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The Dashing Life and Exuberant Times of Brian Harrison....And Other Rare Anecdotes

Monday, May 15, 2006

Mariachi, I need not say more...

Within the borders of our southern neighbor and admist all the turbulence and strife between our country and theirs, I opened my eyes and opened my mind to the ways of a particular people who live, if not just a short swim across a river, but for most of us, just next door. So I've listed the quintessential themes, icons, and subject matter of the Mexican people and I will make an attempt at informing the public of these concepts and I just may tie in a personal story or two. Today's subject is the mariachi.

Mariachi: The ideal of the mariachi is far more prevalent than an American might imagine. Not only are they celebrated as a folk icon, but nearly every vehicle in Mexico blares this type of music from the ritziest teenager to the grittiest bus driver...all have the essence of mariachi ringing out from their speakers. To go to Mexico is to go to the land of the mariachi. And what is the mariachi? The mariachi band first was a group of poor troubadours wandering about haciendas singing from pueblo to pueblo, living and singing the dramatic lifestyle of love and revolution.
This all took place probably before the 19th century when all the mariachi wore the peasant color of white with large brimmed straw sombreros. However, towards the beginning of the 20th century, a shift occurred where these chasers of "wine, women, and song" began to crank up their appearances with more elaborate apparel. Hence, you have the mariachi prototype that the famous "3 Amigos" emulated in this classic film. This new and approved mariachi look borrowed its ideal and style from the "charro" or as we may say the Mexican cowboy with fancy designs and embroidered lace-work. The mariachi then was sealed as the unarguable ideal of Mexico. This ideal is much like our country singers borrowing motifs from our cowboys, but with much broader appeal, even if the music is probably at times just as sad and earthy as our country music.
My first memorable encounter with the spirit of mariachi took place, not in Mexico, believe it or not, but in Arkansas. It was my first week of school at Harding University and I had risen up early and was reading and praying out in the central courtyard when, one by one, nearly a quarter of the entire male hispanic poplution of the college slipped by through the morning mists and all assembled underneath one of the girl's dorms. Then right as the guitar strings were struck they all belted out in unison an amorous song in Spanish intending to serenade some luckless girl at 6 in the morning. It was then that I witnessed it, my first view of this unquencheable spirit. Even far from home, at a quiet college, this couldn't hold back the mariachi that was quaking within these latin souls. But I had room to grow myself for the appreciation for this ideal.
You can go to this street in Guadalajara, for this is the very birthplace of the mariachi, where if you can drive by you can see members of numerous mariachi bands standing boldly and chivalrously in the streets and if you want to woo someone or need a fiesta in a hurry, or you just want to hear someone lament over an instrument then you can have your pick. Most of them puffing on a cigarette, most of them with slick-back hair, but all of them gallant and ready to pick up their guitar or horn and erupt the still air into song. It was at that precise moment that the thought went through my head that one day I will write a novel about these Mexican maestros. I will create such a brotherhood of musicians that America has never seen. There shall be Sancho, the short stout one always laughing, eating, drinking, and holding cock fights. Then Carlos, the sad-eyed wooer of women who can't get over his own broken heart. Then Salvador, the rambuctious fighter of drunks, corrupt politicians, and bulls who always does the high shrill yells that are in every upbeat mariachi song. And then obscure Ramon, who never says a word but smokes his cigarette and always squints into the Mexican sun....and I could go on and on. So yes, I became wrapped up in this idyll. I began to idolize these performers. Whenever I saw one, I would just stare in awe. I wanted to speak to one; to get him to tell me his life story. "How does one become a mariachi?" I would say, "Was it prophesied that one day you should sing ballads and pluck on the heartstrings of an entire nation?" What would he say? Would he squint off into the sun saying "such is life" and then flick his cigarrette somewhere as he walked to his next gig?
While in Mexico, I searched high and low for a pair of mariachi pants. I thought whenever Sunday church rolled around in the states, and if I were sporting some of those mariachi pants, I would indeed be the coolest guy this side of the Rio. -But I couldn't find these pants anywhere. They were just as elusive as the mariachi themselves.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Guatemala, Larry King Style

