The first I knew anything was wrong, was 3 hours into my shift on reception. It was about 7pm and one of the hostel guests came to ask if there was anything we should do about the fire that had been raging all afternoon and was now getting exceptionally close to the hostel. I thought she was kidding, as I had said earlier that day that I was feeling exceptionally hung over and tired so I hoped no one bugged me on reception unless there was a fire – turns out, she wasn’t kidding and the lagoon surrounding our hostel had been deliberately lit!
Of course, I ran outside to join the others who were all standing watching the trees shoot sparks high into the air. The smoke was billowing towards the hostel, the sparks and orange flames were higher than the coconut trees, and it really appeared to be no more than 30metres away. The main problem too was that the wind was blowing towards our hostel for the first time in weeks, confirmed of course by the many kite surfers who watch the wind patterns closer than I watch footwork in bachata.
The entire hostel piled onto one of the upstairs balconies to see what we could see, some boys climbing the gutterwork of the 3rd story to get up to the castle roof. I was convinced we needed to do something – pack our bags, evacuate, call the firemen (my favourite option), or at least warn the rest of the guests. However, our super safety conscious hostel manager Mati was very calm and somehow his demeanour managed to convince everyone that this was completely normal.
Apparently the lagoon is set on fire multiple times a year by the fisherman so as to help make their commute through the mangroves easier. However, the fire was getting somewhat closer, leading right behind and around the hostel as if it was magically avoiding us. The sounds of the cracks and bangs of the fire were really loud, and our eyes were a bit stingy from being in the smoke. The neighbour came over as he was really worried that the fire was so large – stretching for more than a kilometre! I am not so sure who, but someone called the firemen. And sure enough, their sirens soon filled the air with the grand signal of handsome men approaching.
As soon as I heard that wonderful sound, I ran to the bathroom to fix my hair. Most Dominican men are super sexy – so imagine my great joy at the thought of Dominican Firemen! And I was not wrong; they came striding through the place like giant sex gods, swaggering in the way that only men do when they know they look delicious. One of them even let me try on his hat as he posed with me by the fire engine for a photo.
The firemen told us that there was nothing they could/ would do for the fire, and not to call them again unless the house was actually on fire. We decided that the best move would be to get out of the hostel and grab some food – if the firemen think everything is ok, what is the point in starving just to sit and watch the house burn down? So 5 of us headed off for sushi night - where we got completely ripped off, and it was half way through dinner that we all laughed as we had all brought our passports and credit cards with us – terrified that the hostel may have burned down! Timpe and I had both actually packed all of our belongings and had them ready to go with us at any sign of danger back at the hostel, but the best was Rachelle she had brought her childhood teddy bear to sushi! We rode back to the hostel in fits of laughter, to the point we were convinced that the trees being burned were marijuana! The hostel was still there of course, however the fire still raged.
I stayed up that night with Mati to watch movies, I was too scared to go upstairs to bed. At about 1am Heidi came down and said she was worried because there was a lot more smoke in the hostel and she could see the fire was a bit bigger. But because it still wasn’t in the hostel, we knew we couldn’t call the firemen (dam!). About half an hour later, one of the guys from down the road came over to see what was going on because he thought the fire was getting bigger and scarily close to his house. At this point, we all ran outside to see what was going on – and the fire was HUGE! It had now spread at least double what it was already burning, and was moving very quickly. I got back inside to see Mati running around like crazy, I asked him what he was doing as all signs of being cool, calm, and collected were long gone – he just looked at me and half screamed,
“I’m packing my shit!”
I realised that the hostel was full of people wearing their pyjamas. Everyone was carrying their hastily stuffed backpacks out onto the street as Mati had gone and banged on everyone’s door to wake them up and evacuate them. I searched for my fire watching buddy Timpe and as soon as I saw him, he said he had been trying to find me too, and the two of us ran down the street to fire watch. We found a part a little way back from the fire with a little animal trail through the bush and we wandered in with the lights of our cell phone lighting our way closer to the fire.
The second truck full of firemen had arrived and was out on the street, this time taking things a little more seriously. Out came the hose and they put out the part of the fire that was just meters away from the 2 story wooden house of our friends who live there. We climbed all over the truck during the process, posed for more photos, and tried our best to get as close to the action as we could. I mean, why not right? We all couldn’t believe our luck, to be so close to such a huge fire?! In our countries, everyone would have been evacuated for at least a 1km radius of the fire. This was our one and only chance to see such an adventure!
