Here in New York, the way we use our time is, in a word, busy. We constantly have events that we’re rushing to attend. Likewise, we’re expected to be accessible 24/7 for the last minute changes or updates. A week and a half ago, I was in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, one of the most laid back places on the planet. The way they saw time was the complete opposite. The rather slow and relaxed pace of like was something to experience first hand – it was a very good thing that I knew of it beforehand so that I could leave my NYC habits at home and enjoy the experience in Bahia.
What I found most interesting was how “Bahia time” infiltrated every aspect of what one would go through in a day. Here’s a handful of experiences that illustrate the phenomenon:
- I usually woke up whenever, without any alarms. There’s no rush. I would have something to eat eventually and prepare to leave the apartment – again, eventually.
- There would be some event I’d like to go to. It might start on time. Or it might not. Or it could be outright cancelled (I didn’t experience any cancellations myself, but I hear that it does happen and it’s not a big deal).
- I wait for the buses somewhere between a few minutes and an hour. There wasn’t a schedule or even published maps of the bus routes.
- After an event, my friends and I would go for dinner. In one instance, we had to hit up a second place to eat after we learned that the chef had gone home, after we placed our orders. At another dinner, we spent quite a bit of time talking, and many of the locals were laughing and singing together.
- There was a store I wanted to check out, but it happened to be closed at the time I went – again, there’s no schedule.
These examples encompass the uncertainty aspects of a relaxed culture. From a busy New Yorker’s perspective, it sounds awfully terrible. How can anything get done? I myself like to make the most of my time, and most certainly would not want to live this way (though it was fine for the purpose of vacation and experimentation*).
Given all this, I still found a great value in Bahia time – no one there seemed to mind. That is, no one was ever in a rush. No one was stressed about waiting for something or someone. People really took their time doing things. For example, when I was late to an event, no one that was already there was upset, not even close. In fact, they were happy to see me. It was astounding to see this pervade the culture. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, a couple popular phrases were “relax” and “be happy, you’re in Bahia” (translated), said with a relaxed smile.
Now I’m not saying that we should just throw away our sense of time and be forever patient with everything and everyone. This might be a nice way to live if we were immortal, but many of us would prefer to get more done and do more things. Still, there’s much we can learn from this. We put ourselves under a great amount of stress in our always rushed, busy culture. “What if I’m late?” “Why isn’t she here yet?” “Don’t you know I have ten other things to do today?” This isn’t good for us. This isn’t good for anyone. There’s little happiness coming from this – and if you can’t be happy, what’s the point of living?
Although I’m not 100% sure, I believe there’s a happy medium between the get-it-done but stressful NYC time and the relaxed but uncertain Bahia time. Would it not be incredible to have certainty and accomplishment in one’s daily life while also doing so happily and with little unnecessary stress? I don’t have a precise answer yet, but I believe I’m onto something. Even before my trip to Bahia, I’d been deliberately making progress to become more relaxed and laid back over a few years (enough that coworkers were surprised to learn that I was a native New Yorker and not some hippie from California). The experience in Bahia has strengthened my resolved in being more relaxed and provided me insights to apply it more broadly.
Here’s a few thoughts to infuse the best of both worlds: We shouldn’t make a big deal over timing, especially lateness in ourselves and others – assuming that it’s not a common occurrence. We should attempt to be as timely as possible, leaving some buffers if necessary. Once in a while, stuff comes up or plans go awry. Assuming that this isn’t a frequent occurrence, neither side (the late person and the waiting person) should be stressed about the situation. We should also do our best to not blow up plans at the last minute. Ironically, planned events seemed to fare well in Bahia because it wasn’t feasible to change them – it seemed that not many folks had cell phones. Hence, people stuck to their word when they said that they’d be somewhere. While there was no guarantee of them being on time, we can do much better to hold up plans.
It’s helpful to have ways to make use of potential waiting time. I always keep a few articles, essays, or videos synced to my app phone in case I run into unexpected dead time. I’ll even keep a book with me if the waiting time is probable. There’s a great value in keeping around audiobooks. I use them while driving and listening to them while being stuck in traffic makes for a surprisingly relaxed situation – I almost forget that I’m trapped in a mess of cars.
I wish I could write up a more organized and flushed out post for these ideas, but there’s so much more to think about and experiment with. Still, between the extremes of how time is valued, between New York City and Bahia, there’s much good to pull from each. From the NYC side, it’s about filling those minutes with interesting things – taking into account for unplanned moments. From the Bahia side, it’s about not getting worked up when the unexpected happens.
* Note that this experience was not stressful for me because:
- I was on vacation and let myself relax and not worry about things
- a goal of the trip was to get me out of my comfort zone
- I had a strong interest in experiencing first-hand how a culture lives its daily life in stark contrast to my own