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Island Time

Have you ever heard of the phrase, “island time”? Do you think you know what it means? Island time does not refer to an attitude or a pace of life adapted by tourist while on vacation in the islands. That’s vacation time and it’s a temporary condition. Island time is a perpetual, until hell freezes over, never gonna change, condition. It is in fact an actual scheduling process used by many islanders who dwell in the wonderful corner of the world called The Caribbean. Caribbean construction workers and maintenance men always use it, and locals dealing with customers are brilliant island time sponsors.

Describing island time is actually very simple. If a Caribbean repairman tells you he is coming to your house tomorrow at 9:00 a.m., he is not coming tomorrow at 9:00. If he tells you the work will be done in a week or so, it will not be done in a week or so. If you think there is any mechanism used to calculate an approximation of when, or if, he is coming to do the work, you are wrong. No such mechanism exists. Island time simply means he will get there when he gets there unless he doesn’t get there at all. And not showing up at all is an extreme possibility. That my friends, is island time, and all the clocks in Anguilla and the surrounding islands are set to it, if they are set at all.

Many people don’t understand that showing up early is also a part of island time. Let’s say, for instance, you are waiting on a plumber to come to your house at noontime. At 12:00, no plumber. At 1:00, no plumber. At 2:00, 3:00, 3:30 and so on, no plumber. Finally you break down and pick up the phone. Up until this point in time, there was at least some hope that the local plumber was going to show up. Once the call is made however, the myth will die. But you still push the numbers and make the call.

“Vincent. This is Brian. Didn’t we have an appointment today?”

“Yes, mon. I came by.”

“When?” I ask in disbelief. After all, I hadn’t left my front porch in four hours. I couldn’t have missed him.

“Dis morning, mon. Round 9:00,” he answers with absolute confidence that 9:00 was an acceptable time.

“But our appointment was at noon.” I respond as if the appointed time had any relevance.

“Was in da neighborhood at 9:00. You weren’t home. I left.”

And with that comment he has made it clear to me that he feels completely exonerated for not showing up at the appointed time. After all, he was early. Island time!

I recall the first time I went to the bank in St Kitts. There was a dozen or so locals standing in line in front of me. I stood there for at least twenty minutes, occasionally shuffling my feet, before working my way to the front of the line and getting waited on. A few weeks later I returned to the same bank and this time there were only four or five customers in front of me. I foolishly assumed my banking would go faster this time. Again, I stood in line for about twenty minutes before getting waited on. In time I came to understand that twenty minutes was the allotted waiting time at the bank and the number of people in line was irrelevant. I was in the islands and waiting was the name of the game whether I liked it or not. Island time is not something you accept or don’t accept any more than accepting or not accepting the sunrise. It is what it is and it’s not debatable.

I had a bookkeeper who worked with me in St Kitts. She was late with… everything. It didn’t matter if I scolded her, encouraged her, bribed her or anything else. The simple fact of the matter was if I wanted it, it was going to be late. But here’s the best part. If I occasionally got stressed and began pestering her, she always somehow turned the tables on me and made me feel as if I were in the wrong.

“Belinda! The report is due today,” I would tell her as if this would somehow motivate her.

“Tomorrow, Brian.”

“I know I’m not getting it today, but I was supposed to get it today.”

“But you are not getting it today. You seem confused.” She would respond as if I were an imbecile who couldn’t grasp the situation.

“I was actually supposed to get it yesterday. Yesterday you told me tomorrow. That would be today.”

“Tomorrow… again,” she answered with a shrug and a brilliant smile.

“Could you just once get this thing done on time?”

“Why you so upset, Brian. You look stressed. Maybe you should go to da sea or someting.”

“The report?” I snapped.

“I already told you. Not done. Not today.” By this point she was getting annoyed with me. The tables had turned and I had become the one being scolded.

When it was all said and done she handed the flawless reports to me at the latest possible moment that would allow me to get them turned in on time. The Philadelphian account managers that I dealt with were not as flexible as expat managers who lived in the islands. They did not live on island time in Philadelphia. She always grinned from ear to ear and made a big deal about handing the report over to me, as if she had done me a grand favor. Island time.

For the entire three years we worked together, I tried and failed to get her to check her email in the morning. One day I sent her an email that said, “If you bring this email to me prior to noontime, I will give you twenty-five U.S. dollars.” At three in the afternoon she came storming into my office, yelling at me, “What is dis nonsense?” I was to blame for offering to pay her for something I knew she wasn’t going to do. She couldn’t believe she had missed out on $25, or even worse, that I hadn’t put down a more reasonable time, like “tomorrow.” She was more upset a few months later when she missed out on $50. In the end, she did not change and I never got to pay her. She lived on island time then just as she lives on island time today. When I write to her now, she always writes back to me, sooner or later. Usually much later.

So the next time you stress because you’ve been on hold with customer service for twenty minutes, stay cool. Don’t get upset. Perhaps you should go to da sea or someting. Maybe the best thing to do is to simply hang up the phone, put down what you are doing, go get your passport, drive to the airport and fly to the islands. When you arrive, whether you are early or late, you will either be on island time or vacation time, but you’ll be happy you made the trip.​

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