And as quickly as they arrived, they left, driving off into the night as we continued to watch the trees burn and the smoke and ash fill the air. The firemen had put out the threat, but did not distinguish the rest of the fire. And the fire continued to burn through the night and over the following days. I did not sleep much as I was so afraid we would all wake up dead – I mean, the fire brigade weren’t exactly awe inspiring, and it isn’t like the Dominican Republic has ever heard of a smoke alarm! The smoke was everywhere and the ash was falling like snow for days. It was very strange to wake up in the morning and look out the window to see the snow like ashes falling from the sky on a hot Caribbean day. There were a couple of times during the day where the fire did grow again, and off we would all race down the street closer to the lagoon to see what we could see, diving in through the bushes and making jokes about bringing marshmallows. Thankfully it never came back to the hostel as close so we never had to worry quite as much as we did that first night. Which was luckier still since (of course) the hostel had no official evacuation policy or guest count and we had not even noticed that there were a couple of people who had slept through the entire thing!
What did come though, were the coughs. The sore throats, the chest pain, the headaches, the body aches, the sore eyes, and the terrible feeling deep in my chest that something was not right. And then, the familiar feeling of not being able to breathe. I gave myself a dose of steroids, doubled up my medication, and soon realised it wasn’t working - in fact it was all rapidly getting worse. So off to the local mini hospital I went. The doctor was very worried, gave me nebulisers and injected steroids and antibiotics. I was very excited to hear however, that it was not asthma – because after 3 years of getting off steroids and keeping my asthma under control, I had been so sad to think that was the problem. Turned out, I was suffering from the effects of severe smoke inhalation and my lungs were full of infection. The body pains were also from the smoke, and so was the feeling of a burned oesophagus. I left later that afternoon full of drugs, and came back to the castle to pass out on the couch – in what is now known as the 5 hour nap corner. The doctor had told me that smoke inhalation sickness can come on anywhere from 3 days – 2 weeks after inhaling the smoke. And as it turn out – over the following days, many others were soon diagnosed and seen to in the mini hospital. My breathing did not get better at all for at least 5 days, so there were times I went up alone for more treatment, and times I went with others. Heidi and I always laugh that the two photos I have of her are back to back in my phone – one with the fire, and then one in the hospital.
The doctors wanted to send me to the larger hospital in the bigger city but both insurance and the medical team were very worried due to my low immunity, and the large number of serious diseases. I was terrified for many reasons – one including the medical care given to me by the local mini hospital, who were supposedly one of the ‘high class’ medical facilities. At one point, as the nurse placed the lure into my arm to hook up the antibiotic drip, she slipped and caused blood to go everywhere. She wasn’t wearing gloves, and as she scrubbed at her hands in the sink leaned over and asked,
“You don’t have anything infectious do you?”
I just looked at her and said,
“Honestly, I don’t know and I am not going to lie to you to make you feel better. I have not been tested in about 6 months and I have been traveling through 3rd world countries. If I was in your job, I would wear gloves all of the time.”
About 5 minutes later she used the injection to stab the bottle of saline solution to get air into it, stabbing herself in the process and proclaiming OUCH very loudly. She then went to use the same injection to connect the saline with the drip in my arm. At which point I protested and requested a new needle. She laughed and told me not to worry because,
“my blood is clean Katy.”
I just smiled and assured her it was, but insisted I wanted a clean needle despite her laughing to herself about how bizarre foreigners are.
The others were still really sick, mostly because their sickness wasn’t so targeted to their lungs like mine was. Poor Heidi was devastated not to be able to do yoga as she is a devoted yogi. And her partner and I were outside watching as she attempted a few poses only to end up lying in a distorted heap of sadness on the grass. Rachelle who continues to be anti-travel insurance took forever to get well, trying to get the chemist to sell her a variety of antibiotics or drug swapping with us and friends s down the road. The scents in the castle were of ginger and honey, cinnamon and lime, as the surfers did their best to kill the sickness in the most natural way possible. The main living area was filled with passed out bodies, all trying desperately to get better so as to enjoy the sunny days that slipped by in a haze of drugs, medicines, sickness, and coughing. No one went out, no one partied, no one did anything except try not to bloody die. But thankfully, after seeing a new doctor who dosed me up, changed my antibiotics to super human strength, and filled me with so much medicine I could hardly see straight, it was only another day or two until I could feel the difference in my breathing and in my health. Which was lucky for me as that was the day that I was going to have to go to the hospital. Thankfully everyone else started to get better, I mean no matter how bad a sickness is – 10 days is a very long time for everyone to be feeling as though they are on deaths door!
However, we now have our own theory of what happened - once we saw the exorbitant prices charged by the hospital – we became convinced the fire was set by the local doctors rather than the fishermen!