When I first stepped foot on Mexican soil, I spoke relatively good Spanish. I was by no means fluent, but I could hold a conversation. So when I asked a local ice-cream seller in downtown Guadalajara when he expected a new delivery of chocolate ice cream, and he said ‘ahorita’, which directly translates to ‘right now’, I took him at his word, believing that its arrival was imminent.
I sat near his shop and waited, my Englishness making me feel it would be rude to leave. Half an hour passed and still no ice cream arrived, so I timidly wandered back to the shop and asked again about the chocolate ice cream. “Ahorita,” he told me again, dragging out the ‘i’ ‒ “Ahoriiiiita”. His face was a mix of confusion and maybe even embarrassment.
I was torn. Waiting longer wasn’t appealing, but I felt it was impolite to walk away, especially if the ice cream was now being delivered especially for me. But finally, after waiting so long that I’d built up an appetite for dinner, dark clouds appeared overhead and I made a rush for the nearest bus to take me home. As I left, I signalled up at the sky to the ice cream seller to let him know that I obviously couldn’t wait any longer and it really wasn’t my fault. His face was, once again, one of total confusion.
You may also like:
‒ The mysterious origins of the piñata
‒ The strange reason why Spaniards eat late
‒ An untranslatable word for pure joy
As I sat on the bus, rain pattering on the windows, I replayed the conversation in my head and decided indignantly that the ice cream seller was a liar.
This incident faded from my memory until years later when I came back to live in Mexico. I discovered that cracking what I came to call the ‘ahorita code’ took not a fluency in the language, but rather a fluency in the culture.
Cracking the ‘ahorita code’ took not a fluency in the language, but rather a fluency in the culture
When someone from Mexico says ‘ahorita’, they should almost never be taken literally; its definition changes dramatically with context. As Dr Concepción Company, linguist and emeritus researcher at the Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, told me, “When a Mexican says ‘ahorita’, it could mean tomorrow, in an hour, within five years or never.”
Ahorita llego, which directly translates to ‘I am arriving right now’, in fact means ‘I will be there in an indeterminate amount of time’, while ahorita regreso (‘I will be right back’) means ‘I will be back at some point but who knows exactly when’. ‘Ahorita’ is even used as a polite way of saying ‘no, thank you’ when refusing an offer. Even after almost seven years in Mexico, this response can still catch me off guard when I’m hosting friends; I find myself hovering, unsure if I should get my guest what I offered them or not.
Mexicans are famous in the Spanish-speaking world for their extensive use of the diminutive. While in most Spanish-speaking countries the addition of the diminutive ‘ita’ to an adverb like ahora (meaning ‘now’) would strengthen it to indicate immediacy (i.e. ‘right now’), this is not the case in Mexico. Dr Company explained that Mexicans instead use the diminutive form to break down the space between the speaker and the listener and lessen formality. In this case of ‘ahorita’, the addition of the diminutive reduces urgency rather than increasing it – a difference that can be extremely confusing for foreigners.
Subtle adjustments to the pronunciation of the word also affect the way ‘ahorita’ is interpreted. “The stretch in the ‘i’ sound in the word ‘ahorita’ is a demonstration of the stretching of time,” Dr Company informed me, implying that the longer the sound, the longer one can expect to wait. Equally, “if you want to imply that you really mean right now, you would say ‘ahorititita’,” she explained, noting the short, sharp sounds represent the idea that something needs to happen at once.
Difficulty interpreting what I have come to call ‘Ahorita Time’ is a reflection of different cultural understandings of time. Dr Company explained that if she is giving a talk in Mexico and goes over her allotted time, Mexicans “feel like I am giving them a gift”. In the UK or the US, however, “The audience starts to leave, feeling like I am wasting their time.” My Mexican friends plan parties for 7pm knowing that no one will show up until at least 8:30pm. Foreigners who are new to Mexico organise events for 8:30pm not knowing that means that most people will arrive at 10pm.
You never know what might happen between now and ‘ahorita’
I have heard foreigners complaining about Mexicans’ tardiness, viewing lateness as a lack of manners and respect. This stems from the notion that ‘time is money’ – a finite, valuable resource that should not be squandered. Mexicans on the other hand have a much less loaded attitude, viewing time as something flexible and malleable; something that cannot be controlled. Ahorita Time makes little commitment and allows for spontaneity, because you never know what might happen between now and ‘ahorita’.
However, some expats living in Mexico just cannot get used to this more fluid way of measuring time. After moving to Mexico from the US, Elizabeth Wattson found a unique way of working with Ahorita Time. “Whenever my boss said ‘ahorita’, I would respond by asking ‘ahorita when?’. I just couldn’t work with this vague concept of something getting done at some indeterminate point in the future,” she said.
For me, cracking the ‘ahorita code’ ‒ and understanding why my ice cream never arrived ‒ came when I relaxed into the flow of Mexican life, which felt far less hurried than my life in London had been.
Since moving to Mexico, my attitude towards time has changed dramatically. I don’t worry so much about being late; I am generally still on time to appointments (old habits die hard), but when I’m not, I don’t panic. And while I still get frustrated when waiting for a plumber who may arrive in the next five minutes or the next five hours, I know that the payoff is feeling far less controlled by time and I enjoy the spontaneity that this adds to life.
Ironically, it would seem that Ahorita Time has actually allowed me to live far more in the ‘right now’ than I ever did before.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.