As a child I looked forward to power outages. I associated these rare events with the excitement of thunderstorms and families living by candlelight that are forced to talk to one another. The power in New Jersey was always so dependable. When I flipped a light switch and nothing happened, it would not even enter my head that the power had been cut off but rather that I needed to climb the damn ladder and change out the bulb. On the rare occasions that the power went out during the night and I woke to find my alarm clock flashing I would sleep in as long as possible because I had a world-class excuse to be late or miss school altogether. The longest I ever remember the power going out when I was a kid was for about 36 hours during the Nor’easter of 1992, which basically battered the Jersey Shore worse than any storm in my lifetime. It was December so it was cold without power but the gas was still working so we opened the oven to heat the downstairs of the house. My step-dad, who was a radio mechanic in the army while stationed in West Germany, knew how to hook a clock radio up to a car battery so that we could stay abreast of the latest news. It was a scary and exciting day but I never for a second doubted that the power would come back before the quaintness of roughing it would wear off.
Fast-forward fifteen years and travel 5000 miles eastward to Istanbul, Turkey. Its mid-afternoon and I have a night class to teach. I have to take a shower and get dressed for work. I turn the handle on the shower and I hear a short shudder in the pipes and then silence. The water’s been cut off. I read something about this phenomenon in Time Out Istanbul. It’s a time of drought so the city has been contemplating water rationing. With no fanfare whatsoever they killed the water to my building.
This is not the emergency that it at first sounds to be because bottled water is everywhere and incredibly cheap. I am a metrosexual about my cleanliness so I really like to smell good but I can get by on yesterday’s shower along with some deodorant and a spritz of Cool Water. I brush my teeth with some bottled water and head out to work slightly peeved but not really nonplussed by the experience. Later when I come home from work and turn the faucet to make a cup of tea, the unnerving silence from the pipes continues. Now I am starting to get angry because I have less bottled water than before, I really want to take a shower and it’s starting to smell in my bathroom.
This particular episode was about twenty hours long. Its not the first time and I am quite sure it won’t be my last experience sans aqua. I ask around at work about the experience and my western co-workers are mildly annoyed but with a resignation borne out of habit. The Turks think nothing of it. One of my students informs me that such water cut offs are frequent even without droughts. He tells me that they are usually announced when they will exceed twenty-four hours.
Power is no less spotty in Istanbul. I am grateful that the voltage converter I use to charge my electronics is a surge protector because we lose power in Istanbul at least three times per week. The worst black out that I noticed was about twelve hours long. It was a novel experience because I went to work anyway and taught class in the dark. The only unnerving moment during that outage was when my weak-batteried cell phone ran out and I was (gasp) cut off from the text messages of my friends, family and loving girlfriend back home in the United States. I also lost the ability, for one whole afternoon to photograph or video record anything that I wanted. Talk about living in the dark ages.
The only really reliable utility in Istanbul is fire for cooking. The reason for said reliability is that most homes do not pipe in gas for cooking but rather use large propane tanks to power gas ranges. Most homes also do not have ovens because Turkish cooking generally consists of flame-broiling, sautéing or deep frying. For toasting, Turks use waffle irons or George Forman grills. In fact a Turkish “tost” sandwich-a flat bread filled with meat and cheese and toasted by hot iron-is a favorite breakfast food.
Thus far I have had an empty propane tank, so I have not cooked using fire in two and a half months. It took me about two weeks after moving into my flat to realize that the range had a large propane tank under the cabinet and that tank was empty. I have not attempted to solve the problem until recently. My girlfriend is coming for her first visit to Istanbul and I have been cleaning and making little improvements to attain an acceptable degree of domesticity in which a woman can live for ten days without experiencing visceral disgust. I asked at work how to fill the nefarious propane tank and my co-workers informed me that a truck comes by every few days and announces its flammable presence with a jingle. I have disengaged the tank and it sits near the front door. Upon hearing the aforementioned jingle I am fully prepared to run out of the apartment with the empty tank and stalk this truck so that I can exchange my empty tank and ten lira for a full tank that will allow me to expand my culinary options. I have been solar cooking to make up for the lack of gas but sometimes I just don’t feel like waiting for the noon-day sun to eat.
I am learning an unexpected, but welcome, lesson from my adventures with unreliable Turkish utilities. The lesson is that water, natural gas, oil and electricity are precious and rare commodities that are hardly automatic. I experience my American naiveté when I turn on the light switch or the faucet and a momentary thread of panic worms its way into my belly. This instinctive reaction loses it power more and more as I get acclimated in my new home. I feel more and more resourceful each time I have to compensate for some human failure. Simultaneously I find myself appreciating the reliability of American utilities and feeling empathy for the developing world (in which Istanbul’s gas, power and water snafus are actually trifling inconveniences compared with utilities in Africa, India or South America). When a hurricane ravages Bangladesh, people don’t know whether the power is going to be on in a week or a month.
The truth is that having water, fuel for cooking and electricity routed into one’s home are very recent innovations. One hundred years ago the great majority of American homes still had outhouses. I have a really hard time squatting down on my haunches to use a conventional indoor toilet here in Istanbul (an utterly frightening experience); I can’t imagine what it must have been like to use an outhouse in mid-winter at midnight back in 1907. A few times in my life has the power gone out and kept me from some nocturnal activity; an occurrence so infrequent in my life that I have always regarded it a quaint experience. I, therefore, have no idea what it is like trying to do anything by the vastly inferior and more expensive light of a whale oil lamp. One hundred and fifty years ago human activity virtually ceased once the sun set. But human beings have been living socially for the better part of one hundred thousand years and have managed to survive without such luxury. As the world’s natural resources are depleted to an alarming degree and panic sets in among the masses, I realize that most Americans are not willing to hazard even the mild inconvenience of occasional resource rationing (as was demonstrated by the “catastrophe” of the California rolling blackouts five years ago). The time is coming when people are going to face real water shortage from global warming and power outage from lack of fossil fuels. I hope, at the time, people will be more mentally prepared to be a little cold, a little dirty and call it a day when the sun goes down. Perhaps some time in the developing world would go a long way toward helping people break their utter dependence upon an ever more scarce stream of utilities.