100 Hours of Darkness

Army soldiers who want to help and think people have the right to be angry. Truman Capote’s masterpiece. A sky exposing its wonders in the absence of urban lights. Some strange and unforgettable things happen in this Merida tale of the nationwide blackout.

On Thursday, March 7th, when I left home to buy some rechargeable batteries, the last thing I imagined was that it would take me five days to check if they worked. When the lights went out at the mall, I thought it was just another power outage, like thousands before.

All traffic lights on my way home were dead, as well as the radio. I went to sleep, convinced the power would return while I slept. It happened before, hundreds of times.

I woke up, still without power, and went to the Universidad de los Andes’ Institute of Clinical Immunology (IDIC, for its Spanish acronym) where I have a part-time job. No power there either; the IDIC is located next to Merida’s University Hospital, the biggest in the state, so if we didn’t have electricity, neither did they, as I quickly confirmed when I heard the deafening sound of the hospital’s massive power generator. The IDIC has one too, but it had run out of fuel, a problem we solved when an Army fuel truck arrived to refill the hospital’s 30,000 litre tank.

I rushed to the truck to explain to the soldiers that we needed fuel for our own generator. They agreed, but there was one problem: none of them knew how to get the Chinese tank’s pump system working. They tried to contact their HQ through radio, but all radios at the base worked with electricity. They sent three soldiers to get someone to operate the tank and instructed us to wait.

It was the first time I ever thanked the military for something.

Talk about operational readiness.

“If they don’t solve this shit soon, people will take the streets tomorrow,” a chatty soldier said. Half an hour later, they finally filled our cans with fuel and told us to call them if we needed more.

It was the first time I ever thanked the military for something.

Before I could realize, the first 24 hours without power passed. On Saturday, I grabbed some of the many books I’ve bought throughout the years and never read. I chose Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; it seemed a painfully appropriate title for the situation. Capote’s detailed description of the Clutter family’s brutal murders immediately caught me, so I spent the rest of the day in Holcomb, Kansas. By 5:30 p.m., 49 hours after power was cut, the little daylight left made it impossible to keep reading.

That night, a flickering light through my window caught my eye at 1:00 a.m. (maybe power had returned!) but it didn’t come from the street, it came from the sky. I had never seen so many stars in my life. I located Antares and what I think was the Centaurus constellation. Jupiter was there too. What really struck me was the dim band of light that crossed the sky from one end to the other. It wasn’t at all like the pictures, but it was undoubtedly there, the Milky Way, visible to the naked eye.

I went back to bed and turned on my cell phone, surprised to read Digitel 3G on the screen, over 450 unread messages popping up on my screen. I immediately texted my girlfriend, currently in Spain, letting her know her boyfriend was alive. Reading the messages, I confirmed the blackout affected the whole country, Caracas included. After learning about the deaths of several patients in hospitals where power generators failed, I decided it was time to go back to sleep.

On Sunday, I finished my book and I went with my mom on a quest for ice.

It was the first time we left our neighborhood since Friday and we found a nuclear wasteland: empty streets covered with debris from three nights of riots, smoking spots where tires had burned the night before and soldiers guarding the only two functional gas stations.

Reading the messages, I confirmed the blackout affected the whole country, Caracas included.

Only one of the few open stores had a functional card reader. The other two were only taking U.S. dollars and Colombian pesos. No ice at all. We came back home ready to see our food had spoiled, but since we’d already ran out of meat, 500 grams of cheese and some pasta sauce were the only casualties.

72 hours after power was cut, I started to feel like a character from H.P. Lovecraft. I kept thinking about the 24-hour shift I had to work the next day at an outpatient clinic in Tabay, 30 minutes away from Merida. What if a patient with an asthma crisis arrived? How would we nebulize him without power? Would he get to Merida’s hospital on time? What if I needed to check a dose on the internet?

What if the power didn’t come back at all?

The next morning I was surprised to know that some enthusiastic folks from Tabay repaired the clinic’s broken power generator. They are the only reason why we nebulized the four asthmatic patients that we received that day. There were riots the night before, a small truck transporting sausages was looted. The local butcher decided to give meat and pork away before they spoiled and another seller had to throw his putrid chickens to a river that afternoon.

The next morning, 108 hours after the lights turned off, power returned. Just a few minutes later, I learned my friend and fellow Caracas Chronicles contributor, Luis Carlos Díaz was detained by the regime. This is Venezuela: just when you’re enjoying small victories, the country makes you miserable again. But by the end of that day, Luis Carlos was back home with his wife and I still had electricity to write this piece.

Because all things, even seemingly eternal tragedies, eventually come to an end.