Terror kicks in on the third night.
The first two, there’s still hope; of course we’ve had blackouts before in Caracas, but they’ve lasted hours at most. On those first hours, you’re still expecting power to come back at any minute. I started writing this piece on the third morning after we just got official confirmation from the powers that be that our worst fears were true: there was no end in sight.
Particularly, I thought myself super prepared for an event like this. If you’ve ever wondered about the value of reading Caracas Chronicles, Frank Mucci predicted this scenario, and I remember reading his words, realizing the guy was onto something and preparing in earnest. It’s what we call “a prepper”: people who actively prepare for catastrophes. We had canned and preserved food, cooking gas, candles, a guitar, books, not a lot of meds but nobody at home has a chronic disease. We even had a small battery radio, with actual working batteries. As I call it now, it was my fallout shelter. My prepper atomic bunker.
In my mind, I knew a prolonged conflict was likely and I’d need to hole up and wait it out. What you’re looking for is self-sufficiency: you buy more than you need, and it’s always things that won’t rot quickly. We got this huge freezer at home, like the one the madman Leatherface has in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Canned food and cooking oil go at the shelves, in your huge-ass freezer you set up rice, pasta of all sorts and Harina PAN because I’m Venezuelan and we eat arepas for breakfast. Everything gets frozen.
The first thing we did when we knew this wouldn’t be solved soon was cooking all the meat we had. That’s gonna be your breakfast, lunch, and dinner because that’s the first thing that’s gonna go without refrigeration. Everything you froze, must now be taken out of the freezer not only for a proper inventory; ice at these things lasts around 48 hours, it will then turn into water and it will spoil all your reserves. So you must take it all out, wait for the machines to die, clean the mess, save the water (for toilets and unsavory stuff) and put everything back again.
Doing this inventory, we got some good news: we could resist for a good while. The bad news was, we weren’t that great on water. We were bitterly reminded that you need water for everything. All these supplies are good, but you need water to cook it.
That’s what you focus on during the day. You look for water (a truck would come every morning and, on the fourth day, we got access to the building’s reservoir), high-five yourself when you score it, talk to people, cook, go up and down the stairs. When you catch a break, you read. This nationwide disaster was great for the books I had on hold (something on Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination, the adventures of Professor Moriarty and his twisted Colonel Moran, re-read A Game of Thrones—the first book). I played a few songs, mostly Bowie stuff. You don’t hear the radio as much because those batteries are instantly turned into gold, so even the information you consume is rationed.
When everything goes to shit, so will the free flow of information.
That, by the way, is something the books and movies never tell you: when everything goes to shit, so will the free flow of information.
One of my main sources of frustration was not knowing for real what was going on. Not a single radio station gives it to you straight, you do get news about where there’s power and where there isn’t, where there’s water and gas and food, and that is mighty helpful, of course it is, but I didn’t know about the looting of one of the supermarkets nearby, for example, until I emerged from my area. We didn’t know there were zones with good internet connection and mobile network. I only learned about the arrest of my good friend Luis Carlos Díaz, with horror and shock, a few hours ago.
To give you some context so you know why the hell I was in Post-Apocalypse Land while the rest of the planet obviously kept spinning, I was at a middle-class area where, as in many other parts of the nation, we didn’t get a shred of power since all of this began (actually, there’s still no power there right now). And of course you can venture out with your car, but gas is another resource you treasure, so you don’t really spend it unless you have to. There was no mobile network, no signal, no wifi. We did go out to another area on Saturday, but back then the city was pretty much as we were.
I’ve learned to never believe anything I hear at night, even if the voice is my own.
And then dusk falls, you stop searching until the next day, and at that moment it’s unlike anything you’ve ever imagined. During the day, your mind is occupied, but at night it’s just you and the silence. Whenever the horror attacked me, I’d focus on immediate goals; it’s this survival objective, this one is the next, and this is the one after that. You hold on, sinking your nails in the idea that everyone is okay, that this will be over in a couple of days and you’ll hug and kiss your loved ones again. I’ve learned to never believe anything I hear at night, even if the voice is my own.
The art of the candle-lit reading never opened its mysteries to me (and I wanted to save the batteries on my flashlight) and, frankly, you cannot play your guitar when all the anxiety strikes. The “what ifs” lunge viciously from the dark: what if someone tries to break in? What if you trip and break an arm? What if there’s a fire in the building? You start thinking about your people and that’s when the night truly becomes pitch-black. Regular phone lines do work, but they’re unreliable, so you don’t know how’s everyone. It’s one of the worst things I’ve been through. As my buddy Stephen King would say, nighttime is the hour of The Beast.
On the fourth night, if memory serves me, we were woken up by what I thought was a car exploding. It was a boom that went off like a plastic canister hitting a metal board. It echoes. About 40 seconds later, another set of explosions roared and the sky was painted with a fire you didn’t even know existed: it’s white and red. Later I would learn it was high-voltage power stuff, but what would I know at fucking 1:45 in the morning? Everyone shouted different stories from the balconies of their apartments, and the voices thunder in the dark. “It was a gas explosion!” someone said, “cut off the gas!”
That really mortified me, because we cook with gas. You cut it and, for all our readiness, we’re fucked. We’d have to leave “the shelter.” I would learn the next day that it was the electrical sub-station of La Ciudadela, which provides energy for a good chunk of the city. The street smelled of ash and burned plastic. Taking pictures was out of the question because the area was militarized, it was a very Chernobyl thing.
In our modern world, we rarely come to situations that directly threaten our collective survival. When they do happen, life becomes about drinking just the right amount of water, about not getting sick. About staying sane. There’s this scene on the first episode of The Walking Dead where the characters get showers with actual running water and they sing and cheer. It is a little bit like that. Going through the Great March Blackout, I knew the country would be forever different now that we know just how fragile our infrastructure really is, the ghosts of these nights will haunt us with their songs during our most lonely hours.
And it ain’t pretty, but we’re surviving.