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The 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 of water.

Eventually we heard the sound of the ambulance and saw some locals loading
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 further.

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.  Hundreds of
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 true.

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