It’s hard to say when this day actually began. I guess it was at 1:10 a.m., when I woke up, and Tom was awake, and my Bose headphones were still on my head but switched off so that the noise-canceling was not operating. So I could hear the generator quite plainly.
It was loud. Not loud the way that a small generator is, the ones that only put out 5 KV and look something like a stand-alone car engine. Those things rattle and roar and make noise in about 15 different ways. Our generator, which supposedly has capacity for the whole office and our apartment, is about the size of a washing machine and is the “quiet” model.
But this just means that, instead of roaring and rattling, it makes the steady whirring sound of an enormous fan, with a high-pitched overtone, something like an eighteen-wheeler semi truck or a 737 jet engine does when it is idling. So, although this generator does not rattle my bones, it penetrates my flesh like a flannel sheet with a steel wool underside, scraping on some cellular level, inescapably painful but with a deceptively smooth outer layer.
Despair washed over me. I’m sensitive, it’s true, sensitive to all kinds of noise. The booming bass from a disco half a mile away can keep me awake – as it did in the countryside of
Sihanoukville, Cambodia, or countless other places where I have spent miserable nights stuffing various objects and padding in and around my ears to block the sound – always in vain, for the bass goes straight to my bone marrow.
But it’s just who I am. It’s my biochemistry, my blessing and my curse, to feel things so acutely. It’s the same physiology that makes me prone to depression, and that enables me to laugh loud enough to shake the windows, and that heightens my powers of observation in a way that helps me as a reporter and a photographer.
People who say “Just ignore it” when I complain about noise elicit the same exasperation from me as those who say “Don’t be sad” to someone who is suicidally depressed. If you have never felt this way, you don’t get it. Only those few who have lived their entire lives with a depressive or with a Very Sensitive Person sometimes grasp the level of pain that we feel on a daily basis.
Tom and I have just moved out of a hotel room, after an interminable month of trying to sleep under an air conditioner that was approximately as loud as a generator, except it was on top of us. I am so happy to be in an ordinary neighborhood, with the normal sounds of an underdeveloped country: roosters, straw brooms sweeping, children playing, motorbikes.
Our first night, we had city electricity all night, and it was lovely. There were a few unidentified bumps and scurrying sounds during the night, but nothing scary or sleep-shattering. The air conditioner, brand-new, was set to a comfortable level and, though audible, was smoothly quiet.
Now I am staring into the dark, trying to imagine an entire year of sleepless nights with the roar of the generator. This is more terrifying and unbearable than the threat of mugging, rock-throwing, or even the house being attacked. I can cope with crime, can mentally adjust to the risks of major violence. But I can’t bear this kind of noise. It shatters me.
Tom is not so bothered by noise, in general (he is sensitive in other ways) and in particular since he lost a good chunk of his hearing during his military service. But he is greatly bothered by heat, and when he controls the air conditioning it is set at a frigid 18 degrees Celsius. I prefer 25 and am happiest with no air conditioning at all – just a ceiling fan does me fine.
I ponder what I could do. Move to
Bali and see Tom on the weekends?
Then Tom says, “I’m going to put my headphones on for awhile.” Aha! Maybe the generator IS bothering him! My heart leaps with hope. Maybe I won’t have to move to
Bali. Maybe we can live with no electricity overnight.
But then I think about the fish. We have bought a good refrigerator, and we’ve hired a housekeeper, in part so that she will go to the market once a week and buy a heap of fish and cut it up and freeze it, so that we can eat fish every day. But if the refrigerator is not on for half-days at a time, we can’t keep anything frozen – especially not fish. Despair again. Fresh fish is one of the compensations for living in this place.
I imagine a year in which I eat nothing but pasta and canned ham. Well, at least ham is widely available here. But I’m going to be so comatose from lack of sleep that I won’t be able to cook or eat it.
This train of thought is not going to help me make it through the night. I ask Tom for the Ipod and turn on the audio book, “Time Traveler’s Wife.” It distracts me enough that, when I turn on my side and put a pillow over my headphoned ears, after two hours I almost, almost, fall asleep.
