Wednesday, November 19, 2014

what time is it?

During my last trip to Mexico, I had the privilege of experiencing a yearly time change; the end of daylight saving time in Mexico. It wasn't until the night before my 6:30am flight out of Mérida that I realized this one and only daily flight to the U.S. was leaving really really early. I'd have to get to the airport at 4:30am (two hour standard early airport arrival time), which would mean leaving the house at 3:30am. Even if you are a morning person, you have to admit that's really really early.

I had heard daylight saving time was approaching (technically the switch off of daylight saving time, on to regular time) pretty soon in the U.S. We do "fall back" after all, and it is the fall. I guess at first I just assumed the U.S. would be gaining an hour the same night as Mexico. But, of course, I was mistaken. Once again, I found myself unsure of what time it was, when the time had changed, and crossing from timezone to timezone over a period of less than two weeks. 

Mexico always changes its clocks at 2am on the last Saturday/Sunday of October. The U.S. typically changes its clocks after Halloween. So, this year Mexico fell back on October 25; the U.S. on November 2. Normally these facts don't matter. Except all of a sudden they mattered to me. Because I was traveling internationally during one country's time change, I started questioning what it would mean logistically. Would I get an extra hour of sleep or would I end up missing my flight? How could I be sure just what time it was?

What I experienced last week in Mexico was a small reminder of the chaos I experienced during an entire year of "daylight saving" time in Honduras. One of my favorite all time Peace Corps stories I referred to as, "the year I had no idea what time it was." I'm not exaggerating. Honduras has become a prime example of many things gone wrong, including telling time.
 I will explain the horribly confusing time change a little later in this post. 

There are actually two different time issues I've been referring to: one is the topic of time zones. The other is daylight saving time.

Look at this map of the world. What are the world's largest (and widest) countries? Do they have more than one time zone?

Furthermore, should some of these larger countries have more than one time zone? Look at China. What do you think?

What is my view on time zones? I'm pro. Here's why. 

There were a few questions I was always asked while living in Honduras. How old was I? Where was I from? How many children did I have? What time was it in the U.S.? 

Yep, I was constantly asked what time it was in the U.S. My answer? Well, that depended. Was I going to give the simple answer or the complicated answer?

The simple answer was, "the same time as here." I mean, Honduras is on CST, which is the same time zone as my parents' home (aka the last place I lived before leaving for the Peace Corps). The complicated answer was, "it depends." Because in reality it does depend; on what time zone you're referring to.

I had a giant world map on my living room wall (and a U.S. map on the other wall). If I found myself in a "teachable moment" as I often did, then I would casually escort my inquisitive guest over to the living room wall and explain about the many time zones in the U.S. It was also helpful in answering the additional questions I was frequently asked, such as, "what's the weather in the U.S.?" or, "my cousins live in Miami, is that nearby?" Geography for the win.

According to World Time Zones, "in order to efficiently use and measure time, everyone in the world would like to fix noon as the time at which the sun is at its highest point in the sky (i.e. when it is crossing the meridian). However, this seems to be impossible without the use of time zones."1 Well said. I think I'll keep subscribing to the time zone concept.

Which actually brings me to the second issue I mentioned earlier; daylight saving time. Currently, the U.S. is not on daylight saving time; i.e. we are not currently saving daylight. 

In a nutshell, the sun goes down early in the afternoon, so we spend many more hours using lights until we go to sleep; non-daylight saving time is significantly less energy efficient. If I go to bed at 11pm year-round, using 2 hours of lights (from 9pm-11pm) is much less wasteful than using lights for 6 hours every night (5pm-11pm). It's simple math. So, I'm liking daylight saving time so far.

But what happens when a country doesn't have much electricity? Well, I can tell you this from experience; when you don't have electricity, you wake up when the sun comes up and go to sleep when the sun goes down. It honestly does not matter what time the clock says; you can call it any time you'd like. You will still wake up when the sun comes up and go to sleep when the sun goes down. I don't know the last time you lived in a town without electricity, but I can also tell you that when it is dark out, it is dark. Pitch black to be exact. And it is not safe to be up and out after dark. There's nothing left to do except head to bed.

Which is why the Honduran government's (pre-coup government, mind you) decision to institute daylight saving, while grounded in energy efficiency, in reality only led to constant confusion. For example, when I lived in the village without electricity, I woke up naturally when the sun rose at 5:30am. The bus into town also came by at 5:30am. But was the bus (since it was run by a "company" and went into "town") now on daylight saving time? Would it come by at 5:30am sprung forward? How was I supposed to know? 

What time is it where?

Imagine this scenario: not knowing what time (the new hour or the old hour) each individual business was using. Honestly, not only did I have no idea what time it was for an entire year but I arrived everywhere an hour early in case they were on the new time. Was the bus going to leave for home at 1pm new time or 1pm old time (12pm new time)? I had no choice but to show up at 12pm and even then the bus drivers themselves wouldn't be sure what time they were leaving. It was awesome. Because I would just take that bus back to the village, where there was no electricity, and just head to bed when the sun went down (which was either 7:30pm new time or 6:30pm old time). Then I'd wake up when the sun came up (which was either 6:30am new time or 5:30pm old time). How are you doing with all this? Does your head hurt yet? Imagine living this way for 365 days. 

I also want to point out something about the sunrise and sunset times I have listed; they are real times. What I'm getting at is that Honduras is almost on the same latitude as the equator. This means that over the course of a year, I knew, to the minute, what time the sun would set and the sun would rise. Honduras always has between 11-13 hours of sunlight every day and 11-13 hours of darkness every day. Honduras didn't exactly need daylight saving time; it seemed run by the sun.

Here's how the internet describes equatorial latitude: If you live near the equator, day and night are nearly the same length (12 hours). But elsewhere on Earth, there is much more daylight in the summer than in the winter. The closer you live to the North or South Pole, the longer the period of daylight in the summer. Thus, Daylight Saving Time (Summer Time) is usually not helpful in the tropics, and countries near the equator generally do not change their clocks.2

I also want to mention the outcome of Honduras' little energy saving pilot. In the end, the program did not save any money or electricity. All it did was create confusion. And let me know that, despite my preoccupation with being on time, it really doesn't matter what time it is. It just hurts your head a little if you try to think about it too much. It also probably means that in order for Honduras to keep up with the rest of the world, most (if not all) of the country should have reliable electricity. But I'm pretty sure that's a different blog post completely.


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