More power to the people – please!November 13, 2009
So there I am, nose buried in my laptop, revelling in the sheer breadth and rich magnificence of the online universe – and the lights go out. Again. As they did four days ago, and every four days before that. At least PLN, Bali’s only electricity supplier, is consistent in its inconsistent delivery of power. How can my reliance on being connected survive this? OK, I’m borderline autistic and prefer computers or dogs to people – but I still need my network to give me at least a semblance of human communication. My laptop is battery powered, but the wi-fi transmitter isn’t – when the lights go away, so does my known universe. No mail, no web, no Twitter, no Facebook, no blogs, no Skype, no chat – what the hell does PLN expect me to do – actually go out and talk to people?
I understand the need for load shedding in emergencies, but come on! How long does it take to replace the fish-nibbled extension lead that brings Bali’s power from Java, or pry stray squirrels out of the Gilimanuk power station generators? If the problem is that the turbines are not getting enough gas, they could at least import some Australian politicians. Ten pollies’ worth of hot air should surely produce at least an extra 1000 megawatts. And anyway, why did everyone wait until the demand exceeded supply before actually starting to do something? Aarghh!
The restaurants, warungs and bars that don’t have backup power are bleeding. Romantic as candlight is, customers tend to evaporate when the darkness descends. Who wants to eat unfamiliar dishes when they can’t see what they’re eating? Who wants to drink warm beer? Who wants to risk eating food from warming fridges? Who wants to fossick in the dark for unfamiliar money when it’s time to pay the bill? And who wants to walk down unlit streets and risk disappearing forever into one of those black holes cunningly scattered along Bali footpaths? Not many, I suspect.
Tourists are remaining in their generator-equipped hotels, and yet another night of infinitesimal takings depresses an industry already reeling from ludicrous duties and taxes on alcohol and imported food. In the last month, I have listened to various visitors saying that they are seriously considering a different holiday destination next time – somewhere where a bottle of good wine doesn’t cost the same as Visa On Arrival fees for a family of four and where there is an electricity supply that works. One said it’s like having a Nyepi Day every 4 days. When they get home, these people talk to their friends, they blog, they Twitter – and they write travel articles. The word is spreading. Can Bali afford this?
But of course, all of this is nothing compared to the real problem created by PLN blackouts – pembantu nyctophobia. I have discovered that many locals here are afraid of the dark. However, where my pembantu is concerned, afraid is a manifestly inadequate word to describe what she experiences. If there was a word that combined terror, dread, horror, panic, alarm, dismay, consternation and trepidation, it would barely begin to describe the emotions that seize her when the lights go out. Her eyes widen like saucers, she freezes for a few seconds, then stabs desperately at the keys of her ever-present handphone for some backlit salvation.
I really tried to help. I bought a stack of emergency lights for my place. These stay plugged in, quiescent and charging, until PLN hits the off switch, then automatically light up. Problem solved, I thought. Umm, no – the lights, perhaps because they are bluish LEDs, seem to offer little solace to her. “Sir, they not real light …” she says timidly. At some primal level, she knows they are powered by batteries – and batteries eventually go flat. When I insensitively ask her whether she is afraid of ogoh ogohs – the fabled monsters of Balinese lore – she laughs nervously and denies it, while her eyes fearfully scour the multiple dark crannies of the villa, expecting large, flesh-eating entities to leap gibbering and moaning towards her. Within three minutes of a blackout, she will surround herself with every emergency lamp she has been able to find, plus a few candles for backup. Then she sits holding (but not reading) a book while sending an incredible barrage of text messages to what appears to be most of Indonesia. Despite almost never catching sight of the girl during the day, I notice that during outages, she always manages to be in the same room as me.
So of course, when I say that I’m going out for dinner, the stricken look on her face means that I inevitably have an unexpected dinner companion. I didn’t think she thought much of my motorbike riding skills, but to see her jump onto the pillion seat with such alacrity could mean that I’m wrong. Then again, I suspect that her fear of the dark trumps her fear of my riding …
PLN, you are costing me a fortune. Not just in dinners, time and inconvenience either. My pembantu is getting married soon, and I was going to give her a modest, token wedding present. Now, because of you, I can see that nothing less than a 5kV diesel generator and a full lighting rig will do – and they are not cheap.