It started off as any other normal day of travel. Wake up. Pack backpack. Bus to new destination.
After being overcharged by our taxi driver, we lug our packs into the hotel lobby and climb upstairs to our room to relax and wait out the afternoon downpour before exploring the city.
An hour later, my stomach begins grumbling. I peek out the window, hoping the drizzle has let up enough for us to venture outside for food.
While scanning the gray sky overhead, a cloud of unnatural smoke caught my eye. I traced its beginning and saw it was coming out of a small building across the two-lane street directly in front of the hotel.
“Mira eso,” I say to my partner, motioning towards the window. He pulls back the blinds and his expression changes dramatically from sleepy to panicky.
“Alistate!” he shouts, wild-eyed, scrambling to get his shoes on. “Vamos vamos!”
I feel like he’s being a bit dramatic, but I put my shoes on to appease him. I glance out the window again, and see smoke billowing out at an accelerated speed. Its color had changed from white to black.
I stuff my arm into my backpack, groping for the familiar fabric of my Panajachel hoodie. A million questions race through my mind. Is this for real? This can’t be for real, can it? No pasa nada, cierto? (I think bilingually now).
“Vamos!” he shouts again, grabbing my arm and shoving me out the door. We scramble downstairs and are met with hotel staff and neighbors standing shell shocked in the doorway, entranced by the fire.
In one suspended moment, we witness the cloud give way to a raging fire.
“Metense! Metense!” they scream, pushing their way back into the hotel. We pause, debating for a split second whether we should run for our lives or seek shelter inside.
We push through their incoming bodies and run for our lives to the end of the block.
We glance backwards to see the fire pushing smoke into the sky at an incomprehensible speed. We continue running past stunned bystanders, spellbound by the billowing smoke.
We are terrified that the building – and the block – are going to blow up.
Out of breath, we stop after four or five blocks and turn to look at the growing disaster, covering our nose from the wretched stench that has began to fill the streets.
Fire truck after police car after fire truck race past us in a parade of lights and sirens. They have begun to wrestle the flames, but it resists their advances.
We have nothing to do but wait, so we head to the airport across the street and I try to calm myself down.
Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the calamity is not knowing. I literally have nothing on my person except a few dollars – no ATM card, no laptop, no camera – nada.
Had the hotel caught on fire? Had anyone died?
The structure that set on fire was a chemical plant in a residential neighborhood that belongs to a company called Spartan.
There was no explosion. The only building affected was the chemical plant.
Days later, personnel was still cleaning up the mess. And the strange odor remained.
Do you have any travel horror stories? What has been your scariest day traveling?