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Spending Time

How a torturous three-day road trip taught me the true value of time
by Barry Rodriguez

I’m not sure what tipped me over the edge. It could have been the plastic seat handle digging into my back. It could have been hot dust blowing into my eyes. Maybe it was the baby vomiting all over the seat next to me.

Whatever it was, I had reached a special moment in my life: the most uncomfortable I’d ever been.

One of South Sudan’s interstate highways.

One of South Sudan’s interstate highways.

I was on a road trip to end all road trips. I was traveling to Lietnhom, a small village in the north of South Sudan, to see the work of ALARM in that community. I had decided, for cultural immersion’s sake (and because apparently I’m a glutton for punishment), to travel there by land instead of by plane. I had been told it would take a while, but thought, “How bad could it be?”

As it turns out? Pretty bad.

You see, the roads in South Sudan are not paved. Other than a few main streets in Juba and Wau, the country’s roads are made entirely of dirt. But these are not some idyllic dirt roads through the countryside. These roads are malevolent. Giant potholes, massive rocks, sharp drop-offs… They seem almost actively eager to swallow cars whole.

The trip, just over 350 miles, took 57 hours. Three days of travel.

Watch an example of a South Sudanese highway:

But this was not spread-out-in-the-back-of-the-van-and-watch-movies-on-your-iPad travel. This was hold-on-for-dear-life-and-try-not-to-die travel. I flexed so much trying to keep my body upright that I expected to have ripped biceps and six pack abs when we arrived.

But the worst part of this masochistic adventure was not the bag full of rotting bananas that spilled onto my leg. Nor was it the old lady who accidentally spit on my neck. It wasn’t even the stench of 12 weary travelers crammed into a vehicle built for 7

No. The worst part was that I could have flown. The fight takes an hour and a half. And it costs the same amount.

A “rest stop” along the road to Lietnhom.

A “rest stop” along the road to Lietnhom.

Well, nearly the same. But when you add up how much misery could be spared from forking out just a tiny bit more cash, it seems like a no-brainer. Doesn’t it?

Well, I guess that depends…

A No-Brainer

My traveling companions for this epic journey were Magdelena, Josephine and Kazito, students at the Christian Leadership Training Institute (one of ALARM’s initiatives in Yei). They were traveling home to Lietnhom at the same time as my trip, so they graciously offered to let me join them.

When I brought up the cost difference to them, my new friends wrote it off immediately.

“Flying costs much more than driving,” they told me.

“Yeah! But not if you add up the other expenses!” I argued.

“Yes, but the flight costs more,” they replied.

A bit frustrated, I pulled out my notebook and started writing figures. My handwriting was made nearly illegible by the jostling of the vehicle.

“So it costs 80 pounds to get from Yei to Juba by road. And then, what, 400 to reach Wau?” My traveling companions agreed. I continued my tally. “Plus 60 to reach Lietnhom. But going by road means you have to spend the night in two locations. 40 pounds a night, right? And let’s say 50 pounds for food.”

My traveling companions and me immediately after arriving in Wau, two days into our road trip.

My traveling companions and me immediately after arriving in Wau, two days into our road trip.

My final count came to 670 South Sudanese Pounds (SSP). To the right of this column, I tallied up what it would cost to fly instead.  The total ended up at 760 pounds.

In other words, the difference in cost was only 90 SSP (less than $30 US), but by flying, the trip was shorter by two full days.

To me, this was an easy decision. Of course $30 is worth two days of my life. I said as much to my friends.

Magdalena turned to me and repeated, “Yes, but flying is more expensive.”

At first I was baffled. Was she missing the point I was trying to make? Does she not see the simple “90” circled in my notebook? How is that not worth it?

I asked Kazito what he thought, and he told me, “Of course we would love to fly. This trip is too difficult. But the money is too much.”

That’s when I began to understand just how differently my friends and I saw that $30. And how differently we saw the value of our time.

Watch Kazito and me, completely exhausted, discussing the progress of our journey:

Time is Money

I had plenty of time to think about this as the trip wore on. The ride was so bumpy that reading was impossible, so I simply stared out the window for hours on end.

As an American, I tend to believe the concept that “time is money.” I talk about “spending” time and “wasting” time. I say things like, “Can I steal a second of your time?” and “Can I borrow you for a minute?” Time is a commodity for me, and it’s reflected in the way I use my money.

I’ll pay a bit more for a shorter flight. I’ll drop a few dollars to have my car washed in a drive through. I’ll even pay a bit of extra cash for faster Internet so I won’t have to wait for YouTube clips to buffer.

Time is money.

But what if I didn’t have money? What if poverty took away my option for speeding things up?  What if 30 extra dollars was an expense I simply couldn’t afford?

Well, then I guess I’d travel to Lietnhom by ground and suffer through three long, agonizing days for a trip that should have taken just one. Which is exactly what my traveling companions chose to do.

The people of Lietnhom never seem stressed about being late.

The people of Lietnhom never seem stressed about being late.

When you are living in poverty, I realized, time and comfort have no value. They are expendable. And you really have no choice in the matter.

Needless to say, this got me pretty down. Realizing that “the most uncomfortable I’d ever been” was normal life for a huge portion of humanity was a sobering experience, to say the least.

But then something interesting happened. We reached Lietnhom, and I discovered a silver lining to this dark cloud.

The Silver Lining

In the village of Lietnhom, life moves pretty slowly. Because of the intense heat, people spend a lot of time just sitting around. I spent much of my time sitting in chairs, listening to people chitchat, drinking chai… To be honest, I didn’t feel particularly industrious.

But I soon realized this sitting around wasn’t just idleness. People in Lietnhom visit each other’s homes. They enjoy long, comfortable conversations with each other. Nobody ever rushes off to a meeting and nobody ever gets anxious when someone is running late.

While I was stirring anxiously in my seat, wondering when the person I was meeting would show up, my South Sudanese friends were laughing and enjoying each others’ company.

What if my life had enough space to be fully present with others?

What if my life had enough space to be fully present with others?

That’s when it began to dawn on me. Sure, when poverty removes the value from your time, it can lead to some pretty uncomfortable situations. But it also opens the door to something beautiful. When time isn’t a commodity you have to protect, when it’s not an investment constantly eating away at you, it loses its power to control you.

Perhaps this was a lesson I needed to learn.

Maybe I hold on to time a bit too closely. Maybe my life would be richer if I tried to be more “present” when I was with people instead of constantly checking the time. Maybe some of the stress I feel day to day is self-imposed.

A New Question

As I left Lietnhom a few days later, I looked forward to flying back to Juba. The trip that took me three days one way would take less than one on the return journey. But instead of looking at that “saved” time as a commodity to re-invest, I found myself thinking of it as a gift.

As I stepped of the plane in Juba, the question wasn’t, “How will I spend my time?” but “Who will I share it with?”