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Sounds of Unsilence

July 29, 2020

My dog Rem noticed the sound first last night, and once he shut up whimpering and growling for a few seconds, I could hear it too. I tried to calm and reassure him.

“Rem, it’s a cat in heat. And it’s behind our back wall, so you can’t chase it – or them –away.”

He wasn’t convinced, and kept whimpering for ten minutes. But eventually had to abandon his desire to hunt down this intrusion into our shared space, and went back to sleep. Dogs are super alert to sounds, but they can also shut them out very efficiently.

Any human who comes to a place like Amatlan has their senses awakened in ways that aren’t possible in an urban setting. My next-door neighbour keeps a pig, which makes the most extraordinary noises as well as, at times, producing an astoundingly pungent smell in its sty. Another neighbour has set up a poultry coop, and anyone who walks by it gets a whiff that certainly jolts the brain awake.

But sounds are perhaps the things I notice most here. Because we’re on one side of a valley, I can hear the rain failing on the opposite side, 400 yards away, before it falls here. Thunder, which we had with this afternoon’s rainstorm, likewise echoes off the hillsides, and can sound like the very knell of Doomsday.

This morning, I needed to listen hard for two artificial sounds. It was Wednesday, which is when the garbage truck comes around. And, our propane cylinder had given out, and needed replacement.

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The loaded garbage truck heads back into town through the nearby community of Huilotepec.

My house is about 180 yards from the street, and bends in both the lane and the street itself complicates any sense of direction. It used to be that the garbage trucks here were equipped with tinny sound systems, and they’d play the Mexican hit tunes from decades ago as they came by. You could hear them three or four blocks away. Now, the awful music is gone, and the drivers simply honk as they pass on the street. But determining, from 180 yards away, where the truck is, or will be, isn’t easy.

Also, people here honk because they’re outside Uncle Pedro’s house, and have come to pick him up. Or because someone else’s vehicle is blocking their way. Or to say hi to another driver. Honkish is a tough language to interpret, although the garbage guys do beep to a slower rhythm than agitated car drivers.

The gas trucks, two or three in number, come to the village in the morning, and occasionally later in the day. People here have employed propane for cooking and heating water for a couple of generations, and because thunderstorms easily cut our electrical power, we all still need and use it. The trucks are equipped with something resembling a car alarm to alert their customers, and while few people have car alarms here, some do, so again there’s the chance of confusion.

Anyway, here I was at 8.30, down on the street so as not to miss either truck. I was in time for the garbage guys, but the noise they make (their trucks don’t run quietly) made it hard to hear the propane vendors’ not-so-dulcet tones, as they passed by on the other side of the village. And I realised how I was straining to use my ears in ways I never used to do when I lived in a city.

The road from town ends near my house, with only footpaths going beyond through the hills. This is one reason there’s extensive birdlife here, and a lot of birdsong. There are always dogs barking at each other, or at passing cows or horses, and around 4.00 am the roosters start up. Humans, too, yell at their kids a lot. Someone is always building or fixing a house, so there’s the sound of power tools for much of the day, as well as banging and thumping of various kinds. And because my house is above the level of the main village, all these noises easily reach here.

I’m grateful that I still have good hearing, even if that means I can’t exclude much of this noise. This village is rarely a silent place, because it lacks the background noises of larger communities, which people living in them naturally learn to ignore. But I’m far more aware of all sensory inputs here than I ever was in Toronto.

The village symphony places significant demands on the ears of both dog and human. It also makes me wish that both the garbage vendors and the propane people had chosen something less unlovely to alert their clientele that they’ve arrived.

But that’s Mexico for you. It’s never likely to hold back on the noise. We live with it, or we at least learn to hold our peace on the topic.

Sexy New Garbage Cans

“Has anything happened while I was away?” I asked Mauricio. I’d had less than three hours sleep on an overnight flight, and really wasn’t interested in much beyond getting a caffeine hit before I fell asleep (and I do mean fell) in Buenos Tiempos cafe. But it was a simple question to keep a conversation going.

“It’s Tepoztlan,” he replied. “Nothing happens here.”

Ah, how wrong he was. We have smart new garbage cans all over the centre of the town!

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Our sexy new black-and-white garbage bins.

Garbage has been a fascination of mine for years, since, as editor of a magazine for the plastics industry, I became involved in recycling initiatives and efforts to reduce solid waste. Not that I think it did much good, because people want either to ban packaging they dislike (which is about all of it), or refuse to believe that recapturing waste streams is complicated and costly.

A frequent question was, “Couldn’t we just use one type of plastic for everything?” Don’t you think that if we could, we would have done?

But if your fish is off, or your cheese looks mouldy, your high-mindedness disappears in 2.5 milliseconds. Packaging must first be designed to protect the food, before it’s designed for reprocessing.

In many countries, people don’t always grasp the connection between tossing a pop bottle or a chip bag into a ditch, and what ends up in the ocean. This attitude is shifting only slowly. The sight of garbage lying in a barranca, waiting for heavy rains to wash it into a stream, has always saddened me in this country, because it’s so common. There is a recycling truck that comes by my house every Wednesday, and the zocalo in the centre of town has a special rack for recyclable waste, but that’s been abandoned for years.

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The fading signage says vidrio (glass), papel (paper) and metal. But no-one services this thing.

So, new garbage bins, with clear black and white lettering, got me excited. I don’t know what provision has been made for regular collection and maintenance, and they aren’t that huge, but they made my day.

Persuading people to sort their garbage for re-use is tough – I once nearly got in a fist-fight with a Toronto construction worker who was dumping fluorescent light-tubes in with glass bottles; the two types of glass are non-miscible (won’t mix), and if the batch gets contaminated, it’s all thrown out, because sorting the different items and fragments would cost a fortune. But with a basic garbage can, at least the waste is caught before it finds its way to a gutter, or one of the small streams that run down through town.

Tepoztlan gets thousands of visitors on most weekends, so they generate a lot of garbage. I realise the bins are very non-traditional-looking, and few other people will appreciate my enthusiasm. But they made my day, and while Mauricio doesn’t share my excitement, he at least gets my point.