Published: September 27th 2008September 27th 2008
Chasing the Drums
Taking a cab to the central historic district (Centro Historico) seems like the wisest course of action for my first trip downtown. Mistakenly reading the meter of the cab, I try to pay the driver ten times the actual amount of the fare. He is honest and returns the extra amount. Another person is waiting to get into the taxi, and between my confusion regarding the fare and the anxious person waiting to get in, I forget to tip the deserving driver. Most cabs here are the same make, model and deep, cool green color. A number is displayed on the top of the cab and is also painted on the sides of it. The number of this cab I also forget to look at. There is no way to identify the driver even if he did pick me up again; as the back of his head was indistinguishable from every other cab driver I had ridden with so far. Dark hair, combed straight back, cut at the collar, looking like the matted down coarse feathers of the local blackbird. No chance he will ever get that tip he deserves.
Walking around downtown has me spinning with absolutely every site I see. Narrow, brick paved streets weave around the three larger squares that made up the heart of the city. Cars have the right away over pedestrians and all other non-automotive forms of transport. I learn to get out of their way and not walk in front of them.
The municipal offices of the city and region surround one square, and that is the square I am standing in when I hear them, the faint but unmistakable sound of drums. Echoing off the buildings, off the mountains, off the very low hanging clouds, the sound draws me to find them. I am uncertain of their exact location. The echoes bounce around me, and when I turn in all directions like a radarscope, I am guided not so much by the presence of sound as by the absence of it. I walk toward where the echoes seem strongest, always turning, adjusting, and homing in to the ever-changing source of the drums.
I could tell there were many drums of different types. The bass drums lowing out a steady beat, raspy snare drums playing in and around the beat, cymbals accenting the beat and tom toms adding depth and character to the thump, thump, thump of their brother bass drum. It was a symphony of percussion, with all the parts harmonizing in rhythm.
Deftly sprinkled into the rhythm were lighter, more delicate sounds, though still displaying the harder edge of a percussive instrument. Triangles of steel being struck with other steel, ringing through the other sounds due to their pitch and high rate of vibration. Melodious bells struck by wooden or plastic mallets, each note defined by the length of the steel bar being struck. Higher pitched notes had short bars and lower notes had longer ones. A single triangle or bell tone could carry through twenty drums, due to their acoustic properties. Their sound carried high above the sound of the drums, like a flag carried on top of a long pole could be seen first as the parade marched toward you.
I chased the drums a long way through the streets of San Luis. From the square I moved quickly toward the outskirts of the city, but I could not spy the makers of the music. Reaching the highway that ringed the city I stopped. The sound of drums still echoed faintly in my ear, but they did not sound closer. Distinctly now, they did sound like they were coming from my right. Turning toward it, I hurried along, sure that my goal would soon appear. The street was desolate, save for a small group of people waiting at a bus stop. The road I walked was a road for travel, not a strolling avenue. Taxi’s, buses, transportation of all manner zipped by me. I was not interested in transport. I ignored them. It was mutual. Chasing the drums was all that mattered. The goal was not even to go and listen to the music anymore. That goal had been transformed by my competitive, stubborn spirit into a quest to find those drums. It was now a mission and no longer a curiosity. Where were those stupid drums? I could hear them. I could feel them. Just around the next corner they would appear and I would be victorious!
The next corner brought no joy, no victory. Aggravation is what I felt. The drums sounded just as distant as when I heard them in the square. There was not much hurry left in me any more. Slowing my pace and considering my options, the drums still echoed on. Can ghosts play drums I wondered? Do phantoms have rhythm? Was I chasing sound waves coming from a great distance, their source long ago perishing into dust? The light from distant suns has to travel such an astounding distance to reach our eyes that the sun itself may no longer exist and only its energy trail survives.
I decide to hail a taxi. My earlier time of ignoring transport now seems ill advised. The cabs continued to zip by me or turn off just before reaching where I stood in the street, obviously trying to flag them down. Finally one stopped, and I handed him the card for my hotel. “Si, Si Senor he nodded, Fiesta Inn Glorieta ok.”
Now I was the one zipping by the little shops and other people trying to catch a taxi. Zipping around a corner the cab suddenly slowed. “Entierto, Senor, a funeral.” And so it was, right in the middle of the street, a horse drawn wagon with a coffin on it. Surrounding the coffin were dozens of multi colored flowers, pictures and crosses. Behind the wagon, dressed in black and somberly marching came the drummers. Slowly they marched, in a kind of loose formation, not in step with each other but still in step with the beat. They were moving. I had been moving. I could never have caught them, except in a Mexican taxi. The driver swerved around the marchers and the drums again faded into echo. Phantoms do have rhythm after all.