Out of the corner of my right eye I saw movement, something rushing toward me. A few milliseconds later there was a brutal thud as something ran headfirst into my car.
Instinctively I hit the brakes and turned my head toward the point of impact. There was a smear on the window, but nothing else.
In that slow motion that accident victims always describe, I noticed heads turning toward my car, people pointing their fingers toward me from a distance, others cupping their hands on the sides of their mouth to shout.
Then I heard a wailing next to the car, a sound all too familiar to any parent of a young girl. There were shouts coming from every direction. People don’t get this animated when a pet gets hit in Mexico, even when the owner is a kid. “Something bad is going to come out of whatever is happening outside this car,” I thought to myself. “But I have to get out right now.”
Some woman was already rushing down the sidewalk at a dead sprint by the time I got my dazed body out of the car and saw the little girl lying there on the sidewalk. The girl’s face was contorted and covered with blood. Something was wrong with the shape of her mouth.
A kid the same age was trying to explain what happened to an elderly man. A younger man chimed in and from what I could pick up, they had seen the whole thing. I didn’t know as much Spanish then as I should have for someone driving around Mexican villages in a rental car, but I knew some. I knew enough to tell that the prevailing chatter was “the girl hit the car,” not “the crazy gringo did this.”
So there was the first point of relief, but then thoughts led to the inevitable next question: “What am I supposed to do now?” I don’t belong. I’m only in this spot because I missed the turnoff to the gated entrance of a fancy resort I was supposed to visit for my job. I was just using this village for a big U-turn, easing down the narrow streets and keeping eyes peeled for stray dogs, kids, and popsicle vendors with a cart. But there I was with blood on my rental car, standing next to a helpless young girl on the sidewalk who now looked nothing like she did a few minutes ago.
I took stock of the characters surrounding the scene, trying to figure out the players. The wailing woman on the sidewalk was probably the mother, the other little girl a sister or best friend. Relatives, a respected elder, a cop strolling down from the top of the hill, then a stern man of my age walking quickly in his cowboy boots and shiny belt, with a creased forehead. The father? Damn, he looked like he could kick my ass without even trying, especially with an angry mob looking on. I grew increasingly worried about my pitiful Spanish fluency. Why didn’t I study more at home? The more important things that nudged out study time there did not seem so important at this moment.
I was pondering all this when I first saw Carlos. He was a full head taller than anyone, with wild hair sticking up in all directions, tattoos running down his arms, and eyes that pegged him as someone who had probably sampled every pharmaceutical experiment that has ever passed through Mexico. He had on ripped-up denim shorts that sagged and nothing else, his feet and chest both bare.
He bent down and looked at the girl’s face like he had seen it all before, then consulted with the father and mother. “We goes to doctor,” he said in English. “You drive car.”
Shit. I was in deep now. I’d heard more chatter and the consensus was definitely that it was the girl’s fault for not looking where she was running, but no matter. In their eyes I had three characteristics making me the person to take care of things anyway: “white,” “wheels,” and “wealthy.” The third one was patently ridiculous in my own eyes, but not in theirs. I had a car. I was wearing nice clothes. So unlike them, I obviously had enough money to pay the doctor.
So off to the doctor we went, the serious father Gabriel going into the back seat, cradling his bawling daughter in his arms, apparently not even thinking about kicking my ass. Carlos the English speaker, who had shaky hands and a permanently lit cigarette, was a brother. Mother wailed her goodbyes and most of the village population looked on as I hit the highway going toward the doctor’s office.
“Take it easy, take it easy,” said Carlos, in an accent that made me remember we were near a backpacker surf spot. “What’s your sister’s name?” I asked him. “Take it easy,” he answered.
So I asked him in Spanish. Juanita. Age 8. Just three years older than my own daughter was at the time. Would I be as composed as her father is in the back seat, with my beautiful little daughter looking like she just came out of a boxing ring after 15 rounds? Would I want to lash out at someone over this, even if it wasn’t his fault?
Ten minutes from the village we got to the doctor’s office. Someone called ahead and the doctor was waiting, rushing everyone inside. He and the nurse cleaned the girl’s face, this action accompanied by ongoing screams of pain and an onslaught of tears. After the cleanup they gave her a shot as she wailed some more. But soon the doctor picked up the phone and made a call, simultaneously talking to the father and shaking his head. It didn’t look good.
“Eighty-five pesos,” said Carlos, waving a finger toward the nurse.
“Eighty-five pesos,” he repeated, pointing again. Weakly, I held out 100 pesos. The nurse gave me 15 pesos change for my hundred. Eight dollars for all that?
Carlos told me to take a left and drive, that we were going to a larger hospital. I had assumed as much, but wondered how long this would all last. Despite my best efforts to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that I was already late for my appointment at the swanky hotel. I didn’t have my contact’s number with me either.
