dragonfly painting

Photo by Dominic AZ Bonuccelli

Burning tires and broken glass litter the streets of Villa Riva, my hometown of two years in the Dominican Republic. Typically, it’s a tranquil pueblo filled with families and farmers going about their daily work in the rice fields, at school, and in the home. Today, police have been sent in with tear gas to calm rioters and more importantly to meet the peoples’ demands for electricity. All over the country, frustration levels are high due to frequent power outages that are a part of daily life in the D.R.

The condition has grown worse and there was even a nation wide strike during which Peace Corps volunteers were advised not to travel due to protests in the streets. Towns average five hours of light a day, and consecutive 24-hour blackouts are common. Immediately following Villa Riva’s strike, power was restored for a five-day stretch, ten hours a day. Then it was back to the usual pattern.

The light company claims that not enough people pay their electric bill. Yet regardless of who is paying, everyone in town receives the same amount of electricity. A disorganized infrastructure makes it difficult to monitor who is paying and in turn regulate the power based on accounts in good standing. Though many people I know are conscientious about paying their electric bill, there are millions who can not. Some people ask themselves, “ Why should I pay if there will still be blackouts?” To make the issue more complicated and disastrous, many homes are hooked up illegally to electric lines that are scrambled into rat nest like wire balls. Fatal accidents happen with them when young kids are up there fidgeting with the connection or disengaging a windswept kite. It is unbelievable to me that the government doesn’t intervene to ensure this resource is properly allotted and that people are protected.

When the power is out, food spoils and ice melts. Water pumps cease to provide water for bathing and cooking. Everyone joins efforts to share what little water they have by hand filling buckets from privately owned wells and hauling the water into homes. People’s energy levels drop, sweat drips, babies cry, and morals melt. Basic living gets harder. Overall, there is a heavy feeling of discomfort while people wait and hope things improve.

The lack of one major resource allows Dominicans to embrace another resource they can count on--each other. Especially at night when the light is gone, the neighborhood lights up with candles and conversation. People sit outside in chairs where it is cooler and kids can run around in the streets. Only an occasional motorcycle passes slowly. Using the moon and stars to navigate, I walk down the block moving in and out of greetings from my neighbors. Ambiguous dark faces with clear white smiles invite me to sit and chat to pass the night hours.

When the lights finally come on, everyone throughout the town cheers loudly and scurries inside toward their favorite electric appliance. Most popular is the television, which brings to an end the outside discussions and night gatherings. It is time to catch the ending of a spicy evening soap opera, though it cannot compete with local gossip. The fan is what I yearn for most. It is switched on immediately for some relief from the still, humid air. The blender buzzes and whirrs to make juice for the kids and the water pumps noisily spew water into buckets to prepare for the next outage. Salvador returns to his sewing machine where he stitches a pile of men’s slacks. Stereos at every corner food-stand pump out merengue beats, calling people for a beer and a dance. Though light is eventually restored, there is nothing that can bring more life to the Dominican people who join hands and voices to share their own light from within.