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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.

All the Way to Eleven

Often, like most expats, I complain about the Mexican love of explosive rockets. Cohetes are let off on religious festivals, at high points during a Mass, at any semi-significant halting point in a religious procession; to mark public holidays, birthdays, and any event considered vaguely worthy of a loud bang. In my village, this covers at least one occasion on most weekends. During the annual fiestas for the Marias – the Virgin of Guadalupe in December, Maria Magdalena in high summer – several hundred rockets are released in a day.

And of course, this being New Year’s Eve, people will have stocked up on rockets to let off at midnight. And for some time after that.

One or two of the dogs will spend the time cowering under my bed, and I’ve sometimes thought about joining them.

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All the way up to eleven…

The Christmas season here includes a jarepeo, a three-evening event of bull-riding, which would have been fun if the band they hired had been (a) any good, and (b) had used a sound system that wasn’t designed for metal bands in their stadium-rock heyday. Standing with me sixty feet from the speakers, R and I got to enjoy the pounding from the bass and drums as a physical sensation in our chests. After three bulls had thrown their riders, we gave up. She was feeling physically uncomfortable, while I was reflecting on how Pete Townshend had lost most of his hearing.

I’ve been at family events here where the music is so loud, conversation in my broken Spanish becomes impossible. I arrive, I smile, mouth some greetings, eat some food, have a drink and seek my moment to leave. I could try prolonged, inane smiling, I know, but that has its communicative limits.

Why, I’ve always wondered, do people do this? There are occasions (The Who in their prime doing yet more damage to Townshend’s and Roger Daltry’s eardrums being one) where loudness is fun. At least it is, if you’re not Pete or Roger. But while some traditional music would be fine with the bull-riding, speech-blocking pounding is not.

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The old master doing a windmill on his guitar.

Mexicans seem immune to it, or able to shrug off the assault, but I wonder if they’re aware it could be turned down with enough requests. Sporting events, and the jarepeo is a sport, call for making comments at every skillful turn or dextrous act of balance, but 145 decibels of electronically enhanced bass-strings tend to pre-empt that possibility. R was so distracted at one point, she didn’t catch the crowd’s roar as a bull came out, the roar being drowned by the band.

Brass bands have long been a mainstay of local culture, and a local funeral isn’t a properly discharged affair without musical accompaniment following the deceased to the cemetery. But that’s unamplified: it’s music at the level where it can be appreciated, unless of course the deceased was a close friend or relative. In that instance, it’s hoped the deceased appreciates it via some post-mortem capability that I can’t imagine.

But the village church, for example, likes to broadcast religious music and even some ceremonies over a speaker system on its 55-ft tower. Since my house is on a rise 300 yards away, I can enjoy this at its best when it starts at 6.00 am (or earlier) on a Sunday morning.

And sometimes, people come here to hold a Saturday wedding that keeps on partying till 3.30 am. You can’t very well argue that a wedding should be less boisterous, but there is a point where other people wish they could get to sleep.

I don’t know if Mexico will ever lose its love of loudness. I think there’s a sense in which it unifies people: if you can’t think, you have to join in the collective mood. Still, the best thing about it is that eventually it stops.

“I like Amatlan, because it’s so peaceful there,” people often say to me.

Yes, I say between clenched teeth, it is. At least part of the time. But not tonight.