“You need a shirt,” Gabriel said to Carlos in Spanish, so Carlos told me to stop in the village, telling me in English that he needed to talk to his mother. He walked back toward the car buttoning up a shirt while still holding a burning cigarette.
It took us a half hour to get to the hospital, which turned out to be only a few rooms larger than the doctor’s office we had just left. This guy meant business though. A curtain was drawn, trays were rolled in, and masks went on. The screams and crying commenced again.
Gabriel and I walked outside and sat on a bench. We could still hear his daughter loud and clear and other parents mumbled condolences to the father. I tried to make small talk in my crappy Spanish, but it sounded forced and I felt stupid for trying. So we sat quietly and waited.
“Give me 80 pesos,” said Carlos, staring at me unblinking with those dilated pupils and holding out his hands. I tried to ask him what it was for, but got nowhere. “Take it easy,” he replied.
He disappeared. I realized I had a phone card and thought about my missed appointment, already two hours past. Even in Mexican time that is downright late. I found a pay phone and made a call back home, getting my wife to call my contact and explain what happened.
I returned to the bench next to the pensive father. What would really matter right now if it were my daughter in there on the doctor’s table? Anything? I would just want her to get better, for life to be as close as we could get to where it was a few hours ago, before the accident.
The nurse came and called us in. I made sure she really wanted me to come, then realized why as I saw the policeman standing next to the hospital bed where the girl was lying, her face wrapped up with bandages and gauze, tears streaming down her one unbandaged cheek. The policeman soon realized my language skills were lacking and turned to the father. I didn’t understand most of the questions or the answers, but Gabriel repeatedly shook his head in a no answer while alternating his eyes between the floor and Juanita.
The policeman asked Gabriel to sign something, but not me, which I took as a good sign. Emptying my wallet was certainly preferable to a Mexican jail.
The doctor’s conversation with Gabriel followed though and it didn’t take any grasp of the language to see that the news was ugly. “Take it easy,” said Carlos and motioned for me to come outside. He had a new pack of cigarettes in hand and tapped out one to smoke. Through a bit of two languages and some hand motions, I got the general overview. Three teeth knocked out. A broken bone in her face, three stitches outside and two more in her mouth. She’d have to go to a dentist for implants once the swelling went down. Could this family afford all that?
“Give me 200 pesos,” Carlos said on cue as he stamped out his cigarette on the ground. He pulled out a slip of paper with a doctor’s name at the top. A prescription with three medicines listed, probably heavy-duty painkillers. He bounded off to the pharmacy across the street.
A nurse called me back into the hospital and asked me to take a seat at the desk. With Gabriel looking on apologetically, she presented the hospital bill for another 190 pesos. So after initial pain killers, five stitches, two doctor consultations, and three types of prescription medicine, the bill came to a shade under $42—a fraction of what I pay just to get a cleaning from my dentist. Someone told me later that if she had needed to spend the night at the hospital it would have been another 200 pesos—about $18. Maybe I was wealthy after all.
“Take it easy,” said Carlos as we loaded up the car and headed back to the village. Nobody spoke during the drive. A crowd gathered around as I parked the car near the family’s house, a murmur making its way around as people spied all the bandages and the significantly darker black eye, still filled with tears. The mother started bawling as soon as she saw her daughter, holding her close as she carried the fragile girl into the house.
“I’m sorry,” I told Carlos in English and Gabriel in Spanish. “It was an accident.” If I had learned anything in my studies of Mexican culture, it was that this phrase absolves everything. We are just passengers in this life and only the Americanos up north are brazen enough to think they can alter the course of fate. What happens happens, then we move on.
The guard waved me through the gate after I gave my name and I drove for five minutes past custom vacation homes and a golf course that costs $250 for one round before arriving at the grand entrance of the hotel. My contact was there to meet me, five hours later than we planned. My mind wandered as she escorted me around in a golf cart, showing me villas frequented by California millionaires and the swimming pools frequented by their privileged offspring.
If one of those girls frolicking about ran headfirst into a car, plastic surgery and perfect implants would follow. And a lawsuit or two for good measure of course. Somebody must be at fault. Nothing your precious does is a pure accident if you have the money to make it look otherwise. Meanwhile, in a sweaty bare room a few miles away, a little girl sat, still crying in her mother’s arms. It was an accident.
I drove back to my own hotel in the fading light, parked the car, then made a phone call home. My daughter told me about her day and some game she was playing with her dolls. I let her talk away as the pesos clicked off 5 at a time on the card phone. Just before it got to zero, I told her good night and that I loved her.
Tim Leffel is the author of several books, including The World’s Cheapest Destinations and its regularly updated associated blog, a Better Life at Half the Price, and editor of Perceptive Travel.