By Carmen Poon
I have mellowed since my childhood and I don’t yell at all times, but I find that I am still sometimes too loud for Canadian culture. I have seen that my loud demeanour has made more than one Canadian uncomfortable. One time in university, I passionately recounted an anecdote to a classmate. I can’t recall what I was talking about, but I certainly remember her reaction to my intensity. She chuckled nervously and said in a low voice, “Carmen, you’re so loud!” I’m not sure where it comes from, but Canadians value quiet. We have times and moments when we let loose and are loud, but they are very specific and sometimes, alcohol has been known to be involved.
Since moving to Puerto Vallarta, I have not once been told by a Mexican that I am too loud. Indeed, by Mexican standards I am quite quiet. I hate to fall into stereotyping, but there are definitely cultural differences regarding acceptable volumes for speaking in Canadian and Mexican cultures. Here it is okay, nay it is normal, to speak loudly. An American co-worker and I both observed that the grade 1 class that we taught was pretty much incapable of working in groups without yelling over each other. We had taught elementary students in the US and Canada respectively, and although those classes got loud (they were kids after all), the volumes were nowhere near those that we encountered in our Mexican classroom. The kids were sitting close together and yet still literally yelling at and over each other. Despite our best behaviour modification techniques and pedagogical methods, we were unable to change this. One of my mentors here in Mexico once told me that Mexican students are just more social than Canadian or American students, and that we as educators have to adapt to this cultural difference. In the end, my co-worker and I just learned how to “roll with it”. This doesn’t mean that there are not quiet Mexicans. In fact, my current upstairs neighbours are just as quiet as my Canadian neighbours were. Noisy, vibrant expression is just more common here than in Canada.
When I lived in Canada the sound that I remember hearing the most in my yard was traffic. My neighbourhood was very quiet, but was located close to the intersection of two large traffic arteries (Peigan Trail and 52nd Street SE for those of you familiar with Calgary). There was almost constantly the dull roar of traffic in the background, punctuated by the occasional horn or semi truck braking hard. Once in a while, a neighbour’s dog would bark for a bit or a young driver would blast his favourite country, rock, or hip hop tunes on a car stereo worth more than the vehicle, but that was about it. Even when I went downtown, the sound that I recall the most is traffic, including during the lunch hour rush when the office workers pour out into the streets like water from an open tap.
The contrast with a Mexican city is stark. Of course Mexican cities have traffic noise, but there are also the lively sounds of people. Every day in my neighbourhood I can hear people, not just their cars. For those of you who have come to Mexico on vacation, you have probably had many people calling out to you as you wander through a touristy section of town vying for your attention and your dollars. Sometimes they can be quite aggressive, calling to you, inviting you to talk to them and hoping you buy from them. I used to think that they were just trying to hustle the unsuspecting tourist (which sometimes is the case), but once I moved here I realized that this also happens in daily life for residents too. When I go to the local supermarket, the ladies at the deli counter will call out to me, chatting me up, and trying to sell whatever the featured ham or cheese is for that week. At home, I can still hear vehicles passing by, but what I notice most are the messages that the drivers broadcast over loudspeakers advertising the service or product that they offer. All the gas companies in town have a jingle that plays incessantly while they drive the neighbourhoods waiting for a delivery call. Other entrepreneurs loudly announce the sale of tamales, corn, ice cream, or offer services like the removal of old appliances and scrap metals. Then there are the people who walk around neighbourhoods selling their wares. One man appears on our street about 1 to 2 times a week with a wheelbarrow filled with papayas that he sells. As he walks he yells out, “Papaya! Papaya!” Today as I am writing this, a truck drove by with someone advertising watermelons over a loud speaker. Another man carries a large basket of baked goods and every morning he goes around my neighbourhood selling them calling out, “Buns! Fresh baked buns!”. Churches are also noisy, ringing bells to start services or to mark special occasions. Sometimes during special pilgrimages it can seem like these deep-voiced bells are rung incessantly! As well, every morning at about 6:00 AM a cannon goes off (or at least it sounds like a cannon). I believe that it has some religious purpose, but I still haven’t ascertained what that might be. I’m just glad that I don’t live right next door to it!
I absolutely love this kind of noise. It’s alive and human, however, humans are not the only residents in a Mexican city. We like to joke in our household that we must be the only family in Puerto Vallarta that doesn’t have a pet. Vallarta residents like to live with animals. My Mexican neighbourhood is quite quiet, but unlike the Canadian one where I used to live, instead of hearing traffic, I mostly hear the animals that also call it home. In fact, the inspiration for this particular article actually came to me at 5:20 AM on December 18th of last year. For some reason every dog in the neighbourhood was barking wildly. First they woke me. Then in a little while, they also woke my husband who can fall asleep in front of a blaring television. The din of crazed barking went on for well over 50 minutes solid! It was an odd experience stumbling around the house, bleary eyed, preparing coffee, and muttering to ourselves, while every dog in the neighbourhood barked at the top of its lungs. I felt like I had been transported into the Disney movie 101 Dalmatians when every dog in London is put on high alert about the kidnapped, or more precisely, dog-napped puppies. The human masters are completely oblivious to the “Barking Network” and cannot figure out what has gotten into their four-legged friends. I don’t know if any puppies were unlawfully taken on that morning, but it was clear that our household was one of the few in our neighbourhood that does not have a dog.
