“People labeled you as unfazed.” my friend Emily Rose says as we sit in a solar powered hot tub in Guatemala. The water is dark and warm. My hands move feeling the water surge between my fingers. The power is out everywhere, apart from small solar lights that brighten the dark path to our rooms. We are speaking to each other in the dim light of candles and cellphone flashlights like children telling ghost stories.
“Huh?” I say not paying attention. More or less thinking about the events that transpired.
“You were kind of chill through the whole thing. What are your thoughts on that?”
I didn’t think I was completely desensitized to chaos. A fire the size of a full-grown human ignited a small shack at the yoga retreat center where we stayed on Lake Atitlan about thirty minutes ago. I should’ve probably freaked out like they did. Everyone else did, but not me.
I think of my past. The bed bugs in Vietnam, a wave sweeping up my phone, money, and glasses at a beach in Bali, riding on the back of a motor bike with two other people, going to the hospital in Phuket to treat a bladder infection, helping my friend deal with a potential rabies infection.
My fellow Americans love to worry in foreign places. We’ve been in Guatemala for only three days and so far I’ve had to listen to their panic nearly every minute of the day.
Is my suitcase going to fall off the top of the boat?
Are you sure I can brush my teeth with the tap water?
Why can’t I put my toilet paper in the toilet?
I’ve pooped in a hole in the ground while sweat dripped down my entire body. I brushed my teeth with Southeast Asian water the entire time I was there. I never kept hand sanitizer on me. I even ate meat people cooked in the street. Guatemala was no different to me. However, this time I was paying for a fancy yoga retreat that hosted other Americans who loved to complain.
My skyline bungalow is 70 steps up-hill, don’t you think that’s a bit much? Should I switch rooms?
Costa Rica had so many pretty birds, why doesn’t Guatemala have as many pretty birds?
The evening of the fire, the dinner conversation shifts from surface topics about people’s jobs back home to the burning smell in the air. I’m drinking my tea and eating the vegetarian spread that is prepared for us every night.
“Do you smell that?” They concernedly say.
It smells like a curling iron, but I also remember that this is the time of the season where people burn their crops to prepare for a new year of planting.
“Should we say something?” Beverly asks the group. As the rest of them mumble to each other. “I’m going to say something.”
Beverly calls for the hotel manager, “Excuse me, amigo, do you smell that? It smells like a fire.” She still thinks calling someone who works at the center Amigo is friendly and fun, and not demeaning.
“It’s no problem. Don’t worry,” he says and returns to what he was doing before they interrupted him.
Now, I don’t remember what the other Americans were mumbling about, but I remember watching them drink their red wine, and run their mouths like hens clucking, their necks craning searching for danger. I don’t remember what I was thinking about, but maybe I was thinking about how dumb they’re making us look. I maybe wondered why they couldn’t relax in a place that is designed to be relaxing. I wondered possibly about their lack of trust with foreigners. I likely linked that back to America’s xenophobic sickness, and how much we love to isolate ourselves. As if possibly we could lose our stolen land, if we ever left it.
Then I see the flames rise behind the trees. The dining area overlooks the garden and the pool in order to see Lake Atitlan. Beyond the railing in the dining room, the fire grows to about six feet in height. The people at the table try to follow American procedures they learned in grade school that don’t apply to fire procedures in Guatemala. They want to call 911, but they don’t know the emergency number, and we’re secluded on a lake so we can focus on our Dharma. They want to find a fire extinguisher. They want to find the quickest and most efficient solution. The Guatemalan people at the hotel run toward the fire. They grab all the buckets they can and fill them with water. We try to help. We invade their kitchens and grab all the buckets or hoses we can find. As I grab a bucket, I make eye contact with a Guatemalan woman in the kitchen who doesn’t understand what I’m saying and doesn’t seem to care.
During this small moment of chaos, lasting five minutes in total, the Guatemalan people throw buckets of water onto the roof of the shack. I’m willing to follow their lead and throw as much water on the fire as I can, but when I miss the burning shack entirely. The Americans successfully find a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. One American holds another American on their shoulders as they spray down the shack. Within moments, the fire shrinks from seven feet to practically nothing. Residual smoke lingers in the air as if the shack were a large sage smudge.
The fire is eliminated, but the panic remains. The older generations sit at a table and analyze the chaos over and over. I cannot tell if they just enjoy worrying about things, or if they’re slightly smug thinking they saved the retreat center.
That was so scary, right?
I mean, they didn’t even notice.
What if we never said anything?
We all knew we were never going to die, and if anyone was going to die it wouldn’t have been us. This was never a life-threatening issue, even though they acted like it was. It was maybe about their things. The new yoga Lululemon pants they bought before the retreat could’ve gone up in flames. The fire could’ve singed the rim of their beach hat. Their cellphones would melt onto their chargers and tablets and laptops. Ultimately, deep down, I think they were most concerned about being inconvenienced.
As I sit in the warm water in the dark listening to the chirping of the bugs in the distance, I think of all the deep breaths I’d taken while experiencing moments of inconvenience. I think of how I’m still alive after taking the ferry back to the mainland from Koh Tao in a monsoon. I think of the graciousness of the motor taxi driver in Vietnam who drove all over Ho Chi Minh City to help me find my lost debit card. Emily Rose and Beverly await my response as I reflect on the trust I have in foreign countries.
“I guess I’ve had a lot of crazy shit happen to me.”