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Why Are the Clocks Running Backwards in Bolivia?

Being called the Clock of the South, the timepiece atop Bolivia’s congress building has been reversed and is running backwards Sara Shahriari reports.

The hands of the clock atop the building that houses Bolivia's congress are running backward, and all the numbers have been reversed. The change from a conventional timepiece to what officials call the Clock of the South took place in conjunction with the June 21 solstice, as Bolivia and the rest of the southern world marked the beginning of winter.

In press conferences, national leaders explained that the symbolic change marks Bolivia's focus on its southern identity and independence.

"Who said that clocks must turn the other way? Why should we always be obedient? Why can't we be creative?" Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said in a press release. "We celebrate the 21 of June as the winter solstice and in the north they celebrate summer. It's the same with the solar clock, which is the natural clock. If you put a post out in the sun, the sun turns toward the left in the south and the right in the north."

Most of the observers who have gathered to watch the clock each day in the Plaza Murillo, one of the country' most famous public spaces, are confused about why this change was made. Some say that Bolivia will be mocked for going backward, others that the building and its clock are historic monuments that should not have been meddled with.

But German Quispe Mamani wholly approves. "This represents the southern hemisphere," he says, adding that it reinforces Bolivian identity.

Ernesto Luna disagrees. Glancing up he squints against bright winter sunlight and chalks the change up to grandstanding in an election year.

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"I think it's a political show, so everyone looks at Evo Morales and says 'he's doing something good.'"

The Hands of Time

Clocks were first developed in the higher reaches of the northern hemisphere. There, a shadow moving across a sundial travels in a clockwise direction, or toward the right. In the far southern hemisphere the shadow on a sundial moves the opposite direction, which we today know as counterclockwise.

"Most astronomy books are written from high-latitude, northern perspectives," says Helmer Aslaksen, a professor of teacher education and mathematics at the University of Oslo.

However, Aslaksen explains, in locations close to the equator, like Bolivia, being true to the sundial is a little more complicated than just flipping the clock. In the tropics, which is the area between the Tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees north) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5 degrees south), the direction of the shadow will for part of the year be clockwise and part of the year counterclockwise, depending on how far north or south of the equator a sundial is placed. La Paz is located within the tropics south of the equator, and Aslaksen says that here a sundial's shadow runs to the left most of the year, but there are still several months when it runs to the right.

The "Clock of the South" has already sparked national debate, and copies were distributed to world leaders at the recent G77 and China international meeting held recently in Bolivia. But will it catch on in other government institutions, in houses and on watches across the country?

Whether this is a one-time statement or the future of timekeeping in Bolivia, Juan Chavez, who was visiting La Paz from rural areas east of the city, takes it all in stride. "I think it's keeping time well, you just have to learn to read backward," he says, laughing, as the hands continue their leftward path.