San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

Blackout - Nov. 13, 2007

This is it. This is the way San Felipe was almost a generation ago. The power is out, night has fallen and in every direction there’s darkness as far as the eye can see.

Rumor has it a federal helicopter crashed into one of the power grid towers while pursuing narcotráficos. Now the continuity of the long copper arteries that runnel from Ensenada to the Sea of Cortez, swagged from steeple to steeple across mountains and through valleys, has been broken. A synapse is dead and a part of Baja’s brain has gone dark. The part that gives memory to San Felipe.

All around town and along the highway, CFE meter discs have stopped revolving in their glass jars and near the entrance to every yard, a breaker box offers no impulse from the fretwork of its cables. Television screens are black as a crow’s yawn and everyone with an electric stove is eating a cold dinner. Cafes and restaurants are closed. Grocery stores, if they have no backup generator, have assembled their employees to watch frozen stock slowly become incontinent before turning bad. The boticas and pharmacies are having a terrific run on batteries and soon, one by one, the ubiquitous boom boxes will fade into silence. Gas stations are as good as dry without power for their pumps. And tomorrow, warm beer will be the only antidote for the unseasonably warm temperatures.

I’m sitting beside a homemade table outside my trailer. An aura of white light emanates from the hisses of a Coleman lamp near my elbow. I have to keep remembering not to rest my left arm near the top of the writing pad, which throws it into shadow.

A sickle moon above the fifth wheel looks like the edge of a coin dropped through a slot cut into the evening sky. The power has been out for four hours. All the advertising boards and store signs are dark along the highway. It’s a forced innocence, owing a debt to drug smugglers and a less than artful helicopter pilot.

At public addresses and near habitual gathering places, brows furrow above whispers that say the outage will last for at least two days. There’s hysteria behind their nervous eyes. Only the highway and street dogs are unaffected. Their noise is cultural and unrelenting, at least until gas tanks run dry. Then there’ll only be the dogs.

It’s a gift to be back in Old Mexico. The charcoal night is much like a covering of fresh snow. It hides the minutiae of progress, the cluttered edges of all the garish bric-a-brac that jostle like Wall Street traders with panic-filled voices, importuning even the meekest passerby. But without electricity, the machinery labors down to a rusted stillness and becomes just another faint outline in the darkening air. Blackness proliferates and neighbors slowly open windows and doors as silence fills their homes. They drag out an old burning barrel and hunt scraps of wood with flashlights. Stories are told around dancing flames -about other blackouts -about Enron switching off grid stations to chimney up California power bills.

Bats fly in and out of the laughter, turning with electric quickness. No radio, ice machine, home theatre or popcorn-maker distracts the fireside camaraderie. It’s back to first causes and the ageless device of sharing a common distress. In this small Baja town the universal currency is no longer the diversity of physical complaints suffered by its senior population. But rather, it’s the leveling agent of a power blackout that puts everyone on the same footing.

Whether Mexican or American, shoulders shrug and arms go up in feigned disbelief, knowing all the while anything can happen down here. Any wayward helicopter or plane can drop a blanket of darkness over an entire valley and perhaps compel its population of friends and strangers, if only for one evening, to adopt older and quainter ways of communication.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the mountains, less caring people are trying to process drugs in the dark.

Addendum (as reported on QuePasaBaja.com):
A helicopter that was flying over the Baja 1000 route came down today, right before 3PM, leaving a death toll of two, plus two other people in critical condition.

Apparently, the craft came in contact with some high voltage cables, which caused it falling around the KM marker 127 of the Ensenada-Valle de la Trinidad highway, near Rancho Mike.

Two of the helicopter passengers, Pablo Gonzalez and Israel Romero Reyes, died intantly, while the pilot, Israel Sarabia and co-pilot Rodolfo Calvillo were severely injured. The helicopter was rented in the city of Tijuana with the intention of filming the race from the air.

According to Jaime Nieto, the area Firefighter chief, the accident caused an enormous blackout that reached all the way to the San Felipe Port.

Read about the crash victims...