Archives For travel

The Sound of Silence

June 11, 2010

On April 2nd, Malika and I returned from northern Chile and our sightseeing vacation.  In planning, the highlight was to be our time in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in the Atacama desert sustained by subterranean waters fed by the nearby Andes mountains.  In recent years, it’s become a tourist magnet whose number of visitors per capita could likely put many European hot spots to shame (so much so that legal limits had to be put on the schedule of alcohol sales and on alcohol-related public disturbance).

Overrun by tour agencies, restaurants, hostels, inns, hotels, shops and cafes set up to serve the transient tourist, one can laugh about the amount of North Americans and Europeans on every street.  At the same time, one must also feel for the local Atacameño people whose fortune it’s not clear has worked out for the better as a result of the infusion of tourists pesos.

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Release the hounds

April 12, 2010

A new sound has invaded my time in Isla Negra.  In this small coastal town, site of one of Pablo Neruda’s homes and where my grandparents have lived for the last 18 years, many people keep dogs as pets, but also as an alarm system.

As in Santiago, but appropriate to its scale, Isla Negra has its population of street dogs: those that roam the roads, paved and dirt alike, in search of a friend or more likely a bite to eat.  Nothing to fear, of course, these fellows are generally more docile than any dog you’ll find behind a fence.

domestic dogs versus street dogs

Domestic dogs / Street dogs

During the day, but most notably at night, the calming song of the ocean is interrupted by the canine alarm system, usually roused by one or more of their drifter counterparts passing in the lane.  Our neighbour here has a multi-level system, ranging from threatening to chihuahian in size and pitch.  And of course, all are activated at once, to maximum effect.

a pekingese dog

High pitch feature of canine alarm system

Luckily, the alert doesn’t last very long and most people are not stirred, which is more than I can say for the unfortunate Chilenos and Chilenas of the country’s coastal regions who fled low-lying areas after Chile’s second tsunami warning in as many weeks, on March 11th.

But beyond my half-serious complaints lies the issue of Chile’s dog population: the city of Santiago alone counts approximately 250,000 street dogs, according to a 2002 survey completed by the University of Chile.  The survey also corresponds with the beginning of the government’s attempt to deal with the issue through the Tenencia Responsable de Mascotas (Responsible Pet Ownership) project.  This, however, has moved at a snail’s limp toward becoming legislation and 8 years later now sits with the national congress.  Chile’s Ministry of Health has stated that dealing with street dogs is among its priorities for the next decade.

Aside from the cost of capturing and euthanising problematic street dogs (though animal rights groups claim that cheap, painful methods are employed), concerns arise from the potential spread of infectious diseases by dogs acting as carriers.  Also, in cases of disaster like the recent quake, regional emergency authorities have been accused of turning immediately to the destruction of animals that have been abandoned.  The question is, with reconstruction and getting people back to work and students back to school the clear priorities, will anyone sound the canine alarm?

Quakin’ all over

April 10, 2010

Since I arrived in Chile and especially since I got to Isla Negra on the central coast, I’ve been surrounded by sounds.  I arrived in Chile on March 7th, one week later than scheduled.  My flight had been postponed due to the movement of the Earth’s crust, no less.  In the early morning of February 27th, Chile suffered a massive earthquake which surged to 8.8 on the Richter scale, many times stronger than the seismic tragedy that struck the people of Haiti in January.

Reports, both personal and official, cite that the ground in central and southern Chile shook for about 2 minutes.  When one considers this quickly, two minutes does not seem very long.  Years ago, I might have been guilty of thinking a similar thought.  When I last visited my family in Chile, no less than 3 tremors sent waves through this part of the planet.  Two were very short, maybe 5 or 6 seconds.  One, however, lasted longer and shook the ground in waves that moved my chair from side to side seemingly without end.  In truth, the “sismo” probably lasted 10 or 15 seconds.  But now I know what it is to feel that an earthquake is never-ending.

What I didn’t remember from last time, but what my grandpa and my Uncle Ignacio made sure I knew about, was the sound, which brings out the true sense of what it means to live through an earthquake.  The amount of noise was incredible, they explained, which is only natural when you consider that every last object, the building you sit in, and everything that surrounds you begins to vibrate with telluric force.

Television in Chile has been broadcasting videos from up and down the country, eye witnesses to the strength of the quake and the panic it incited.  And within 4 days of arriving in Chile, we’d already felt 3 or 4 tremors, ripples of the original giant.

On March 11th, I heard the sound again: the slow and sinuous rumble that made people in the region think that a second earthquake was underway.  A 7.2 on the Richter scale caused many to believe the aftershock was much more.  I’ve thought, at times, about what exactly would be the most compromising position to be in when an earthquake hits.  On the 11th I believe I was in it: on the toilet.

toilet I sat on during a large aftershock

the worst place to be when an earthquake hits (where I was)

As I sat there and spoke to my dad through the door, I felt relieved, knowing at least that I was pretty well done my work and could pull up my pants and jump outside without major incident.  Though the seismic event lasted maybe 20 seconds, I had no clear indication that it was not the beginning of the worst circumstance, but only the rumbling sound and the temporary movement of my throne room.

Halli Galli

April 8, 2010

The night before I flew to Chile, I had some friends over for a Chinese hot pot, a delicious send off prepared and organized by my loving Malika.  We ate until none of us could anymore, then Malika and I cleared the table for a game of Halli Galli, which we’re told means “fun” or “party”, in German.  Halli Galli indeed.

I lost quickly in the first round, but took the opportunity to try out my new portable audio recorder.  I had made what I like to call, “an investment”, and bought a relatively high-quality recorder to take with me to Chile, mainly to document the conversations with my grandparents.  I recorded the rest of the round as the others played — it’s interesting how quickly a microphone disappears and people feel at ease, faster than with a camera, I think.  The game went on, shrieks and giggles, pounding on the table (it’s part of the game) and cheers.

Then I found my headphones and plugged them into the recorder.  What came out was warm, full, crisp and as the recently retired host of CBC Toronto’s morning show has put it, “intimate”.  I was amazed and I instantly sought to share the feeling, passing the headphones to my filmmaker and writer friend Barnett to take the first listen, then on to the others.  The feeling was there, on their faces: surprise and wonder at the richness and perhaps the sudden upwelling of emotion I had also felt at the sound’s touch.

waveform of halli galli audio recording

waveform of Halli Galli audio recording

Maybe he was right, that host of Toronto’s morning show.  The image, the camera, whether still or in motion, seem to carry with them that distance which seems inherent in the act of looking.  But sound enters us, becomes part of us, and involves us in it; the intimacy is real.  I felt it in the moment the sounds of Halli Galli bounced upon my ear drums, but of course, I’d felt it before.

Malika says I’ve found my love in radio.  And she may be right.  She’s got a unique perspective on it all, of course.  She’s been there throughout my trials and errors getting my feet wet in the waves of CKUT, one of Montreal’s community radio stations.  And the feeling has kept me coming back; back to the portable recorders, the volunteer room, the production studio, and onto the air.

The feeling of hearing a good sound, of producing a piece you are excited about is something akin to the feverish bliss of having words flow from your pen in a flurry of language you had not anticipated when you flipped open your notebook.  The glide of the well-inked pen along the paper, the texture of the writer’s canvas itself, even that familiar scent of “blue” that you recognize as you raise the pages to your nose.  Halli Galli and intimacy, all in one.

Take a listen to what we heard that night, here.