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by Rodney Santos

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The Rains of Armenia

By Francis O’Gara, Army

Writing Type: Prose

I debated with myself as to when I should tell this story, or if I should even tell it at all. It is now quite apparent that the only way I can free my mind from this nightmare is to relive it and get it out in the open. Thus, with the facts still fresh in my mind, I will relate the facts to you.

My wife, Ilma, and I made plans to visit relatives in her hometown of La Ceiba, Honduras, which is situated on the southern side of the Gulf of Honduras. We hadn’t been there in a couple of years and thought it would be a welcome diversion to our mundane days of work. We almost had second thoughts when we heard the weather reports about a hurricane churning its way through the Caribbean Sea. But then, the path was determined to be more to the northwest and headed for Belize and was projected to turn more to the north in a few days. This would put it in a desolated area in Mexico. After calling Lasca Airlines, the airline that serves Honduras, we decided that we could still go. The plane would head more to the east and go around the wide feeder bands of Mitch. So, our trip and my horrific journey began.

The flight was almost the same as before, except that we had a bumpier ride and had to land in Rotan, one of the barrier islands in the Bay of Honduras. After a brief stay on the island, we were again airborne, and in an hour, landed at La Ceiba International Airport. We passed through customs without much difficulty, although the customs officer wanted to know about the long white thing I carried. I explained that I was blind and that was my mobility cane. He examined it very closely and, after determining that it was not a dangerous item, allowed me to pass. Waiting outside for us were Tia Encilla and Prima Angelita. I always called her Cousin Angel, and whenever I did, she would giggle and say, “Do you really think I’m an angel?”

I have known Angelita almost since the day she was born. She was, by far, my favorite of all the cousins. She liked to punch the buttons of my watch and listen to the female voice announce the time. At first, she thought it was a small recorder and couldn’t figure out how a tape could tell the correct time every time she pressed the button. She was 13 years old now and transformed, like a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, into a very beautiful girl. Maybe it was the way her dark brown eyes, almost black, contrasting with her long black hair accentuated her olive skin. Then, again, it may have been her subtle Mayan features that made her my favorite. My wife’s father was Maya while her mother was Spanish. I noticed that even with her tender years, Angelita is almost as tall as I, about five feet five inches. It was Encilla who had the Mayan features, especially the high cheek bones and the straight nose that jutted from her face.

Both Encilla and Angelita ran to me and threw their arms around me, much to the chagrin of Ilma. But then, Encilla always called me her “sobrino.” Even though they owned a small pickup truck, we took the bus to her house in Armenia, a small village 50 miles to the east of La Ceiba on the road to Jutiapa. During the hour-and-a-half trip, Ilma filled them in on all the things that happened since the last time we had been there. As before, Angelita sat next to me and punched buttons on my watch.

Tió Trófilo met us at the bus station, if a bench on the side of the road could be called a bus station, and loaded us into his truck and drove the rest of the way to the house. The house was a massive place, as houses go for that village. It was built on large pillars 10 feet off the ground with an area under the house that was used as a patio where the family would sit during the afternoon heat. There, they would be cooled by a breeze coming off the Paploteca River.

Tió Trófilo brought our luggage into the living room and indicated which of the three other rooms we would use during our stay. Angelita brought me into her room to show me the things she added since we last visited. Now, all settled in for the week stay, we gathered under the house for a cool drink.

“This house was built for any condition,” Tió Trófilo said. “I built it using two-by-sixes in the walls and two-by-eights for the rafters and ceiling joists. The floor is two-by-ten-by-two inches and set on these pillars, which are buried five feet in the ground. Yes, sir, nothing will take this baby down,” he said. He had a habit of trying to make idiomatic phrases which he thought I would enjoy hearing.

“It sounds pretty sturdy to me,” I replied. I walked to one of the pillars and wrapped my arms around it. I couldn’t reach completely around the massive support. “This feels quite substantial to me. It must have taken you a year to put this home up.”

