Listen up: Sounds of Mexico

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Marvin West

It seems like there's a fiesta every day in Mexico © Jay Koppelman, 2010
It seems like there’s a fiesta every day in Mexico © Jay Koppelman, 2010

Answers are easy. Why Mexico? Weather, adventure, costs. How much does it cost? More than it did but still less than many places. Bottom line is mostly determined by lifestyle.

Is it safe? Yes and no, often depending on where you go and what you do when you get there.

Health care? Food? Quirky laws? Language? Foreigners even ask about dress codes, topes and toll roads.

Nobody asks about the sounds of Mexico. Upon arrival, that oversight leads directly to surprise or culture shock.

Mexicans live life loudly. They will use most any excuse to set off fireworks. Church bells ring very early in the morning. Public address systems have no limits. Car stereos are cranked up to concert level.

Of course there are happy sounds — children playing, most laughter, some music. The melodic whistle of the knife sharpener coming down the street could be an offshoot of Zamfir and his pan flute.

The many other sounds of Mexico fit into different categories. A few are intriguing. Some are just distracting. Some are thoughtless. Some are rude. Some are overbearing. Some should be criminal. Almost all are loud.

Laws are lax. Noise ordinances? You are kidding.

There are aggressive, inconsiderate Mexicans who do what they want to do without any regard for how it affects others. For the most part, nobody does anything about it. They just take the abuse.

We have seen it throughout our two decades in the country. Mexicans accept sloppy service and flawed products. They wait in illogically long lines without complaining. They give ground when others push and shove or cut them off. They come back tomorrow if the store doesn’t open today.

Mexicans are generally live-and-let-live, tolerant, long-suffering people. Some might say patient, kind or even generous.

Now and then there is a knee-jerk reaction. A commercial enterprise, catching up with times past, brought a rave to Ajijic, a Jalisco landmark that thinks it might like to become a magical village.

For a long weekend, this artsy place (mostly a tourist-traditional, tranquil little town), became one big boom box.

The entrepreneurs bused in crowds of customers, young people with no sense of responsibility. Some brought or bought drugs and strong drink. Some lost all inhibitions. Some tore up bathrooms and a soccer field and did crude and socially unacceptable things.

The racket was non-stop. There was a repetitive thumping beat with a screaming narrative that had to be on a recorded loop. It never paused to catch its breath.

The bands that thought they played music were just bad. The vocals sounded like five guys with raspy throats doing five different songs at the same time. Everything was amped up to just beyond the normal level of screaming jets taking off.

Offended neighbors (for six kilometers around) complained about two days of sleeplessness. A delegation went to see the Chapala mayor. He pretended to be surprised, initiated an extensive investigation and signed an oath (not in blood) to grant no more rave permits, even for piles of pesos.

The rave was over the top. Mexico, on normal days and nights, is just a famously noisy place. Anything that can be loud usually is. Industrial sounds are to be expected. There are no zoning restrictions. Midnight catfights are screams. Construction equipment emits one big roar. If motorcycles have mufflers, macho men remove them.

Watchdog on the roof in Teotitlan del Valle © Ron Mader, 2010
Watchdog on the roof in Teotitlan del Valle © Ron Mader, 2010

Dogs bark louder here. I came with appreciation for the Fiddler on the Roof but barking dogs up above was a new experience. The one I monitor is always on alert. It may be triggered by anything, a shadow, another dog on the sidewalk, a child chasing a ball, the man selling fish from his wheelbarrow.

The dog skids to a stop frighteningly close to the edge of the roof and rips into a barking frenzy. The roof is guarded. No one would dare go up there.

Vendors contribute to sound pollution. They drive down our street with loudspeakers on their trucks, shouting out what they offer for sale bottles of water, propane gas, fresh fruit, low-fat doughnuts. A very loud little trucker is buying instead of selling. He seeks salvageable metal he hopes to recycle at a profit. His prize one day was a very used set of rusty bedsprings.

Trash trucks come and go. Some are louder than others.

So, when is quiet time? Does the noise subside after dinner? Where two or more are awake late, be sure you will soon join them.

The proper attitude for those of us on visas is “This is a charming part of life in Mexico.”

Mexico dawn does not come stealthy. The bus must deliver the early shift to work. The bus must stop to pick up the passengers. The bus needs new brakes.

One nutty rooster starts warming up for daybreak at about 4 a.m. Is there a place for roosters in chicken pot pie?

When roosters crow, cows moo and donkeys bray, we just pretend we are in Iowa. Shootouts are more reminiscent of Chicago.

Decibels are the main currency for resolving differences of opinion. There are very few quarrels in our neighborhood but, when one breaks out, it is loud.

All festivals feature fireworks (on steroids). All holidays are marked with explosives. Some birthdays and anniversaries start and end with big, loud booms. One priest paid for rockets to wake up the faithful for early mass.

Peace and quiet are myths.

Foreigners eventually adjust — or get better ear plugs or Bose headphones. One Canadian announced that pandemonium finally sounded normal. Only later did he realize his hearing aid had died.

Beware of harmless looking gazebos surrounded by green lawns. These are hazardous rental places for parties. The host hires an inexpensive band, armed with horns and drums, and invites twice as many guests as space permits. Congested parking comes with a chorus of motorists blowing off steam.

I know about this. There is such a distraction two doors down. In the beginning, I thought it was for picnics, volleyball and badminton.

The sound system, powered for stadiums, has a one-mile impact. The program almost always includes one or two gentle dance arrangements. After that, all hell breaks loose. The emphasis is clearly on quantity instead of quality.

When the band does “Achey, breaky heart,” it is OK to sing along. Nobody will hear you.

What to do? My best Mexican friend said “Just don’t listen to it.”

In Salvador’s case, he did not learn to cope. Noise has always been an accepted way of life. That’s how it is in Mexico.

At other stops, in Europe and the Orient, there was relative calm and quiet. In Switzerland, as I recall, you could seek police intervention if a neighbor took a shower after 10 p.m. No disturbances were permitted.

In Washington, D.C., we once persuaded a restaurant owner to turn down the jukebox at 10.

Okay, we’ve never been to India.

Mexico actually celebrates sound. During Sound Week, government-affiliated radio stations played or maybe still play mini-documentaries about “endangered sounds.”

I am not making this up. I heard a program about Mexico City organ grinders and the tap-tap-tap of cobblers hammering nails into shoe leather. Another sound to be remembered was the click, click, click of keystrokes on manual typewriters.

None of that was noise. It was a beautiful way of life, going, going, almost gone.

Noise is when the bass speaker on a car radio causes the windows in our house to vibrate and rattle.

Retaliation is possible. A young couple, probably in their 20s, rented a house. The very first Saturday night, they opened their front gate late and turned up the music machine in their pickup truck. It was loud.

A young group came for what may have been a house-warming. The heat continued until 4 on Sunday morning.

At about 6, when the new neighbors may have finished cleaning up and surrendered to sleep, new noise erupted from usually quiet homes on both sides of that house. It was a full-blast counter-attack.

One played gospel from the deep southern United States. The other played country and western from downtown Nashville.

This “temporary inconvenience” was more fun than a circus. Of course it kept innocents awake but they were laughing.

Nobody said anything to anybody but there was no way to miss the message: Do unto others as they do to you.

There has not been another party. In this one little part of Mexico, all is quiet.

Published or Updated on: August 15, 2013 by Marvin West © 2013
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