Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Who turned out the lights?

Hurricane Sandy came storming in yesterday. All morning and afternoon, we were preparing ourselves for the worst; power outage. We had bought ice for the freezer, water for the cooler, non-perishables for the pantry and batteries for the flash lights. We also had a half dozen candles on hand in case of emergency. They were red party candles, as that was all there was left in the store when we went out hunting for them. My mom lent us her lighter; we thought it would be safer than matches. And we waited. I woke up every hour that night checking for light, and it was always there. I think we were the lucky ones.

Growing up in Beirut, though, we could hardly call ourselves "lucky" when it came to power outages. It is now 2012 and electricity is still being rationed among the many parts of the city. It could be a six hour block, or a three hour block of non-stop power, then an equal block of blackout. If we were really fortunate, the six hour powered block would be in the morning in the winter when we were awake getting ready for school. But that usually meant homework was to be completed by candle-light in the afternoon. When the power was on in the evening, we could see what we were eating at dinner, were able to watch television and got a warm bath before bed. If we were slated for the graveyard shift then, we were out of luck; the lights came on when everyone was sleeping and only our refrigerators and our water heaters got the benefit.

Days like yesterday bring back those memories loud and clear. But back then we were still able to enjoy a warm homemade meal even with no lights; all of our stoves were powered by gas. We could heat water for bath, pop corn, make tea and roast chestnuts. On the weekends and non-school days, I could even go as far as saying it was fun not having electricity. Who needed it when you had teta's house to huddle in and get treats. We could even listen to music and the news on her battery-powered transistor radio.

But it was not all fun and games. Laundry had to be washed, the freezer needed to be cooled, the water heater needed to be warmed, and water needed to be pumped up to the rooftop water tanks. And some times we just were without power for days on an end. On those days, we were the fortunate ones among the rest; we had relatives who lived in a building with its own generator.

We lived in the East part of Beirut. My uncle's was in the West part of Beirut. Their building association decided early on to invest in a diesel generator. For us, that was a life-saver. On the weekends when we needed to wash our hair and our clothes, we headed over to Khalo's house. We would time it so that our arrival coincided with when the generator had just come on so that we could get the most benefit. Yes, that generator had a schedule, too. On the weekends it was on more than during the week, but it still had its down times and we did not want to have to climb seven flights of stairs in the dark carrying our load. If we arrived a few minutes too soon, we would hang out in the lobby of the building and make small talk with the concierge until it was show time. Then the fun began.

It was a fine dance getting everything done in time, especially when Khalo's family needed to do much of the same things we were there for, and considering how we could only have so many appliances turned on at once. If the hairdryer needed to used, the water heater would have to be unplugged, for the washer to run, the refrigerator needed to stop, and so on. Then, you had to remember which appliance you turned off when you were done. If we turned too many on at once, then we were all out of luck for the precious few minutes it took the concierge to readjust the fuse in the basement. And, those minutes ticked quickly by; the generator waited for no-one. When it was time to turn it off, it went off, regardless of whose laundry was stuck in the washing machine and whose hair still had soap in it.

I have not lived in Lebanon for nearly a decade but I still hear stories about power outages. It makes me shudder to think that in this day and age these things still happen. But one thing that makes me smile is knowing that the people there have mastered the skills to get through that roadblock. Here, in the US, people seem less prepared for such situations. They consult websites that tell them what to buy and how to stock up. They scramble to the stores and line up at gas stations. When the power went out earlier this summer, we were considering staying at a hotel to escape the heat, and ate at restaurants to fill our stomachs. This time we were spared. We were better prepared but luckily were spared. Next time, maybe we can be even more blackout ready and have a gas stove, or even a generator. Or maybe we will live in a place where the lights don't go out.

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