Friday, September 30, 2011

An Encounter with Omar’s Spirit

An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.
Charles Dickens

I had no desire to go on this excursion. My wife, however, as High School Principal of Balboa Academy, needed to scout an experimental farm in the province of Coclé as a possible site for student retreats. The farm, I was told, was located beyond the town of La Pintada, a community I love to visit—it’s where my beloved cigars are made.

On this occasion, however, to see La Pintada again, if only briefly, was not enough of an enticement. I knew the trip would take an entire day, and after an intense week of rewriting a novel I’ve been working on for years, this Saturday I wanted to piddle around the house. But my wife can be supremely stubborn, and when she’s made up her mind, I am doomed.

One of the biology teachers at Balboa Academy had made the arrangements for the visit, and we were scheduled to meet her in the city of Penonomé. As anyone can imagine, during the two-hour drive there I failed to be pleasant company.

My attitude changed completely, however, once I learned that the farm itself—La Granja Alternativa—was located in the village of Coclesito. Over the years, Coclesito had acquired a mythic quality in my mind because of its association with General Omar Torrijos—a Panamanian leader who enjoys legendary status among many of his compatriots. Omar was deeply in love with this isolated village and its inhabitants. He visited Coclesito frequently. (In fact, on July 31, 1981, he died in a plane crash—under conditions that remain shrouded in rumors of conspiracies—en route to Coclesito. From the village’s higher ground, one can clearly see the upper rim of the steep valley, between two mountain peaks, where the craft fell.)

General Omar Torrijos loved Coclesito so much that he built a home here—which today is a museum. He would invite select guests so they could see, firsthand, the impoverished conditions in which Panamanian campesinos lived. Among the visitors were Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Graham Greene. More importantly, it was in Coclesito that Torrijos started to implement his vision of how cooperatives should work. It was a model he proposed to spread throughout Panama to help make his idea of a revolution of the poor a reality.

I had always dreamed of visiting Coclesito, but reports about the horrendous road conditions dampened my enthusiasm. On this trip, however, we were thrilled to discover that the road is currently undergoing preparations to be paved. And although the thirty-kilometer dirt path between La Pintada and Coclesito was a bit bumpy, we managed just fine.

This visit to Coclesito excited me because Omar Torrijos has been a formidable presence in my imagination as of late: he’s an important character in the novel I’m revising. But within the manuscript pages General Torrijos has been flat—a poorly rounded-out character. To write realistically about Omar, the prototype of the “benevolent dictator,” was proving to be a frustrating task. I could clearly see the shortcomings of the Panamanian leader, but his virtues, particularly in his dealings with campesinos, remained hidden.

My experience in Coclesito changed all that, however. Here, more than anywhere else in Panamá, I’ve felt Omar’s presence. I’m still sorting out exactly what I saw in Coclesito, but the beauty, orderliness, and obvious love the residents feel for their departed leader—evident in the monuments and memorials that abound throughout the village—left a vivid mark on me. And this, as a writer, has been a blessing because my encounter with General Torrijos’s spirit in the mountains of Coclé should help me breathe life into his character.