Daylight Stealing Time

Remember the year that the Guatemalan government decided to experiment with enforcing daylight savings time?

I well remember the first time I spent a whole year in a place that didn’t observe daylight savings time. That place was Guatemala, and I said to myself, “hallelujah! I finally get to experience the natural progression of day and night, light and dark, due to the tilt of the axis of the Earth—uninterrupted by daylight savings time.” Yes, I can understand why the confusing and disorienting mass agreement to suddenly change the clocks is advantageous in some ways in northern climes, where the tilt of the Earth is more pronounced. But here, closer to the equator, there’s never really been a reason for it; the sun progresses from rising at 5 a.m. or so to rising at 6 a.m. or so, and setting at 6 p.m. or so to 7 p.m. or so. . . and back again. No big deal. It’s convenient for those of us here who phone the West Coast of North America to only be an hour different—and for those of us who phone the East Coast. But to have it change twice a year makes it hard to remember which is which. 

Up North they always used to say, “We have to turn the clocks back, because otherwise the kids will all have to get up for school in the dark.” I remember what a drag it was when it got dark at 4 p.m. on cold rainy winters . . . and I remember the delight when suddenly for some mysterious reason we all had to “spring forward” by one hour. By the time summer came around, we could play in the evening light until 8 p.m. But it all seemed a bit random as well as discombobulating. I used to wonder, especially around the time of “changing the clocks,” what it would be like if we just left the clocks alone and adjusted ourselves to nature. 

As I got older I realized that changing the clocks always made me cranky for a few days and that I just plain didn’t like it and that many other people didn’t either. We used to call it “daylight stealing time,” and I had a friend who hated it so much she referred to it as “the biggest perpetration in the history of human stupidity.” It outraged her that we all complied with it, even though most of it thought it silly and cumbersome. Plus, we did so because we really didn’t have any choice. But here in Guatemala, we had a choice, and with that freedom of choice came chaos.

So here I love going through a full year without having to deal with “daylight stealing time.” I loved it the first time, and I still love it. But there was a year in between when the Guatemalan government decided to experiment with enforcing daylight savings time. (Something about being consistent with the rest of the world time-wise for business and commerce reasons.) I’m not sure how this worked in other parts of Guatemala, but I suspect that it was as much of a chaotic mess in other places as it was on Lake Atitlán, where I was at the time. Imagine the towns and various villages around the lake, all interacting and doing business with each other, several hundred people traveling by lancha, pickup and bus, to and fro across and around the lake every day. Now imagine them all with different opinions about whether or not to comply with the ridiculous idea of letting the government tell us to call the hours of the day by different names.

Pure chaos. Teachers crossing the lake to work, and many, many other people were crossing time zones on a daily basis. And nobody knew whether various businesses or even municipalities were calling 8 o’clock 8 o’clock or calling it 9 o’clock. Add to that the confusion of stores and businesses which already closed for two hours every day for lunch!

When the Guatemalan government decided to change clocks, I was working on Lake Atitlán, living in Panajachel and traveling every week through Santiago Atitlán and San Pedro la Laguna. I talked to a lot of people in the towns and certainly on the lanchas—conversations which arose as we asked each other which businesses and services were open at what times, or when we missed the lancha, or the clinic hours because of all the confusion. In fact, if someone told you that the last lancha leaves at 5 p.m., they would add la hora de Dios or la hora oficial. And you could be in trouble if you forgot to ask. Of course, this made it all the more confusing, but I had to admire the fact that Guatemalans were not willing to go along with letting the government tell them that dawn was coming along an hour later this season. Half of the people were going along with it, the other half not. “How hilarious,” I thought, “good for them, having minds of their own.” When I asked people why they were not complying with “government time,” they simply said, porque no sirve—because it doesn’t work.

I saw how even more absurd changing the time was here than up north. Think about it: This is a culture and a society that is tied to the land and its rhythms; people live by the rising and the setting of the sun, not by clocks. In general, in a rural and agricultural society, parents will wake up shortly before dawn, get the cooking fire going, prepare breakfast and awaken the children. All this is time to be together to eat breakfast before the father goes off to his work, which in agrarian work and for fishermen begins at the break of day. That’s just how it works.

If the local school, office or shop where the mother worked complied with “government time,” the wife and children had to live by schedules that were an hour off from the father’s. It caused immeasurable stress and hardship all over the country. It caused separation as well as confusion.

Around Lake Atitlán, the entire town of Panajachel complied with “government time,” but smaller more rural villages—even just down the road—did not. Half of the populations of Santiago Atitlán and San Pedro complied with the time change; the other half did not. The lanchas were running on “government time”—they had too many regular local passengers, like school teachers, not to; but they weren’t happy about it.

People who travelled between Santiago, Panajachel and San Pedro could take a 30 minute lancha ride and arrive an hour and a half later—or arrive half an hour earlier! I thought daylight savings time in North America was disorienting! I could not have imagined how disorienting it was here. And still, throughout that crazy season, I always admired the independence and sovereignty of Guatemalans who refused to comply and insisted on living “on God’s time,” no matter what the government said.

But, boy, was it a relief when it was time to “change the clocks back” to standard time and everyone could be in agreement again. And I was among the millions of people living in this country who were ever so grateful to discover, six months later, that the government decided not to try it again. It just feels better to live by the rising and setting of the sun, and to go through the gentle and gradual transition of daylight along with nature, rather than against it. Hallelujah!

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