Reflection on the blackouts

It happened last Friday, and it again happened on Saturday. I was doing out a ‘masterplan’; not a masterplan, really, just simply a great design of what we are going to do with SEALNet Medan Chapter 2011/2012 yesterday (because the mentors resolved that I be elected as the next President), when the power all in a sudden stopped flowing. I know that sucks. Everybody felt that. My parents, my friends, neighbors, and almost all the people. I opened up my Blackberry, saw their status updates in Blackberry Messenger, and some seemed were texting out squawking messages.

Blackout is not an uncommon phenomenon; it can take place anywhere, anywhere in all the countries around the world. In United States, particularly, in some territories, there are blackouts, but they scarcely happen; the most frequent repetitions are countable by fingers within a year. In Hong Kong, residents have been beforehand informed by local power authorities that blackouts might happen in which time, and the whereabouts. If they really occur without their beknownst, the residents have rights to file a lawsuit against the electric power company. The time length, as told by my aunty who lives there, would not last until more than 4 hours.

And Indonesia? Many villages are not even connected with electricity. Between 2005 and 2006, majority of the places nationwide was facing electricity crisis. I’ll give you one example. Just simply one, and I know you would have been angered by it were you there. In Medan, that is to say my hometown, there were 2 blackout sessions everyday, lasting for a few months. Every session lasted for 4 hours. Not for concisely 4 hours, as I could say; it is more exact if it is re-written like this: every session lasted for – in minimum – 4 hours. Sometimes, it could last more than 5 hours. In order to continue our daily activities, we needed generators. And the generators needed fuel, particularly, gasoline. That was also the time when oil prices never soared that high, from a mere 22-25 dollars a barrel, doing a salto into a dramatically high 67 dollars a hogshead. President SBY had just been positioned in not until a year, and he announced the upsurge of the fuel prices. Police were dispatched everywhere to anticipate any riots that might occur anytime, anywhere. People were already traumatized by the 1998 May riots, at the same time then-President Soeharto also announced the massive increment of fuel prices, while many subsidies for the lower-income were already cut off.

I recalled that time as depressive. It was a bit relief when the blackout ended, but it was still, a different sort of relief. You felt relieved, but at the same time you felt alerted, and worried. Imagine you needed to continually take a look at the clock, whether tonight you would have to sleep in torridity because of the blackout that made all of us could not turn on the fans or the air-cons, at the same time our attention was heralded by the menacing global warming. Global temperature was on the rise, and air-conditioners were the final answer to find a bit refrigeration. Nevertheless, whenever blackouts came out, you should be prepared to sleep sweatingly.

The outage schedule was not obvious, as well. Worse, you could call it ‘invalid’. I tried to search it many times in the official website of PLN. The schedule page turned out to be invalid, even written there as far as I could recall: data had already expired. Deep inside, almost everyone got mad. Businesses became lethargic, the electricity fees remained unchanged (and worse, some of the PLN guys in charge of counting the fees might take chance by manipulating the electric meters, therefore ‘inflated’ the amounts of electricity you used in one month). Almost every night I would have to hear the generators ‘singing’; the sound was highly buzzing, as if we were all oblivious to turn off the bulldozers.

Rumor has it that there were disputes between Pertamina (Indonesia’s state-owned oil & gas company) and PLN. Pertamina set the oil prices very high, and PLN could not afford to pay for the fuel. Many of the power plants ran up dry, at the same time much coal was instead exported to other countries. I can’t ensure whether this was correct or not, as I was merely a fifth-grade or sixth-grade student by the time I heard that.

The kind of generator my neighbor (perhaps) uses. It seems so similar, but I’m not sure whether it’s of the same product or not.

There were demonstrations against the increasing fuel prices, and there were other demonstrations against the frequent blackouts. PLN, which is the abbreviation of Perusahaan Listrik Negara (translated in English as State Electric Power Corporation), was satirically changed to this: Perusahaan Lilin Negara, which if translated in English, would be written like this: State Candle Corporation.

Consumers in Medan, as far as I could remember, then filed a lawsuit against the company at Medan high court, somewhere between 2005 and 2006, I had forgotten that. But the company won, instead. And the blackouts still continued. There was an anecdote, I could tell you: people, including my parents, always prayed that these emotion-draining bastards would not happen while everyone was deeply asleep. Sometimes their wishes were granted, and at the other times, ended up in vain.

My family could not afford to wear pyjamas whenever blackouts took place. Otherwise, we would end up bathing in sweats, with bodies stickingly adhered into the clothes. We did loathing very much. No matter how much we all condemned, things still remained unchanged. The blackouts still happened 2 times a day, 4 hours each session. It was painfully difficult to know when the electricity would come back; it was of no use to phone the PLN staff using the 123 and ask what time it ended. Sometimes they may simply answer, “Sorry, I don’t know.”, or more impertinently, they did pick up the phones, but they came out with no sounds, at all.

We wished for many times to move to other countries. Singapore? The living costs are too high. Even the most premium-class government-owned apartment, or the HDB flat, would cost more or less equivalent to 1.3 billion rupiah, something they could only afford to pay through monthly installments for decades and decades. United States? No way. My parents were not that fluent in English, especially given the fact that Bush administration at that time incessantly attempted to limit the number of immigrants (and tourists, altogether) from entering the country. Some estimated the number of illegal immigrants in that country might amount to more than 10 million. That was not inclusive of more than 200 million people worldwide who aspired to migrate into that country, and inclusive of me.

