South America is not the place to come for peace and tranquility. It’s busy, it’s loud, it’s relentless.
As a backpacker, the first place you’ll notice this is on the bus. Most long-distance buses have films playing more or less continuously throughout the journey, and many have music at the same time. The volume of the TV is just loud enough to be disturbing, but mostly not loud enough to actually hear what they’re saying. Then at the start of the journey, you invariably have someone come on and hand out sweets, or biscuits, or whatever, and give a long spiel about how wonderful this product is and how little it will cost you. Throughout the journey you’ll have more vendors coming on board to sell their wares, waking you from your slumber with their loud voices and boxes that knock into you. On local buses, you instead have the guy at the front shouting “Moche! Moche! Moche!” every time you stop because of traffic or traffic lights, to round up more people from the street who want our destination.
The other day, on a local bus in Asunción, Paraguay, it was a complete circus: Imagine, first, a rusty old bus, rattling along down a busy street. Then of course everyone is talking on their mobile phone. There is at least one screaming baby. Add to this a whole line of vendors getting on at the front, moving down the aisle and off the bus at the back in an endless carousel of noise: Chipas, Chipas! Galletas, Galletas! Gaseosas, Gaseosas! (As if planned, the vendors selling cheese buns, biscuits, and soft drinks were followed by others selling toothbrushes and toothpaste. How very responsible.) As a final flourish, put two musicians on board, singing a traditional, and very shouty, style of music as they bash the strings of their guitars. Viewed from the outside, it was quite comical.
Out on the street, the main noise that I’m not used to at home is the honking. I don’t think I’ve ever used a car horn but here it’s part of normal driving protocol. I think the worst was in Piura in northern Peru, where the honking was just outside the hotel window and continued throughout the night. Cars will honk at each other for no apparent reason, while taxis will honk at pedestrians, especially at you since you’re a tourist, and they assume you must want a taxi since you’re walking down the street, or standing at the traffic lights. (On the plus side, this means that you can always get a taxi when you need one.) The other noise you have on the street, if you’re a girl, is the “Hola, qué tal?” but, worse, the kissing, or sometimes hissing, noises that the men let out as you pass. You just have to smile and walk on.
Of course the main experience as a backpacker is the hostel. Although I started very luxuriously with private rooms in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, as I entered the more expensive Chile, Argentina, and, surprisingly, Paraguay, I’ve been staying in dorms for the same price. Whether you go to bed early or stay out late, whether you set an alarm or plan to have a lie in, you’re bound to be on a different schedule to at least someone in your dorm. Especially when there are 14 of you, as the other night in Asunción, Paraguay. (I’m reminded of the ultimate nightmare of a room, The Bunker in Verbier, where there were 30 of us in triple bunk beds, drunk people returning from clubs, couples getting busy under the sheets, and one girl letting out a blood-curdling scream in the middle of the night.) But the most hilariously hellish night was in Mendoza, Argentina. I was already sleeping badly, frustrated at having just had my iPhone stolen, in a hostel where the bar played loud music until 6am. When I went to bed at 11pm, there were two girls already in bed – surprising, I thought, for a Saturday night, but perhaps they had an early bus the next day like me. I struggled to doze off, each time jolted out of near-sleep by one of the girls’ phones receiving messages. Soon thereafter, my instincts were proven to be correct as an alarm rang (I had to shine my torch in one girl’s face so that she would wake up and turn it off) and the two girls proceeded to get out of bed, turn all the lights on, and get dressed and made up to go out, all the while chatting loudly. Seemingly minutes after, they returned, again turning all the lights on to get ready for bed. And less than an hour later, my alarm clock rang and it was time to get up for my bus. (By the way, I sleep with ear plugs and a blindfold when I’m in hostels. Someone should invent dorm-strength sleeping aids.)
There are, of course, exceptions: sailing between the Galapagos Islands, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and standing in the middle of the Uyuni salt flats, we were in a magical place, far removed from the bustle of everyday life. And the trick, I think, is to find moments away from the noise around you, moments of inner silence. I know I sound like an old woman (in one comment on Trip Adviser, some young stud asked, “Why are people complaining about the noise in their reviews? Who comes to hostels to sleep?), but I get grumpy without my beauty sleep, and I enjoy some quiet time to relax or reflect on my experiences.
In any case, the sounds of a city in a foreign land are all part of the excitement of people watching, seeing life go by, experiencing the energy of a place, in a different part of the world. Take those sounds away and you lose the essence of the place. But, still, what I wouldn’t give for a good night’s sleep…