyway.

They wait in lines in banks and public offices and grocery stores. (With nary a peep, not even from the children!)

They wait for plumbers and electricians and gardeners to show up. Esta tarde. Mañana. La semana que viene. (This afternoon. Tomorrow. Next week.) You never know. (As one arty friend here wagged, “Sometimes a day can take a whole month here!")

They wait for bills and other mail to arrive. (Why does the letter from NY take 3 days to reach Buenos Aires but up to six weeks to make the additional 200 km to my mailbox?)

They wait for buses and they wait for food at restaurants. (Yesterday's "quick lunch" at a local grill took 40 minutes to arrive at our table! And as customary, we waited another 10 minutes at the end for the check.)

Waiting is so ingrained that folks accept it without grumbling.

Yep, I have twiddled thumbs for 20 minutes or more to buy stamps or groceries, and even hours to be served at public offices. Admirably, the lines are fairly orderly, with line-cutting rare. Personal space, though, is generally condensed to the thickness of my shirt. In shops and offices, Folks generally assume a zombie pose. . . that glazed-over expression. Okay, some do grumble. One of my coaching clients listed waiting for the bus (and then the slow ride home) as a major irritant. . . and she has committed herself to using the time for deep breathing and fantasizing about being on a tropical beach.

Waiting is so endemic that it has become a job!

If you don’t want to wait at various offices to pay your bills or submit documents, you can pay someone else to do it. We started patronizing a local service named “GO” after I convinced Roberto that it was worth $1.50 (US fifty cents) to save a half hour or more per bill. I trust GO because I heard that the woman owner herself tracked down the bandit menacing one of her motorcyclist messengers en route, holding the brigand at bay until the cops arrived. A woman like that will make sure my money gets there!

Waiting is so rampant that it also invites corruption.

Apparently some folks put two and two together. . . and figured they could make a racket out of waiting. So if you want one of the limited travel visas from some of the foreign consulates, I'm told, you may show up early for a good spot in line only to find several racketeers, called chantajistas, already waiting with an ominous sales pitch: "How bad do you want that visa? Buy my place in line!"

Waiting has also spawned legal creativity, with kids as young as 6 or 7 juggling four balls at once at red lights on the sprawling Avenida 9 de Julio in downtown Buenos Aires. Older youth commandeer the corners here, and some juggle fiery batons by night! (But beware the aggressive window-washers in Rosario who don't take "No" for an answer!)

“Waiting is the great vocation of the dispossessed.”

So declared Mary Gordon, a contemporary US author. It is an insidious tax, pronounced a US analyst. Waiting eats up time that could be used in more productive or enjoyable pursuits. It is something demanded by someone with power of someone who does not (in a given venue, of course).

As Argentines have been infamous for not paying taxes (yet another national sport, they say here), it intrigues me to see where they pay the waiting tax. When does impatience rear its ugly head??

So when do they refuse to wait? On the road!

With 2000 cars a minute passing through the toll gates on the main autopista to Mar de Plata this summer, you can bet folks can get a little hot under the collar when delayed! As soon as the toll line there or elsewhere gets clogged with five or six cars, the cacophony of honks and blasts that break out probably shatter glass in the Teatro Colon back in Buenos Aires. The law, it seems, requires that toll gates be opened if there is more than a one-minute wait. I've only seen the toll gates opened once so far (and I only beeped my horn once, really!), but then again, I haven't had the courage to hit the beaches in the summer!

Sometimes I feel guilty or even afraid, waiting for the light to turn green because so many drivers swerve around me to run the light. At first this angered me, but I’m beginning to see the light, so to speak. First, many signals are in dumb places, giving equal weight to the major arterial roads and unpaved side streets with no traffic. Second, signals can take over 90 seconds to change since first you wait for cross traffic from the left, then from the right, then from the opposing lane!! At least the stoplights have been synchronized now, which helps cut down on delays. Even so, I still catch plenty of red lights, so I choose to sing boleros with Luis Miguel at the top of my voice. . . makes for pleasant interlude for me.

Thus the frustrated, time-taxed Argentines empower themselves by running signals and flying down the road at 200 km per hour. Their anonymity protects them from their compatriots but not the laws of physics. (Of course speeding is not for the poor folks on bikes, motos, or in 30-year old heaps held together with paper clips and chewing gum; these drivers know to scoot over quickly as the BMWs, Passats, and Lagunas whiz by, headlights flashing!) This self-empowerment, elsewhere known as reckless driving, contributes to a highway death rate that puts Argentina in the top five worst countries. Some empowerment!

Patience is a virtue. . . up to a point!

Argentines are so accustomed to waiting that they rarely question it. And sometimes they should! For example, last August in the resort town of Pinamar, Roberto and I were waiting with about 50 other patrons for the 9 pm piano concert to start. At 9:40 PM, my inner Yankee forced me to start looking for someone official to inquire about the delay. To my surprise, I encountered the Cuban pianist (whom I met serendipitously while lunching at the town's only Mexican café) peeking out from a side foyer door. He encouraged me to find out when the curtain would open. So finally I located someone in the outside ticket office: "We are waiting for the pianist to arrive." “Well,” I replied, “your artist has been inside waiting for you!” That set things in motion, and the concert started five minutes later. Imagine--if I had been properly trained as an Argentine, we could have sat there another hour or more!

While waiting for Godot. . .

So can we just connect the dots to provide yet another reason why Argentina has not reached its economic potential? Or is it a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does time wasted in waiting lead to a poorly developed country, or does a badly designed infrastructures lead to fiddling away the time in "colas"? When a government registry still files legal papers in shoe boxes instead of computers, should we attribute it to poor planning, siphoning of funds via corruption, or just insufficient financial resources? Or all three? What is the relationship between disorganization and underdevelopment? I really don't know.

But I know that there are some deep cultural factors. This morning, as Roberto and I conversed about this topic for the umpteenth time, he shook his head wistfully, "Alas, Argentina never had a Benjamin Franklin." I broke out laughing, as I am forever sharing aphorisms from Poor Richard's Alamanack: The early bird gets the worm. A stitch in time saves nine. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. Roberto assures me there is no similar cultural phenomenon here to promote efficacy through socialization that begins in the primary years.

So where shall we begin to make changes? When the new President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner cozies up to the likes of Hugo Chavez (an autocratic President of an even more chaotic country), I suggest she makes friends with someone who could really whip this country into shape. Let's call in Julie Morgenstern, the New York-based time and organization maven!

In the meanwhile, I have invented stress-free waiting. The strategies are endless: people watch, talk to strangers, read a book or magazine (which I carry with me), jot notes for articles, fantasize about my own tropical paradise, or count my blessings. But mostly I just breathe deeply and empty my mind, knowing that I am not expected to cook, wash dishes, answer emails, etc. And my mother will is not here to say, "Don't just stand there, DO something!"

Here, now, it also serves simply to stand and wait, if one does it with a lightness of being.

May your new year be filled with many such moments of stillness! Happy 2008!


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Tim said...

Hi from El Bolson - I'm an editor at, an online travel publishing group out of San Francisco we're putting together an Argentina Travel week and I'd love to link to your blog as a resource - hit me with a mail if you get the chance -


Thanks -