There’s a little doggerel verse that Ecuadorian children employ to taunt someone who’s late. Now and then you might hear it rising in a playground chant:
En la paila de tostado.
Which is to say:
Roasted guinea pig,
In the roasting pan.
OK, it suffers in the translation. But trust me, it makes no sense to begin with, and not only because it’s cheerful children’s gibberish. In Latin America, no one gets in trouble for being late. It is, after all, the land of mañana.
The more complete description is “fiesta, siesta, mañana”—party, nap, and then there’s tomorrow. The hemisphere is chronically, unapologetically late. The worst social misstep is to arrive for a party precisely on time. Everybody knows that.
So today, let’s consider a few other things you might not know, or have forgotten, about Latin America.
Angel Falls, in Canaima National Park in Venezuela, is the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall, with an overall height of 3,112 feet, and a plunge of 2,648. It was the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World,” featuring dinosaurs scrambling around the plateau above the falls. It’s all but impossible to reach these days due to the near-collapse of the Venezuelan state.
Colombia produces 90% of the world’s gemstone emeralds.
Despite all those mountains and jungles, Latin America is one of the most urbanized regions in the world. Eighty percent of the population of Latin America resides in cities.
Brazil makes your breakfast. It exports the most coffee, sugar and orange juice in the world. (In fairness, though, much of the sugar cane goes for ethanol production.)
But Bolivia’s got your lunch. Bolivians love the inexpensive food from local street vendors—so much so that McDonald’s abandoned the country in 2002. Analysts blamed marketing failures and an anti-American government. Last year, McDonald’s announced a tentative comeback: a single location in the eastern city of Santa Cruz. But really, try the street food.
Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval is the world’s largest street festival.
Because of the weakened soil of an ancient lakebed and a growing population consuming copious amounts of groundwater, Mexico City sinks 10 inches every year. Estimates vary, sometimes wildly, and the subsidence is worse in some places than others. But it’s definitely not improving.
In Honduras, it rains fish during the heaviest season of rain between May and June. Thousands of fish. It’s happened near the city of Yoro for generations. While the phenomenon is often attributed to waterspouts, or miracles, the more likely explanation points to fish washed out by downpours from underground caves and rivers. Clue: the fish are blind. Still, no source has been pinpointed, and the townspeople enjoy a fish fry or two every year.
Costa Rica has not had an army since it was abolished in 1948, following its last civil war. For many years police were known for carrying only screwdrivers—to remove the license plates of scofflaws—but those halcyon days are gone. Police carry guns, while a 70-person Special Intervention Unit is a commando force that is technically civilian.
The Amazon rainforest spans nine countries – Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. If that rainforest was a country, it would be the 9th largest in the world.
There are 77 uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon Jungle. (If they’re uncontacted, how do we know?)
The world’s most southerly city is Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina. It’s a colorful town of about 55,000 souls.
Ecuador was the first country in the world to give Nature constitutional rights that can be defended in court.
Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution while visiting the Galapagos Islands.
The Uyuni in Bolivia (not Bonneville in Utah) is the world’s largest salt flat—4,086 square miles versus 40.
Along Lake Maracaibo on the Venezuela-Colombia border, Catatumbo lightning is in the Guinness Book as the most prolific. It is certainly the most spectacular.
Peru is said to have more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes, and was probably the original source of all potatoes. Sorry, Ireland.
Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador is, in a way, the world’s highest peak. If measured from the center of the earth, it’s much taller than Mt. Everest, because the earth bulges at the equator. But that’s not how mountains are measured, so Nepal wins again.
So about that business of being late. With all the foregoing achievements, quirks, and superlatives, it’s clear that Latin America’s lateness should never be mistaken for laziness. It is, I believe, more of an expression of what is truly important, and maniacal punctuality is just not at the top of the list.
Many years ago, I read an article claiming that the three most important words are, “It doesn’t matter.” Upon careful analysis, most things really don’t. A brutal triage based on those three words usually leaves only the things that truly merit attention. Like family.
And excludes those that truly don’t. Like punctuality.
With practice, it soon becomes child’s play.