Today I experienced the most intense moment of my Peace Corps service. I had closed myself in my house after a few niños where pestering me for the plastic bag that came with the cornflakes I had just bought for lunch. I was doing a Kakuro puzzle, which if you haven’t heard of it, is sort of like if Sudoku’s bad ass uncle got busy with a cross word puzzle. I was doing pretty well for myself having almost completed the puzzle, when I suddenly heard screaming outside the front door. At first I couldn’t hear what they were saying but there were a lot of people running away from something directly in front of my house. I listened a little closer thinking it was a fight but then I heard the words “fire” and “gas tank” and my heart started beating really fast. The first thing I did was hide behind the concrete counter in my house for about thirty seconds, but people kept screaming outside. They were yelling for water and I had several buckets in my house. I went to the front door and hesitated for about 30 seconds because I had no idea where the “fire” and the “gas tank” where or what exactly those two words together signified (other than something that causes a lot of panic). I cracked the door open enough to see a crowd of about ten men standing in the doorway and outside of the house in front of mine (the house that you can hit with a broom stick from my front door), I opened the door the rest of the way and poked my head out to see that in the house there was a huge fire consuming the back wall, the stove and about everything else. It looked like someone had left a flamethrower going as the tank sprayed flames across the room. The men kept yelling for water so I passed the buckets of rainwater I had gathered to cook and bathe with for the past couple days (which, for the record, rainwater is not as great to bathe and cook with as Dasani commercials lead you to believe. It’s actually pretty gross when you consider that it has to pass through gutters. Our water hadn’t arrived for a couple days). The men passed the water up to the front and threw it on the fire in vain. It was a gas fire and so the water didn’t help much, other than keeping it from spreading when the water soaked everything in the the house. Because we all ran out of water, the men gave up the house for lost. They then started grabbing things out of the house before they could catch fire: the stove, the refrigerator, an entire bed, tables, chairs and a lot of clothes. A lot of the stuff they passed to me to put into my house. As they handed them to me the items where still hot despite being wet. This process continued for about 10 minutes until things got really crazy.
I am still not sure what exactly happened but the men yelled something to the effect of “run for it and take cover!” All the men ran faster than I had seen any Dominican run in the past two years and the flame coming from the tank went from looking like a flamethrower to looking like some kind of bigger scarier flamethrower. The tank looked like it was going to explode; I assume the Dominican men running for their lives had a similar notion. I ducked for cover behind the front wall of my house with my three-year-old neighbor “Tango” and his 14-year-old aunt who were watching from the front steps. The three of us huddled together in silence but the front door was still wide open and we could hear the tank spouting gas louder than before. As we sat there, Lobo came up to us and wanted to know what all the commotion was about. It only took him a second to see that we weren’t the excitement and the real action was outside. He went up to the open doorway and stood looking across the way. I can’t remember what movie, but I am sure it happens in one of them, where the guy goes to save the dog and he somehow gets killed instead. I played that situation out in my head and thought, sorry Lobo you are literally on your last legs so… I am not going to risk my life to get you off of the front steps. Luckily, Lobo is a good dog (despite what the neighbor ladies say) and when I called him in my “Lobo this is serious voice” he came right up to me and I could grab him buy his collar. We hid behind the wall for another thirty seconds until the tank had completely emptied itself and stopped shooting flames all over the little house. It appeared that something happened to the tank that made gas escape a lot faster and burn out in a matter of seconds versus minutes. Someone yelled “ya” which in most contexts means “it’s done.” I yelled “Ya?” back to be safe and then poked my head out the front door. The gas tank was done and a man yanked it with a wet towel around his hand and put it outside. Someone had the bright idea (which I wish I could say I was that someone) to put a wet towel over the fire and that put out the bulk of the fire pretty quick. I guess it’s easier to put out fires when there is not a gas tank spouting flames all over everything. After the fire was completely out we collected all of the stuff that was strewn in the street and put it in my house. A pretty big crowd was forming and it was encouraging to see how many people where willing to help. People were helping hammer walls back together (a man had broken down a zinc wall to get into the house faster) and clean up all the water that was all over the house. The startled neighbor, whose house was just on fire, was able to go sit down and catch her breath while the rest of us did the clean up. Luckily, the rest of the family went out to the campo for the weekend to relax and didn’t have to deal with the situation.
In the meantime, I had the bright idea to call 911 and I wondered for a second why nobody else had called. It turns out because there is no 911 in Constanza, which may have been lucky for me a couple days ago when Lobo bit that old lady. Someone called the fire department, probably because his or her cousin works as a fireman. They showed up pretty late because at this point people were already cleaning up the mess (it was only two guys that were empty handed. The uniforms looked official though.). Luckily, there was not a lot of damage to the property and because the house is made of oilcans they were not damaged and the fire didn’t really spread beyond the little house. Within an hour of the fire the house looked just like it had before, except everything was soaking wet. After we emptied their things out my house, I went downtown to meet Kathy and Malia at some award ceremony for rich Dominican women, it was a three-hour ceremony and there was a lot of emotional crying (done by rich Dominican women). Contrasted with the ridiculously exciting hour prior, the ceremony may have been the most boring three hours of my life (but I didn’t mind it, as much).