“A year and then some,” he said with an air of pride. “Yes, sir, this is the best house in the area. Not only does it have water and electricity, it even has indoor plumbing.” I turned to Radio Belize to get an update on Hurricane Mitch. I usually listened to that station since it is broadcast in English. Unfortunately, Mitch took a turn to the west northwest. For some reason, it didn’t take the turn to the north as was expected; it was now heading for the northern coast of Belize. I told Ilma that I was a little worried now as the feeder bands could be quite strong. The only thing that was good, if anything about a hurricane was that we would be on the “dry side” of the storm. If the claims about the house were true, it could withstand winds of a 100 miles per hour. With Mitch’s winds now up to 150 miles per hour, winds in La Ceiba could reach the velocity of at least 90 miles per hour. Thus, Encilla suggested that we go to the city and stock up on supplies, especially oil for the lamps and batteries for the radio.

Trófilo loaded up the truck for the trip to the city the following morning. I decided to remain behind, as I was still tired from the trip and my presence was not needed. Since I was not going, Angelita decided to stay with me. Radio Belize now reported that the hurricane took another turn towards the south. It would now pass over the Belize-Honduras border. As the truck pulled out, Encilla called out that they should be back in about five hours and for us to be good, as if I wouldn’t be. Angelita and I snuggled up on the couch and listened to the radio as the rain started to fall harder. Mitch now was turning south, towards us.

“I wonder what’s holding up Tia and the others?” I asked beginning to get a little worried because of the slick dirt road leading to the main highway. “They’ll be along,” Angelita answered. “It has only been four hours, and it will take longer because of the roads.”

Before she had finished saying these words, the phone rang and she rushed to answer it. She listened without saying anything and then said, “If you think so. Everything here is all right, as long as Francisco is with me.” She said a few more “all rights” and then hung up the receiver. She saw the puzzled look on my face and said, “The military closed all the roads out of La Ceiba. Everyone is going to have to stay with relatives in the city. You and I are marooned out here until the storm passes.”

So it was, a blind man and a teenage girl, alone with a major storm on its way. I knew that the house would hold up, but we were now on the “wet” side of the storm. We were in for a lot of rain, possibly enough to put ten feet of water over us. I keep checking the velocity of the wind and the water level.

The river was pushed inward by the tides and the wind blowing it away from the ocean. It was now half way up the steps and getting higher. After two days of heavy rains, I felt as though the house had shifted on its foundation. Water soaked around the massive pillars and softened the ground, which wasn’t even my chief concern. The wind was now 100 mph with gusts higher than that. With the softened ground and the high winds, I was getting worried about the stability of the house. As night approached, I could feel it shudder and creak. I felt even more uneasy at these signs, the same ones that I felt during Hurricane Betsy when it hit New Orleans. Going outside by the back door - the one away from the wind - I checked the water level. It was now up almost to the level of the porch. I hurried quickly back inside to inform Angelita that we were in trouble. “The water is almost up to the house and the pillars are giving way on the leeward side of the house. The foundation is waterlogged and is so soft that the wind is making the whole house bend in that direction. If there weren’t any wind, the house would just settle evenly.” Angelita shuddered a moment and I could hear the fear in her voice. “What’s going to happen?” she asked. “It means that the house is going down and us with it if we don’t do something fast,” I said. “From what I can tell, the water is about eight feet deep now. It seems that the river has overflowed and the ocean has pushed into our area. “I think the best bet is for us to make a raft. We can knock out that back wall and use the two-by-sixes as cross pieces and use the wall for a platform. This way we make a raft eight by six. I think that will be large enough for the two of us. Get a hammer and I’ll show you what to do.” We worked frantically making our raft and when it was finished, we “set sail” even though we didn’t have a sail. We did use one of the studs to make a push-pole, a Ia Tom Sawyer, in order to steer our craft. For a final touch, we attached a rope so that we could tie ourselves together and to the raft. I didn’t want us getting separated. Now, we were at the mercy of the unrelenting wind. The wind was blowing the river backward. Thus, our little craft was being pushed inland instead of towards the ocean. Good luck at last! Since the wind was our main problem at this time, we lay low on the platform to decrease the wind resistance, but still it blew us around.

