Friday, April 14, 2006


It sucks when you accidentally read someone else's anamnesis and you get stuck going down a derivative road. Oh well, sorry JLO but I'm going to tell a Bolivian mission story too.

Bolivia is far south of the Bible belt. So far south that winter is summer, summer is winter, and all of the Baptists are Catholics. That meant that even though it was August, the mud puddles had a glaze of ice on the top as we crunched up the dirt road each morning to find the Lord's elect. We were living in a fairly nice house just above a factory in Pura Pura which was just below a ridge that separated Pura Pura from our area in Munaypata (moon eye pata). Like most houses in Bolivia it lacked central heating or central air. In fact, it lacked any kind of heater which meant that the nights were cold and miserable as we hundled under layers of wool blankets and kept the bed bugs fed.

The Bolivian solution was portable heaters powered by propane gas tanks just like you use for your BBQ grill. They used propane for their stoves and also for these wonderful heaters that had an open burner in front of a ceramic grid on the front. Each week you'd see people lined up on the street with their tanks waiting for a truck to come by with full tanks that they could exchange for their empty ones.

The problem with the gas heaters was that they had an open flame that burned, of course, oxygen. When left on all night in a closed room they can kill you as they burn up all of the oxygen and then produce a fatal level of carbon monoxide. This wasn't a theoretical danger. A couple of missionaries living on the Altiplano had gone to sleep one night and never woke up. When they didn't show up for their weekly zone meeting their zone leaders went out to check on them and discovered the tragic scene.

Since a mission is the safest possible place for a 19 to 20 year old man to be (the church says so everytime a missionary dies) the church banned the use of all gas heaters in the mission. Instead they sent electric quartz heaters to the mission. Since everyone in Salt Lake City knows that all of South America runs on 220 volt power the heaters were 220 volt heaters. Makes sense. Except that La Paz runs on 110 volts, just like America. 220 volt heaters don't get hot when plugged into 110 volt outlets. That left me and my companion and the rest of the missionaries in La Paz with the choice of whether to freeze or use the gas heaters that they had disobediently kept in violation of mission rules. We did what any sane, rule-breaking missionary would do. We used the heater in the bathroom on the rare occasions when we risked electrocution in the shower and we used it in the morning and evening when we were awake. But we NEVER slept with it on.

It was P-day. That was our preparation day which is the missionary name for our one day that we sort of had off for ourselves and when we weren't expected to do missionary work until 5:00 pm. We got up and it was really cold. OK, it wasn't Minnesota cold. But you try waking up and going to the bathroom when your room is in the 30s. So I hopped up, fired up the heater, and crawled back into bed to stay warm while the room warmed up. And I drifted off to sleep.

As I drifted up out of slumber I heard a hissing noise. What the heck was that hissing noise? I wish it would stop because it's making it darn difficult to sleep in. OH MY GOD! I opened up my eyes and saw that the flame had gone out on the heater. I jumped up out of bed in horror and just as quickly crashed to the floor and held my head which felt like it was going to explode. I stumbled to the windows and threw them open and quickly turned off the gas. Then I ran over and began to shake my companion. Poor Elder Collazos had no idea what was going on and sat up holding his head. It turns out that our gas tank had run too low to keep the flame ignited and had begun filling up our room with gas fumes. I have no idea if propane is fatal, but it sure felt like we were half-way to death's door.

Anyway, we shivered through another cold day without the comforting warmth of our heater and shivered to think that we'd almost added another chapter to the Bolivian mission lore.

Of course, we were out at the curb the next day to get our propane tank refilled. You can only shiver so long.

Weekly anamnesis


Cynthia E. Bagley said...

We had problems in Japan with those types of heaters when I was in the Navy. Those who lived off base had to make sure that at least one window was open when they used the gas heater.

In South Africa, we had a stone that was heated with electricity. It didn't work too well. I remember going to bed covered in all my clothes, coats, and blankets. COLD

Joseph's Left One said...

Same thing happened to me in 16 de Julio. The little electric things didn't work at all except to put out a faint buzzing noise, but we had one of those big gas heaters. And it was damned cold in El Alto. There was a puddle outside our apartment that was frozen solid all winter.

So we had to use the heater. My companion would fall asleep with it on, but I was too scared, so as soon as he was snoring, I'd turn it off. I had something like 6 blankets but froze anyway. At least I didn't die like those two guys a couple of years earlier.

Safest place in the world, my ass.

April_Mommy said...

Wow, now that is a scary story! I enjoyed it though, great imagery...