When the lights went out…

30 August to 2 September 2018:  For 3½ days, there was a power cut in Quetzaltenango (Guatemala’s second city) home to a population of about 250,000 people.  Stories and estimates varied wildly but it was thought that well over 50% of the city (also known as Xela) was impacted following an explosion in a power plant which fortunately did not kill anyone.

But it did mean that from about 6pm on Thursday 30 August until about 11pm on Sunday 2 September, we had no electricity in either our school or homestay.  This meant no lights but, much more importantly no water, as there was no electricity to pump the water round the city or, in individual houses, to where it was needed e.g. to bathrooms.  While you can adapt pretty quickly to having no lights (with candles and torches etc), not having water was far more of a challenge and things can get a little grim quite quickly.

And then of course there were other things that didn’t work either, e.g. the fridge-freezer (we were aware that many shops lost their entire stocks of ice creams and other frozen food).  Wifi obviously needs power to function (so that was off) but to be fair the mobile networks still functioned including mobile data, but only of course if you had any battery power left in your device.  And we all know how quickly smartphones can die!

In town, many ATMs were out leading to longer queues at those that were working.  And the traffic lights were also out in affected areas although lots of traffic police were deployed to keep the traffic moving in an orderly manner (and to be fair the driving here is pretty sensible anyway).  And we saw and heard a number of generators in play allowing some businesses to function relatively normally during this blackout period.

The whole city wasn’t impacted, just a significant part.  On the middle Saturday, we had a very early start for a trek up to a viewpoint of a volcano which meant we were walking towards the centre of town at 4.30 in the morning.  From our homestay in zone 3, it was a pretty dark walk until we got nearer to the trekking agency in zone 1 when suddenly we crossed a line after which street lights and traffic lights functioned again: at this time of the morning before anyone else was up and before generators were running etc, this made for a very striking demarcation of the power cut.  And again from the roof of our homestay at night, you could look (with a smidgen of envy) in the opposite direction (to the north and west) across the darkness of our zone to other parts of the city where the power was still on.

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The view from our homestay’s roof across the darkness of our zone to those zones of Xela with electricity

Actually relatively speaking, we were quite lucky.  School was in the morning so light was not an issue and in the afternoons, we headed off to those parts of the city with power and chose our destination café very carefully, not based on which made the best cappuccino (to be fair all the coffee in Guatemala is very good ) but which had well placed and, more importantly, available power points where we could recharge our phones etc!  And in the homestay itself, although we had no lights, the family had a gas hob so they could still cook and in fact had a large cistern of water from where they managed to draw some water which we could use for washing and, more importantly, for “flushing” the toilet.  But given we were 8 people in the house, this supply only lasted until Saturday evening, after which things became a little more challenging.  And we began to adjust to ridiculously early bed times (our record was our being tucked up in bed at 19.45, albeit doing a little reading by candle-light).

Let’s just say it was a relief when the power returned.  Here again, we were luckier than others as power returned to our part of the city more quickly than to some other parts.  The return of power also meant we were able to get some laundry done just before that reached a crisis point for us…… although I appreciate that may possibly be just a little too much information!

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