Friday, September 19, 2008

Gamma Party

Obrajes had been "tracted out" when I arrived, meaning that previous elders had already knocked on every door and reaped whatever converts were to be had. Of course, the same could probably be said of just about any place where Mormon missionaries have been working for very long. My trainer and I buckled down to work.

Our house was at the top of a steep hill, a cliff almost, above a road that wound up a valley, across a river and into a neighborhood of adobe houses called Bella Vista. The road was paved in a way I'd never seen before, but was common in this part of the world. The soil was mostly rocks with a little clay to hold it together and as they dug the road bed they harvested fist sized round river rocks which they then laid back down as the pavers. This made for a nice, hard surface but it was really uncomfortable to walk on because it wasn't really flat and the stones dug into the balls of your feet and made your ankles roll.

Every morning we would eat our breakfast of war bread and carrot tea, descend the switchbacks from our house to the road, cross over and take a shortcut up the trail from hell into Bella Vista. Both my feet still hurt from the muscles I'd torn playing basketball at the MTC and climbing almost straight up at 13,000 feet altitude made my legs burn. Every morning I'd say a little mantra as I climbed that hill to help me believe that God would give me strength to keep up with my companion who was already conditioned to the altitude and endless walking.

Health in the navel
Marrow in the bones
Strength in the loins and in the sinews
Power in the priesthood be upon me and upon all my posterity
through all generations of time and through out all eternity

I'd repeat this over and over in my head as I climbed believing that God would fulfill his promises and give me strength if I would just put in the effort.

Bella Vista was typical of the areas I worked in Bolivia. It was a tightly packed warren of houses made from adobe bricks with corrugated steel roofs. The dirt for the adobe was dug from the ground on the home site so its only cost was the back breaking labor which the Bolivians could afford. However they could afford little else so the houses usually had no plaster to cover the adobe. The houses were dark and were sparsely furnished. Many had a single room with a bed, a table, a few chairs, perhaps some pictures of the Virgin, and little else. Many cooked on kerosene stoves and with few windows the atmosphere in the house was sometimes toxic.

Wealthier neighbors had homes built of rebar reinforced frames and red ceramic bricks. Some of these homes left the bricks exposed, but some were covered in stucco or plaster.

We worked every day from Tuesday to Saturday, going door to door knocking and trying to share our message. We taught a lot of first discussions, but very few second ones. On Sunday we attended church in the Obrajes Ward which met in a nice two story brick building that the church rented. The bishop was a Bolivian who went to college in the United States and worked in the church office building in La Paz. The meetings were well attended by a core group of about 30 or 40 members out of the 500 plus that lived in the ward boundaries. As in most of Latin America, the elders had been very successful in baptizing many converts, but not many of those converts ever remained active in the church resulting in a substantial number of members of record and an abysmal activity rate.

Sunday wasn't a day of rest for us because after church we were supposed to do missionary work like any other day. However, we often took the day off from tracting and only went to appointments we'd made during the week or visited with members or read scriptures or studied.

Monday was our day off. We called it P day, for preparation day. The missionaries get the day off to take care of their personal business and to have some recreation. For many it was basketball. My companion was a slim, athletic blond southern Utahn who loved to play ball so we always met with other elders for pick up games in the morning. After that we'd usually have lunch at a downtown restaurant and then shop or write letters in the afternoon. The day off ended early because the day ended with a zone meeting in the evening with the zone leaders and all the missionaries in your zone.

December in La Paz is the middle of summer because Bolivia is south of the equator and someone forgot to tell me to bring sunscreen. Even though the weather wasn't particularly hot, the sun was fierce and by the end of the week my ears were peeling and bloody and cracked from sunburn.

I'd only been in Bolivia for a short time I had a bout of altitude sickness. I woke up with a pounding head ache and nausea. After I threw up my breakfast I went back to bed. The lady of the house brought me in some tea made from anise and coca. I'd heard about it in the MTC and although I'm not a fan of the licorice flavored anise, it made me feel better and withing a couple of days I was back trudging through the hills and knocking doors.

The mission had all kinds of lore, and I was skeptical of most of the fantastic stories the elders were constantly telling. Over time I learned that most of them were true. One piece of lore was the gamma party. One week after zone meeting my companion and I headed over zone leaders' house for a gamma party.

Bolivia is an area were you can easily get exposed to hepatitis. I have a friend who contracted hepatitis while serving in Guatemala. At the time there was no vaccine, but the church provided gamma globulin so that the missionaries could receive regular injections to boost their immune system. The syringes and vials were generally kept at the zone leaders' house and the mission ritual was that all self respecting elders had to inject themselves.

A large group of elders paraded to the ZLs aparment thrilled to show a greenie (me) his first gamma party and how to do it. They filed into the ZLs aparment, got a syringe, dropped their pants, and sat on the bed. The ZLs brought the gamma and the elders filled their syringes. The mission manual had detailed instructions on how to inject the stuff into the quadricep muscle of your leg. The first elder swabbed his thigh with alcohol, slapped it hard with a loud "Yee Haw!" and jabbed the long, thick needle to its hilt in his thigh. After pulling back to make sure he wasn't in a vein he slowing pushed the thick syrup into this leg. This was repeated over and over for my viewing enjoyment. Some elders had recently done it, but did it again just to show off.

I was fresh out of the MTC, so I didn't have to do it then but a few months later my time had come. I had a new companion by then and he was an expert. We did it in our own apartment, just the two of us, and it wasn't pretty. I tried the slap and stab method, but every time I would instinctively pull the needle back out leaving a blooding hole in my thigh. By the time I'd done this about 6 times my companion was rolling on the floor laughing. Embarrassed, I sat the needle on my leg and began to slowly push. With now surprise I was able to keep from pulling back as my skin tented inwards further and further. I watched in amazement as the skin pushed in at least a quarter of an inch, maybe more before the needle suddenly snapped up around the needle. I let go and cringed. OK, I was in. Worst part over. Only an inch and a half to go. Once through the skin there was just a dull ache as the needle slowly burrowed through muscle. Then I could feel the gamma filling the muscle and leaving a lump as I slowly depressed the plunger. No problem pulling the needle out. It was over.

My comp was so entertained by my wimpiness that he grabbed two syringes, prepped both legs, and with a needle in each hand slammed them into both thighs at the same time. He then stood up while I took a picture and he flexed his legs to make the syringes dance up and down.

I went through this ritual regularly throughout my mission and grossed out every companion I had with my slow and steady technique which was the only way I could manage. But I always did it myself.

I may have to post some gamma party pictures if I can dig them up.

1 comment:

Sister Mary Lisa said...

PICTURES! PICTURES! Heck yes, you should post pics. That sounds brutal, btw, giving yourself shots like that. Oy.