October 24, 2006

Let there be light

We had an interesting afternoon yesterday. The La ENEE truck (government-owned power company) showed up about 2:00 p.m., blasting their horn outside our gate, of course.

First a little background: We bought this property in November 2001. During the entire period of construction (a looooong time), we had no working street lights around our house.

El Jefe wasted half a day several times reporting the problem. Every time, the desk clerk would say that the repair crew would be out "mañana" (tomorrow), which is a such an insult to the intelligence. We always wondered if the clerk wrote out the reports and just threw them in the trash as soon as El Jefe left.

Finally, I think it was around the winter of 2003, La ENEE actually came out and replaced a few light bulbs. El Jefe told them that the one on the corner in front of our house blinks on and off for a few hours and then just goes out completely for the rest of the night. They said "que lastima" (what a shame) but they didn't have any equipment to fix that problem, only light bulbs.

Like most work crews in Honduras, there was the driver, the worker, and three watchers. El Jefe served them all juice and practically grovelled in appreciation for changing the light bulbs.

So we had street lights for a few months and then .... nothing. They all went out again. While there are at least three street lights on each block, the nearest lit one was more than one long block away.

All of our neighbors have lights, but we don't.
One neighbor whose street lights are always working told us that he buys his own light bulbs and pays the telephone or cable workers a few hundred lempiras to install them when he sees a truck in the neighborhood. The street lights are really high so a 20' or so ladder is needed to reach them. Barring that, he said that if the La ENEE crew ever does show up that you have to give them something to eat or they won't fix the problem!

Oh, so that was our problem; we only gave them fruit juice.

A month or so ago, El Jefe marked a map of our neighborhood with all the unworking street lights and took it down to La ENEE. They were really impressed and said that NO ONE ever brings them a map, which makes it especially difficult for them to do repairs since we don't have many street signs in La Ceiba or addresses, and of course, the employees only work during the daytime. Everyone gathered around to marvel at the map and asked where he got it. (I made it on the computer from a city plat map).

El Jefe, being the smart guy that he is, refused to give the map to just anyone. He waited for the engineer in charge of repairs for an hour or so until it became apparent that the guy wasn't going to be back before lunch.

He returned in the afternoon and waited a couple of more hours before the engineer finally came back. The engineer said that a map is what everyone needs to do. Suitably impressed, he said that the crew would be out "mañana."

(Like all Honduran government agencies, all La ENEE jobs, down to the secretaries and lowest employees, are political appointees − every election year almost all of the employees are fired and replaced with the new party-in-charge members, who for the most part know absolutely nothing about how to do their job. For that first year, there is almost no point in trying to do anything with the government, unless of course, you have connections. Every fourth year, the economy of Honduras drops so severely that it takes an entire year to recover. )

So they arrived yesterday (a month later), waving the map and shouting for El Jefe by name. First they complemented him on the map, and then informed him that they would be working late to do all this heavy work (changing light bulbs) so they were going to need something to eat! This was 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon, probably one hour after they had eaten lunch!

El Jefe came to tell me. I said, "Okay. You mean something like cookies or chips?" He said, "No, can you cook for them, some eggs or something?" "What the F?*#!," says me. "I don't have any eggs! I don't have any sandwich meat! Should I get the filet mignon out of the freezer?! I don't think it's big enough for all of them." "No, no, no!" says he, frantically looking in the pantry for something that would satisfy the power company workers.

In order to appease them, El Jefe spent the entire afternoon, guiding them all over the neighborhood, reading the map for them, in general sucking up so that they wouldn't leave to go off to extort other people who had better stocked pantries than we do. If they left, they would report the work completed and it could be another three years before we would be able to get them back again.

Meanwhile, I hurriedly put a 2-liter Coke in the freezer to chill. About midway through the afternoon, El Jefe and the truck stopped back for their snack. Luckily, we had some packaged cookies and the Coke or who knows whether we would have ever gotten our lights.

El Jefe sent me a text message about 4 p.m. to say that they hadn't asked yet, but he thought "they might want another 2-liter Coke, so put one in the fridge just in case." Haha, text messaging in Honduras isn't quite so reliable − I received that message about 8:30 p.m., so they didn't get their second Coke. They did require a thermos of ice water about 5 p.m., though.

As it turns out, most of the light bulbs were missing! Stolen by the telephone or cable workers for a little side money was the guess of the La ENEE guys.

From now on, when I see any of those trucks with the tall ladders, I'm going to be keeping my eye on my street lights until they leave.

But wait, there is more to this story. See The rest of the La ENEE story.

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