Saturday, December 18, 2004

The sounds of Venezuela

When you go travelling, visual impressions are probably the ones that cause the greatest impact. You also tend to remember them for the longest time, not least because you can refresh them with photos if you remembered to bring your camera. I do take a lot of photos, but I like to supplement my memories of travels with souvenirs from the other senses: the taste and smell of foreign food, the feeling of warm sunshine and salt on my skin during a beach vacation. But what I really enjoy registering and trying to remember are the sounds I hear. For those who have been to Venezuela before, here are some descriptions of the sounds of the place to bring your mind back here; and for those who have not yet had the pleasure, here's a selection of what awaits you if you listen closely:

If you're staying in the central parts of Caracas and are up around sunrise, you're likely to hear parakeets screeching as they circle the city while greeting the dawn. If you prefer sleeping in, you probably won't, because the parakeets will wake you. There's a corresponding night-time sound, which is the whine of mosquitoes. It has often kept me awake at night, and I generally found no rest before having murdered each of the buggers individually. Continuing in the animal world, there's a tiny species of frog -- no larger than a thumbnail -- that comes alive as soon as the sun sets here in Maracaibo. Their sound is commensurate with their size: they sound like badly-oiled bicycle wheels squeaking their way around the track. They are rather cute, though.

Frogs love water and in the cities, water for human consumption is taken from large, transparent glass or plastic bottles which are bought in shops or delivered by the corresponding companies. They are usually fitted with a plastic siphon for drawing the water out of the bottle and into a jug or glass, and do not contain any frogs. The siphon consists of a tube that reaches into the bottle, a long, thin nozzle from which the water issues, and a concertina-shaped pump at the top which has a little pressure-equalisation hole cut in the middle. When you pump to get the water out, you hear a characteristic sound that I've not heard anywhere else that I've been: a characteristic kind of wheeze and whistle alternating with the swoosh caused by the gushes of water pouring out of the nozzle. I enjoy it every time I hear it.

A different kind of enjoyment derives from the automotive sounds, which are quite distinct from those in Europe. There seem to be two types of passenger car in use: one type consists of what I would call "normal", small to medium cars between two and five years old. The sound they produce is nothing out of the ordinary. The second class of vehicle consists of enormous cars of U.S. manufacture dating back to the 1970s, when the oil price boom apparently permitted everyone and his brother to own a luxury limousine. These cars usually have huge engines -- 3.5 litres would be considered small -- that sound a low, growling grumble. Of course, they have awful fuel consumption figures and are terrible for the environment, but hey, petrol costs two to four dollars to fill up an empty tank, and where else can you be made to feel like you're in a Starsky & Hutch movie? Traffic sounds are further characterized by liberal and remarkably rhythmical hooting, which substitutes for indicator and braking lights at many intersections.

Shopping centres have another distinctive sound, which you can hear if you survive the traffic to get there. In the first place, around Christmas time you will hardly ever hear lullabye-like songs like "Silent Night", but you will hardly ever not hear gaita. This is a style of music that originated in Maracaibo, as any Zuliano will be quick to point out, and that is, to my ears at least, as frenetic as a squirrel playing hide and seek with a packet of exploding firecrackers, and not really conducive to a contemplative state of mind. Horses for courses, I say. The other thing about shopping centres is that the noise levels are quite amazing -- the din is so loud that you can hardly converse with somebody standing next to you. This is quite different from sepulchral German shopping centres, where everyone is well-mannered and you can hear a pin drop from the other side of the mall.

Finally, another typical aspect of Christmas time is that you can never be quite sure whether a revolution has broken out again or not yet. People start launching fireworks from the beginning of December, and I'm not talking about tom-thumbs and Christmas crackers here, but rather about artillery-issue, earth-shaking munition devices that probably fell off the back of an Army truck. Venezuelans take it all in stride and with perfect equanimity. Central Europeans should be advised to start taking their medication early and plug their ears: really, friends, it is not the outbreak of the Third World War.

If you have any sounds from Venezuela (or elsewhere) to share, post your description in the comments. I am curious to hear about your favourites. Thanks and cheers!

p.s.: Of course, Venezuelan music is another type of sound to look out for -- but that deserves to be a different topic altogether.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds familiar? How about the roar and whine of turboprop and jet engine aircraft coming in low over Caracas on Sunday afternoons as they race to beat the 6pm landing time limit at La Carlotta airport? Used to be that only the wealthy with their private planes would be coming back from their hatos, or La Tortuga or Los Roques at the end of the weekend. I live up by the Cota Mil and see the planes come in all the time, and these days they're virtually all the large-ish corporate jets (e.g. Gulfstreams)that PDVSA and the other government "dependencias" like to use, and very few of the old Queen Airs favored by well-to-do individuals. I'm glad to see that our public officials (and their families? girlfriends?) are working so hard on the weekends (at the beach somewhere? La Orchila?) that they have to fly back to Caracas to get to work on Sunday evenings. ¡Viva la Revolución!

4:23 pm  
Blogger Mohawk Man said...

mmmm not sure about all that.


Next time travel in private jets

7:57 am  
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