The Art Of Noise

Several years ago, snoozing in my sleepy English country village, my dreams were broken by the piercing scream of a car horn. It was the driver’s way of saying goodbye to his kids. He did it most days – each time around half an hour before my alarm clock went off. I didn’t own a shotgun (it was Kent – not Texas), but soon formulated several drastic (and violent) plans to bring this peace-wrecker to justice. By not getting around to it, I remained at large in the community for the daily loss of those precious 30-minutes of sleep.

Woken by barking dogs in Quito, the other morning, I realised I had learned some measure of tolerance. The dogs had been happily duetting with the cockerels since dawn – a cacophonic chorus supplemented by wailing car alarms. If excess noise is an occasional by-product of Western life, in the Latin world, it’s just another form of expression.

Conversely, in Rio one morning, I once sat outside a café while some huge paving stones were being dropped off the back of a lorry. As each concrete slab crashed against the pavement, workmen breakfasting alongside me banged their fists on the table and cheered, before returning to the excited babble of their pre-work conversation.

In Quito, meanwhile, the main players in this Latin symphony of noise are the cars and motorbikes. Their horns alert the surrounding world to everything from ‘Don’t even think about it,’, ‘I’m behind you,’ and ‘I don’t entirely agree with that overtaking manoeuvre,’ to a plethora of unfathomable philosophical outbursts. While Tarzan yodelled ‘Ungawa’ when he needed to herd elephants or get Cheetah to put the kettle on, the horn is used here as an equally flexible tool of communication.

Off-road, the pavements resound to the noise of street vendors selling their wares in voices pitched to distinguish themselves from the Latin audio soup. A man walks by broadcasting the English alphabet on a tape recorder at a volume which hurts more than it educates, while from a nearby bar, the extended bellow of a football commentator suggests the world ‘gol’ is spelt with 16 ‘O’s.

And as the global population grows and mingles, the noise pollution too spreads unstoppably. Even in faraway London, the soundscape is subtly changing. Now the embarrassed silence of passengers on its buses and underground trains is slowly being broken. The odd whispered sentence here, the occasional bellow of laughter there, and sometimes, outrageously, a full blown animated conversation. But these aren’t spoken in the accents of the home counties! For London has a growing Latin American population and this tide of immigrants flows with more vigour than the stiller waters of older inhabitants.

Golden silence is clearly an increasingly rare commodity. I recently disturbed my neighbours with some late-night music and conversation. The ensuing loss of neighbourly love and the break-up of my beautiful relationship with my landlord led to my seeking alternative lodgings.
Clearly, there are complex exceptions to the rules that I have yet to learn.

Quito Sun 2004