It’s funny the things you remember about a country when you leave. I remember after spending a month in one Latin American capital a few years ago, and for all that I enjoyed the amazing cultural sites, the mouth-watering food and the striking scenery, a few months later the only really clear memory I had was the sound of the car-alarms.
You see, in this particular country, they had eschewed the traditional NRGH, NRGH, NRGH two tone horn sound, and had installed something altogether more varied and ambitious. Over the course of 40 seconds or so, the alarm cycled between four different sounds, ranging from a police-car like WIO WIO WIO through a slowly ascending WOOOOOOOOOUP WOOOOOOUP and finishing with a high pitched, two note DOO DEE DOO DEE, before going all the way back to the beginning for another round, a coda, if you will. A four part symphony. The best part? If the owner trying to turn it off mid-way through the cycle, it didn’t stop there and then, but doggedly carried on until the end of that round was complete.
Almost every car in this country seemed to be fitted with one, and what it lacked in subtlety of sound it more than made up for in sensitivity of activation. For this alarm was on a hair-trigger. A passing cyclist could set it off. A light breeze would agitate it into action. And the growl of a passing motorbike was guaranteed to trigger every other car in the street, setting off a wake of indignant squealing behind it, like a line of ladies who had just had their bottoms pinched by a passing sex-pest.
In short, this made for large amount of what we in the UK would term ‘noise-pollution’. A car fitted with an alarm like that in the UK would instantly have all its windows broken and the offending hooter manually prized out of its housing by a hoard of indignant neighbours. Hell, we are introducing a ban on unnecessary train announcements, and our airports now pride themselves on never announcing flights. My dad would never set the burglar alarm in our house when we went away on holiday – just in case it were to go off and annoy the neighbours. The ideal English car-alarm would be the sound of someone delicately clearing their throat and saying under their breath: ‘I’m so sorry to bother you but could you possibly check if I’m being broken into – there’s a good chap’.
But what struck me about said country was that nobody batted an eyelid at what seemed to me an obvious and unnecessary annoyance. Nobody covered their ears, or narrowed their eyes in annoyance as they struggled to continue conversations over the din, which could be heard at most times, in most streets.
In the same way, nobody seemed to get stressed by the constant, seething traffic, the heat, the choking pollution, the queues round the block to get into the bank or the hospital. The average day for the average citizen in this city involved a level of inconvenience, frustration, wasted-time, and bureaucratic tedium that would give many people a coronary. To me it was like a migraine made into a city – every jolt in the road, every deafening siren, every pneumatic drill conspiring to make my eyes hurt and my head start to pound.
I suppose those living there were simply accustomed to these things. I could never decide whether this was a good thing or not. On the one hand, a zen-like calm and indifference to the chaos around seemed like a supremely smart move for one’s mental and physical health. There was no foot-tapping in the post-office queue here, no heavy sighs or exaggerated eye-rolling when someone took five seconds too long to pack their things in the super-market. And nobody – but NOBODY – would beep their horn when someone was helping an old lady out of a car and holding up the traffic, even if it took all day. Surely a society with more built-in tolerance for inconvenience and which operates at the pace of the slow and the infirm has to be a happier place than one which aims to operate at the speed of gerbil?
But on the other hand, were people in this country too forgiving of their surroundings? Had they overcome the problem of annoying car-alarms simply by adopting a zen-like indifference, and in the process lost the impetus for reform? When you first arrive somewhere like this, you have this strong sense that things simply can’t go on. People will surely not put up with it for much longer, and nor will the system cope. But wherever you go, you find the exact opposite – people putting up with things, making do, somehow navigating across vast urban sprawls, somehow making their way through impossible webs of corruption, process, inconvenience, delay. And at the end of doing that each day, they don’t do what we in the UK or US might do – they don’t run a bath and take several painkillers, washed down with a bottle of wine before settling down to a night of stress-induced insomnia. They don’t show any outward signs of stress or discomfort – no tight shoulders or pursed lips in sight. In fact, they often go out and party, crowding into tiny bars and even more implausibly busy streets as though daring the city to deafen and overwhelm them.
Perhaps that’s the only way to survive there – to embrace chaos and shrug off inconvenience, and put aside thoughts of reform. Certainly reform doesn’t seem to have made us happier; it turns out that living in a quiet, clean and well-run city seems to lead more often towards depression than to euphoria. It turns out that riding a well maintained, hydrogen cell powered, speed-limit obeying bus is considerably less exciting than being flung down the road in an open-doored, fume-belching, rivet-rattling, free-revving ‘combi’ bus as it hurtles dizzyingly through the city night.