Noises Off

One thing that takes a little getting used to in Oaxaca is the noise.  This is a loud place, full of garishly loud people and devices.  If you are used to peace and quiet . . . well, good luck.  It took a month for me to learn an immunity to it, but some never make it to that point.  Here’s why:

At 5:30 am, the church – which in my case is right next door – starts to chime every 15 minutes.  Now, between 5:30 and 6 am, the chiming is muted, the clapper only gently striking the bell.  But from 6 am on, it is loud and forceful, impelling the faithful to mass.

Also at six, a progression of vendors makes its way through the streets, each with its own unique sound to announce its presence.  By far the most obnoxious is the gas guy.  He sells tanks of propane gas, which everyone uses because there is no infrastructure for natural gas delivery, no pipeline.  He has a loudspeaker that plays 4 bars of salsa music (the same tune every time) followed by a booming voice saying ‘Gas! Oaxaca!’.  Over and over and over again.

The water guy has a sound, the trash guy, the knife sharpener, the guy selling steamed plantains (he’s really loud!), he tamale lady – though she just shrieks ‘Tamales!!’ at the top of her lungs – and on and on.

But vendors and churches are just the start to this symphony.  As the day works on there are dozens of new sounds.  It is amazing how many people rehearse dance steps (with music blasting), or practice for their tuba recital, day in and day out.  Plus, there is just the music in general.  Here, what is popular is everybody playing as loud as possible all at once!  Really, there is very little subtlety in he popular music of this Southern Mexican State..

Today I was in a collectivo taxi going to Arrazola.  Collectivos are a whole ‘nother thing, and I’ll write more about them in another post.   Like almost all collectivos, this was an old Nissan Sentra, into which the driver crammed 6 passengers.  As we made the 30 minute trip, he blasted Mexican ooom-pah music through the enhanced speaker system in the vehicle.  Nice!

But far and away, the loudest noises are from the fiestas and celebrations that go on here almost every week. They always include fireworks – rockets specifically.  Rockets, or cohetones, are a signal that an event is taking place.  An example would be the comparsa I saw a last month.  This one was in honor of the Virgin Mary and participants walked along carrying velas, or candles, beside a life-size wooden image of Mary, carried on the shoulders of six men.  One man preceded the group, stopping at every intersection to set off two coheotones.

On weekends, celebrations, fiestas and parades are nearly constant and they are not rare during the week.  The rockets can blast until the wee hours and sometimes start-up as early as 6 am.  Living next to the church in Jalatlaco, where many celebrations begin and end, it is at times as if my little apartment building is under siege.  I remember the first month I was here being incensed at the racket.  Where were the police?  When I went down to investigate . . . well, that’s exactly where they were: down in the church yard enjoying the party!  And that’s when I was reminded of the traveler’s prime directive:  Forget Home.  Don’t ever think how things ‘should‘ be and certainly never how they ought to be.  Things simply are:  adapt!

In a similar situation, the tourist gets all huffy, complains and whines and tells everyone what a horrible experience it was.  The traveler, on the other hand, comes to bathe in the culture.  The traveler is driven by curiosity and flexibility.  He studies, asks, gets clarification and understands.  And then he changes.

Today, like most Oaxaquenos,  I hardly notice the noise.  They are just part of the landscape.  Ok:  the rockets can still be a surprise, especially the ones that don’t whistle before they explode.  But the parrot in the courtyard that screams ‘HOLA!” for hours at a time?  I notice it like I notice that the sky is blue or that mass is going on next door.  And sometimes I answer:  ‘Hola.’

**I wrote about this difference between being a traveler and a tourist some months back.  That post is here.  And I got a tough lesson in this principal last week.  

I was in a collectivo headed to Cuilapam, home to an incredible temple and monestary, parts of which have no roof.  We were just leaving Oaxaca, were stopped at a red light where our street intersected with a six lane highway.  There, across the highway, on the other side, I saw a dog, a callejero – a street dog- sitting about four feet from the curb.  As I watched it was clear that he had lost use of his hind legs;  he’d been hit.  He kept looking around trying to get to the curb and safety, but couldn’t move.  There were people around, looking for their buses, talking on their cell phones.  The dog was right there in front of them but nobody seemed to notice at all.  I knew, when the light changed a big bus would eventually turn that corner, the driver wouldn’t see the dog and that would be it.  It nearly killed me.  And we were gone before I had to watch.

So what would I have done had I been on that corner, six lanes from my collectivo?  Of course, I’d have helped the dog to the sidewalk.  But then what?  He was done.  Finished.  There was no hope for that dog.  In the culture of Oaxaca, callejeros are tolerated.  They tend to be well fed and somewhat healthy because there is a lot of street food.  But the are street dogs.  They live in the street and they die in the street.  It is the natural order here.  As much as I’d like to tell you that my tourist stayed in check and the detached traveler took over, truth is I haven’t been able to shake the image of that big white dog in the street, taking what certainly were his last breaths.

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