When I first came to Spain, I was shocked and scandalized at Spanish punctuality. It became clear from the very beginning that me and my Galician friends have a completely different way of perceiving time, punctuality and the resulting (im)politeness.
For instance, we differed significantly when interpreting utterances such as "Meet me at 5 pm". Namely, I was under the impression that "five pm" meant "five pm on the dot" and I would thus show up a little bit early in order not to miss my appointment. Jandro, however, would happily turn up between quarter and half past, explaining that, obviously, it wasn't a big deal, as it was customary to arrive up to thirty minutes (!) late. To me, however, it meant at least fifteen minutes of waiting, during which time I would restlessly check my watch, wonder if I'd got the time wrong, feel silly and check my watch again. After a while, I managed to get through with my message. Jandro started arriving more or less on time, while I made the necessary adjustment in the form of showing up slightly late. My punctuality problems are over, I thought, relieved. I have finally figured this out! Cultural problem solved, big success.
And then I came to Gabon.
Here in Gabon punctuality is even less valued. A Gabonese is bound to arrive late, and when I say "late", I mean Late, capital L. Our own experience shows that it is not uncommon for a Gabonese to respond: Oh, you're already there?, if you call him to ask whether s/he remembers that s/he's supposed to meet you at a certain place. When you, at first surprised, then resigned, answer that yes, indeed, you are already waiting at the agreed cafe, they will usually respond that they're in the taxi, getting there, or, worse still, you will be assured that they'll be there in no time, as they're leaving home at the very moment. I have heard many stories (backed up by personal experience) of Gabonese friends arriving one hour (or more!) late for dinner, which, clearly, would get seriously overcooked in the meantime.
The situation is not at all better in the case of business relations. Your mechanic / cleaning lady / driver / guide will only give you an estimated time of their arrival. If a mechanic assures you that he'll be there at 3 pm, expect him between 3 and 5 pm (that if he decides to show up at all!); there is no point in calling to ask if he's on his way, as he will always say: I'll be there in five minutes!, regardless of whether he's at the other end of the city or just turning onto your driveway. There's more: at an African restaurant you're always in for a long wait: first, for a waiter to take your order; then, for the food; finally, for the bill and the change. And don't even try to get restless and nervous: it will only make matters worse!
To finish up, let me tell you the story which inspired this whole entry: Every Friday I have an English class with a Gabonese student (an adult). Usually punctual, today, sadly, he did not show up at our meeting point. I waited for five minutes and called him. The conversation went like this:
Me: Hello! It's your English teacher. Forgot about me?I sighed and took a taxi home. The funny thing is, I wasn't surprised or angry. C'est le Gabon. Cultural problem solved. Big success.
Student: Oh, no, I did not forget. I'm still at the bank (as if I knew he was going to the bank).
Me: Oh. OK. Shall I wait for you? Are you getting here soon?
Student: Oh, no. I'm not coming.
Me: Yes, right. Are you coming next week?
Student: Of course (why would you even ask, silly girl?).
Me: Next time when you can't come, can you send me a message?
Student: All right, no problem (as if I were insisting on doing me a big favour).