Wednesday, November 11, 2009


"O Brasil Apagou," read the headline of a newspaper I saw this morning, a picture of a single candle in the darkness taking up almost the whole page. Brazil turned off. It was slightly overdramatic, but the melodrama about the blackout that affected much of the country last night wasn't limited to the media. In my Portuguese literature class, the professor was talking this morning about the rise of the bourgeoisie and the materialism that was a part of bourgeois culture. The girl sitting next to me started to say something but stopped short. "Go ahead," my professor said. The student hesitated, saying that it had nothing to do with the short story we were discussing, nor with literature at all, for that matter. "Go ahead," my professor told her again.

"Well, the power outage last night," she began. "It really makes you think. We have all of these things, but when you really think about it, they're nothing." She stared wistfully off into the distance, perhaps contemplating ridding herself of at least one of her cell phones (tons of Brazilians have several, weirdly enough) or maybe her laptop. "Nothing," she repeated.

I won't say that last night's blackout changed me so profoundly. However, it was fun to compare it to any of the many power outages I have survived in Maine (email from my mom: "hope you told everyone that you live through much longer power outages in Cumberland all of the time").

It started a little after 10 o'clock. I was sitting at my desk when suddenly my computer shut off (I didn't have the battery in it) and my light started flickering and dimming. I went to the door and found my host mother, Glória, fumbling around for one of her cell phones (she has at least three) in total darkness. The light in my room was completely out by then but I nevertheless found my (singular) cell phone and turned on its flashlight to help Glória. That's right, it has a flashlight! "Tá ótimo, o seu celular," she and Ariadne, the other woman I live with, kept repeating all night. Damn right my cell phone is awesome -- the cheapest one in the store, its light still managed to beat all of Glória's super chique phones... combined.

Ariadne had been in the shower (I was planning to go after her, so thank goodness she didn't finish just a little bit earlier!) and was still soapy when she came to stand next to me and Glória at the window that looks out onto the street. I tried to get some info on what was going on and why, but once it was clear that they didn't have any answers, we just stared down at the street and observed.

There was still some light on the streets, since cars were passing, but the lack of street lights was eerie. Even the lights at the Copacabana Fort were out. "Os bandidos vão aproveitar," Glória kept repeating (She's big on repeating things -- usually it's "That's just how life is."). The criminals are going to take advantage of this. And that was the first difference between a power outage in Rio and one in Cumberland.

The next was that we didn't have any candles! Or flashlights! Completely unprepared, we were relying on just our cell phones and therefore did not do anything the whole night besides stand by the window and chat.

I tried to tell stories about Maine winter power outages, such as the epic ice storm of '98, but I think I fell short in describing the real extent of the situation when I couldn't remember the word for "heating" (and why would I have used that word here?). Or "fireplace." Or "ice storm" (tempestade de gelo?). It's amazing what Portuguese vocabulary I lack simply based on the weather here. And vice versa -- for example, I know all about surfing in Portuguese.

"Do you think anyone is trapped in the elevator?" Glória suddenly asked. Ahh! I hadn't even thought of that. It never was a problem on Field Road. "The doorman is going to have to stand at the door all night," Ariadne pointed out, since the door-opening button requires electricity. Another power-outage casualty that had never crossed my mind. Glória then told me a horrific story of a girl getting trapped in an elevator for a week while her parents were on vacation; it was only when they returned that they found her dead. So I was not only glad that I hadn't been on the streets or in the shower, I was also very thankful I hadn't been in one of the several elevators in my building.

Some things I learned during the blackout:
  • The description of what to do when in a car accident in Rio that we discussed in my Portuguese class back in July was pretty much right on target. At one point last night there was a loud crash: a taxi and another car had crashed in the intersection we were staring down at (No traffic signals! Glad I wasn't in a moving vehicle! Or the metro! I didn't even think of that at the time.). There was a lot of screaming and honking, one car drove off (no information exchanged, of course), and the taxi driver pushed his cab to the side of the road and made a lot of angry phone calls. No one, not even one of the many police cars who sped by, stopped to help him.
  • There are tons of bats who live in the trees right under my window. This doesn't have to do with blackouts at all; I'm just saying. I have had enough experience with bats in my bedroom for one lifetime.
  • My host mother is a compulsive liar. She got several phone calls from friends, and she tried to convince each one that we still had light. The story began that our whole neighborhood had light, and by the last friend she talked to, she was saying that it was just our building that still had light because we were chiques and it was only the poor people who were left in darkness. She even told this friend that the door that the friend always came in was actually the service entrance and that the social entrance was a lot nicer and around the corner. While this sounds exactly like something I would have tried to get away with, I'm suddenly worried that I have been putting too much faith into what she tells me.
  • Fish can survive in aquariums without a electricity for the filter or oxygen circulation for up to five hours. The thing Glória said she was most worried about was her "peixinhos," and she made me hold my cell-phone flashlight up to the aquarium for her so she could make sure all her little fish were alive. Thankfully, one of her friends told her they had five hours (though I'm guessing that was just an arbitrary number, as I had been thinking of making up my own prognosis just to get Glória to stop worrying about them). After that, however, we should just fry them up.
  • "Blackout" is spelled "blecaute" in Brazil. I loved being able to say "blackout" with a Brazilian accent the whole night and this morning, and hearing others use the word always makes me laugh. I didn't actually learn how it was spelled, though, until this afternoon when I was able to use the internet again and finally read the news.
  • Which brings me to one thing I didn't learn: why? OK, there are some explanations (it all started with a hydro-electric dam on the border with Paraguay) but I'm not going to lie, I'm still a bit suspicious, and nobody seems to be giving clear answers. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but if people can't seem to agree on where and when it was raining yesterday....
Anyway, after over an hour of standing at the window, we all decided to go to bed. I stayed up for a little longer and started the seventh Harry Potter book, which I had just bought in Portuguese. I was sweating without my fan, not shivering by the fire, and I was reading by the light of a cell phone and not a candle, and there was no Central Maine Power outage line to call for information, nor a hand-cranked shortwave radio for access to the outside world, but in the end, as I read about Voldemort and the Death Eaters in the dark, it didn't feel all that different from a power outage at home.

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