The Protest for Light

It was eight in the evening. I was leaving class when the summer rain stormed down on me. They came down strong, those thick, heavy drops… and, in Rio de Janeiro, that means utter chaos! The storm filled up the streets in a matter of minutes, destroyed trees and shot lightening all over the city. Trash clogged the drains turning every corner of Rio and vicinities into a pigsty. It took me four hours to get home that night! Hours upon hours in traffic, stuck in one of the main avenues downtown, because the city can never deal with the rain, though it invariably pours the same way, every single year. Flooding, death, blackout, trash, mud, rescue, boats, firemen… let’s raise a toast to the public authorities!

When I got home in the early hours, at almost 1 a.m., I was tired, sleepy, hungry and angry, and realized I had to deal with yet another very common consequence of the rainy season: an electricity outage! Hubby had been waiting for me alone at the dark bus stop and we practically had to grope our way home. Candles were lit everywhere to keep the darkness at bay and help us find our things. It was time to try to get some sleep…

Darkness, heat, mosquitoes... I opened the windows and the room was taken over by them. Being used to it, they probably think it is funny when we spray repellent―a vain attempt to keep them away. The heat made me sweat and the discomfort prevented any possibility of sleep. I lay awake for the rest of the night… accumulating exhaustion. There; 5:15 in the morning again, time to get up and go to work. And still no power.

I went to work in a bad mood and even more tired than I had been the day before. My eyes burned; I was unable to function. The lack of sleep had taken my will to move. There I stayed all day, a vegetable in front of the PC. I didn’t get any work done and I left early to finally get some sleep.

At home, the worst of all news: the power wasn’t back yet!

People on their balconies. Heat. The old lady next door had to go to some relative that owned an air conditioner because she was not feeling well; and everyone was angry because of the heat and the food spoiling in the fridge. Almost 24 hours without power! Nonsense! The government robed of me the dignity of sleeping comfortably in my own home! After the shower, I lay on the floor in the porch to absorb the chill of the cool ground and try to ease the heat… my husband was hooked on the phone, making yet another complaint about the power outage and writing down another record number.

Suddenly I heard shouts nearby. I listened carefully and understood what they said:
“We want light! We want light! We want light!”

Women and children shouted, crammed up at the entrance of the main street. There were baby strollers, toddlers, and barefoot and shirtless teenagers. Some men brought in a tire they intended to burn. Some picket signs read “Ampla1, do your job”, “No more outages”, “When is it going to end?” and the like. It was a public demonstration right at my door!

As supporters of the cause, my husband and I mingled in the crowd. We bumped into all our neighbors there. Shyly, we watched the people from the slums. They really were good at making noise! Three police cars full of heavily armed police officers stared at us from across the intersection. The flow of cars in the rush hour was disturbed by the protest.

A short, black woman with sun-damaged skin, wearing denim shorts, a tank top and flip flops, masterfully led the protest. Sign at hand, there she stood, literally in the middle of the road, and shouted chants against the electric company. The crowd went wild! It was she who decided which cars were allowed on the block. It was she who organized the tumult and stirred up the crowd. We soon started calling her “the good troublemaker”, because she used her crass, loud ways for a noble cause.

I noticed a gathering at the corner and saw that beer was coming from there! Naturally, in Brazil, a proper protest has to have beer. All it needed now was music. And the woman kept on shouting along with two other women as her sidekicks:

“I want my power back! My meat is rotting in the fridge and I’m being eaten alive by mosquitoes! I just want my power back! I’m tired of this outage!”

“Yeaaaahh!!!” the crowd shouted in unison. “We want light! We want light!”

Then she turned to the side where my husband, I and other residents of our block were, and shouted pointing at us:

“These ‘city folks’ are here! They don’t yell like us, but they are on our side! That’s all that matters! They are participating in our protest!!!”

“Yaaaay!” the crowd responded.

Another movement leader, with a typical hoodlum stance, approached in her bright pink tank top and hot pants; she said:

“You ‘city folks’ don’t know mosquitoes! In the jungle mosquitoes will lift you up!!”

The “jungle” she had mentioned was the vegetation around the hill where they lived. If I, who lived next to the pavement, had problems with mosquitoes, imagine how it was for them! If I, who owned a freezer, was counting down the hours for the death of my frozen beef and chicken, imagine how it was for them… the only thing left to do was to protest!

All of a sudden Ampla’s car came. The crowd screamed so loud that the driver decided against stopping to fix the problem! He ran away!!! The demonstrators shouted for police help and a police car soon followed Ampla’s runaway vehicle and brought it back to do the repairs. The crowd went crazy!

As soon as the car parked under the lamppost where the transformer had blown up, a group of boys from the slum climbed the car saying that they would only leave when the electricity had come back! Good move! They held them hostage! Ampla’s workers didn’t have another choice but fix the damn light. They were escorted by two cars into a street where the so-called “jungle” where those people lived must have been. They never came back from there…

Discouraged, we went back home for dinner as nighttime approached. We had some pasta by candlelight (not slightly romantic, though). From home I could still hear the demonstrators and see the red police lights blinking. We decided to go back and check how things were. Now we had been in the dark for over 24 hours!

When we went back, other electric company cars were arriving under much celebration, and many technicians started working on different lampposts. By now it was definitely dark and  most residents doubted the power would be back that night, since the whole day had passed and nobody had come to fix anything! But the bulbs started lighting up. The first phase… people kept silent, waiting… another phase lit up and the crowd rejoiced… although nobody moved an inch away from the protest site. Skeptically, we waited.

Three minutes of power and ... BOOOM!!! The transformer blew out again right in front of us, right under the noses of Ampla technicians and the police. We were in the dark again! I couldn’t believe it! A neighbor, who lived in front of the lamppost that had just blown out, told us he had lost his fridge and other appliances because of the bursts of light, and he was preparing a class action lawsuit against the electric company. He also said that he watched the transformer catch fire the night before when the blackout started. How absurd!

Finally, at 8 p.m. the power came back for good! It was a mass celebration. But before the crowd dispersed, “the good troublemaker” came to greet our alley residents.

“Look, thank y’all for taking part in our movement,” she said then shook hands with each one of us.

We told her that being there was in our best interest as well and there was no need to thank us. We ended by saying that in case she ran for office, we would vote for her, since she had a gift; she’s a woman who gets things done. She left flustered by our compliments, saying she had done nothing special.

Brazil needs more troublemakers like that. With more protests, things would get better over here…

I went to bed happy.

CLARICE D'IPPOLITO was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1977. She majored in Tourism in 2003 before going to Law School and working as an intern at a law firm. 

She has worked as a translator, a chambermaid in an international cruiseship, a travel agent, and in large state companies in Brazil. 

Coming from a family of writers, she started writing as a hobby from a very early age.

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