Wonderful Ambulance Adventure
By: Colleen O'Brien, Calgary, Canada
Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
Our Grand Prize Winner
In the year 2000, my husband Phil and I were in
Guatemala.We were on our way to Antigua Guatemala where we were
going to study Spanish and live with a woman Phil knew from previous
trips to that beautiful city. Her home is typical of that
region, with an outdoor garden in the middle of her property.
Looking over this garden is also an open area with kitchen sink,
clotheslines and seating. All rooms lead into this garden/open
air space. A wall surrounds her property. She runs a
kind of boarding house for people who come To Antigua to learn Spanish,
as we were. She was most congenial. Hilda is her name.
We were leaving the lovely mountain town of Chichicastenanga, on
our way to Hilda's. I convinced Phil to have a dessert for
lunch, and this delayed our taking one bus. Phil rarely eats
fruit in foreign countries, but he let me have my wish. We
took the following bus 15 minutes later. Along the twisty
potholed road we traveled in the local "chicken" bus.
We came upon a terrible traffic accident involving 3 vehicles.
A car was blocking the road, and a bus was upside-down, having torn
out a bridge railing, and landing somehow on top of a half ton truck.
Both the bus and truck were full of locals heading home to their
villages after the market day. The bus, upside down
on top of the truck, was in a shallow river. This bus was
the one we would have been in, had we left earlier!
All traffic was stopped. We had only small backpacks. The
scene which greeted us on the riverbank was unbelievable. We were
in shock ourselves, seeing all the wounded people staggering out
of the river, covered in blood, some babbling incoherently.
We had no first aid training. Phil instantly forgot all his
good Spanish language, and not one person spoke English. My
only thought was, "I am one person, and I can help one person".
A little girl about 8 years old was wandering around in circles
calling for her Mommy. I put my arm around her and led her
to a bank, where we sat. That was our spot for a couple of hours,
while she watched every person who was helped off the bus, or who
limped out of the accident scene. In the meantime, she recognized
a man, who was holding her baby sister, Mary, or Maria as they called
her. Now I had two little bleeding children on my lap, one missing
a shoe. In the meantime, Phil befriended a teenaged boy who
was in deep shock. We had a sheet in our pack, and Phil covered
him with that
and stayed with him. Over time, we became the children's section.
I weep to remember this so clearly. One tiny boy was laid
in front of us and simply stopped breathing. We covered the little
boy with a lovely piece of embroidery I had purchased at the market.
Another little child with a deep gash in her forehead was also set
in my arms. A woman my age was sitting about a meter from
me, facing me. Her head was split open and her face was a
sheet of blood. She kept speaking to me, and all I could do
was nod and speak comfortingly in English. (The next day I started
my Spanish lessons). I tried to guess about the people who
wandered by. Some were wet to the knee, so I thought they
were survivors, some talked to me and made no sense, again I knew
they were in shock. Some people from the highway offered bottles
Eventually we heard the sound of the ambulance and saw some locals
people into this vehicle. That was a terrible sight, even
from a distance, as all I saw were many legs sticking out of the
back of a truck, and indeed, that was the ambulance: a half-ton
truck with a metal floor, no equipment, only a siren. Someone
must have driven to the hospital in Chichi to tell them of the accident
because in this poor country, there are no cell phones, or phone
booths. Because we were foreigners, we were approached very
early about getting in an ambulance. I explained in sign language
that I was not hurt, and pointed out the dreadfully wounded people
who needed hospitalization first. And of course, eight year
old Alicia was always looking for her Mother. A couple of
people caught my eye and signed that her mother was dead, and whispered
"morte" in my ear, trying not to shock the little girl
When most of the wounded were gone, a man dressed in white walked
over to me
and in perfect English said: "They are about to remove
her mother's body from the bus, and I suggest that you take the
next ambulance trip, as you wouldn't want her to see."
We immediately stood up and helped our charges into the back of
the truck. I wedged myself between the wheel well and the
back of the seat with the little ones in my arms. This kept us from
being thrown around as the truck rounded steep corners and bounced
in and out of pot holes. Phil held on for dear life.
I think it was about a half hour or 45 minute trip back to the Hospital
in Chichi. The hospital had only one doctor. He could
speak a little English but he was very busy! After a couple of hours,
the helpers were finished with the more serious cases and could
take care of the children. All around us were other survivors of
the accident, lying on the concrete floor with no blankets or pillows.
The floor was packed dirt, with a concrete sidewalk around the packed
dirt center. Eventually some very kind women talked to the
older sister, to find out if the Papa was also in the bus, and it
seemed that he was at home in the Village. Of course there
were no phones in the village. We were thanked, and reluctantly
handed our little ones over to the caring staff. Phil said
later that he had not seen the man in white!
We gathered our backpacks and made our way out of the hospital.
people had lined the streets watching our ambulance ride, and now
they swarmed around us. They had already broken down the outer
doors and were pressing on the inner door as we left the building.
Maybe they were looking for relatives, or just curious, I'm not
sure. My shirt was covered in blood. We found a little
space in the crowd of people and checked our guidebook to
see where the hospital was, then used our compass to get back to
the bus stop. This time we took a kind of van. We arrived
at Hilda's, still shaken. I had a good cry in the van, and
this helped me to deal with the events of the day. In this
part of Guatemala, there are no newspapers, and we never heard another
word about the accident.
Six months later in Denver, I woke up one morning with a plan clearly
in place. I would cash in a Mutual fund which was worth about
$8,000, and I would buy a used ambulance and donate it to the hospital
in Chichi. Phil and I would drive it down there. This thought
was so easy and exciting for me. And Phil thought it would
be a good idea. I phoned my son and he asked some paramedic
colleagues where his mom could buy a second hand ambulance and in
24 hours I had the ambulance. The company that builds and
refurbishes ambulances is in Saskatoon. They were helpful
and cooperative, servicing and replacing parts and eventually donating
three cartons of ambulance, hospital and medical supplies.
I took the Greyhound up to Saskatoon, and drove my beautiful ambulance,
a 1987 Dodge one ton, back to Medicine Hat. The following
summer, Phil and I drove it down to Guatemala.
We contacted a humanitarian project, through which the ambulance
was donated. They helped with border crossings, vehicle registration,
license plates and travel plans. Friends and relatives donated
the cost of the fuel, food and supplies. This was our wonderful
Ambulance Adventure. The people of Central America are kind
and caring, and very poor in the rural areas. We left Medicine
Hat on October 20, 2001 and arrived in Antigua 17 days later after
a memorable 4000 mile trip. During this trip we encountered
many difficulties, however, it became evident, that dreams can come