Everything seemed to be going our way until a gust of wind caught Angelita’s flimsy dress and ripped it from her body. She tried to cover herself but had trouble keeping her balance in the strong wind. I reached out for her and pulled her body close to mine to shelter her and could feel her nakedness against my body. I crouched as low as I could and took off my shirt to cover her. With the difficult maneuver completed, we lay on the platform. The wind blew heavy raindrops against my back, cutting and stabbing into my bare flesh. It felt as though someone had taken a scalpel to it, stripping the skin off layer by layer, and I knew that my blood was mixing with the rain.

By morning, the winds had slowed to a gentle breeze and our raft was not moving. We used our makeshift push-pole to try to move in the direction in which we thought we could find land. We were adrift on a great body of water, our progress being impeded by fallen trees and large boulders that had washed down from the hills. All at once Angelita let out a shrill scream. “There’s a body lying in that tree!”

“Let me know when we get near it,” I told her. “We’ll have to strip off clothes so you can have something to wear.”

“I can’t do that,” she protested.

“Whoever it is doesn’t need them anymore and you do,” I said, trying to convince her that this was a necessity and not something I would do under any other condition. When we got close enough I was able to drag the body aboard our raft and stripped off the outer clothes. Reluctantly Angelita donned the clothes and gave me my shirt. I pushed our unresisting benefactor back into the water. Angelita stroked my sore back and mumbled, “It’s really not that bad.” I put the shirt on to protect my back from the sun which now appeared through the clouds. Late that afternoon we saw the first signs of land. Our pole was now getting stuck in the mud and was basically useless. I eased myself into the water and found that it came to my knees and suggested that we abandon our floating island. The only thing that I was concerned about was that we might encounter snakes that were trying to find haven on land.

“Come on Angelita,” I told her. “We’ll have to wade through the water. We can’t be too far from land.”  She moved closer to me and kissed me. It was a kiss like she had never given me before. It was a slow, lingering kiss. “I’m so glad you were here with me. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”    “At least we survived so far,” I said. “Now let’s find some land and get out of this muddy water. We need to find something to eat.”

Angelita untied us from the raft and led us towards some high ground. I had no way of knowing where we were. I figured that we were blown further to the southeast so we started walking west towards the foothills, which I knew were to the south of La Ceiba. When we finally found ourselves on solid ground again, we headed north. Of course, we didn’t really expect to see the disaster that lay ahead of us.

We tried to keep on high ground as much as possible, but we started running into mud slides. In some places I was once again up to my waist in mud and water. At times it was even deeper. All the time, Angelita was holding onto me, sometimes pulling me through the mud and water, and at other times she was trying to free herself from the sticky mess. I discovered that this was no place to try to use a cane, so I held onto Angelita as much as possible.

All around us there were up-rooted trees and boulders that had been shoved along with the mud as it came pouring down the side of the mountain. People were clawing at the mud and obstacles in order to free those caught under the debris. Angelita stopped to help one man who was under a tree with his head buried in the mud. She tried to wash him, but it was of little use. Mud had forced its way into his eyes and mouth and left him gasping for air. I knelt down to help clear his air passages.

“I can’t see anything,” he said as soon as his mouth was cleared. “Oh, God! I can’t see anything! Can you help me!”

