A few lines just jumped out at me from the novel I’m reading, Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje: “What surprised Anil [who is from Sri Lanka] . . . was the quietness of the English classroom. In Colombo there was always a racket. Birds, lorries, fighting dogs, a kindergarten’s lessons of rote, street salesmen—all their sounds entered through the open windows. There was no chance of an ivory tower existing in the tropics.”
It was so accurate a description of the conditions at the school where we’ve been teaching that it made me laugh—though Ondaatje left out the construction noises, the constant banging of mallet on chisel, the unidentifiable random crashes of demolition that seem to accompany us everywhere in Chachapoyas, at home and school alike.
I used to think it was an immutable biological fact that constant loud noise wears on the nerves and exhausts the person exposed to it. I thought that quiet was an obvious prerequisite for reading and writing and learning. But being here has challenged that belief.
A week or so ago, I had my Spanish lesson in an empty classroom at the school and struggled to concentrate as Miguel outlined three ways of expressing future action. The children in Priscilla’s English class were shouting enthusiastically in unison in a classroom nearby: “Good morning!” “How are you!” “Thank you!” Next door, a construction project was underway—either that or someone was passing the time by hitting an iron pipe with a hammer at thuddingly regular intervals.
“Could we have our lesson at the café tomorrow?” I asked Miguel.
“Yes,” he said. “I can see you are not comfortable.” Then he paused and said gently, “But perhaps we can try one more time to tolerate this?”
I could tell that all the noise wasn’t really bothering him at all, and I wondered if my desire for calm and quiet to study in seemed a bit demanding and fussy. More than likely, I realized, his schooldays had taken place in conditions very much like these and he had simply learned to block out all the racket.
It’s an enviable skill. Despite the frequent claim that life in Chachapoyas is muy tranquilo, it’s actually pretty noisy around here most of the time. The church bells start ringing at 6:30 on Sunday mornings—6:30! Early each weekday morning, a garbage truck works its way through the streets, clanging its own distinctly non-melodious bell to alert people to bring out their trash. But no-one is sleeping anyway because by then the roosters have been going at it for hours, the dogs have loudly reasserted control over their little dominions, and the concrete streets ring with footfalls, the occasional clop of horses’ hooves or the roar of a motorcycle starting up.
Few residents of this town own cars and so there are always people in the streets, walking and talking below the windows of whatever building you’re in. The houses have interior courtyards but no lawns and so their front windows hover directly over the sidewalk. And through the ironwork grills of the open windows comes a constant stream of conversation, the beeping of colectivos as they approach intersections that don’t have stop signs, and of course—since no activity here is complete without a festive soundtrack—the thump and blare of amplified music.
Out on the streets, kids yell and laugh and chase each other with the water balloons they use to celebrate Carnival time. Over near the market, men with clipboards who work for competing taxi companies solicit passengers for a nearby town by shouting “Pedro! Pedro!” at anyone who walks by. On Chincha Alta the other day, a couple gutted a two-story adobe house with their bare hands, throwing each rounded beam with a thud into the street, where someone else would pick it up, shoulder it, and trundle it off around the corner.
And then there is the sound that I’ll always associate with this room, this house, this street, this town: The Shriek. Rie and I both heard it our first night in the house we’re living in—it shattered the wee hours with an eerie and penetrating quaver.
“What was that?” we asked each other the next morning. We couldn’t even tell for sure if it was a human sound. Maybe it was a feral cat? Or some enormous and deeply unhappy bird?
Whatever it was, it woke us every night between midnight and 2:00. For a while I would jump up when I heard it, open the window and look out, thinking that if I could identify it I would learn not to hear it anymore. But I could never see where the sound was coming from, just hear it reverberate up the empty street.
I had almost decided it was a pishtaco, a malevolent Andean creature of legend I’d read about, when one night I noticed it was interacting with what was undeniably a human sound.
“Oooh-weet WOO!” somebody was whistling.
“Oooh we-heet wa-WOO!” came the reply, making up in volume for what it lacked in precision.
It was a parrot and somebody was teaching it to wolf whistle, though I’m not sure why the lesson had to take place at that particular hour.
In any case, its late night practicing of this and other sounds no longer jars me awake like it did at first. I guess that after all a body can get used to the clamor around it. When somebody says that Chachapoyas is such a wonderfully quiet town, I just nod and agree.
“Sí, eso es. Muy tranquilo.”