You are here

Ambulances for Guatemala

Printer-friendly version of this page

For the children at Guatemala's Hospicio San Jose de la Montaña, finding transportation is no small accomplishment. The children are HIV-positive, and offers of assistance can be hard to come by.

The Volunteer Fire Fighters from Joyabaj, El Quiché, Guatemala serve an area with a population of 500,000 inhabitants and are desperately in need of an ambulance to transport critically injured people to the main hospital.

The Village of Patzun, Guatemala with a population of 40,000 inhabitants is still recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Stan. The entire community has only one pickup truck to transport sick and injured patients to their main hospital.

Each of these 3 communities received an ambulance, donated by the city of Louisville in the USA and driven to Guatemala by a group of volunteers from Louisville. See story below.

Convoy Drives of Ambulances Cross the Border

The following account from Dr John Barker, tells the story of driving three donated retired ambulances from Louisville, Kentucky to Guatemala, where they were turned over to new owners: the San Jose Orphanage for HIV positive children, the Fire Department of Santa Cruz de Quiche and the Centro de Desarrollo Infantil Renacer in Patzun. When he became aware that the vehicles would soon be retired, Dr. Barker approached Louisville Metro EMS Director Dr Neal Richmond, and asked if EMS would consider donating the ambulances to recipients in Latin America. It took two years making the arrangements and a nine-day, 3,000-mile journey to accomplish the task.

The Road Trip from Louisville to Guatemala

Saturday/Sunday, June 9 and 10

The caravan left Louisville heading south through Nashville, Memphis, and Little Rock and then stopped for the night outside of Texarkana, Arkansas. The next day we drove into Texas and arrived in Houston in the afternoon. At the International Airport we collected the seventh ambulance driver, John Michael Musselman, who had flown in from California to join the adventure. From the airport the caravan headed south, arriving late that night in Kingsville, Texas near the US-Mexico border. This "north of the border" portion of the trip was largely uneventful as everyone looked forward to entering the unknown territory south of the border.

Monday, June 11

The border crossing proved to be an interesting and lengthy process which took nearly seven hours. The day began early in the small border town of Los lndios, Texas at the customs agency, "Transmigrates Mireya", where the paperwork necessary to transport the ambulances through Mexico was processed. The office was housed in a makeshift trailer hidden in a sea of used school buses, pickup trucks, and used cars also waiting for papers before crossing the border into Mexico. During our long wait, we met the drivers, who purchase used vehicles in the US and take them to Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica for resale. We learned from them the do's and don'ts about the trip ahead. While the advice varied from driver to driver, the one thing they all agreed on was: "Do not drive at night."

During our long wait, we met a friendly couple, Felix and Laura Hernandez from Texas, who were also traveling to Guatemala to deliver a truckload of donated supplies to an orphanage. This was a fortunate meeting since Laura and Felix, a Guatemalan native, had made this trip many times and had firsthand knowledge of the trip ahead. We all took an immediate liking to the couple and were delighted when they offered to join the caravan. When we finally crossed the border into Mexico, each vehicle was "fumigated," which interestingly consisted of spraying the two tires on the driver's side of each ambulance. The border crossing left the caravan a few dollars poorer but one vehicle and two friends richer. Quickly we headed south along the Gulf Coast Highway to the city of Tampico, arriving well after dark, and spent the night.

Tuesday, June 12

From Tampico the caravan headed south along good roads and through numerous toll booth stops and military/police road-blocks where "donations" were encouraged. Late in the afternoon as we approached the outskirts of Vera Cruz we finally saw blue water, where the Gulf of Mexico lapped against palm-lined beaches. Without hesitation all the men stripped to the waist and dove into the waves. Refreshed, we drove into Vera Cruz, where, upon the suggestion of Felix and Laura, we checked in to a nice, high-rise called the Hotel Regency on the famous shoreline boulevard near the port.

On the border and on the road
Wednesday, June 13

Knowing that the next stretch of the trip would reach the Guatemalan border and would be the longest drive yet, we decided to take a day off to relax and get a taste of Vera Cruz and its surroundings. From the front door of the hotel it was a twenty minute stroll along the picturesque shoreline boulevard to the main plaza in the old city. There we sat for hours at one of the many sidewalk cafes, watching the passing parade, with the mariachi bands serenading anyone they could. Afterwards everyone squeezed into one ambulance and went for a short drive outside of Vera Cruz to the archeological ruins of Zempoala. These ruins date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, when at its height, it was the capital and largest city on the Gulf of Mexico and was among the first cities visited by the Spanish explorer Cortes. Back at Vera Cruz, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at one of the many seafood restaurants along the shoreline boulevard.

