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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.

Featured

The Gasman Cometh

May 7, 2020

One of the sounds that’s partly disappeared from our village is from trucks coming to sell  or buy things. I no longer, for example, hear the bread-truck every evening playing the bread-vendor song from a classic 1950 movie, because it isn’t allowed through the quarantine barricade. Similarly, the pick-up that comes round buying scrap metal such as old stoves, furniture, or even mattresses (for the springs) no longer shows up.

Everyone here cooks and heats water using propane. Given that electrical storms easily knock out the power, it’s helpful to have a means of cooking that isn’t depending on lightning-stunned cables. To supply the propane, trucks usually come by every half-hour or so, selling cylinders of it. However, the quarantine has changed that, and only two trucks a day are allowed in.

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The propane cylinder in position, with my water heater on the wall to the left.

Yesterday as I was making lunch, I thought the gas-flame was a little low on the stove. My sage observation proved right five minutes later when it went out. Half my lunch remained uncooked.

Now, usually, I’d have waited thirty minutes or so for a sound like a car alarm, which would have told me a gas truck was in the village. But not yesterday. I sat at home for an hour or two, hoping to hear the familiar discordant sound, and there was nothing.

A helpful friend persuaded me to buy an electric hot-plate, because otherwise I’d have had no water for today’s first, essential mug of tea. But with no gas this morning for the water heater, all I had was a very fast cold shower. And i thda to be fast because I needed to listen for the gas guys.

Catching the gas truck is an art. I live 150 yards from the street, so I can’t just stick my head out the window and yell. I need to be ready, with shoes on, the moment I hear that discordant bleating, to get out the door fast. Since my house is on an incline, with cliffs behind me and to the north (left as I look out), the truck’s unlovely sound is directed and deflected in such a way that I then have to guess on which side of the village it’s moving.

So, it becomes like hunting for a dog that’s run off. I must select the more likely direction in which to head when I hit the street: to the right, and the road that more or less marks the western boundary of the village; or left, and into its centre. Which makes sense today? What do my ears tell me?

Ideally, they tell me it’s coming along the western roadway, and I can just wait and flag it down. The church is 200 yards towards the centre, and the gas trucks usually loop around it and its neighbouring cross-streets, so that they don’t miss a needy customer. But if I catch the truck there, I have to direct the driver back to my door. Sometimes it’s just one person on his own, and (in non-quarantine times) I can hop in. Sometimes though, like today, there are two men, who take turns carrying the heavy (100 lb+) cylinders. With no spare seat, I end up repeatedly explaining, with serious hand-signals, how to find my almost invisible laneway and my (from the street) invisible gate, then chasing back up the sloping roadway after the truck.

Dignity is not preserved.

The consequence of all this is, often, an absurd sense of victory that I have gas once more. I have found the truck, directed it to my entrance, and acquired the cylinder. I have succeeded in ensuring my comfort for another four or five weeks.

Then I can do it all again.