When I lived in Ireland, my roommate Celina and I liked to joke that our apartment ran on Mexican time—which is to say that we were always running late. Her family is Mexican, so we could get away with that kind of joke (or at least, she could).
Well, let me tell you: when it comes to being late, Mexicans ain’t got nothin’ on Mongolians.
My brother joined the Marines last November, so I had some time to get accustomed to the “hurry up and wait” way it operates. It’s a good thing, too; otherwise, I might have gone mad here. To come here from America, land of “if you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; if you’re late, don’t bother” takes some getting used to.
My lessons at school, for instance, are scheduled to begin at specific times: 9:30, 11:20, 12:50. In an American school, this would mean arriving in the room as soon as possible after the last class had ended, ideally being ready to teach at the scheduled start time. Here, by contrast, my co-teacher and I leave the teacher’s room when the start bell rings. Once we’ve made it to our scheduled room, we usually spend the first few minutes arguing with someone else who’s trying to use the same room. Sometimes we win, and the other class streams out; others, we’re the ones trooping out in search of a place to hold class. When this happens, we might have to try as many as three rooms before we find one where we can actually teach.
And incredibly, there are still students who walk in after all of this negotiating is over. It’s not uncommon for students in the 9:30 class in particular to show up over half an hour late for an 80-minute class.
Earlier this month, I went to see a play at the Erdenet Children’s Theatre (which is to say, Erdenet’s only theatre; we don’t have a cinema). I arrived at the doors at 5 pm, the scheduled start time, to find that nothing was ready yet. I walked upstairs and socialized with the visiting representatives from the Embassy while we waited for my friends to join us. When they arrived, we talked for a while more before wandering into the theatre, and once seated, we continued to talk and wait. I don’t think the performance actually started until at least 5:45.
When I visited a ger camp with my teachers in September, I was initially told we’d be leaving at four. By the time I left school that day, the departure time had been pushed back to 5:30. Namuunaa and I left the apartment at 5:30, walked the 20 minutes to school, and waited with the rest of the teachers. I think we actually left between 6:30 and 7.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Schedules are a very fluid thing here; start times are guidelines rather than rules.
The easy conclusion to draw would be that Mongolians are a patient people, but anyone who’s seen drivers in Ulaanbaatar will disavow this in a heartbeat. They fly down the roads at unreasonable speeds, driving in the wrong lane (or in the bus lane) to pass those not going fast enough for their liking. They honk at anything or anyone that gets in their way—even if the car they’re honking at is part of a long line and can’t actually go anywhere.
That last “if” should really be a “when” – traffic in UB is terrible, and getting halfway across the city to the train station can take over an hour. It’s really a crapshoot as to whether bussing, taxiing, or just plain hoofing it will be fastest; the buses are fastest in theory, but if people are driving in the bus lanes, a taxi might be faster. But sometimes there are just no taxis to be found, so you end up walking anyway. And then running, and then arriving at the station just in time to watch your train pull away.
Because there is only one thing in this entire country that leaves exactly when it’s supposed to – and that’s the train.