Soothing a burned armpit

I wrote this letter home on July 1, 2005, after searing myself in an ice-cold shower during our first summer as Peace Corps volunteers in Kryvvi Rih, Ukraine. A recent 36-hour stint without hot water reminded me of how tough I once was — and how soft I am now.

I burned my arm pit and nearly destroyed one of the most primitive electric devices ever made after we lost hot water this week. And it was all in an effort to keep myself clean.

Just about the only dates that are firm in Ukraine are those that involve heat and hot water. Heat goes off in most buildings April 15 and comes back on Nov. 10. It’s about as close to clockwork as Ukrainians get. So our hot water went off a week late.

I’ve been here seven months. I’ve been nearly torn apart by a pit bull, shared a train compartment with a snoring drunk, eaten 100 percent pig fat, gained 20 pounds and lost 40 pounds. I’m not going to let a cold shower get me down. I cheerfully jumped at my first chance to bathe in adversity.

Rather than wait for our stove to boil water in our four-liter saucepan, I bought an immersion heater, which is a much more complicated name than something so simple deserves. It’s a metal coil with a plastic end. An electric cord comes out of the plastic part, and, yes, you stick that end in the wall and you put the metal coil in water. The metal gets hotter than a soldering iron practically the instant you plug it in. So I stuck the plug in the wall and the coil in the pan and was pretty happy because I could hear the metal sizzling in the water. It was getting hot fast.

“Genius,” I thought, “this person who thought up an electric piece of metal.” The coil got my water hot, damn hot. So I unplugged the heater, grabbed the small plastic part and started to pull it from the water. Only the plastic part looked more like a Hershey’s Special Dark left on the seat of a car in the summer. What wasn’t melted off it was pretty well already fried. “Genius,” I think, “this person who put a plastic handle on an electric piece of hot metal.”

How hard is it to engineer a piece of hot metal? I just bought a new computer. But if I can’t keep from breaking this high-tech piece of metal how will I handle my computer? There was enough unmelted plastic for me to throw the coil in the sink, where I ran water on it until it cooled. Then I took my water to the shower. I turned on the frigid water and stood under it just to get wet before lathering up.

It was nipple-flinching cold. So in my shock I reached for the sponge I had put in my hot water pan. I immediately thrust it into my armpit. I don’t why. Maybe because when you grab a hot sponge you almost always stick in your arm pit. I don’t know, maybe my pit was the coldest of cold places. Anyways, where freezing water had just been was now a sponge saturated with near-boiling water. I threw the sponge back in the pan and turned the cold water back on to cool my pit but its tough to get cold water from a shower head to hit your pit and only your pit.

So there I am, burned, freezing, cold, hot, trying what’s damn near impossible: to get cold water from a shower head on my now seared arm pit. I’m freezing my ass off and burning my pit off. So there I stood, HOT, COLD, hot, cold, for about another 10 minutes until my pit was soothed and I was clean.



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