I have not written since January. We had guests. We travelled the Andes, twice. We visited the Galapagos. More words will follow. Until then…
When Ecuadorians – indeed, when most Latin Americans and Spaniards – talk about the electricity that flows into their homes and businesses, they say luz (light) and not electricidad. At the bank, we do not pay an electricity bill. We pay luz. If, as a newbie, you refer to electricity in the only way that makes sense to your tiny Anglicized mind, Ecuadorians understand what you mean but probably snicker about it later.
This is more than semantics. It is a cultural nuance. Around the turn of the last century, a lightbulb was how most Ecuadorians experienced electrical energy. If you lived in a two-room shack but owned only one bulb, that bulb traveled with you from room to room. (There are people who live like this today.) Also, every citizen and resident has the constitutionally protected right to a working streetlight near their home. This is true.
You could say that luz is to Ecuadorians what gun ownership is to many Americans. It’s fundamental, and inviolate. When you use the more highfalutin electricidad, you’re telling people that you aren’t from these here parts. You’re a tourist. A gringo. An other.
Of towels and weep holes
I offer this riveting insight because luz is a word that is lately on my mind. We are near the end of an especially vexing rainy season: what the natives call marzo loco, crazy March. Intense storms come at us from every direction. Last night’s was from the west. It got under the sliding patio door and we spent our evening mopping with towels. The worst are storms from the north or from the east. These fill our cheapo aluminum window frames with warm water, and water runs down the walls into pools on the floor. I’ve been drilling weep holes, caulking sills, and installing weather strips to keep the rain out. I doubt any of it will matter. But one must at least try.
(I am aware that what I just wrote is a prime example of my privilege showing. By relative standards, Chantal and I are unimaginably wealthy in this country. My personal experience with global heating at the equator is one of leaky windows and an overflowing swimming pool. Occasionally, I can’t back the car out of our garage for the mud. Our neighbours, on the other hand, who live across the laneway in cane shacks, yesterday watched a spontaneously occurring torrent carry their homes into the sea.)
Cuando hay lluvia
To further complicate matters, our block loses power when it rains. Every time. In fact, there’s a pithy saying in the barrio: cuando hay lluvia, no hay luz. When there is rain, there is no light. As discussed above, this isn’t metaphorical.
Electrical infrastructure in Ecuador is – what’s the best way to put it? – utterly improvised. The Corporación Nacional de Electricidad, or CNEL, is what Canadians would recognize as a crown corporation and what Americans might refer to as a… I have no idea, now that I think about it. CNEL is a federally constituted public utility. Refael Correa conjured it into being, by presidential fiat and a magnificent wave of his hand, on 15 December 2008. Before that, electrical energy distribution and commercialization was a local affair. Like barn raising, but with explosions.
In San Clemente, as it is everywhere in Ecuador, each transformer sprouts a feral bouquet of high-voltage cables, mysterious black boxes, tensioners, duct tape, utensils, and at least one buzzard. To this mayhem, shack dwellers clip flimsy telephone lines to power their single migratory bulbs. Tensile load is not a consideration. Wires dangle dangerously low over the sidewalk. Tall bumblers like me must cautiously stoop under one or several on our way into town, lest we become the morning’s entertainment and a short-lived cautionary tale.
A bribe among neighbours
I might also add that CNEL is rotted through with corruption. If you require prompt service, especially in rural areas, your choices are to know someone at CNEL or to offer a donation to the lineworkers’ favourite charity. Or else, it’s no es mi departamento y no tengo las herramientas. (Not my department. I don’t have tools.)
We need a new transformer. The old one is rusted out and sizzles at night when the rains come. We experience powerful surges that pop breakers and fry our devices. CNEL will not pay for any of this. Or, more accurately, the lineworkers will not install a new transformer until somebody’s palm has been lined with silver. We must pool our funds, as a community, and have the work done ourselves.
My next-door neighbour, Ricardo, will type up a solicitud (a petition or request). We will all sign, and Ricardo will deliver it, along with our money, to a mucky muck who exists somewhere higher up the CNEL food chain. A lineworker told us eleven-twelve hundred dollars should do it, plus whatever the extra high-voltage cabling costs. That seems fair.
And so we wait. We expect more rain this afternoon. Already, the humidity is beyond stupid and clouds are gathering to the east.
I’ll know soon if my weep holes work. Just in case, we have our beach towels ready.