An Insider’s Guide to Jamaican Time

I went into panic mode. How could I have been so careless? I should have known better! I was already in overdrive as I dashed out of the house and jumped into my car. With a groan, I realized that I needed to stop for gas. That was going to take a good 120 seconds that I already did not have to spare. But it was either that, or suffer the embarrassment of possibly running out of fuel altogether halfway through my journey.

In 30 seconds time, I was on the pump of the gas station at the top of my street. Lucky me! A pump was free! I popped open my tank as the attendant came to take my order. A quick glance at the dashboard showed 4:47 pm. That was two minutes too late already, but I knew I could make it up. All I had to do was make sure I was downtown by 4:55 pm. And that was only a five minute drive. But, as the island would have it, it was not in the cards for things to work out so perfectly for me today.

*click for image credit

Today of all days, the attendant decides that he needs to slowly clean my front windscreen AND the back. As if that were not enough, he then proceeds to leave my vehicle with the pump still in the tank and the money uncollected. Suffice it to say, it was 4:58 pm when I finally made it downtown. I crossed my fingers, my toes, my eyes, and just about every body part that could be crossed, but the damage had already been done. As a result, a journey that should have taken me 20 minutes (10 if I break the speed limit), turned into more than an hour trek – all because I left home 5 minutes late. I sighed as I looked at the traffic piled up in front of me and began to think about all the other things in which a mere 5 minutes makes a world of difference in the islands.

Jamaicans are often accused of not knowing time, but I would like to disagree. Jamaicans are very much aware of time: it just depends on which side of the clock you’re on.

Do any of these timing “mysteries” sound familiar? Allow me to explain…

1. The same bank teller who refuses to open his/her wicket before the clock in the lobby or their watch (whichever one has the later time) hits 8:30 am, is the exact same teller who will most assuredly close said wicket at 2:25 pm, ensuring that when the official closing time of 2:30 pm arrives, he/she will most definitely not have any customers in front of him/her.

Take note: "most likely" business hours

Take note: “most likely” business hours

2. Although typical business hours end at 5 pm, you will inevitably find that it makes no sense to call any office after 4:30 pm needing anything, as everyone has already slipped into “going home mode”. By those fatal 300 seconds to the hour, I guarantee you will find the office empty and the bus stops and car parks full.

3. Five minutes in the islands is closer to half an hour, especially when you’re in a rush. WARNING: NEVER do anything in a rush or at the last minute in the islands. You are setting yourself up for MAJOR frustration.

4. We Jamaicans adhere to the five minute “grace period” at the beginning of the work day, meaning you’re always allowed to be a few minutes late. Please note, however, that the reverse does not apply; this same “grace period” does not extend to lunch breaks or going home: we must leave five minutes earlier in order to ensure that on the hour, we are actually at lunch or on our way home.

5. It will also behoove you to begin planning your day’s activities around noticeable trends. For example, I never EVER go to a government office first thing in the morning. Why waste two hours of your morning – when persons are still in “wake up mode” – to do what will take fifteen minutes when you slip in at the last minute at 3:58 pm (the offices close to the public at 4 pm) and you’re on your way out by 4:10 pm? The only reason to go in the morning is if you’re looking for a legitimate reason to be late for something else.

6. You should also note that sixty minutes needs to be added to the start time of any event. A start time for an event in Jamaica is simply a formality and a way of giving you a ballpark estimate. This holds true for parties, weddings, and funerals. You see, we are quite considerate and give you a time that we know will give you enough room for preparation and travel time. We know that there are any number of predicaments into which you may fall (overslept, traffic, wardrobe malfunction, got caught up on the phone or Facebook) which will cause you to be tardy, and so we make allowances for that on your behalf. Example: A few weeks ago, I had tickets to a jazz concert. My best friend and I went out for dinner first. Stickler for regular time that I am, I experienced temporary amnesia as I forgot for a moment that I was living in Jamaica. We made a dash for it in order to be “on time” only to find that sound checks were still being done. Of course, we sat there for over an hour before the function finally got underway. Silly me.

–   –   –

Once you hit a rock – any rock, really – island time kicks in. Watches and clocks mean very little here, as things get done only when they absolutely need to get done and don’t need to be rushed in any way. On a rock, there’s always time to stop and smell the sea breeze, no matter how late you are.

*click for image credit

And so it takes me back to my present predicament of crawling in traffic for the next two hours. I should have taken my own advice and just stayed home and waited these same two hours in comfort for this traffic to run off…

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Beverley Bowen-Evans

About Beverley Bowen-Evans

Beverley has been living on the island of Jamaica all her life, an accomplishment which has many of her friends who have long since abandoned ship in shock. She is the typical “yardie” woman, with her love for animals amounting to 11 feisty mongrel dogs, 2 1/2 spoilt cats (the other 1/2 of one cat has taken up residence in an abandoned house next door and refuses to come home), and 2 budgerigars who entertain the menagerie from time to time. There was a turtle named Arnold in a makeshift pond but at first high tide, he high-tailed it out of there and has not been seen since. She loves the outdoors and goes the extra mile to get her fix whether it be a weekend in a mountain cabin, a day by the river, or a trip to the beach.

Beverley is a trained teacher of the English and Spanish languages at the high school level, a feat which has her shaking her head each day as she has to cross many language barriers to attain the objectives set for any given lesson. Suffice it to say, she is still learning a thing or two herself. She is also a part time writer and has many a tale to tell.

Island living for Beverley is simply a way of life: the on-the-road training of how to drive like a taxi driver, the difference in the time stated for an event and the actual time it begins, the change in accent from Kingston to Montego Bay, the same new shock to see people go to the hairdresser and get their nails done to go to the beach. Jamaica is rife with adventure and Beverley has had more than her fair share of it and suspects there is much more to come. Though the wishful thinking comes at the possibility of what life could be like elsewhere, the ultimate resolve is always, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. Sweet, sweet Jamaica, nah lef’ ya!”

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4 thoughts on “An Insider’s Guide to Jamaican Time

  1. Ahhh good ole island time, don’t even get me started on that! It’s the one thing that frustrates me about living on an island, nothing starts on time and people are always late and they chalk it down to island time!

  2. I remember one of my first big experiences with “Island Time” -about 15+ years ago. I think the party was to start at 7: so my husband and I arrived a bit –“fashionably late” it used to be said, around 7:30, which would have been considered polite timing in San Francisco and too late in Eugene, Oregon ; every place seems to have its own time-etiquette. We were the only ones at the party, the poor host and hostess were still setting things up and making food; a few other naives arrived around 8:30 but most people showed up after 10:00. Th party was just beginning as I was ending staying awake!
    But — we do get to know the people in our communities, don’t we? The Americans tend to be right on time; the Scandinavians, about ten minutes “late,”, the Caribbean people, hours after the told time unless you warn them not to be -depending on whether they are good friends or not ),;and then, as the years go by, the groups’ time-etiquettes tend to merge.As we seek to defer to the many cultural realities besides our own, everyone gets confused and no one (except the clerks — like you said)know exactly what to do when.

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