13 December 2008


In response to a writing prompt "worst dentist experience ever" posted on 12/10/08 on Mama's Losin it blog:

        The Peace Corps dentist in Salvador (a large, modern Brazilian city) informed me I had to have my wisdom teeth pulled. He gave me the name of a local dental surgeon.
        I had nightmarish visions of a dentist, who wasn’t really a dentist ---just like the one at my Peace Corps site in Glória ---pulling my teeth with pliers, without benefit of an anesthetic. I have no idea what his real name was, but in Glória, everyone called him Zé Dentista.

Salvador, Bahia (c. 1968) ----my favorite Brazilian city.
The structure in the distant right is a municipal elevator that carries passengers
between the upper and lower cities.

        I arrived at the real dentist’s office, which seemed much like the ones I visited at home. The female dentist asked me where I was from. “The United States,” I replied.
        “Where in the United States?”
        “What city?”
        “Ah! I earned my dental degree from the University of Pittsburgh,” she told me in perfect English, gesturing toward her diploma on the wall.
        I was happy that she had earned a dental degree from anywhere. I was also thrilled to see that the batch of tools on her tray didn't include a pair of pliers.
        Next, I visited the anesthesiologist. He had studied at Duke University. At least I wasn’t dealing with quacks.
        On the day of the extraction, I traveled to the dentist’s office by bus. I had never had a tooth pulled before, nor did I ever have a general anesthetic, so I didn’t know what to expect. Within seconds of sitting in the reclining dental chair, I was out cold. I woke to discover that, in order to open my mouth wider, the dentist had snipped and later stitched, the little section of gum above my top front teeth. Otherwise the extractions had gone well.
        It was only then that the trouble began.

        The dentist asked who was going to take me home. Still dopey, it took a few seconds for me to answer that I planned on returning alone, by bus.
        “You can’t take a bus. You need to call someone.”
        Who could I call? The other Volunteers didn’t have cars. Even if they did, none had phones. The regional Peace Corps director was on vacation. The assistant director was driving the only Peace Corps vehicle, a jeep, to visit Volunteers in the interior that day. His wife, who was traveling with him, had given me a key to their apartment.
        “I can take a cab.”
        “Where are you staying?”
        “With my boss and his wife. At their apartment.”
        “On what floor is it?”
        “The fourth.”
        “Is there an elevator?”
        I paused, thinking, then answered with a sheepish, “No.”
        While the dentist was in deep discussion with her assistant, I dozed off. When she woke me, she had arranged for her assistant, a diminutive man, to accompany me to the apartment.
        The two of them pulled me from the dentist's chair. The assistant put his arm around my waist, grabbed my purse into which the dentist had dropped a bottle of pain killers, and escorted me toward the exit. I exceeded his height by six inches and probably outweighed him by twenty-five pounds. Rather than hold me up, he had to hold me back so I wouldn’t topple down the stairs.
        On the sidewalk, we must have been a sight, the tiny dark Brazilian with a tall fair foreigner. Everyone surely thought the poor man was escorting his inebriated floozy home. He leaned me against a utility pole, steadying me with one hand on my shoulder while he tried to flag a taxi. Many cabs passed us, but finally one stopped. 

        My next problem was that I didn’t know the address of the apartment. Finally, we figured out, by the bus I would have taken, what direction to travel. Once we found the bus stop where I would have exited, I directed the driver to the apartment building. I insisted on paying the cabbie, but I couldn’t locate my money in my purse. The assistant paid the driver with bills from his own pocket.

A municipal garden in Salvador (c. 1968)

