Filed In: Stories
Sunday, June 24, 2018 | Chris Blandford
I wake up to the subtle sounds of promise. Far beyond the outmoded screen windows of our little jungle chantey, I hear hammers driving roofing nails. Hand saws cutting through raw lumber. Masonry chisels chipping stones. Shovels plunging through top soil, moving earth.
I throw on my swimsuit and a t-shirt and head downstairs to make coffee. My two friends—the couple I’m traveling with—are just waking up as well. Our dwelling—booked conveniently on the internet, of course—is beautifully simple. It’s made of stone and wood, capped with a thatch roof and finished with simple openings. The wall studs and ceiling rafters are exposed, revealing the hut’s obvious handmade quality. Mosquito nets drape over the bed frames.
This little Mexican town in which we’re staying is busy, but quiet. Bustling, but slow. I’ve never visited such a place. In recent years, hip foreign tourists have begun herding to this coastal community to experience its flourishing restaurant and retail scenes. The town—by all accounts—is thriving. That said, it’s also technologically primitive. It’s quite cut-off from the rest of the country. There’s electricity, but much of it comes from generators. There’s running water, but it’s not potable. There’s no sewer system. A couple of the small hotels have spotty wifi. The town is a strange mix of peasant and Prada. I’m sure there are some social concerns to be had in reflection of a place like this, but that’s not my interest at the moment.
Right now, I’m noticing something else.
All the development going on, like that outside our windows now, is being done entirely by hand. With actual tools. Hammers and hand saws. Chisels and shovels. No heavy equipment. No power tools. There’s not an air-compressor or jackhammer or circular saw within a hundred miles.
As I boil water for the coffee, the sound of all those hand tools continues to echo through the trees outside. It’s still early, and last night’s Mezcal-induced headache hasn’t yet worn off. I should be finding all of this construction noise off-putting. For some reason, though, all that hammering and sawing and chiseling and digging isn’t annoying at all. It’s natural. It mixes with the chirps of the birds and distant collapsing of the waves, like it belongs. It’s sound, not noise. Men building things. Chatting and laughing while they do so. Making something.
After coffee, my friends and I decide that we should rent bicycles and explore the dirt road north of town. As we leave our simple house, a maintenance worker is cleaning up the gravel paths between the little resort’s units. His rake scratches audibly at the ground. In the distance, I can hear a broom or two sweeping. Further still, numerous plants are being snipped by gardening shears.
To that end, all the caretaking in town is done by hand as well. There are no gas-powered leaf blowers. No electric hedgers. No vacuums. No power washers. There’s only manpower and quiet persistence. All I can think about is how long everything must take to get done here. And how refreshing that is. Time spent methodically.
The three of us find breakfast and then make our way to the bike rental stand we’d spotted yesterday, posted up outside one of the chic, madeover beachfront hotels. The mechanic on duty grabs three old, heavy, steel cruisers. He gives their rusty chains a heavy dousing of WD and sends us on our way. As we pedal through town, our rides rattle over every bump and pothole in the dirt road. We pass various shops and cafes—some well established and some just being built.
I can’t help but keep noticing the silence of this place. It’s almost... overwhelming. No honking horns. No distant, freeway traffic noise. No diesel engines. No machinery. There’s a distinct lack of music, also; the shops and taco stands refrain from broadcasting tunes into the open air. I doubt any of them have ever even considered installing a stereo system.
The town is certainly awake and moving about, but it’s doing so in the least audibly-intrusive way I’ve ever encountered. For some reason, the shuffle of feet and using of tools and cooking of food doesn’t feel like noise. The decibel level is there, it’s just less noticeable. It’s calming and full of assurance—merely the soundtrack of the day.
Back home, the songs of the day seem to be of the heavy-metal genre.
Back home, as the mornings kick in, so too do the internal combustion engines. The leaf blowers. Hedgers. Power washers. Trash trucks. Diesel-powered school buses and pickups. Indeed, during bicycle rides down our neighborhood hills to find breakfast, it’s some minor miracle if I only pass one or two jaw-rattling jackhammers. The city’s aura constantly reeks of heavy equipment. Power tools. Air compressors. Earth movers. Garage doors constantly opening and closing. Helicopters overhead. Ambulances whining. Even in the otherwise quiet parks and forests, there are the people. The ones who play audible music on portable speakers, afraid to hit the mute button.
Back home, noise is omnipresent. A prison of consistent irritation. Machines building things. Expressionless and... depressing. Making… something.
My two friends and I ride a few miles north of town, leave our bikes in a ditch by the side of the road, and venture through the jungle towards the ocean. The break along the coast here roars. Huge waves crash repeatedly against the sand beneath our feet. The sound reverberates off the surrounding stone cliffs.
I decide that this place is silence at full volume.
It’s a silly thing to care about, really—the sounds of a place. What a first-world problem—the constant hum of motorized leaf blowers. That said, when I visit a place like this, it’s all I notice. I can’t help but think that much of our collective stress is due to the self-imposed noise that surrounds us. The engines. They’ve taken over. Invaded our psyches. Impossible to ignore. It might be silly, but it’s not small. I wonder if part of the appeal of getting away to remote destinations is merely finding some little slice of noiselessness.
I stare out at the fluid horizon; the sun is beginning its afternoon descent. For another few moments, my friends and I enjoy the sun and the waves. Then we head back into town, return our bikes, and procure a-few-beers-each from one of the trendy hotel bars down the path.
That night—after dinner—we return to our humble little dwelling. I strip my t-shirt, part the mosquito net and dizzily climb into bed. The construction noise has ceased. The chisels have stopped chipping away at the stones.
The concert of crickets and frogs begins. A few mosquitoes bumble about. I close my eyes, and look forward to another day of simple, relative quiet.
Author's note: I wrote this story while building—ironically—an electric-assist bicycle for myself. You can see the completed bicycle, here.