Onion Time on the Road to Otavalo

THE auburn rooster crows for the last time and settles down under the seat for the two and a half-hour kamikaze bus ride north from Quito to Otavalo.This is Ecuador, perhaps South America's only nation of relatively quiet politics (emphasis on relative). But it is the sort of political civility which is suspicious and in fact hides the staggering social and economic problems of a third-world country. On the bus (circa 1960) the driver dials his radio first to guitars and flutes and then switches to rock music. We hurtle through the heart of Quito, rattling and spewing leaded fumes in great toxic clouds. Quito is the city of near-misses, inches passing between hostile fenders again and again. My mouth hangs open as we miss and miss and miss. Finally, as we break free of city traffic and thunder into the rural beauty of the valleys of the Andes filled with euclyptus trees, red returns to my knuckles. Along the way the bus fills with Indians, grandmothers, workers, smartly dressed city women, farmers, even teenagers in jeans. I begin to notice that all of the Indians are not wearing watches as others are. Considering the cost of a watch to them this is not too surprising. Calm and quiet, the Indians board the bus wearing wool ponchos and black felt hats with narrow brims. They pay their sucres and look out the windows seldom talking to each other. A few men have feet that have never seen shoes. So many buses flow between Quito and Otavalo on this two lane road there is no need for a schedule. Apparently an Indian is not concerned with a specific time to catch the bus, but rather he or she knows exactly where to catch a bus out of many buses flowing like a river to and from Otavalo. Most Indians carry bundles. They board silently, shift the bundles around, sit and munch food. The woman in front of me pops crunchy nuts in her mouth for what seems like the entire trip. And the stout but tiny woman next to me with black hair down her back in a single luxuriant braid peels and eats three oranges in a row (the peels drop to the floor). Their sense of time is measured perhaps more by the broader, natural rhythms of life than by the precision of a tiny watch relentlessly counting seconds. I suspect there are not three sit-down meals a day for them, but rather more a sense of eating when one is hungry. If hunger occurs on the bus, you carry food and you eat on the bus. The Indian woman across the aisle from me has a bundle of small onions at her feet, the smell mixing deliciously with the air from open windows. I conclude that here is her sense of time, her "watch" to measure the world. Call it onion time. The seed is planted in the earth. Give or take a few weeks she will know when the onions reach maturity. Bundle them up. Catch a bus in the river of buses from Quito and go to the Otavalo food market to trade or sell. Others use banana time, wool time, llama time, pig time, rooster time, etc. Sunrise is the time to leave; nightfall the time to return. There is no 7 a. m. or high noon measured on her wrist; she lives by the rhythm of onion time. In harmony with these rhythms a watch is extraneous, a device to trigger worry. Dark or light, hot or cold. Onions or not onions. Just the basics at work here. The watches worn on civilized wrists grab a different kind of time, and hold all of us together in a union of efficiency. Things get done, created, and destroyed on our kind of time. We watch our watches watching us, and we arrive and leave on time or we are late and apologetic. We have gone far beyond onion time to the diamond-point precision of computerized time. Time is not just money; it has become a kind of parody of control. We are our watches, some of them on our wrists so appallingly expensive because time is so important. Others are entertainment on the wrist. Some don't even have numbers. They beep, hum, and speak to us of their (our) importance. The onions only smell. On the bus to Otavalo, despite the fumes, the near misses, the odors, the rooster crowing, the rattling of a thousand loose bolts, for two and a half hours a return to onion time seems like a small, sweet step forward.

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