Thursday, June 14

Before sunrise the caravan rolled out of Vera Cruz and headed south across the Mexican peninsula toward the city of Tapachula, located on the Pacific coast near the Guatemalan border. The good road conditions plus fewer toll booths and military/police roadblocks made for a quick ride, and we arrived at Tapachula in mid-afternoon with several hours of sunlight remaining. After finding a nice, AIR CONDITIONED hotel in the center of the city, we strolled the plaza to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Tapachula. For a Thursday, we were surprised to find the plaza filled with street vendors selling souvenirs and freshly cooked food to hundreds of people enjoying the entertainment of two live bands. After a few laps around, we chose a nearby "tipico" restaurant and sat down to enjoy one of the best meals of the trip.

Friday, June 15

Early in the morning, in the hotel lobby, Dr. Barker met with representatives from two of the three organizations to which the ambulances would be donated. These included bomberos (firemen) from Quiche and Dr. Teresa Upun from the Centro de Desarrollo Infantil Renacer in Patzun. After introductions, Dr. Barker officially transferred the titles of the three vehicles into the names of their new Guatemalan owners, and in doing so, also transferred the responsibility of importing the ambulances into Guatemala.

Crossing the border into Guatemala was far more interesting than the U.S.- Mexico crossing and took nearly twice as long. While waiting almost ten hours for our "paperwork" to be processed, we explored the shops, makeshift stands, and restaurants while watching the never-ending traffic of vehicles, pedestrians and animals filling the colorful, bustling streets with the everyday commerce that defines this lively border town. There was a constant flow of young children working as "pack animals" carrying heavy loads of soda bottles, boxes of detergent, cans of cooking oil and large containers filled with diesel oil. Men carried large wallets filled with currency to exchange Mexican pesos, Guatemalan quetzals and US dollars for those crossing the border. Numerous vendors set up their stands on wheels to cook and sell breakfast, lunch and dinner for all the travelers. All of this occurred beneath a large sign which warned: "Prohibido Vender en la Calle" or "prohibited to sell items in the street." In the midst of all this, in the early afternoon Felix and Laura completed their paperwork and everyone bid them thanks and farewell, promising to follow and meet again. Finally, at 8:00 p.m., as the border was about to close and everyone started to worry in earnest, we got word from the bomberos that the paperwork was complete.

Even though many miles lay between us and our final destination, driving across the border into Guatemala somehow made us feel better. We could "see the light at the end of the tunnel." From this point on, three bomberos and Dr. Teresa Upun accompanied and guided us, delivering each vehicle to its respective town/owner. The first delivery was to the bomberos in Quiche, located about a seven-hour drive from the border crossing. 

To make better time, our group decided to take a shortcut over the mountains, which proved to be the most adventurous 24 hours of the trip. Because we had not crossed the border until 8:00 p.m., our first leg into Guatemala lasted only a few hours. Well after dark, the wet and muddy motorcade arrived in the small town of Coatepeque, located only 40 miles from the Mexican border. Coatepeque lies along the Naranjo River at an elevation of 2,300 feet, in the heart of Guatemala's richest coffee-growing area. We stayed overnight in the only hotel with secure parking for the ambulances (in fact, the only hotel in town). The hotel was appropriately named "Hotel Europa" and our  multiple bedrooms contained all required comforts, including fans, beds and cold water. After our usual stroll around the main plaza, we asked our bombero hosts to suggest a "tipico' restaurant and they quickly responded, saying they knew "just the place" and took us to a restaurant called "Pollo Campero," a Guatemalan version of Kentucky Fried Chicken!

On the road
Saturday, June 16

Early the next morning we hit the road, this time with the goal of delivering the first ambulance to the capital city of Quiche, Santa Cruz by day's end. For breakfast, recognizing we wanted something more "tipico" than the night before, the bomberos surprised us and we had breakfast at  McDonald's. Amazingly, the McDonald's they chose was very modern, with an adjoining Starbucks-type café called McCafe. After a few more hours on the road, we arrived in Santa Cruz de Quiche with sirens blaring and all our lights flashing. We were greeted with great fanfare by eight of the seventeen members of the local fire department. After introduc-tions and photos, we were invited into the main fire station, where a brief but heartfelt ceremony was held, thanking us for our generous gift.