I don't know if it is the heat of this place. Maybe it dries up my brain but for some reason writing these travel stories are getting to be quite the obstacle. Or it may be the slow culture I find myself in. Everything, and I mean everything runs at a much slower rate in Latin America. So, that is the pit of laziness that I have fallen into. And those of you who know me know that the plateau that I fell into this pit from was not all that high either.
So as laborious it is for me to pick up a pen and write of my experiences, I strive to cut these stories short to make them easier for me and easier for you. So I decided to place this as an interview in which an inquistive person asks me about Guatemala. Let's use our imagination and pretend that it is none other than Larry King in his bright red suspenders interviewing me on his beloved Larry King Live show. For those of you who read this and think "Man, this guy must be really bored", I can only comment that "Yes, I am remarkably bored and the below gave me great amusement, you're just jealous that I have so much free time on my hands." (I highlighted Larry's comments in black not to say he's anything like Jesus in the way that we highlight his words, but more or so to divide his questions from my answers).
Larry King: So what was the most curious impression you received while in Guatemala?

Brian Harrison: Why, Larry, none other than San Simon.

LK: Saint Simon? I'm not familiar with him. Please, do tell.
(I really don't know how Larry King actually talks; I don't think I've ever watched a full show of his. But this will have to suffice.)

BH:Yes, of course, you've never heard of him because this particular saint of Guatemala is not legitimately canonized by the Vatican. San Simon is the saint of drunkeness. Worshippers come and place bottles of liquor and cigarrettes as a sacrifice before him. He has other names and he is a mixture of ancient Mayan gods, as well as the spirit of Guatemala's old Spanish conquistador, Alvarado...and get this...he is even claimed to be the very spirit of Judas the Betrayer. The Protestants in that area claim that it is a real evil spirit that has immense power in their village of Zunil. Mayan priests will come and offer sacrifices to it, particularly of a sinister kind. If you want someone dead...the Mayan priest will go on your behalf and perform his ancient rituals to San Simon...and the frightful thing is that the evil wishes are actually fulfilled.

LK: This San Simon, have you seen him? What does he look like? Where does he stay?

BH: Every October 28th, his festival day, he is moved to a different house. The house being the home of a member of a secret society that still holds Mayan pagan beliefs. You can approach San Simon for a small entrance fee, for a little extra you can even take pictures. It's sort of a business for the holders of San Simon to prosper by. Jeremy and I didn't pay the fee. Didn't care to contribute to this evil saint, but we did get a quick view of the saint himself. He sat enthroned in a chair lifeless but erect. Around him scattered on the ground were numerous candles lit. The lights were very dim in this room but you could see plainly and clearly San Simon and he looked no different than an outlaw of the American West. He had a cowboy hat on and had this bandana tied around his neck concealing his mouth and nose just like he was going to rob a train. He was all dressed in black with a pair of polished cowboy boots. My first thoughts were, "So this is where Billy the Kid ran off to." Standing before him, I thought I should bow my legs while squinting and tell him to meet me at sundown. Without paying anything we couldn't stare at him too long, so we walked out and sat down both contemplating about the whole thing and concluded that was one of the weirdest things both of us had ever seen.

LK: Well then, I'll make a point to see San Simon the next time I'm passing through the Guatemalan Highlands. What would you say was the most thrilling point of your visit?

BH: It would have to be the time I almost fell off my horse riding back from this mountain that we rode up. The horses wanted to get back to their stables. So with little encouragement the horses bolted down the mountain. Now to be honest, I love it when a horse gallops. I love that particular feel of the wind that I think can only be found on a galloping horse. I love that majestic power that is an innate characteristic of a horse and I love when there is something wild and fierce when a horse gallops that you suddenly become part of. But what I don't like is when a horse is running full speed on pavement. You could hear the "clip-clop" echo and ring down the path. For some reason my white horse had to be an absurd amount of distance ahead. And for a still stranger reason, I was very light especially with the increasing bounce of the back of the horse, I went higher and higher. At times pulling on the reigns didn't help. My legs, no matter which way I held them in the stirrup, could not position me from bouncing. Luckily the horse had long mane hair for when I was on the brink of a pain-filled nose-dive, dropping his reigns, I would grab this hunk of hair to keep myself balanced from toppling to the asphalt below. This happened 3 or 4 times and one of those times we were galloping thru this village and there was a split in the road. Each side had a clear path but I wanted to go one way, but the horse wanted to go the other way. Because of this disagreement on directions, both the horse and I were heading straight for the middle of the two paths where stood a building made out of pure concrete. Through wincing eyes, I gave into the horse's insistent selection on which way to take and we brushed by one bruising, tooth-losing incident by almost, literally, a horse's hair. This whole ordeal was witnessed by several Guatemalan villagers who probably thought the spectacle was the most entertaining event since last harvest time's cock fight. I heard laughter break out everywhere behind me. I think even their roosters were crowing in amusement.