        Imagine helping a drunk up three flights of stairs. We took a few steps, then I leaned on the bannister for a few minutes before we climbed a few more. I slumped on each landing and had to be coaxed to my feet to continue the ascent. It was hot and we both dripped with perspiration in the airless stairwell.
        Leaning against the apartment's door frame, I dug into my purse for the key. I found money to reimburse the unfortunate man for the taxi fare. He looked like he had just run a marathon. I more than doubled the amount so he could take a cab back to the office. I slipped into the apartment, sinking to a chair immediately inside the door. 
        In Brazil in 1968, it was unacceptable for an unmarried woman to be alone with a man without a chaperone, so as soon as he had me safely seated, the assistant quickly closed the door. When I heard him scurrying down the stairs, my exhaustion swept over me and I burst into tears.
        A few hours later, my hosts arrived home to find me asleep in the guest room. By that time, my face had swollen; each cheek looked like I was storing a guava in it. Then I remembered the dentist had suggested ice packs, but I had forgotten.
        After three days, I could actually laugh about the incident, but when I laughed, the stitches above my top teeth felt like they were pulling the insides of my nose through my gums. I still couldn’t stand looking at my enormous face in the mirror.
        A week later, when I returned to Glória, a nosey neighbor asked me how much it cost to have my teeth pulled. The Peace Corps had paid, so I didn’t know. I would have guessed several hundred dollars, but not wanting her to think I was a rich American, I told her the procedure cost only ten dollars per tooth, still a large sum in Glória.
        “Oh, my God of Heaven,” she exclaimed. “What is wrong with you, girl? Zé Dentista would have given you a shot of whiskey and pulled out all four of your wisdom teeth for a dollar.”
        At least I hadn’t abandoned all of my wisdom in the dental chair in Salvador. 

(Story and photos: ©2008 C.J. Peiffer)

Several days after my tooth extractions I look mean
enough to bite steel ---well, if I had my teeth
back maybe I could have. (1968)

I just realized that this was a "selfie" way before selfies.
I used my reflection in the lens to take this on the balcony of
the apartment where I was staying.

        In this post, I mentioned that Salvador was my favorite Brazilian city.  But the last time I had seen it was in 1969. 
        In 2011 I traveled to Brazil for the first time since then.  I had served in the state of Sergipe.  Aracajú, the capital city there, has grown and developed over the intervening 42 years. It is filled with modern buildings, beautiful parks and beaches.  It is kept clean and beautiful. I had expected the same in Salvador, but was disappointed. 
        Once we hit the outskirts of Salvador, our bus sat in traffic for nearly an hour.  We had to put our names on a waiting list for a taxi at the bus station. On the way to our hotel, we realized that the city had changed. There was litter and graffiti everywhere.  Homeless people and stray dogs filled the streets. The gorgeous colonial churches and other buildings had been allowed to deteriorate. On some, trees and other plants grew from steeples, paint peeled, walls crumbled, My friend Bob who was in the Peace Corps with me and who still lives in Salvador told me there are funds specifically set aside to restore and maintain those old buildings, but it disappears into the pockets of corrupt politicians.  
        What a shame.
        But, even so, Salvador has its charms.  It is a diverse city. It has a combination of colonial and modern architecture.  There is much African influence which one can feel as well as see.  It's almost as if women walking in the streets are swaying their hips to a samba or to an African rhythm. People are friendly and helpful. There is much to do and see there. The city has character.
        Now, I would say Aracajú is my favorite city.  Rio is more beautiful (for its natural beauty) and Salvador is more interesting, and Iguaçu is a pleasant town with a mild climate, but nothing is better than the wonderful people of Sergipe ---and their beautiful city makes the area even more appealing.


  1. I was sweatin' with you all the way through the story!

  2. actually you look quite sore
    I know, I've been there, before.
    They pull and they yank
    and we've our cavities to thank,
    but sometimes I'de like to deck the danged dentists right to the floor.

    (wandered over from Lee's)

  3. Great story! Things that seem the most calamitous at the time make the very best memories!

  4. Gotta say that I'm glad it was you and not me. The assistant would have left me in the alley and that would have been that. (See how I have faith - little people don't like guiding 6'6" 300 lbs+ drunk acting people.)

    When I had all four of my wisdom teeth out, I woke up and went shopping. No pain, no swelling, no anesthetic hangover - I was overjoyed. One of those lucky moments.

  5. wow, just reading this made my teeth hurt!

  6. ugh. at least the doctors studied at good schools. and who could possibly handle getting four teeth pulled on one shot of whiskey? that is insane.

  7. Hey Carolina...where did you get I Claudius? I've read the book, and am an admirer also of Doris Lessing...

  8. In answer to Elwin who asked where we found "I Caludius" on tape.
    (He saw on my other blog http://proartz.blogspot.com that my husband and I have been watching it.)

    I will email an answer directly to him, but if others are interested, we got the tapes from the library, but it is also available on DVD through Netflix or for purchase on amazon.com.