APRIL 2009 – NO. 32
The Life and Death of Señor Armando
In Panama, a death cracks a small village apart
Armando Guerrel lies face-down in the water, draped lifeless over his dugout canoe. Within an hour, word of his death spreads through the tiny, Panamanian village of Tranquilla and a deeper-than-usual silence descends. The story even makes it to my house, the gringa's. A newcomer to Tranquilla, I arrived here three months ago to work as a community forester.
Surely I misunderstood what the children just told me, given my imperfect grasp of Spanish? Although sensing their discomfort, through clenched teeth I demand that they repeat their message. "Qué le pasó a Señor Armando?"
They flinch, this time giving an answer that perhaps the gringa will like better. "He is very sick."
"He … uh, died."
"What happened? Tell me!"
They find my hysteria off-putting and back away. "Se murió." They turn and run.
Hours later, La Señora Irlanda Gordón recounts the story this way. As she paced the earthen floor of her kitchen, the sight of her brother-in-law's empty canoe hovering on the other side of the bay repeatedly drew her gaze away from lunch preparations. She puzzled all morning over the idly drifting boat. The afternoon breeze intensified. She called to her oldest son. "Go fetch me Armando's cayuco before it blows away."
The teenager sauntered to the landing and paddled the short distance. Grasping the tow rope, he felt an unexpected heaviness. He glanced up and saw a bare, waterlogged foot wedged against the side of the boat. He went for help.
I think back to the other day, the last time I saw Señor Armando. Taking a break from minding the store, he found me tending a limp cook fire. I tried to maintain an air of competence, which was difficult when challenged by even the basics of survival.
To start this paltry fire, I scrounged for hours to find twigs and rotting pieces of this and that. I returned the traditional greeting when Señor Armando passed by. "Buenas." Humiliated to be so vulnerable, I figured this was the end of our exchange.
I hoped so. Armando made me nervous. A slight young man of indeterminate age, Armando lived alone. He popped up wherever people gathered, materializing apparition-like at the church, skulking in the school's doorway or entwined around a post at the store. He never seemed to track quite straight. His individual appearances were always peripheral, but the sum of his presence was central to the life of Tranquilla. Armando's hut crouched opposite the cooperative store. Including the Catholic church, the three buildings constituted the village center.
He returned later with some massive logs and deposited them at my feet. "Where did you find those?" I tried to sound casual.
I noticed a puddle forming around the firewood. Every dry season skeletal tree trunks emerge from Lake Alajuela, dregs of the tropical forest flooded by damming the Chagres River in the early 1900s, when the Panama Canal was constructed. Villagers visit this jagged ghost forest by canoe. They feel the remains of once imposing canopy trees, load the logs into their boats, and paddle them home. At the hearth, these last vestiges of the forest are further degraded when split into firewood.
The splintering sounds of cracking wood filled the next few minutes. Soon, Armando had stacked neatly firewood for a week in my open-air kitchen. I handed him a glass of lemonade, and he gulped it down, thanking me in the same breath, "Gracias, Maria." I fumbled my thanks in return, and he took his leave, clearly embarrassed.
Today, the flames consume Armando's wood and fade to coals, then ash. I neglect the fire, too stunned to eat my soup and rice. I visit the store, now manned by my landlord, and learn that his son has been dispatched with Irlanda and some others across the lake to the town of Nuevo Vigia. They return with the police.
After a brief investigation, the officials decide Armando died of natural causes. He had a long-standing heart condition, and probably suffered a massive heart attack before landing in the water. I reflect on a dream from a few nights before. In the dream, I worked with several subsistence farmers to plant a few acres of upland rice above the lake shore. To ensure the success of the planting, we extracted a young man's heart and buried it in the center of the field. We mourned the brutal but necessary sacrifice.
After the police remove the body to Neuvo Vigia, several young men take a large dugout to retrieve Armando's cayuco. The forlorn little group returns to shore, the larger boat bearing the smaller one, which is perched like a baby loon riding on its mother's back. Centaur-like, the people of Lago Alajuela are practically fused to their boats. Armando's dugout is eternally separated from its owner.
I surprise myself, and everyone else, by bursting into tears at the site of Armando's boat. Armando takes charge of me. "But Maria, we must have the strength to persevere!" Pulling myself together, I continue uphill and we reach a neighbor's house. More mourners arrive, howling with grief. Armando's grandmother cannot stop screaming and throws a towel over her head. Her husband puts an arm around her and escorts her home. A brother-in-law weeps silently into the bandana still worn over his nose to mute death's stench. These normally taciturn people cast away all reserve. I am frightened.
I quickly leave to search for Gladys, Tranquilla's school teacher. Like many rural teachers, Gladys lives in Tranquilla during the week, and returns home on weekends and breaks. Her husband and son live hours away, and there is no end in sight to this crazy commuting. I think she must be the only person in the village as lonely as I, but at least she speaks the language.
I find her at the school. She confides that she saw the body, hardly recognizable save for his clothing and boat. "I wish I had not seen it, Maria. You would not have known him. Now that I saw, I always feel his eye on me."
