Report from Something Like an Apocalypse

 

Residencias Junin, Caracas, Venezuela. Photo: Jonathan Mendez, Unsplash.

In times of disorder,
of organized confusion,
of dehumanized humanity,
nothing should seem natural.

Bertolt Brecht.


I love writing by hand. It lets you feel what you’re writing.
My friend Kelly in a WhatsApp conversation
before a blackout.

Please don’t pity us. Just read.

I wrote almost all of this by hand, by the light of a candle or a cell phone. Like in a diary, I wrote to pass the time; then I edited inbetween total blackouts. I added a “nice” part, like in the movies, to fill you with empathy and help you appreciate the protagonist’s vicissitudes. I won’t put much into it; just a few short lines. You will soon reach the moments when the darkness did as it pleased with us, and you will read them in the comfort we lacked in those days.

Anyway, I’ll begin.

***

Thursday, March 7, 2019. My pre-exam anxiety has been keeping me from sleeping well for the past few days, but yesterday I got over it. I went to the university just for fun, since I didn’t have class today.

I rode my bike with some friends. The journey ended with a pretty steep slope; I met it with a not-so-noisy fall. My knees served as bumpers against the road. I had to stand back up and laugh, like those who witnessed my clumsiness from a distance. I wanted to do the whole thing over again. Once again, I messed up the ending, but I didn’t fall—but later I fell again because, well, I’m still no expert at this stuff. Even with my beat up legs, I enjoyed the experience: an experience my youth could never grant me.

At 5:00pm, I went to a friend’s house to return a book she lent me. She said it wasn’t necessary to make the whole trip over there, but my desire to be responsible in all things got the better of me. As soon as I got there, a blackout left the building without electricity. An older lady opened the gate for us, since the key was electronic and the access system wasn’t working. We bid each other farewell.

When I got to the Metro station, I learned there was no light there either.

(This is where the “nice” part, scraped knees and all, ends.)

I thought it might be a general blackout. Then, maybe out of optimism, I told myself it must just be in Line 3 of the Metro. “I’ll walk to Plaza Venezuela and that’s that. I’m sure that line is working.” I walked with people all around me; we all had to go on foot. On a journey that seemed longer than I expected, I noticed that not a single stoplight was working. At Plaza Venezuela, I saw that this station too was closed. I had to keep walking.

Chacaíto. I got a message from my brother. “How’s the Metro? There’s a blackout all over Venezuela.” There was no Metro. I would have to walk to Petare, where I live. I don’t know how many times the whole country has been left without light and Caracas has lived through this disaster. We are always caught by surprise.

Minutes later, the phone lines died.

La California, 7:00pm. Two hours of walking, no way around it. I had wandered through Caracas at night before, but never in darkness. Little by little, screams from the buildings; the sound of bugles, like vuvuzelas; pans crashing together. In darkness, noise is the only form of protest.

In the street, the only lights come from cars and a few cell phones. There were many people on the sidewalks walking to their homes. Many, many people. Among the crowd, someone shouted the name of the man in power, hoping to hear a tidal wave of insults in response. A form of collective solace that has caught on in recent times. No one responds. Everyone is too tired for games.

Thanks to the car headlights, I saw the sign down the avenue: “HOSPITAL PÉREZ DE LEÓN 700 METERS AHEAD.” The same distance to get to Petare. “700 meters to go,” I thought. I felt my legs begging for rest. The hospital, of course, had no power.

Finally in Petare, I pulled out a few banknotes for the last leg of the journey; the exact amount the bus driver charged to get us home. Our desperation made us push and shove for a spot on the bus. After 2 hours and 17 minutes of walking (more than 13 kilometers, according to Google), with pins and needles in my legs, I could finally sit down.

In the alleyway that led to my home, I couldn’t see anything.

I tried not to complain; there were people going through worse. Not long after, my sister walked through the door. She talked about gunfire at Los Cortijos. She and her classmates had to run, unable to see anything around them.

Thanks to our portable router, we have megas of Internet. We tried to read the news. The regime said: “The United States has committed sabotage.” I insulted the regime in a tweet, but worse offences made mine look trivial.

An Argentine penpal wrote me and sent me a hug. I received it and clung on to it.

From the balcony, we looked down on an opaque Caracas, like the whole country. The odd light from some building with a generator, nothing else.

The sky, like a little gift before the last straw, was starry, but we were all busy being outraged. The sky was the least of our worries. We never really see it. Tonight was no exception.

Another thing: we’ve gone 13 days without water in the house. We’re running out of what little we have left.

With the whole map in darkness, we survive.

***

Friday. The light came back at 12:48am. Ten minutes later, it went away again.

I would have preferred to sleep all day. My body hurts after yesterday. Getting out of bed takes a lot of effort.

An old battery-powered radio keeps us informed. On a random station, we hear that Caracas has started to regain electricity. On some programs, they give advice on how to preserve what little we have left in the fridge. Gathered around the little radio, we wait for light to come back to the house. It comes at 3:00pm. We charge our phones and tune in to the only radio station that could possibly tell the truth about what’s happening. An hour later, we had no electricity. Again, we got out the battery-powered radio. At 6:00pm, we had light for a few minutes.

In short: no water, no light, no communication—our phones still have no signal—listening to the radio and eating dinner by candlelight (that phrase has really lost its romanticism today). We travel back more than a century. Maybe a post-war period is meant to feel this way, as horrible as that sounds.

We read some news, thanks to the router. They report that the blackout is historic (you don’t say), and that it has caused Latin America’s greatest ever loss of Internet. We learn of the tragedy: several dead in hospitals after the blackout. They have no generator there. We don’t know how many have died. It has been a subtle genocide. They order the doctors to keep quiet. They cry, desperate.

