Yucatan Sirens and Mission Bells
The siren on the ambulance wails, oscillating between rapid-fire cries and long, droning moans. The driver weaves in and out of traffic, honking his horn as yet another voice in our chorus, singing the city’s song of the night.
Raindrops pelt the windows and roof of the emergency vehicle as we careen through the city. I’m being tossed back and forth on the gurney, its safety straps having been left unbuckled. Flashing red lights reflect off of concrete buildings and the wet asphalt of the street flying by.
I can’t figure out why I’m being transported in an ambulance. Physically there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with me, no blood or broken bones. There must be some kind of misunderstanding.
“Hey, excuse me!” I holler in Spanish. “Where are you taking me?”
Up front in the cab, the driver and his EMT partner are startled by my sudden outburst. Both of them jump from the unexpected voice, yelling at them from the darkness. The overhead lights flicker to life, both men staring back at me with terrified expressions on their faces.
“¿Santiago que haces ahi?” (What are you doing there?), the EMT in the passenger seat screams.
I recognize the voice. It’s Beto, my friend from the hospital. Suddenly everything becomes clear to my foggy mind.
I’d been sleeping in a decommissioned ambulance waiting on repairs in the hospital’s parking garage. I must have taken refuge in the wrong ambulance that night.
“Santiago, what are you doing back there?” Beto hollers. “You can’t be in here!”
“Sorry Beto, mi culpa,” I say. “Where are we headed?”
“Barrio de San Sebastian, big car accident. You’ve got to get out there. I can get in trouble. Understand?”
“Claro, desculpe,” (Of course, I’m sorry,) I reply.
It must be one or two in the morning, and I’m about to be dropped off in an unfamiliar barrio in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
I had just gotten out of Valladolid prison after serving 14 months. I had absolutely no money, not even enough for bus fare. My cousin in Sinaloa was supposed to be sending some startup cash to help get me back on my feet. I’d been waiting for two days now already, my survival hanging in the balance. I’m hungry and in desperate need of a shower and some clean clothes. And now I won’t even have a roof over my head.
It could be worse, it could be raining as I always say. And of course there’s a rainforest deluge presently raging outside. Always another trying element added to an already challenging situation. Never has any such scenario been easy for me. Without fail, a secondary obstacle always presents itself.
We reach the scene of the accident where there are numerous police cars, fire trucks, and other ambulances already present. It’s a large pile up involving five, maybe six cars along with two large produce trucks. One has spilled its cargo of fresh mangos, oranges, bananas and lettuce all over the place.
Exiting the back of the ambulance, my first instinct is to snatch up a few pieces of fruit as they roll across the street. I still don’t have a clue as to where the hell I even am, but at least I’ll have something to eat for now.
Scurrying in and out from under storefront overhangs like a gutter rat, I take refuge from the downpour, making my way toward a cathedral down the street. The church bells ring out a short melody before clanging twice, announcing the ungodly hour.
Finally reaching its large, ornate doors, I’m hoping to find shelter within. My hopes are quickly dashed, however, upon finding the church locked up tight. Pounding my fists on the doors, I shout until my voice goes hoarse, but no one will heed my calls. I think how unfortunate it is that churches are shut down at night. Do they think that people only require the assistance of a priest or the power of prayer during daylight hours? Is God now available only from eight to five, with an hour free for lunch and the customary two fifteen minute smoke breaks? Did the Catholic Church form some type of orthodox union? There should be no question as to why I’m a recovering Catholic myself.
I notice down the street what appears to be a commercial area with bars and restaurants. Quite possibly there may be a business still open I could loiter about without having to purchase anything. I peel a banana and shove half of it in my mouth, once again dodging from overhang to overhang as I make my way toward the neon oasis.
My hair and clothes are thoroughly soaked by this point, but I pull up my hoodie anyway out of habit. A lot of good it does me in rainstorm like this.
Passing by a Chinese restaurant, I stealthily duck inside, hoping to go unnoticed. Maybe I can hideout in the bathroom for a while, at least until the storm passes.
I haven’t made it two steps through the door before another guy in a hoodie jumps over the counter and points a pistol at my head. An old Chinese man stands near the cash register with his hands raised in the air. I immediately follow suit.
Just my luck to wander straight into a robbery.
The robber orders the restaurant owner to lay down on the floor. A voice from behind tells me to lower my hands so as to not alert any passing cars that a robbery is in progress.
Clearing out the cash register, his accomplice grabs me as they start toward the exit, dragging me along with them. As we reach the door, they begin pistol whipping me in the head, swiftly knocking me unconscious.
I’m awakened by a policeman slapping me in the face, telling me to get up. The old Chinese guy is pointing at me, screaming I was one of the perpetrators that had just robbed his restaurant. The cops already have me in handcuffs, trying to pull me to my feet.
“Officers, I had nothing to do with the robbery,” I attempt to explain, blood running down my face. “The perpetrators attacked me before they fled the scene. I just came in to use the bathroom and get out of the rain.”
They don’t say a fucking word in response, instead they just load me into the paddy wagon.
On our way to the station, we pass by the scene of the accident from before. The cops stop to check out the damage, one of them exiting the vehicle.
“Officers, can I get some help with the cut on my head?” I yell through the barrier between us. “I think I might need to go to the hospital.”
“We will have an EMT take a look,” the cop behind the wheel replies. The other one walks around the back of the vehicle, and I hear the door unlock.
He pulls me out into the rain and we start walking toward an ambulance that’s still on the scene.