But I can still hear the generator – even with the soothing voices of the actors in my ears. Normally when I listen to audio books, or when Tom reads aloud to me, I fall asleep in about 35 seconds. But exhausted as I am, the generator makes a wall of sound between me and restful oblivion.
I get up a couple of times, to go to the bathroom, and to check to be sure that the city power has not turned back on. I’m puzzled because, when I look outside, our neighbors all have outdoor lights on, and I don’t hear any generators from them. How can this be? But our city power indicator lights are off, so I know we don’t have it.
At 4:15 a.m., while I am still listening to Henry and Clare’s love tale, the generator stops. O, gracias Deo! I turn off the headphones and wait, anxiously. Will the guard turn it back on? Will Tom wake up and turn it on when the heat rises? It’ll probably be steaming hot in here within 10 minutes.
But it isn’t. The temperature seems to level off at a reasonable place. And mercifully, I finally fall asleep.
We get up a little after 6. I have a moment of panic when I realize that I can’t turn on the electric water kettle, but then remember that we got the gas tank set up for the stove yesterday, because I can boil water for coffee. We can’t take showers, though, because without the electric pump there is no water pressure. We take a bucket out to the Jacuzzi, which hasn’t been chlorinated yet, and dip it, soaking our heads.
Tom is amazingly cheerful, so I am trying to have a sense of humor, too. We edge around the subject of electricity and living through the night without it, but he agrees that it might work if we keep the place air-conditioned until 11 or so, then get up at dawn.
My hair is filthy and I am so tired that I can’t even bear to eat. Somehow I find something to wear, despite the fact that all my white bras are either dirty or still at the hotel and so I have to wear a black bra, which shows through most of my lightweight clothes. I settle on a silk blouse, which shows every drop of sweat the moment it appears, and linen Capri pants, which seem to have shrunk because they were washed instead of dry-cleaned. I dredge up earrings to distract my co-workers from my dirty hair, which I’ve swept back into a wet braid. And I head downstairs to work.
I greet my co-workers and notice that people are a bit quiet. Things are worse in the outlying neighborhoods, where most of them live – gangs fighting, criminals looting, people taking personal vengeance. I try to be gentle and smiling with them, knowing that their night may have been punctuated by shouting, stone-throwing or gunshots instead of the drone of a generator. So I conceal my horror when I discover that our translator is STILL working on a checklist that the trainers were supposed to start using yesterday.
My teammates show up looking disheveled and sleepy, as usual, and we bump around trying to get their two groups of trainers going on analyzing news stories without a checklist. The generator is running again now, and I wonder when someone will go and figure out why we didn’t have city power when all our neighbors did. After the trainers get started, I pop in to tell Tom that we have no checklist translated and that I’m going to work upstairs in the apartment.
Regina, the housekeeper, showed up at 8:20 with vegetables in hand and is now sweeping and washing the white tile floors. The broom and mop make soothing, shooshing sounds.
She has bought what appear to be the only crappy tomatoes in all of Dili. Though large, they are green around the edges and scarred, whereas most tomatoes on the street are an intense red and glowing with health. The lettuce and green beans look good, and there’s some other green leafy veggies that I don’t recognize, but they’re tasty when I pull out a leaf to munch.
Regina bursts into a long explanation in Tetum and I look at her, utterly bewildered, and shake my head slowly. Then we both fall over laughing at the ridiculousness of our language barrier, clutching each other’s arms.
I shouldn’t complain. I get a text message forwarded by Tom: “USAID staff are cleared to travel in to work although ongoing security concerns in neighborhoods south ofComoro Road
…” I can work at home.
The carpenter we hired to build some furniture is supposed to deliver the wardrobe today, but I am dubious that it will really get here. People are afraid, businesses are closed or have shorter hours. Anyhow assembling a household seems a bit ludicrous when most people are worried about their houses being burned to the ground.
Meanwhile, I have to get to work and plan for Friday’s session with the 10 Timorese trainers, who are going to go out next week and talk to hundreds of their fellow citizens to find out what’s on their minds in the run-up to the presidential election.
I like my work. It’s a good distraction from the noise.