Unsure I understood, I ask, "Señor Armando?"
"El señor que murió," she corrects me. I finally understand that the recently-deceased are not to be mentioned aloud by name.
Attended by her usual court of two or three girls from the school, Gladys prepares to bathe. "Will there be a mass?" I want to know.
"Yes. Tonight after sunset at el señor's house." The Belgian priest gives mass here only once every other month, and it is impossible to reach him in time. The mass will be said by Gladys, the closest thing Tranquilla has to an official, and one of the few in the village not related by blood or marriage to Armando.
After supper, I join the others walking somberly to Armando's house. The soft glow of a dozen candles spills through the cracks of the palm bark walls. We pack into the single room, already purged of Armando's belongings, and sit with knees bent under our chins. So low is the ceiling, I realize he must have used the house only for sleeping. Always conscious of my height relative to Tranquilla's diminutive residents, I feel especially large in such close quarters.
Gladys slips into her role leading the service. Her fingers creep along the rosary. She murmurs a spooky stream of prayer. The mourners are subdued now. Armando's brother sniffles throughout the vigil, head bowed more in sorrow than prayer. Gladys finishes with a last appeal, "Qué el Señor Armando Martinez rest in peace."
"Gúerrel," whispers a sister-in-law, correcting the surname.
"Gúerrel, disculpe," apologizes Gladys. The spell is broken.
Several men are up all night, making the coffin. The hammers and saws spin a heavy shroud around my thoughts as I lie awake for hours. The following day, in a sleep-deprived state of clarity, I send for someone to paddle me to the bus stop. Just in case, I take my passport. Most folks barely notice my departure. Señora Irlanda tells me to listen to Rádio Mia, the community messaging program, to find out the funeral time.
"Como no," I respond noncommittally.
Without much noticing the four-hour journey to Panama City, I arrive in a bewildered state at the Peace Corps Office on Via España. Located in the wealthy part of town, right across the street from Panama's only five-star hotel, the contrast with Tranquilla could not be any greater. Just what I need.
"What, back already?" chides the receptionist as I walk through the lobby. I ignore the comment and head back to the volunteer lounge seeking counsel, preferably in English. Luckily, two of the veteran volunteers are in town on a supply run. I tell them my story and deposit myself emotionally at their doorstep. "What now?"
"Oh, don't worry about it," they assure me. "That's just a Latin American thing. They're really competitive about grief. It's sort of like, 'I can be sadder than you can,' chest thumping, that kind of thing."
As for death in general, one of them says darkly, "Get used to it. You're going to see a lot more of it." He lists all deaths he has personally witnessed in his own village, the most awful of these a small boy by snake bite. I consider catching a taxi to the airport and hopping on the next plane home.
"I'm real sorry to hear about your friend," the other hastens to add. Her wistful, vague sympathy starts me thinking.
Was Armando my friend? Not really, although he leaves a palpable vacancy. Losing his ubiquitous presence is disorienting and unravels my nascent understanding of how the village functions. His death embodies change just when I was gaining a sense of the rhythm of daily life. How will the pieces reorganize? Will there be a place for me in the new puzzle?
I tune the lounge radio to Rádio Mia as instructed, the first time I have listened attentively to the program. The hour is filled exclusively with a reading of messages to scattered family and friends. For rural Panamanians, most lacking telephone and mail, Rádio Mia is a vital public service.
"Guillermo, this is to tell you that Mamá and I will meet you this afternoon in Chilibre, God willing."
"Estela, return home at once. Manuel is sick and we need you here."
Finally I hear it. "The funeral of Señor ArmandoGuerrel will be held in Nuevo Vigia on Sunday at noon."
I spend the next day in town, pampering myself with an air-conditioned hotel room, the Cable News Network (CNN), and restaurant meals. I arrive in Nuevo Vigia late Sunday morning. By early afternoon there is still no sign of a funeral.
I return to Tranquilla in a hired cayuco, frustrated and confused. The smell of smoke greets my nostrils as I disembark. Joining a small crowd gathered at the store, I gawk at the charred remains of Armando's house. Tranquilla wasted no time destroying all evidence of his life. I gather that setting fire to the home of the deceased is standard practice, an elimination of the likeliest place for the ghost to lurk.
Unpacking slowly, I question my chances of surviving in Tranquilla for the next 22 months. Someone stands at my threshold. I turn and see my landlady. She has a way of arriving noiselessly, which always startles me. We chat about the weather for a few minutes before I muster the courage to ask about the funeral. She explains. "We had to bury el señor last night. The body was just too far gone, pues."
She has a parcel with her, and unwraps it. She places a covered dish on the table. "Dinner. I thought you may not have had a chance to cook." The visit cheers me a little.
Over the coming months Tranquilla's broken bones mend together, closing around the gap Armando left. Villagers compensate in little ways. They adjust the schedule at the store. Each man works a little harder on cooperative projects. I gather my own firewood. Armando's death briefly cracked the village apart. I scurry inside before the opening reseals.
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