LK:If there was a point in these travels where you were struck by the fact that you were doing exactly what you were doing and wished someone back home who wasn't doing what you were doing could only see you doing that exact thing that you were doing, what would that thing you would be doing be?

BH: Ummm.....when I was learning how to salsa dance, or maybe swimming in a huge lake that had 3 volcanoes around it. I think that would be the answer to your question.

LK: Were there many interesting people that you met?

BH: Oh tons of them. There was Santiago, this christian from a small village who had recorded his own christian album with songs that he himself had written. There was this insane American old man that claimed that George W. Bush was involved in drug-trafficking down in Mexico. There was this group that we met on a bus and that we would hang out with alot. It was made up of this girl from Scotland, Kurstie. This other girl from Bermuda. This guy from California. And these two guys from Israel. There were Isrealis everywhere. There was this Methodist missionary lady from the states. This list goes on and on. You meet so many different people when traveling.

LK: What would you say if I was to tell you that I don't have any pants on?

BH: W..what does that have to do with anything?

LK: Well, I always sit here behind this desk. No one ever knows. The camera angle never captures anything below my waist. I just wonder what you were to say if I told you that I don't have any pants on?

BH: You're a sick old man! I'm finished with this interview.
(rustling of microphone. I get up and walk out.)


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Guatemalan Highland Wanderings 2

Guatemala, land of ancient customs and forlorn mists still cloaking your people in mysterious ways. But what is this that I see your people throwing off?...What once was under the paganistic fancies of Mayan rituals....and what once was a subdued people under the yoke of Spanish dogmatism. Now half your inhabitants praise one God and His revelation. No, the days of chanting ignorance, of black magic, and loathsome sacrifice on top of smoking altars are nearly gone. And the days of religious peasantry in the guise of saintliness and parish dominance are becoming less and less. Guatemala,your people believe in something that makes them smile everytime I pass by them in the marketplace.

Jeremy and I took off eastwards further into the highlands of Guatemala. Nearly all transportation is done by what tourists call "chicken buses", termed so because during a considerable haul the riders will be packed in these buses like chickens. The buses themselves are the same buses I remember from my childhood being chained like galley slaves to be made to go to school. The U.S. supposedly donated a bunch of these buses and sent them way down into Central America. Now, the Guatemalans got a hold of them and they spiced them up. Placing chrome on the outside along with colorful designs. So that some of these buses that had this intense lustre to them you could spot as it would roar down the dusty road glimmering in the sun and blaring latino christian music. And then inside the buses at the front was what I took to be the name of the bus, but which was in fact the bus line's name. So we hopped on a variety of bus line names, all scrawled on the front in Spanish were biblical names like "Lion of Judah", or "The Goodness of God" or "The Love of Christ". Then in would enter tons of tons of the Mayan people. All of the women bearing the most colorful embroidered clothing with indigenous shawls and native head bands. Some of the men still wore their ancient clothing but most all of the men fancied the cowboy hat. These traditional multi-colored costumes were used by the Spanish to tell which village a Mayan was from by the patterns of their clothing. Three centuries later, and the people still dress this way.
We took one of these buses to one of the main highland towns, Quatzaltenango. Or what most people called Xela (pronounced "shay-lah"). You can probably see why they shorten it. The air here had much more moisture than the air back in Mexico, and it was much cooler. Jeremy and I forgot to carry anything warm seeing how we were traveling further south we doubted it could be very cool. But we were wrong. We were in the mountains and in the rainforest where it poured down the first night. Jeremy hadn't seen real rain at all since he got to Mexico and that was back in January. So it thundered and poured and we found a hostel for 2 dollars a night and shared a room with a girl from Spain and a girl from Denmark. Tourism was pretty big in these parts mostly by young backpackers like ourselves. The next day we got up and had our first full day in Guatemala...which I will write about next.