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COLUMN ONE

Cut off from current events in South Africa

Amid a five-day power outage in Johannesburg, Times reporter Robyn Dixon enjoys the beauty of a simple life. For about a day.

August 20, 2009|Robyn Dixon

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Day two, it turns out, is the worst.

When the power goes off in my neighborhood, it takes awhile for the consequences to seep in.

So, OK, no Facebook, no Twitter, no e-mail, no Google, no hourly news check. No computer. No fax, printer or photocopier.

Worse: No stove, no reading lights. No bathroom light, which brings me to . . . no hot water.

Then, more dire consequences. In one of the world's worst crime cities, no alarm, no lighting around the house.

And not to mention that it's cold with no heater on a wintry day in Johannesburg.

"It can't be that cold," says one contact, who has called to set up a phone interview with a U.S. official. (The contact, who lives in the same neighborhood I do, has a generator running at his house.)

We agree that I'll take the call for the interview about 11 p.m. By candlelight.

The outage will last only a few hours, I figure at first, perhaps a day. It will be back on before my cellphone runs out of juice. It's just a passing inconvenience, irritating when I want to look up someone's number online but can't.

Johannesburg had disastrous power outages last year, many of which interrupted work for four or six hours in the middle of the day, or at dinner time when people were trying to cook.

The blackouts cost industry millions and shut down gold mines. But they rarely lasted more than 12 hours.

So when I get up on day two without power, I'm surprised. An uneasy feeling flickers. It's a Friday: I'm not going to be powerless all weekend, am I? I shrug off the thought and tramp into my chilly kitchen.

A couple of weeks earlier, in Tokoza township, I'd interviewed people living in metal shacks who had never had electricity. And victims of floods, earthquakes and hurricanes may go without power for days. Weeks even.

But cold, grumpy and frazzled, I'm not finding it easy to identify with their struggles, at least not before my morning cup of tea, made strong, with several heaped tablespoons of dark black tea leaves and a whisper of milk.

I set up a small camp stove and boil a pot of water, as a line from "The Shipping News" drifts through my head like steam: "Tea's a good drink. It'll keep you going."

But tea or not, the day deteriorates. My laptop has given up the ghost, so I can't even catch some wireless in a cozy cafe and have to depend on Internet shop computers. My cellphone dies and won't recharge with a car lighter outlet. I go out to cover a story, miss my lift back, can't call to sort out a ride (no cellphone), am late back to my office for an interview call to the United States. When I hang up, the Internet shops are closed. By 6 p.m., I am defeated.

In the gloom of my kitchen, water seeps out from under the fridge: A freezer full of food is thawing. I decide not to open it. I throw a couple of bath towels onto the floor to sop up the growing lake.

Hmmm, better cook the chicken I bought yesterday, or it will go bad. But how do you cook a whole chicken on an eensy camp stove?

I pop to the bathroom to wash my hands, automatically flicking the light switch as I go through the door. In that instant I've forgotten: There's no power. I reach for the taps in the dark.

And realize that I'm running out of candles. And matches. But at least I bought chocolate.

As I figure how to cook the chicken, I imagine me and my 10-year-old (she'll be home from her pony riding lesson any minute) huddled in the darkness with a hot, comforting dish of homemade poached chicken, bathed in a rich stock, on a bed of basmati rice. OK, so there's no computer, no stove and it's a makeshift meal and the house with its stone floors and brick walls is freezing . . . but we'll get under a blanket, turn on the TV.

That's the thing about a power outage, day two. You keep forgetting. You expect the baseline comforts like TV to be there, even if you just dug out the candles.

I light a fire in the fireplace, and the kindling catches beautifully, no fire lighters. In the kitchen, I delicately balance a large pot with the chicken and several pints of water on the little cooker, ignoring a small diagram on it saying not to boil more than two pints.

My daughter gets home and we wonder how we'll fill the hours before bed.

"Monopoly?"

Actually, with candles around the room, the Monopoly board set up on a table in front of the fire and three dogs stretched out snoozing, it's perfect.

My daughter tires of Monopoly after being sent to jail five times. We switch to Go Fish.

I hear a crash from the kitchen. As the water boiled, my cooking pot danced right off the tiny gas cooker. But it landed upright on the stove, lid still on, not a drop spilled. I serve it up, sloshing a little sesame oil and soy on the chicken and rice. It's delicious.

That moment should be the end of the story: rediscovering old joys before computers and TVs gobbled up our time. Blowing out the candles and tucking in between freezing sheets, enriched by the simplicity of life as it once was.

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