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 Energética. 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.