Monday, January 25, 2010

How People Live (in Bolivia)


Sometimes, the power goes out.

When I'm in San Antonio, it's the thunderstorms that do it. In Maine, ice brings down the lines. Korean electricity was pretty reliable, but we had a few outages. In Bolivia, the local juice was too much for the wiring in our old suburban house--the widowmaker showerhead would melt wires in the circuit box once a week.

Pulled back a century, I can never think of things to do when the power goes. "Okay, read a book," I start off. But it's nighttime, and there's no light. "If I can't read, I might as well watch TV. Oh. Shit. That's stupid." It continues. "Hey, I've got 4 hours of laptop battery. I'll post to the blog." But modems and routers run on electricity, too. Usually by the time I've realized I have nothing to do, the lights hum on again.

I used to hear or read about people who live without electricity. "That's terrible..." my mind kicked into its "tragedy" protocols, allowing acknowledgment of plight but locking down contemplation at the superficial level. I didn't want to peer too close. I might have even played with empathy--"Yeah, life sucks when the power goes out."

Then I went to Bolivia.

I spent 3 months with Energ├ętica. They work with thousands of people who live without electricity. People who don't live in suburban houses with melting wires and blown circuits and iced lines. They live in one-room chimney-less huts made from adobe bricks infested with Chagas mites on the 4,000m Altiplano beyond walking distance from the nearest low-voltage pole.

When you have no electricity, you spend your days out in the fields with the livestock, the llamas and alpacas. Maybe sheep, maybe cows. You get home at dusk and cook dinner in the fading light. The cooking fire gives off light, but also smoke, and when the wind blows right the smoke backs up in the ventilation hole and fills the room. You cough. You burn candles or oil lamps, and they make you cough, too. Sometimes they fall and burn you back. It's hard and expensive and risky to make light, so usually you don't. You sit in the dark. You sleep. You'd rather be using the time to dye yarn and weave textiles to sell to the tourists, to make jewelry, to weld or solder, to help your children with their homework, to find some way of supplementing the subsistence income of the ganadero lifestyle. But there's no electricity. You can't see, so you don't do anything.

When you have no electricity, you have no power.

12 comments:

Lola said...

Poignant. It's definitely all about perspective. Imagine if the Internet went down...

Kathy Amen said...

This is a very eloquent expression of how lucky we in the "first world" are. Easy access to water could be added, but how fundamental is it to be totally dependent upon hours of daylight to be productive? How long would I last in such an environment? Not long!

Sabina said...

What a beautifully poetic description of life without electricity. I love the last line.

yesthereissuchathingasastupidquestion said...

Oh, Hal. It's been a while since I stopped by, and this is a great post. You're a kick ass writer.

hal said...

Wow. Thanks so much Kate (and everyone else!).

Anil P said...

I can identify with what it is not to have electricity. Back when I was at school, and later, college, vacation time was spent out in the hinterland, in villages.

Watching my aunt at the stove, cowdung cakes and wood burning, smoke backing up the chimney and skylights, coughs punctuating the kitchen, eyes watering, it never felt out of place since I never saw any other household cook any differently, usually starting with it when it was time for the cows and buffaloes return home.

Only on reverting to the cities and towns does the difficulty they must experience hit home squarely.

hal said...

@Anil: Thanks for sharing this. Where did your aunt live?

Leigh said...

What a lovely piece, Hal.

I sometimes romanticize living in a place without electricity. Or at least a place where you have to be far more conscious of the electricity you use.

Sarah said...

Wow, Hal. I wasn't sure exactly where you were headed with the electricity theme and then wham, there it was. Pretty intense. Especially the cooking smoke -- I've heard it causes a lot of damage over time.

hal said...

@Sarah: Yeah, the smoke, and the risk of fire. The Cochabamba hospital had a huge burn unit, lots of children, almost all of whom lived out in the campo and had left candles burning when they fell asleep...

Ekua said...

I'm super late to join this discussion, I know. The living situation of the people in Bolivia's Altiplano made me more depressed than anywhere else I've been because of the extreme cold. People there don't have the option to live their lives outside as people in the tropics with similar living situations seem to do. And this confirms the thoughts I had that working your way out of that situation would be extremely hard. Did you feel like the volunteer work you were doing and the non-profit in general had a positive impact?

hal said...

Ekua, most definitely. It's a relatively simple task to bring illumination to a family's one-room home: a small square of solar panel, circuits, wiring, and a bulb. But it makes such a HUGE difference to the quality of their lives. Not for the cold, admittedly (though Energetica also sponsors programs to install improved wood stoves), but in terms of safety and economic opportunity.

What I appreciated most about Energetica was that they didn't differentiate between "green" and traditional methods of power generation. It was whatever worked best for the pueblos/individuals they were serving. Solar here, hydro there, high-tension lines somewhere else.