I’ve always said, doctors must have great mental fortitude: they bear witness to suffering at its starkest. But their tears fall too. What they went through would be just as bad.

Babies in maternity wards are given air through hand pumps.

We saw much of the city illuminated, and some areas like “holes,” just like us at the house today. We remarked that there must be places that hadn’t gotten light back even for an instant, and they must have had no way to communicate with the world outside.

I wrote some friends to see how they were doing.

***

Saturday. We managed to talk on the phone with my grandma. She said the light was coming and going at her house, and that the water was cut off.

As far as the rest, no communication reigned. Some radio stations played only music; others, a march in support of the government. No news of nothing.

I went out to buy bread. The bakeries no longer took cards; they only accepted cash, which was hard to come by. Electronic money doesn’t work at times like this. The local stores were full of items, but not customers. I couldn’t go far because the Metro was still closed.

At the only pharmacy that could still take cards, I took the last two packaged sandwiches off the shelf. I went to pay and the lights went out. There were no windows. Darkness again. You might think more bad news is coming, but not this time: after a few seconds, the electricity decided I should pay after all and came back on. No one gets lucky all the time, I always say.

I took advantage of the natural light to read. First, a few poems by Julio Miranda; then I moved on to Things the Grandchildren Should Know, the autobiography of Mark Oliver Everett, lead singer of Eels. A girl who works at the bookstore lent it to me when she realized I couldn’t afford it (as incredible as that sounds). Her solidarity has helped me relax.

In the evening, we hear street performers near the house. They’ve come out to celebrate the Eighth Day of Carnaval. How is that possible in the midst of this calamity? Simple: the party is organized by supporters of the government because, in their minds, nothing bad ever happens. As their other comandante (now deceased) once said after the Amuay tragedy: “The show must go on.”

A young man who runs errands here in the barrio brought a drum of water to the house. It let us cook a little and ease the hunger, eating the same thing we’ve been eating for days.

Again that night the sky is starry and the city is turned off, like on Thursday. Uncertainty again. Going to sleep again with no idea what’s going on, praying for the light to come back, and with it illuminating news.

Something strange: in this darkness, we hear a song from far away; we hear it loud and clear. It must be annoying the hell out of anyone who lives nearby. “Maybe it’s a car,” my brother and I say, we were talking on the balcony in the dark. It’s curious that, in the darkness, noises and screams can mean protest or hope, but music can sometimes just be annoying.

***

Sunday. My family went to a nearby chapel for Mass. Since there was no microphone and no bugles, the priest had to shout. He spoke of “those forty days of Jesus in the desert, where there is no electricity, no water, no food, no phone signal, no Internet, no nothing,” he said. “Just about like us right now,” he went on. Such an analogy was predictable. He ended his sermon with this: a man approached him (drunk) a few hours before, saying something like “Father! Look at all this. We are in darkness.” The priest replied that, on the contrary, we were in the light; in these times, so dark for the country (how ironic today), more people were coming to Mass. I can confirm that: people only remember God when times are hard.

There is electricity running through a street cable near our house. My dad and my brother connect an extension cord. We take advantage of the change to recharge all our batteries. The Internet coming from the router is intermittent, but it’s enough to let us see that the regime is insisting that our enemies “hacked” the system of the Guri Dam. Some experts refute this claim; they explain why such a “cyber attack” could never happen.

There were many attempts to loot pharmacies—maybe some supermarkets too. There were marches in many parts of the country and they stamped out the protesters. Same as ever.

***

It’s Monday. No light and no water. We “recycle” water for the toilet bowl after washing the dishes. We use very little water to bathe.

We struggle against getting used to it.

I don’t feel like writing today, I don’t want to send a message of “poor me.”

***

Tuesday. After more than 100 hours of blackout, the light comes on in the house. No longer do I write my hand.

The news is horrific: they decapitated a jaguar and the head turned up in a dumpster; there’s a video of a woman carrying her dead daughter; a lady managed to get on the Internet 72 hours after the power cut and wrote, “I just found out my aunt went into intensive care and there’s still no light in the hospital”; hundreds of businesses were looted, especially in Zulia, whose residents were already living in inhuman conditions; they looted a bank in Mérida and threw the bank notes (of the old denominations) out into the streets; citizens are filling jugs of water from the Guaire—yes, the river of excrement that runs through Caracas; a lady confirms that she’s planning to cook for her children with this water; more deaths in the hospitals; they arrested a well known journalist and the people called vehemently for him to be freed; jugs of potable water are priced in dollars, as is the chance to charge batteries for a few minutes.

The regime defines this emergency as “days off.”

Something else: today I found out that a family member of mine got on the Valles del Tuy train line on Thursday. Then, blackout. The passengers called for rescuers. They didn’t know if anyone would come. At 1:00am, they broke the train windows so they could get out. It was so cold outside that they preferred to take shelter in the station. They got back to their houses at 4:00am. See? That’s why I didn’t want to complain about walking two hours to Petare after falling off my bike. If you’re doing badly, look around and you’ll see someone who’s doing worse. That’s the law.

***

Wednesday. Today makes 19 days without water in the house.

There’s more news, and it’s serious, I know, but I’ve lost heart in continuing to write about this hecatomb. Anyway, by the time you read this, ten thousand more things will have happened, and this chronicle will be of no interest to anyone. As far as I can tell, this tragedy into which they forced us has never been of any interest to anyone.

Translated by Arthur Dixon

Languages

Latin American Literature Today No. 10
Number 10

In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Juan Villoro

Dossier: Digital Literature

Essays

Indigenous Literature

Fiction

Poetry

Interviews

Previews

Chronicle

On Translation

Graphic Narrative

Nota Bene