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August 20, 2005

Air Conditioner Explodes


The Ganges has dropped more than two metres during the two weeks that I have been in Varanasi. The courtyard restaurant of my hotel opens on one end to an expansive view of the Ganges. On arrival, the view framed on either side by the three storey builings was one of brown water. Rooms with a Ganges view cost more, I do not understand why.

The receeding water has exposed massive sand banks stretching from the middle of the river to the other side. The nearest bank is perhaps half a mile away. Tiny boats cross to the banks where families have picnics and play soccer.

Last night the sky over the river was lit up with purple lightning and drenching rain fell for hours.

There seem to be continuous power cuts in Varanasi. Every few hours, the power state alternates between on and off. At the hotel, the thud-thud of the diesel generator seems ever-present. Every time the power goes out at night, there is darkness until the generator starts. With the power out, every shop has a generator running in front of it. Walking along the street, the usually predominant sound of bicycle bells, horns and koran recitation becomes drowned by diesel generator thuds and sputters. A curtain of smoke demarks the boundary of each shop with the next. This is a utopian model of distributed power generation: Low CO2 emmisions, generation to demand and polution at the point of use.

I have been wondering how they are able to create such a consistently unreliable power supply in Varanasi. It's actually quite a difficult thing to do. It requires fixing things continually and quickly but in such a way that they work temporarily and then break again very quickly. It must require a very high degree of skill. There is another possibility: The power supply authorities are unaware that all of the power in Varanasi is routed through the light switch in the room of an ordinary Varanasi residence. It is passed through one of the switches in a typical bank of six to eight switches on the wall near the door. As is always the case with these switches, very few have figured out, and no one can remember, exactly what each switch controls. Of course there is that one switch that, though controlling everything, doesn't seem to control anything. As people enter and leave the room, they randomly flick at the switches while looking at the lights, the fan, and so on. Once the devices in the room are in the desired state, the switches are left and Varanasi is randomly either with or without power. One day, that family will all go on vacation for a week and out of necessity, the switch will be discovered.

Until earlier this week, I was paying more for a room with air conditioning (AC). They moved me to a non-AC room in favor of a pre-booked group. The AC only runs when there is mains power, so it is often not operating. On the last night in my AC room, a shower of sparks came out of the AC unit onto the curtains and bed below it, followed by a plume of smoke. Though the machine continued blowing air, it was no longer cold. I informed the management and wanted confirmation that they had portable fire extinguishers; I was unable to make myself understood, so I gave up. I'm now saving money and my life by staying in a regular room with a ceiling fan.

Boatman: "You like boat? Cheap price. You like boat?"
Visitor: "No thank you".
Boatman: He stands in my way. "You like boat?"
Visitor: "Na he." Feeling irritated, I walk around him.
Boatman: "Very cheap price". He reaches to grab my arm.
Visitor: "No. I don't need a boat." I say, moving my arm out of his reach.
Boatman: "Very good boat ride."
Visitor: "Look, I need to go and throw something in the Ganges, that's why I'm walking down the steps to the river. Then I need to go back to my hotel and go to the toilet. Once I've done that I need to get an auto-rickshaw to the Clarks Varanasi Hotel, for a swim in their pool. The Clarks is nowhere near the Ganges. Can you somehow help me to accomplish these tasks using your boat?"
Old Man: Looks confused. "You like boat?"


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