Thursday, September 27, 2012


This post was inspired by Mama Kat's writing prompt: Tell a story (based on truth or fiction) where someone is playing with fire--literally or metaphorically--and probably shouldn't be. Below is my true story.

        When I arrived at my Peace Corps site in a small town in northeastern Brazil in August of 1967 and discovered I would be living without electricity or running water, it seemed like my life there would be much like a two-year-long camping trip. I had been a Girl Scout. I thought I was prepared for anything.
        It was fun for a while, using my scouting and camping skills and learning new ones to survive the harsh conditions there, but after a while, I missed many of the conveniences of home.
        On one occasion, forgetting that things didn’t work in Glória the way they did at home, could have turned into a disaster.

        In order to furnish her extra bedroom, Brunie (another Volunteer who had already been in Glória for a year) helped me purchase a hand-made wooden bed at a carpenter's shop, along with an extra chair, a wardrobe and a mattress which was a large cotton sack filled with straw. The mattress was comfortable enough, although I needed to add more straw from time to time since the original straw eventually broke into small pieces and settled on the bottom side of the sack.
        I always slept under a mosquito net, as protection from mosquitos, scorpions and beetles that carried Chagas disease.
        While one side of the house faced an open area, the opposite side was the wall shared with our landlord’s home. The opposite wall of his house was shared with another neighbor and so on down the street. There was a space between the horizontal top of each wall and the pointed roof, leaving a large triangular opening between homes. This made it easy to converse with the neighbors next door, but it also meant one could hear everything going on in the landlord's home. He and his wife were newlyweds, so you might imagine what "everything" means.
        Our front door left an inch or two of open space between the bottom of it and the floor. This, plus the open area between houses, meant that unwanted varmints could enter the house, either from outside or from neighbors' homes. We had toads, mice, bats, roaches, tarantulas, and an occasional snake in the house. 
        I hadn’t taken much jewelry with me, only a few pair of earrings, several inexpensive rings and a watch which I kept in a box on the wicker table I used as a night stand. One morning, while making the bed, I knocked the box to the floor, scattering everything under the bed.
        Because of the vermin that could be there, I was not about to reach into the shadows below the mattress without seeing what was lurking there. So, I did what I would do at home. I grabbed a lamp, and placed it under the bed. I started to pick up my jewelry before I realized that a kerosene lantern with an open flame under a mattress filled with straw was not the brightest idea I ever had.

        I yelled for Brunie who was, luckily, in the kitchen, to bring a pot of water from the huge ceramic storage container there. Meanwhile I beat the flames with a towel. 
        Within a few minutes, the fire was out. The sheets were burned in one large area as was part of my mattress. Considering it was filled with dry straw, I was surprised it wasn't engulfed in flames within seconds. The wooden frame of the bed was blackened on a small area on one side, more scorched than burned. 
        Fortunately the mosquito net had been flung aside before I started to make the bed. If it had caught fire, the flames might have leaped to the ceiling where the net was attached to a lattice of wood that supported the ceramic tile roof. Since the homes were attached, the fire might have spread from lattice to lattice, resulting in the collapse of every roof on that side of the street. 
        Glória had no fire department. Because there was no running water, residents would not have been able to use hoses to spray water on their ceilings. Any attempt to throw water that high from buckets would have been futile. 
        I am so glad I hadn't caused neighbors to lose their homes or belongings. Worse yet would have been if I had caused someone a serious injury.
        I could imagine the headline: PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER'S STUPIDITY LEAVES DOZENS OF BRAZILIANS HOMELESS.  But luckily that didn't happen.

       After cleaning the charred, wet mess in my room, I carried my mattress to the carpenter's store to buy new sheets and have the mattress cover re-stuffed and patched. It retained a burnt odor for months.

        Then I headed to a different shop to make another prudent purchase ---a flashlight.


BalancingMama (Julie) said...

Yikes! That could have been terrible! Good story.

Jennifer said...

Unfortunate and extremely lucky all in one. Thanks for sharing your story!

Dominique Goh said...

It must be very scary to experience a real fire in your bedroom. Glad that you managed to put it out. I'm personally afraid of fire so no candles/ lighters are in our house.. and many torches are placed everywhere if they are needed.

Phase Three of Life said...

Oh wow - I'm so glad it wasn't worse!

CJ said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

To Dominique: This experience convinced me I should not be playing with fire, but at that time, kerosene lanterns were our only source of light. The cost of batteries would have been prohibitive. (We received enough money to survive where we lived at a level just above poverty yet not compromise our health or safety, so we would be living much like the people we served.

We needed to be able to see at night just to move around, but as a teacher, I often worked on school papers in the evening. My favorite kerosene lantern had what the Brazilians called sleeves, but we call mantles, that gave off light as bright as a 100 watt bulb. This was the only light I could place on my night table and still have enough light penetrate the mosquito netting for reading. But for just walking around, we used smaller lamps that had been fashioned from tin cans.

The Peace Corps gave each volunteer a box of about 100 paperback books. The box was cleverly designed to fold into a bookcase. Each new group received a different selection of books, so each time I went to the Peace Corps office in the capital city, i delivered the books I had read and selected new ones. Without TV or other entertainment, books kept me sane. I read about 3 each week for 2 years.

Jennifer Gills said...

So glad you were able to put the fire out quickly. Despite that unfortunate accident, living in Brazil as a Peace Corps volunteer sounds very exciting!

Tiffany said...

I'm so glad it turned out ok!!!