The sun sets early in the Philippines. Its disappearance coincides with my center’s daily group prayer, wherein children, house mothers and coworkers converge for a few minutes while the sky runs through its bedtime routine. If the prayer starts late, or if it is a rosary day, the gathering doesn’t break up until the darkness is almost complete and the sound of hands slapping mosquitoes replaces colors and shapes as the primary sensory stimulus. Then the lights come on and the kids walk back to their houses for dinner, homework and maybe a bad telenovela.
But in mid-step the world turns off and a collective groan rumbles through the thick air. A young moon soon reveals dim shapes. Small silhouettes continue homeward, led by the glow of a cellphone or a candle glimmering on a porch.
Power outages are nuisances, but they’re also opportunities: opportunities for kids to skip their homework and take a jaunt around the center with their buddies, for the guitars to be broken out and impromptu concerts performed, for the world to be seen without the artificial fluorescent glow.
For me, brownouts usually mean no work in the evening. No tutorials, no instruction, no working on projects. It’s frustrating, and it’s a frustration that has lasted since the early days of the hot season over half a year ago, when brownouts became a daily occurrence and usually a more-than-daily one. Earlier this week we had six brownouts in one day; another time the power stayed out for around twelve hours at a go.
Yes, the Philippines is a developing country and I have no reason to expect consistency when it comes to utilities. But from an economic standpoint, Filipinos get a raw deal when it comes to electricity: recently an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer highlighted the fact that in some Philippine cities, power rates are higher than in many other countries, including the US, Russia and Japan as well as other developing nations. And the lucky Ilonggos in my province pay the most of anyone in the Philippines – and for the price, the service is abominable. (My utilities are included in my regular rent payment, so the high price doesn’t affect me. But I can imagine the pinch for families that have to pay a premium for a less-than-premium outcome.)
So for me personally, the brownouts shouldn’t be as much of an aggravation: at least I don’t have to begrudgingly hand over my pesos at the end of each month with the knowledge that the money is funding a power infrastructure that’s about as seamless as a sepak ball. But of course, I had over twenty years of luxurious, very nearly persistent electricity before I came to the Philippines, and I still feel the stab of annoyance sometimes when we’re plunged into blackness in the middle of a math tutorial.
I also sometimes think about how tired I am when I get home three hours after the sun sets. And how that same sun consistently wakes me up the next morning around six – no need for alarms; no need for black curtains to hold off the sun because I didn’t fall into bed until two a.m. And I think about how desperately humanity has perverted that natural cycle (not that we haven’t had good reasons sometimes for doing so) with the invention of artificial lighting and our chemical-stimulant fetishes. And then the planet’s turning doesn’t seem quite so obnoxiously inconvenient, and I know the brownouts aren’t concealing anything, but only revealing what is true.
Darkness at night. How novel.