[I (Jody) started this blog in early March, but before I got it published the coronavirus arrived and Quito, like the rest of the world, went silent. Now, three months later, Quito’s sounds are heard again.]
What’s it like to live in Quito, a city of two or three million people? Well, it’s a lot different from the much smaller western Oregon city where we lived for most of our lives. Besides the altitude (9,200 ft.), climate (eternal springtime), and language (Spanish), a big difference is the level of noise.
Sellers & Buyers
Our biggest noise source is trucks driving by with blaring loudspeakers. The most prominent is the (propane) gas truck song.
At least once each hour a truck will drive by playing this song to announce that they are selling 20 kg (44 lb) tanks of propane. When we moved here in 2014, gas trucks simply honked their horn (short beeps) as they drove the streets. But in 2016 the government mandated that this song be played instead. I can’t imagine how much the truck drivers hate hearing this all day long.
Many people use propane for their hot water and/or for cooking. An 18 kilogram tank (about 40 pounds) only costs $3.50 delivered. We have a tank for our dryer too, and we average about one tank a month between the three appliances.
Most people hear the song in the distance and run outside to wave down a truck. We have a favorite driver, Ángel, so Scott just calls him when we need gas and he stops the next time he goes by. The last time Scott called, though, Ángel told him to just text him, “Monociclo” (unicycle) and the number of tanks we need!
Not every city’s gas song is as irritating as Quito’s. Otavalo’s song sounds like a calliope or carousel. And Loja’s song sounds like pan pipes (called rondadores here). (Loja’s garbage trucks also play a distinctive song, maybe so people can quickly run their garbage down to the curb?) I couldn’t find any recordings for Otavalo or Loja, but here’s a sample of the Ecuadorian rondador.
Also very common are trucks buying metal or plastics. “Compramos lavadoras, secadoras, refrigeradores, latas, botellas de plastica… ” (We buy washers, dryers, refrigerators, tin cans., plastic bottles…) In the last five hours I’ve heard four different trucks drive by.
We have two fruit trucks which regularly drive down our street. Both are pickups with a suspended tarp to shade the produce. They use a loudspeaker to announce their wares: fruits, vegetables, cheese, and snacks. In season, farmers will drive by announcing potatoes or mangoes or oranges. Right now it’s potatoes. At Christmas time it’s mangoes.
And there’s a guy who sells brooms. He walks down the street carrying brooms and yelling something indistinguishable at the top of his lungs. Once he saw me at the window looking down, so he just stopped in front of the apartment and yelled for about five minutes. (I don’t look anymore.)
[When the lockdown started March 16, we didn’t hear a single gas truck–or any other buyer/seller–from Monday evening to the next Sunday afternoon . “Weird” does not describe how strange that was.]
When someone is walking a dog, we can hear barking from almost every building as the dog goes down our street. Sometimes it seems like the barking is continuous, at pedestrians, cars, and trucks. During the night is the most irritating.
We actually live on a fairly quiet street, only about 3 1/2 blocks long, with almost no through traffic. We’re half a block from a big high school, so we hear the school buses zoom by three times daily (schools here have two shifts, 7 a.m.-1 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.)
We’re one block up the hill from Avenida de las Américas (everyone just says “América”), one of Quito’s major streets. Our bedroom faces that direction, but the buses stop running about 10 p.m. and the traffic noise dies down until they start running again about 5:30 or 6 a.m.
The only time we get traffic noise from our street (Manuela Sáenz) is when traffic is backed up on América. Drivers will jog up to our street thinking they can bypass the traffic. They don’t realize that the only exit from our neighborhood is to jog back down to América. We’ll have solid traffic outside our apartment, everyone honking as no one can go anywhere.
Periodically we get air traffic noise, mostly police helicopters. Maybe once or twice a day we’ll hear a jet high overhead. Before Quito’s airport moved into a lower valley 20 miles away in 2013, airplanes flew down Quito’s narrow valley and landed about ten minutes away. People talk about waiting to leave for the airport to pick up someone until they saw the jet fly by; the plane was close enough to see what airline it was!
You’ve probably heard that car alarms are the national anthem of _____ (fill in the name of the Latin American country). That said, car alarms and building alarms actually seem to be less frequent in our neighborhood than when we first arrived. They are common enough, though, that people ignore them, which defeats their purpose.
For several months our downstairs neighbors had a building alarm which went off almost every Saturday morning at 6:30. It was incredibly loud and continued for about five minutes. We were very thankful when it stopped, but we still have no idea why it started and why it stopped.
Periodically the small convenience store across the street will attract a social gathering. Sometimes it’s three or four people, sometimes ten or fifteen, and a few times 100-200. Someone will have music playing in their car, and people will talk and laugh and joke. Friday nights and Saturday mornings are the most popular. If the group gets large, the noise level will rise and fall, but it’s not unpleasant. And the group always disperses when the little store closes, presumably because beer is no longer available. In contrast, friends who live close to our mission’s compound have had repeated problems with car parties outside their building at 3 or 4 a.m. with music loud enough to rattle their windows.
Every two or three months the high school has a large event which lasts for several hours. To our ears it sounds more like yelling into a microphone than music. Usually these events stop by bedtime, but a few times they have gone into the wee hours.
After 5 -1/2 years these noises are mostly just background noise, part of the neighborhood. We like the energy and activity of the big city more than we expected, especially since we have a mostly quiet apartment to escape to.