Livingston, Guatemala: 48 hours without electricity

Life in the tropics is more extreme than life back home in every way. The heat is probably the same as in Estonia right now, but the humidity level is a different story altogether. Tom, for example, sleeps with a towel next to him- to wipe the sweat off multiple times during the night.

When it rains, it feels like the whole ocean is poured on you and the level of spiciness in Central-American cuisine is something I had no idea about before I started to travel.

I’ve also noticed how life in the tropics impacts my moods. When I’m sad near the equator, then I cannot hold back my tears. I can start crying because someone I didn’t know, has died.

It’s not my first trip to a country with a rainy and a dry season and with lush vegetation. I’ve lived in Indonesia for a year and thought nothing could surprise me anymore. Boy, how wrong I was.

Rainy season

One evening, we were just returning from a trip to waterfalls when we noticed that a thunderstorm was not far. It was already dark and we could see how thunder flashed in every different direction. It’s nothing new here. As soon as we set our foot onto the surface of Guatemala, we noticed that the rainy season had properly started. That meant heavy rain and thunder every night. So, it was bound to be another rainy evening. The problem, of course, was that we were still quite far from home. The poorly lit streets of Livingston are not the place you want to get soaking wet.

As I have described it before, tuk-tuks are killers. They run down along the curvy streets like amusement park rollercoasters. It really feels that the five quetzales are not the fare to get where you have to go, but more for having a spine-chilling ride. It’s no fun to walk on windy dark streets and meet one of these speed machines. You have to squeeze yourself to the side of the street, make yourself paper thin, pull your stomach in and hope that the little bastard saw you and will have enough space to pass you.

We progressed in the evening streets slowly but surely. And then it started- the rainstorm of the century. The kind of rain that makes it impossible to keep your eyes open. Water was coming down like a thick curtain. I don’t lie when I say that we could barely see a couple of meters ahead. And I have to stress now that there were no sidewalks- we shared the road with rushing tuk-tuks.

Storm lantern

At one point, the electricity went out. All the street lamps were off and we were left in the pitch dark. All I could think off was Lonely Planet’s advice to keep away from dark streets in Livingston- the dark places are the ones where crime happens. I clung to Tom’s hand and forced him to hurry.

Luckily, there was a tiny little kiosk not that far from us. We stood under its metal roof with a bunch of other people who had taken shelter from the rain. Strong gushes of wind blew more and more water in our direction. I had to turn my face away to breath normally. Before the shopkeeper closed all the shutters, we bought some chips. I noticed that a swinging storm lantern was the only source of light in the shack.

Life on the streets had stopped. Only tuk-tuks were still running. A tuk-tuk doesn’t have doors. You just climb in and hold on tight so that you don’t fall out during some sharp curve. In a storm, doors would’ve been great, though. The tuk-tuk drivers had thought about that. They just covered the door holes with plastic. You don’t see what is inside. You can only see the legs peeking out from under the cover.

O darkness

Every now and then a tuk-tuk stopped in front of the kiosk and honked loudly. This honk pierced my heart. I really didn’t want to walk in this weather. But Tom must’ve not seen my sad eyes. He kept repeating that we were just 200 metres from our hotel and that we might as well walk. I swallowed hard and followed him. Luckily, the electricity had returned, but not for long. Just when we were on a bridge, it left us again.

We fumbled on in the dark, rain splashing in our faces, which made it hard to see anything. The electricity kept coming and going like a candlelight in a storm. I love the darkness in certain moments, for example when I walk on a deserted dusty country road, admiring stars and feeling one with nature. It’s romantic and special. A dark city is anything but romantic. You don’t see where you’re going and windows are dark holes, like open mouths. Everything is dead and cold, abandoned and evil.

Pool in camera bag

Eventually, we made it to the hotel. Our raincoats hadn’t offered much help. Soaked from top to bottom, I peeled the raincoat off and discovered a little pool in my camera bag. We poured water out of our boots and then I wanted to turn the lights on. Nothing. The electricity was still off.

Thankfully, it was already late. A couple of beers later, we headed to sleep anyway. A bad surprise caught us in the morning when I wanted to charge my phone and computer. The power was still not back.

Surely, it was the longest power cut I’ve ever experienced. I still had no idea what was about to come. But Tom had a bigger problem – he wanted to watch Belgium’s semi-final in the World Cup. One option was to take a boat to the next town, Puerto Barrios, to watch tv. Sounds ridiculous, but if that’s how Guatemala runs, then we have to accept it.

A town running on generators

Luckily, Tom found out that some places in Livingston had generators. Soon enough, I noticed it myself. Passing stores and tourist restaurants, I could hear the low hum of the generators. By the evening, the hums had doubled. It sounded like the whole town ran on generators. Not every individual, however, was rich enough to afford such a gas-swelling machine. A generator is a luxury product for bigger businesses. As soon as we turned into our side street, we had to turn on our headlamps. We looked like cave explores.

Houses on both sides of the streets were dark. There was no music playing, which was a relief. It’s unbelievable, but you can get tired of all the reggaeton, dancehall, salsa and Garifuna music. Some mornings you just want to wake up to a birdsong, some evenings you yearn for quietness. At least it was quiet now. We climbed our stairs and noticed that something was different. The toilet light was on! Fantastic news! Later, climbing down the stairs for a soft drink, I saw our host, smiling broadly next to a humming generator. Oh, happiness! It still makes me think about our addiction to modern luxuries and our helplessness when we have to go without.

Christmas Eve in July

Do we need power so much? I don’t need it when I’m camping, of course not. And probably also not when travelling. But if I have any important business to do on the computer or I’m waiting for a phone call, being without electricity can be nerve-wracking.

At the same time, when daily worries are set aside and you head out to find a meal- there’s nothing more romantic than a row of restaurants and small comedors all lit up by candles. It made me think of Christmas Eve. We sat down in a Mexican fast food place and had our wheat tortilla in the candlelight. We couldn’t see very well what we were eating, but the atmosphere was beautiful and gave me shivers.

It’s a good spot to mention that while we were worried about how long we had to get by without electricity, then locals were calm as fishes. To cook, they used the gas stove or they grilled their food on the fire. The only difference we noticed was that the beans on my breakfast plate were not mashed in an ugly looking brown puree, they were solid- which I liked much better. And yeah, yeah, the Coke was no longer cold.

Tree on power line

We went to sleep just to enter a dark toilet again in a morning. After a little running around in Livingston, I went down to the hotel lobby to ask how long it was going to take and when they’d turn on the generator.

The hotel owner gave me a broad smile and explained that somewhere near the river, a tree had fallen on an important power line, which had cut our tiny town off completely. “Now it takes some time to repair it,” he said smiling happily as if these kinds of things happen here every now and then.

Later that night, we ran down to pay our hotel bill. I counted the money in candlelight and the lady gave us a candle to take upstairs. That same evening, 48 hours later after the start of the blackout, I switched on the light in the toilet. Hallelujah, it was back.

One Reply to “Livingston, Guatemala: 48 hours without electricity”

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