With one ambulance delivered, we set out for our next delivery, the orphanage Hospicio San Jose de la Montana in Santa Luica Milpas Altas. We were still driving over the mountains. The road conditions began to deteriorate. We came across many sections of road with gaping holes, some four feet wide and a foot deep. And then it started to rain. The situation worsened when we got to a hill so steep that one of our ambulances could not climb it. We tried to tow one with the other, but no luck. Minutes later, out of nowhere, a group of bomberos in an SUV appeared, attached their vehicle to ours, and hauled it up the hill with relative ease. Late that night, after the children were asleep, we arrived at the orphanage. We decided to return the next day for the formal presentation.

Sunday, June 17

Early in the morning we loaded the team into one of the ambulances and a minibus and drove one hour to Patzun to deliver the second ambulance to the Centro de Desarrollo Inland! Renacer. Upon arriving in Patzun, we were met by old friends of Dr. Barker who live in Guatemala, Mr. Joe De Cicco and Dr. Teresa Upun. For over a year prior to this trip, Joe De Cicco and his assistant Analia Torres worked tirelessly with Dr. Barker to coordinate the transfer of the ambulances and, in a sense, make this all possible. After a warm welcome and introductions, Dr. Upun took us to her clinic in the city center, where she introduced everyone to the staff at her facility and gave us a tour. On the tour we learned that their Centro de Desarrollo Infantil Renacer is a non-governmental organization whose purpose is to provide primary health care and related education to children at 60 rural health care dispensaries, serving a population of 12,000 throughout the region. The staff explained how the ambulance would be used to transport their medical, educational and social worker members to these out-lying dispensaries and to transport critical patients from the rural areas into the larger central hospital in Guatemala City. Following the tour, staff members thanked us and explained how our gift would most benefit the women of the region. This is because, in their society, women bear the responsibility of providing health care and education. To conclude the ceremony, we received certificates of appreciation, gifts, hugs and warm heartfelt thanks for our gen-erosity.

Next we visited the weekend farmers' market, where vendors spread their goods on the streets throughout the city center. The sights and smells of this crowded marketplace stirred the imagination. Perhaps most fascinating was the skill of the Guatemalan women who wove their way effortlessly through the crush, carrying large baskets on their heads. Their bright and colorful embroidered clothes and their quiet, shy smiles gave the bustling city center a cheerful circus air.

After our visit to Patzun, Dr. Upun invited the team, along with her family and several of her co-workers, to a wonderful and plentiful lunch at a roadside restaurant. After lunch we said our goodbyes and loaded up for a one-hour journey to Santa Lucia Milpas Altas, to deliver our last ambulance to the Orphanage Hospicio San Jose.

When we arrived at the orphan-age, we were met by several staff members and surrounded by the children. We spent most of our visit playing with the children, but also got a tour of the facility, which provides a full spectrum of care to HIV positive children. The facility is currently the home of 52 children (ages three months to 16 years) and six adults, all of whom receive a full range of schooling and health care services. The facility also provides health care services to 200 children on an outpa-tient basis.

Once we toured their facility, they toured our ambulance. The children especially got a kick out of working the lights, siren and loudspeaker. The staff explained how the stigma of HIV in their society was still an extreme burden, so much so that no one will even give patients a ride. Together we unloaded the many boxes of medical supplies, clothing and school essentials, all gifts from Louisvillians. With some tears, we finally headed back to Antigua, empty-handed at last.

We spent the last few days relaxing and exploring the beautiful Spanish Colonial city of Antigua, 45 minutes by car from Guatemala City. It's the original capital of the Spanish Empire in Latin America and is perhaps the most outstanding and best-preserved colonial city in "Spanish Speaking" America. Antigua stands 4,500 feet above sea level and is flanked by three spectacular volcanoes, one still active. We explored the streets, churches, houses, squares, parks and ruins in Antigua. It was like stepping back into 14th century Spain, and it was an elegant ending to our Louisville-Guatemala ambulance adventure. Mission Accomplished! Ili