“Santiago what happened to you?” Beto hollers, glaring at the cop as he marches me forward. “Why are you in handcuffs? Did the police do this to you? Come here, let’s get out of the rain.”
I crawl into the back of the ambulance once again, wet, bleeding, and exhausted. The church bell rings three times, indicating three o’clock, making it seem like not much time has passed. For me, this night has gone on forever, a never-ending pesadilla (nightmare).
I explain the events of the robbery while Beto attends to my injuries.
“Officer, he is going to need some stitches,” he says. “You should take him to the hospital or I can transport him in the ambulance.”
“No, he’s under arrest robbery,” the cops says. “We will take it from here.”
“What I know about Santiago is that he’s no thief,” Beto declares in my defense. “You should know he came here with us in the ambulance earlier. He wasn’t with anyone else. Tell me why would they have beaten him if he was part of the gang?”
“The owner said he was one of the robbers,” the cop replies, wiping the rain from his face and shaking off his plastic Poncho. “We had to arrest him.”
“You didn’t have anything to do with it, did you Santiago?” Beto asks.
“I explained what happened to them but they weren’t buying anything I had to say,” I say. “Of course I didn’t have anything to do with the robbery. Just another instance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Just then, the rain comes to an abrupt halt, the sky not spilling another drop. The clouds above part to expose a brilliant waxing moon upon a backdrop of sparkling stars, as though the cosmos itself was advocating for my innocence.
Taking me away, the cop begins walking me back to the paddy wagon. As we approach, the other cop gets out of the vehicle and motions to his partner to come over.
“They looked at the security video in the restaurant,” he says. “He’s telling the truth, he didn’t have anything to do with the robbery. The owner is in shock, probably doesn’t have a good memory. So we can let this guy go.”
“Do you have any identification?” the other cop asks.
I was hoping this situation wouldn’t present itself, but I pull an answer out of the dark like a magician.
“My passport, money, and everything I owned was in my backpack. The thieves took it. So my answer is no, I don’t have any identification. Is there a chance you could take me to the hospital? I don’t have any way to get there.”
“No, we’re not a taxi service. It’s only four kilometers (two and a half miles), straight down this street.”
“Great, thanks for your assistance. I’m touched by your kindness.”
Just then, Beto drives up with his partner in the ambulance.
“What is going on, Santiago? You need to get to the hospital or you’re going to bleed to death. The bandage I put on is already soaked with blood. It’s only temporary, you need to get to the doctor.”
“They’ve released me because the restaurant’s security footage showed I wasn’t involved. Now they won’t take me to the hospital. They’re just going to let me walk.”
“Walk! The hospital is ten kilometers (six miles) away. You could pass out before you get there.”
“The cops said it was only a couple of miles.”
“They’re liars. We have two patients in the back already. I’ll get on the radio and see if another ambulance is available. If not, we’ll come back and get you, okay? Tranquilo jefe.”
He hands me a towel and a bottled water through the window and pats me on the back for reassurance. He then turns to the cops and gives them the finger with both hands. “Pinche cabrones, sin corazóns,” (fucking heartless assholes) he hollers as they drive off.
I watch the flashing red lights of the ambulance fade away into the city streets. I find a bench near the cathedral. A statue of Saint Michael vigilantly stands guard as I take a seat, leaning back in surrender to the demands of my exhausted physical condition. I drift off to sleep or quite possibly pass out.
I wake up to bright lights, the sound of voices, babies crying and people moaning. The amplified voice of a woman paging Doctor Perez. I am warm and dry, and at what I assume to be the hospital. My head is wrapped in a gauze bandage. Beto walks up with a smile you couldn’t buy. He’s holding a large cup of what I hope is coffee.
“Hey patron, you made it, you’re alive. Well there must be a God after all, because we both know it couldn’t be your luck that rescued you.”
He hands me the coffee and gives my shoulder a squeeze. Ordinarily I’d dispute his assertion that God was my savior, but I decide not to challenge him.
“How you feeling?” he asks.
“I just woke up. I must have passed out. I’m feeling fine so far. Not sure of how I got here or what happened after that. Anyway Beto, thank you for your kindness and support through all this chaos. You’ve been a great friend and I owe you.”
“Happy to hear you say that because your cousin’s friend came by the hospital garage this morning, asking for you and me. You must have given him my name I guess. I have to tell you, the muchacho scared me to my death. Where did you find this guy? Anyway, I brought him here but you were still out from the medication. So he left me some money and said for you to get a bus ticket to Mazatlan, Sinaloa when you are better. I have his phone number right here along with the money. There’s a lot of money here, Santiago. Who the hell is your cousin in Sinaloa? I have also a message for you in an envelope from your cousin.”
“Can you hold on to the money until I get out of here? I’m sure I already know what the message is, I’ll read it later. You don’t know how much I appreciate your help. I should be getting out of here today, don’t you think? “
I went to shake his hand and he responded with a puzzled look. “So, you going to tell me?” he asks.
“Maybe you could find the doctor and see when I can get released.”
“Okay, but can you tell me, is he really your cousin? I mean for real? Him?”
“Unless one of us is an imposter, yes, he is my cousin. Now can you find the doctor please?”
“Okay patron, I’ll find him. Don’t go anywhere.”
“Don’t have any clothes on,” I laugh. “So pretty good odds I’ll be here when you get back.”
Sometimes the gods smile down on you and give you a break after all. Or it could be just a head start before the next ordeal begins.