Flashback No. 2: Watch That Watch

Man Overboard, October 1999

WE PINOYS love watches; it’s the timekeeping we hate, or at least ignore. While an American without a wristwatch is a pretty common sight (and not for lack of money, either), a Filipino without one might as well be naked. If we have cash to blow, a new watch will be up there somewhere on our “wannabuy” list.

It’s never enough that we have one watch to mark the days, hours and minutes by; there’s nothing duller for Juan than to be looking at the same old clockface and wristband day in and day out. And so we acquire a few—one for the office, one for the beach, one for the evenings, and a couple of spares, just to be sure. The only thing we may each have more of than watches is shoes, but that’s another story.

An awareness of time—or the time—is one of the things you usually pick up from years of living abroad, in places where buses and trains miraculously arrive and depart on schedule, as though their drivers’ lives depended on it (and they do!). The balikbayan comes home hoping to see the same—and immediately gets discombobulated by the two-hour wait for his baggage at the airport, and the four hours it takes him to get from one end of EDSA to the other. Over the next few days, he gets stood up at three appointments, he hears the maid get on the phone to her cousin in Tacloban for an hour, and he misses the start of a movie because the theater’s clock was running ten minutes ahead. Soon he gets the idea that no one really knows what time it is, and even if they did, nobody particularly cares.

It’s one reason why Western-style terrorism is never going to get off the ground in this country. You can’t have clockwork precision if no one gives a hoot about the clockwork. What would be the point of exploding a bomb, say, at precisely 10:15:30 am, at which instant the President is supposed to be entering the hallway to address a group of reformed investigative journalists, if the bomber’s clock runs five minutes behind Malacañang’s? (And this presumes, of course, that the President—did I say this President?—got up from bed when he was supposed to.)

Yes, sir: time to the Pinoy is an infinite resource, spent by the wise and saved by the stupid. It does make some sense, given our fatalistic streak. Que sera, sera, no matter what you put down on your Palm Pilot or Claris Organizer, right? We count our lives in the grand sweep of years and cycles, not in the loose change of minutes and seconds: “Hey, it’s May! Time to dance in Obando and see in the carabaos in Pulilan!” and “Did you see that downpour yesterday? My, my, the rainy season has indeed begun!”

I felt mighty proud the other day when I set all the computers, watches and clocks I found around the house to Vremya time (a little redundancy there, “vremya” being the Russian word for “time”, and also a nifty piece of software that synchronizes your Mac over the Internet with the exact time kept by the world’s atomic clocks). At last, I thought, here was world-class precision down to the second, right at home!

The pointlessness of the whole exercise became obvious when I hurried my wife Beng along to catch a merienda meeting with her friends that was due to start in 35 minutes and 23 seconds, halfway across the planet. “What’s the rush?” she protested, trying to choose between the red blouse and the green one. “No one will be there for another hour, and I’m not even sure that So-and-So’s coming.” She was, of course, late—and wondered why no one showed up, granting even the ample privilege of “Filipino time”—until she realized that she had the wrong day.

Still, just between us ube-and-macapuno, puto-and-dinuguan-loving Pinoys, you’d have to admit that a new watch on the wrist is always cool. You feel a new sense of purpose; you want to check the time every 30 seconds or so, and you keep wishing someone on the street would ask you, too. The feeling lasts for about two to three days—and then you forget about your new toy; a week later, you scratch the glass while trying to fix a flat, or worse, when you trip one the sidewalk while adoring your wrist. Grumble, grumble: it looks like Julia Roberts with a surgical stitch running across her nose down to her neck. You toss the watch into the desk drawer to join half a dozen others in various states of disfavor or disrepair.

I’ll admit to having three or four wristwatches beneath the bedside lamp—but none of them too precious to mourn the eventual loss of, and nearly all of them a few years old. Hmmm.… Sure sounds like time to get a new one!

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