Dogs are not the only animals that I hear almost daily around my home. One of my neighbours keeps chickens on the property behind my house. Every morning between about 5:00 and 6:30 am the rooster announces the start of his day. Just like good old Foghorn Leghorn he spouts off letting his presence be known. At night, I often hear my neighbours’ cats. It doesn’t matter if cats are going into heat or if they are fighting over territory, it is always guaranteed to be loud. Plus, every night at about 10:30, I hear horses pass by my house. There is a man who rides one horse while guiding two others with saddles. Presumably they are for guided horseback rides for tourists. I enjoy hearing the clop, clop, clop as they return home. Geckos are another animal that add their voice to this animal symphony. Actually, I’m not sure if they really are geckos, but that is what we call them in our house. These small lizards hide for the most part during the day and come out at night to eat insects. If I go to my kitchen in the middle of the night for a drink of water, I am often welcomed by annoyed chattering that reminds me of a squirrel, but is less shrill. Of course there are also numerous birds all with a different voice that contribute to the lively non-mechanical background sounds of my neighbourhood.
Some people find these kinds of noises agitating and have a hard time adapting to them. I, on the contrary, enjoy the loud cacophonic vibe of Puerto Vallarta and I fit in quite well. Yet, I still have days when I feel hopelessly “foreign”. More specifically, I should have said that I have nights when I feel like a foreigner. Mexicans, it seems, can sleep through anything. I, on the other hand, am a light-sleeping Canadian and I have found it VERY hard to sleep on more than one occasion since moving here.
As I mentioned in a previous article, Mexicans enjoy a good party. Mexican parties are often joyous, long, loud affairs. When my neighbours across the street moved in they had 3 large parties within a month or so of each other that lasted well into the wee hours of the morning. Interestingly enough, one of them was a young child’s birthday party. So what am I complaining about? They all featured a live band. Now, I am certain that there are Mexican musicians somewhere who play understated jazz music, but let me tell you, they are NEVER hired to work a party in Mexico! From my experience bands that play parties here in Mexico have certain requirements. One, they must include a brass section, with both trumpets and a tuba. It is not a party if there is not a tuba. Two, there must be drums, lots of drums. The groups that my neighbour hired favoured snare drums. Three, there must be more than one singer with a voice as big as Celine Dion’s. After all, you have to hear the singer over the brass and percussion sections. Finally, the band must play late into the night. Who ever heard of them packing up and heading home by eleven? Never!
On the nights that that my neighbours had parties, I had to close just about every window in my home and crank the volume on my television set just to hear it. To be able to sleep, I put on the air conditioner to drown out the music or I slept in my son’s room which is located at the back of the house. And sometimes, these efforts did not help. I know that I am living in Mexico and that everything doesn’t have to bend to my personal wants and needs, but I have to say that I find this part of Mexican culture very stressful, a fact that I found quite surprising given my natural inclination for being noisy. It turns out that I am more Canadian than I initially thought!
How my other neighbours slept through the din of those parties I will never know. What amazes me is that many of them probably had no problem sleeping at all. Let me give you an example. A previous neighbour of mine had many relatives visiting her during Semana Santa of 2015. Her uncle had parked in our shared parking pad, but had inadvertently parked too close to the gate. When we got up at 6:00 AM and tried to leave we could not open the gate without damaging his vehicle. Unfortunately, I had to go knock on her door at that ungodly hour and ask him to move his vehicle. Through the window glass of the front door I could see 4 people sleeping on inflatable mattresses. I knocked on the door and called through an open window next to them. Not one of them moved. I knocked again louder this time and called loudly. The young man closest to me twitched his nose, but made no indication that he had heard me. How was this possible? I then pounded on the door and yelled at the top of my lungs but again none of them moved. I was getting a bit desperate. I knew that there were at least 15 people in this house. How could they all still be sleeping while I yelled through an open window of the house? The Sarge had apparently met her match! Finally, my friend’s daughter emerged out of her room at the back of the house. She was surprised to see me, but got her mom and then we got the vehicle moved. I had heard that Mexicans can sleep through anything, but until that day I had not witnessed it! I am still stupefied that they could sleep through my yelling right beside them.
After seeing that, one of my personal goals is now to learn how to sleep through anything. I have been taking baby steps sometimes dozing with the windows completely open. I still usually need silence or some sort of white noise to sleep, but I am looking forward to that delightful night when I can sleep through the oom-pa-pa of a tuba right outside my bedroom window. Until then, I will continue to keep earplugs on hand. My second goal is to learn how to stop worrying about whether I “fit in”. I’ve discovered that in some ways I will always be “Canadian” no matter where I live. And even though I feel very comfortable here in Mexico, I know that I will never be “Mexican”. As trite as it sounds, I guess it is best just to be me and let the rest go. Besides, the most important people in my life have told me repeatedly that they love me loud and wouldn’t have me any other way.
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