Almost everyday my father would have to buy a vat, all filled with oil. The monthly costs could be more than 1 million rupiah every month. That’s already more than enough for an average Indonesian child to pay for monthly school fees, to have additional extra tuitions, and et cetera.

We obtained much tedium by their promises. They pledged that the blackouts would have ended by this month, but instead it was prolonged further to another month. That was of no use to criticize or even condemn them; Indonesians must have been the most patient nation in the world. Everytime the demonstrators surrounded and occupied the main PLN offices, the functionaries would meet them and say, “Patience, please!”


A satirical logo of Perusahaan Lilin Negara

In some areas, the demonstrations ended up in anarchy. Masses ended up lawlessly, and they terminated every stuff that was there. The doors, the windows, the walls. Here, they set their flaming emotion, all free. Some cities and towns even suffered from total blackouts, that is to say, 24 hours without electricity. I still remembered some news reports a few years prior, stating that Pekanbaru, capital of the oil-rich province Riau (only south of North Sumatera, and is geopolitically contigious with), suffered from 2-or-3-times-a-day blackouts everyday for a few months. The reality was full of contradiction; we live in a country with the most diverse energy resources, at the same time we live in a country with one of the highest amounts of blackouts compared with other countries. What a boredom-inducing statement. It became a main commodity for our politicians as well; in elections, either in city-level, regency-level, or province-level, they promised blackout-free provinces, or regencies, or cities. Everything happened in reverse, vice versa. Their promises were incompatible with the reality when they won the elections. We still had to listen to these buzzing generators, adding another kind of sound pollution.

So far, I could only remember things that happened between 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Don’t be mistaken; blackouts had taken place earlier than 2004, and earlier than the time Soeharto was appointed as the second President of Indonesia. Majority of the people would have to think twice or thrice before they wanted to criticize PLN; I heard my tuition teacher said that some of those who persiflaged them would have themselves thrown into Deli River (one of the main rivers in Medan) by local police, far in the midnight. “Blackouts had been such kind of must-do tradition here, even when I was in your age like you,” My mother once told me.

In 2008 and 2009, the blackouts still took place, but the frequency slowly dwindled, from two- to one-time-a-day schedule, for a few months. That was the time when Facebook became a fever, where life would seem harsh if they did not write out their ‘what’s-on-your-mind?’ status, where almost everybody became infected with narcissistic personality disorder. I saw many of my ‘friends’ – just Facebook friends, I even didn’t know that some of them indeed exist – spatted out bad words in their status. From f-word to m-f-word to local bad words (do I need to include them here?), it was like Facebook was fully congested with truckloads of dirty words (based on the perspective of my own).

I contemplated deeper, and I admitted that I, in the past, was not much indifferent from those who came out with truckloads of bad words in their minds; everybody was deeply impatient and emotionally volatile because of the blackouts. The only difference is, I did only spat them out gibberishly in my heart.

Experiencing the blackouts sometimes drains out emotion, even after I read some kind of spirituality-inducing books. Starting from here, it might be a bit deviating from the main topic, but at least, I attempt to do some kind of correlation. Ajahn Brahm once told the first day he did the meditation, deep in a temple somewhere in an isolated jungle in Thailand. There were pretty many, as he wrote, mosquitoes, that bit his body. He wanted to lash out his emotion, but he was somewhere deep in the abyss of mind. He took a long breath, one by one, albeit the bumps lured him to scratch them. And when he opened his eyes, the bumps vanished. I conceive that everybody can afford to do what he did, but not all people in the world will have that kind of willingness to resist that temptation longer. He referred to these mosquitoes – as quoted by his teacher, Ajahn Chah – as ‘teachers’, or Ajahn as translated in Thai. Ajahn Mosquitoes.

But what equipped me with much more patience was a recent article in a local newspaper I had read. I am not trying to be arrogant, honestly, but I just want to give one more reference. Dhaka, Bangladesh, is already a sprawling metropolis with more than 10 million people – many of whom originated from villages throughout the country – living in an agglomeration only a few percent larger than Jakarta. When floods invade, the slums turn into muddy ponds. There is almost no single day where there are no blackouts in the capital, and the entire country. In general, almost every household would have to turn on the generator four or five times a day, that is to say, two times worse than what once happened in Medan, and when summers come, the blackouts turn out even worse. The city’s power supply was merely half of the city’s power demand, as of 2010.

Medan was celebrating its 421st anniversary, exactly on 1st July, at the same time the blackout took place. When I conceive this phenomenon on a wider, or a more ampullaceous perspective, in the long run I realize this is no longer a ‘surprising problem’; it is, all in all, a classical problem nearly every big city in every developing and least-developed country is facing. That’s how we all feel  that. Limited power supply is not the only problem facing almost all the cities and towns; it is merely a microcosmic example of all the stacks of problems.

In the long run, we should give these blackouts a new name: Ajahn Blackouts. One of many, many kinds of mosquitoes that tempt our bodies of patience.