Other rescuers rushed over to help remove him from the thick goo that entrapped him. I could hear the anguished cries of a mother who was trying to free her young children from under what was left of a rickety old house. We could do nothing for any of these people.  Angelita stooped over and picked up a muddy rag doll and held it close to her. She heard a small voice saying, “That’s mine. I can’t find my mommy.” Angelita feverishly started digging at the spot where she found the doll. She reached a human leg and cried. She took the little girl around to find someone who would take care of her. We moved on in our own quest to find sanctuary with Ilma and her family in La Ceiba. All along the way, husbands looked for wives, mothers looked for children, and children looked for parents. I wished that I knew how far the river had taken us -- or even what direction the wind blew us -- but for some reason, I instinctively knew we needed to stay on high ground and travel north.  We dragged ourselves into a banana plantation as darkness descended. After finding trees that were blown down, we ate some of the bananas that seemed ripe and stacked some of them together to make a mat on which to sleep. My major concern was the snakes that must have been crawling in that field, not to speak of the scorpions. Thus, we settled for the night, wrapped in each others arms and finally feeling a sense of peacefulness for the first time since the storm began.  Angelita slept throughout the night while I lay next to her, listening to her light breathing and gentle moans that told me she was finally at rest. I fell asleep. The rising sun brought us to the reality that we were still lost. Angelita picked some more bananas and we ate them, giving thanks for the little nourishment. Having filled our stomachs, we continued moving. Angelita holding on to me and I, with my cane in hand, we searched for La Ceiba and safety. We knew that everyone would be worried about us and hoped that they would send out a search party to try to locate us. But I knew that was an impossibility. I turned on my radio which I had securely packed in a plastic bag along with my passport to protect it. I was able to pick up Radio Belize once again and heard the disturbing news-- 11,000 people feared dead. No, there would be no search party.

Late in the afternoon we found a major highway and decided our best bet would be to follow it. It more likely would lead us somewhere rather than us going cross country as we had been doing. By nightfall we approached a small village where we might find a place to rest. But, when we got there, we found it deserted and muddy. We found a hut that appeared to be in one piece and slept there.

The morning brought not only a new day, but new noises. I could hear some trucks and cars moving about. A voice called out, “Colonel, I found two people over here!” I could not contain my exhilaration when I heard voices. Angelita threw her arms around me, kissed me, and shouted, “The Army is here! Hundreds of men are here! We’re saved!”

I felt strong hands pulling me into the back of a jeep. “I am Colonel Rodigio. Who are you and where did you come from?” he asked with the air of a military man.  Angelita filled him in on our plight and that we were trying to find our families. After hearing our story, he told us that we were in the village of Sonaguera, about 40 kilometers south of Jutiapa, and then said, “Hold on. I’ll have you there in time for lunch. The road east to San Francisco is clear and I think the road north is also open now.” He stepped on the accelerator and the jeep lurched forward. During the trip, he told us of the deadly devastation in the area. We were the only living people that he and his men had found in two days. There were an estimated 1 ,500 dead in the province. Three hours later, we pulled up in front of the house we had been looking for.  Ilma ran out when she heard the jeep and threw her arms around me. “I thought you were dead,” she said as tears flowed down her cheeks. “What happened to you two?”

“It’s a long story,” I said. “But with Angelita by my side, how could we not survive?”

Angelita looked at me and smiled. “I thought at times that we wouldn’t survive, but I did learn one thing though. You sure get around good for not being able to see. Yo te amo mucho Quierdo.”

The flight back to New Orleans was two weeks late. When we were ready to board the plane, Encilla said, “Thank you for taking care of Angelita. You are by far my favorite nephew.” She gave me a hug and a kiss.  We landed at the New Orleans International Airport late that same day and headed home for some rest and a good hot bath. The final count I heard was 9,876 known dead, most of them from the mud slides. People, I found out the hard way, are the same all over the world in grieving for their lost family members -- the husbands, the wives, the children -- who will never return home, never to say “I love you,” and never bring joy into their lives again. And I grieved for those I didn’t even know. I felt their pain and agony. I heard their anguished cries as they dug through the rubble and I was powerless to help. So now, I am just getting over this ordeal. I had to write this so I can rest.

Ilma asked me what Angelita and I did while we were lost. I smiled. Maybe some day I will be able to tell her.

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