The View from a Mexican Ambulance
And other stories from my trip to Playa del Carmen
The first thing you should know about Mexican ambulances is that the drivers likely don’t speak English. When you visit Mexico, specifically an all-inclusive resort, you get the ignorant American luxury of having everyone work hard to speak your language so you don’t have to inconvenience yourself any by learning more than “hola” and “siesta.” But when you wind up in the front seat of an ambulance and your friend is bleeding out under the hot Mexican sun, you find out that the real Mexico—not the touristy Mexico with the free booze and the pretty beach—can be a much scarier place if you don’t educate yourself linguistically.
But why was I in a Mexican ambulance, slightly buzzed off morning mimosas and crossing my fingers that my buddy Mason didn’t have to have his toe amputated by a Mexican doctor? All in good time.
My friends and I arrived in Cancun early Sunday morning. Customs was a nightmare, partially because the airplane only had immigration forms in Spanish. (Really, much of this trip would have been easier if I had kept my two years of college Spanish fresh in my mind, but no comprende.) Once we made it out, however, I was very happy that we had pre-arranged transportation via our travel agency. We climbed inside a boxy van with a family full of kids being dropped off at a different resort, which reaffirmed our very smart decision to book an adults only resort. Somehow, Mason, who is a muscular 240, and I, an even more muscular mildly chubby 205, both ended up in the front bench seat, while our friend Megan got the roomy middle row with some kid named Oliver.
Our driver was bold for someone who was driving for his company with a van full of people who had presumably never been on Mexican roadways before. But as my colleague Danny points out—and as I would soon learn—Mexican drivers just don’t give una mierda.
The billboards that lined the roads were a mixed bag: some were in English, some were in Spanish, and almost all of them had Ricky Martin’s face on them. I paid closer attention to the speed limit signs, because the speed limit seemed to change every 1,000 feet (er, 300 meters) and were of course in kilometers, so I was constantly trying to calculate that out in miles.
We finally reached the resort, and it was absolutely stunning. We stayed at Valentin Imperial Maya just outside of Playa Del Carmen, and I definitely would recommend it to anyone going to a resort in Mexico. The food was amazing, the drinks were delicious, the views were breathtaking, and the people who worked there were fantastic. (I’m looking at you, Andres; and I’m still waiting on you to accept that friend request, if you’re reading this. UPDATE: He has accepted the friend request.)
Still not sure how such a wonderful paradise suddenly turned into a trip to a Mexican hospital in downtown Cancun? It didn’t take us long to get there, that’s for sure. Within an hour of being on the resort property, my friend Mason set down a rather heavy piece of luggage on a marble table that wasn’t braced to the wall correctly. Immediately, it snapped under the weight and landed directly on his left foot. Blood started gushing out from his big toe nail, which was cracked down the center. Two of his other toes were also bleeding, but not profusely.
Quickly, Megan (our other travel companion) and I helped him hobble to the on-site doctor, Jorge, a man with a super tight shirt and six months of experience under his even tighter belt. Jorge investigated Mason’s foot and was concerned that, when the bleeding wouldn’t stop from pressure, an artery had been cut open. However, he just wrapped it in a compression bandage and sent us on our way (after a $250 bill—thank Itzamn for trip insurance).
Mason had to stay out of the water the next two days as he limped around the resort, watching Megan and I splash our way up to every swim up bar and beach bar in sight. He at least got to enjoy his beers from the sideline and go to breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us—except for that time he passed out drunk by 5pm, but he’d be embarrassed if I told that story.
On Tuesday, however, we returned to Jorge to change up the bandage for the second time. Upon unwrapping it, we discovered that Mason was still bleeding, even though 48 hours had passed. At this point, Jorge insisted we go to a hospital off-site where they could do more to stop the bleeding—stitches. Obviously, no one was thrilled, but we were determined to make the most of it.
The ambulance arrived shortly after and surprisingly looked exactly like the van we had arrived in—with a silent siren on top. It was a Volkswagen, which was true of a lot of the cars we saw there. But inside, there wasn’t any medical equipment, not even a place for Mason to lie down. Instead, there were regular bench seats, one car seat (just one more reminder that I was so happy not to be at a resort with kids), and an enthusiastically Spanish-speaking driver. To his credit, he did his best to communicate with us, and we got everything sorted out that we needed to. It was a lesson for us though; the next time I visit a country with a language I don’t know, I’m going to bother to learn more than just a few phrases. (Though my friends and I found out that I randomly knew the words for “boot” and “purse,” but that didn’t get us very far in an ambulance situation.)
Driving in the ambulance was bizarre. I’ve never been in an emergency vehicle in the States, but as a regular driver, I know that you get the hell out of the way if there’s an ambulance, fire truck, or police car coming your way. Not so in Mexico. Drivers had no problem adhering to the speed limit directly in front of the ambulance until the very last second. Others used it as an excuse to speed up in front of the ambulance and do 140 kilometers an hour.
There weirdly was no sound from the ambulance siren, just a red flashing light in the bright sunlight, so it’s possible drivers didn’t realize the ambulance was in emergency mode. Though you’d think the fact that it was going nearly 100 mph might’ve tipped everyone off.
Going that fast on the Mexican highway intensified an already scary experience. Drivers in Mexico drive the way I thought only people in India drove. They cut off someone every time they had the chance, they signaled no more than 5% of their intentions, and they all constantly played on their cell phones, including our cab drivers and the ambulance driver.
Miraculously, we made it to the hospital in one piece, save for Mason, whose toe nail, as I said, was in two pieces. We spent a couple hours there, but it was actually one of my favorite parts of the trip. The three of us were in a slap happy mood and were determined not to let this experience ruin our trip, so it led to some of the biggest laughs of the vacation.
After the stitches and some X-rays (three stitches through the nail, and three fractured toes), we hopped in a frightening cab and went back to the resort. Though Mason was bummed he couldn’t get in the water, we all made the most of it, eating, drinking, and relaxing to our hearts’ content. The hotel even gave us a private cabana.
I definitely recommend getting trip insurance if you ever leave the country, because the ambulance ride (and subsequent hospital visit) was insanely expensive; we’re very lucky that we opted for that insurance. I also definitely recommend dropping a table on your friend’s toe and going to the hospital, because it gives you a pretty fresh perspective on a new country’s way of life.* But most of all, I recommend taking the time to learn more of the language and the customs of the place you visit before being thrown into an emergency situation like this—and, if you are thrown into a situation like this, don’t let it bring you down. There’s still fun to be had when you’re in paradise with some of your favorite people. Just be ready for at least two dozen old people to make a joke about your wound being from a shark bite. It gets less funny every time.
*No, don’t really do this.
At least the Mexican ambulance was safer than this…
Timothy Moore takes his leadership inspiration from Michael Scott, his writing inspiration from Mark Twain, and his dancing inspiration from every drunk white guy at a wedding. When Tim is not writing about cars and money, he’s working on his novel or reading someone else’s, geeking out over strategy board games, hiking with his pooch, or channeling his inner Linda Belcher over beers with his friends. See more articles by Timothy.