seventeen minutes


“That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things is called delusion,” says Dogen Zenji. “That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self is called enlightenment.”  It’s all in the metaphysical hands of a greater force.  There’s an Yiddish saying: “man plans, God laughs”.  We’re deluded to think we’re in control.

I’ve traveled to Japan, Dogen Zenji’s country of birth, but it was in Uganda that I felt the fuller force of this principle.  Nothing here goes to waste, except time. It’s not lack of planning exactly, it’s just a different relationship with time altogether.

After filming one morning, I drove to a Mzungu restaurant in town. (Mzungu means white person; a Mzungu restaurant is one that caters to the western palette by serving burgers, fish and chips.)  It wasn’t lunch time yet, and the place was empty, save for a 20 something year old boy behind the counter.  I was hoping for relatively quick service.

“How long will a dish of fish and chips take?” I asked.
“Fish and chips?”
“Seventeen minutes,” he replied authoritatively, and with surprising precision.
“Seventeen minutes,” I paused. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“OK. I’ll just run to the bank in the meantime, then,” I responded.
“OK. So we start fish and chips, and you come back.”
“Thank you.”
“Yes, please.”

I jumped back in my car, and drove to a nearby ATM. As I approached, I saw a big sign on the screen: “Sorry, ATM closed.” The teller inside the bank told me it would be open again in 10 minutes.

“I’ll just eat lunch and come back, then,” I told him.
“Yes, please,” he responded.

I flashed him a thumbs up, and hopped back in my car to return to the restaurant. Fifteen minutes had passed, and I was hoping lunch would be at least close to ready. The 20 something year old boy was gone, and the woman behind the counter was washing something in the sink.

“I’m back,” I said.
“Hello,” she said.

I looked around, and noticed that the stove wasn’t even on.

“Have you started to cook?” I asked.
“I am just cleaning the fish.”
“What? But he said seventeen minutes,” I paused. “It’s already been fifteen.”
“The fish,” she held up the plastic bag. “There is ice in it.”

Normally, I’d take this in stride. But I had to film in the afternoon, and I didn’t have time to pass the time by contemplating the passage of time. I headed back to my lodge, the one place in town that seemed to serve food at familiar speeds.

But my lodge was an island onto itself. The rest of Uganda breathes and lives in different, slower, more organic rhythms. Not just in NYC, which runs on hyper speed, of course, but the slower American and European towns, too. I thought about the boy behind the counter telling me that lunch would take 17 minutes to prepare. It was just a number that sounded good, but it had no mathematical reasoning behind it–it was just a synonym for “when it’s ready”.  The food would come when the food would come.

When I headed back to the ATM an hour earlier, the “Sorry, ATM is closed” sign was gone. But the ATM wasn’t actually working. Neither was the one at the only other bank in town. I had to make do with the few shillings I had left. And I did. And like every other day in Uganda, this little experience confirmed my suspicion: planning is useless. More than that, it’s not even necessary. In Uganda, things fall into place own their own.