By Ray Horsley
This is a countdown of what I’ve come up with as the ten most prominent “Sounds of Cuenca”. You might also call them “Noises of Cuenca”. It depends on your perspective. I’ve spent my life and career as a musician. Although I don’t think I have any hearing loss from it, at least I haven’t heard anybody tell me that, I do suffer a little from tinnitus. So living just a few blocks from Parque Calderon, merely stepping outside my front door produces a symphonic uproar of clatter which inevitably has me sticking my fingers in my ears in self defense. But truth be told, some of my “Sounds of Cuenca” are quite pleasant. So aside from the clamorous joy of events like Carnaval, a noisy happening all its own, here’s the countdown.
10) The Tram Via Bell – This is actually one of my favorite sounds, that is if it’s not directly in front of me. Otherwise this bell–and we all know it’s not really a bell, it’s a speaker playing a digital sample of a bell–can be a few too many, well, deci-bells. Sometimes I think the training they give the drivers includes a picture of me so they know when to ring it. But like the sound of school children at recess, if it’s somewhat distant, it’s nothing less than quaint.
9) Cholitas Selling Produce – This, too, is a personal favorite. It’s something I’d never hear ‘back home’ and I love how they kind of sing their sales pitches. It’s enough to bring to mind Oliver’s “Who Will Buy My Sweet Red Roses”. Nice!
8) Street Musicians – As a musician, many of my friends are street musicians. This is another sound which is almost always agreeable. I especially like accordian players who add a touch of summertime in Europe to Cuenca’s atmosphere, although here we get it year-round. But I say “almost always pleasant” with the reservation of the ubiquitous, battery powered speakers. Usually the louder these things are cranked up the less pleasant it gets, once again bringing my fingers up to plug my poor ears as I pass by.
7) The Gas Truck – This roaming sound is not that bad as long as you don’t mind listening to the same song over and over. Maybe we could put in a request to the gas guys for something new. But then again, maybe not. Afterall, what kind of new sounds could we expect from a bunch of trucks that give everybody gas?
6) Squeaky Brakes – Now we’re moving from “sounds” to “noise”. From spindly motorcycles to large trucks everybody’s brakes squeak, but buses are the most common offenders. I can never figure out why they don’t squirt a little oil on their brake pads. They’ll get more mileage out of them and save us all from one of the most shrill sounds out there. Maybe they’re in cahoots with hearing aid manufacturers.
5) Alarms – My list wouldn’t be complete without these things. For some reason I’ve actually grown accustomed to them, once again, as long as they’re at a distance. My favorite alarms are those that run through an entire concert of various tunes and callings. I just wish they were all timed to shut off after a minute or less. Anything more and they seem to defeat their purpose of drawing attention.
4) Roller Doors – You know what I mean, those large, heavy, corrugated metal doors that make such an awful racket when they’re rolled up or down. Take a walk in the center of town when stores are opening or closing and you’ll get an ear-full from these. At least you get a little warning though, plenty of time to get your fingers in your ears. As an aside, walking with your hands in your pockets will only delay getting your fingers up to and into your ears. Like drawing pistols from holsters in the wild west, you’ll get your quickest draw with hands that are already free.
3) Speakers – Here we have two types. First is the relatively recent addition to Cuenca of vendors walking around with horns swinging in their hand or tied to a cart. They blast the same short recording over and over at deafening volumes. I don’t know how those guys keep their sanity. It wouldn’t be so bad if these ambulatory offenders didn’t concentrate their blastings to such a tiny range of frequencies. This brings me to the second type, the much larger stationary speakers. These huge cabinets, usually mounted in store entrances on stands right at your ear’s level, scream music just to announce that a store is open, even though all the stores are open. Have a care if you pass one while carrying a few bags of groceries you just picked up from Tia. Now that same ‘quick draw’ to get your fingers in your ears might end up whopping yourself in the chin with a dozen eggs or a box of milk. Saturdays you’ll see this attention-getting effort complimented with clowns and sexy ladies gracing store entrances. I don’t have any problem with clowns and I certainly don’t have any problem with the sexy ladies. But each store competing as to who can crank their speakers up the loudest? It’s questionable.
2) Motorcycles – It’s ironic how these, the smallest vehicles on the streets with the smallest engines, make the biggest, loudest, longest and most obnoxious racket of them all. Sometimes they even prompt me to put my fingers in my ears when I’m in my own house with the windows closed. And I’m on the ninth floor. Now that’s loud!
1) The Car Horn – Depending on the car–and each vehicle sports a different horn–this is almost always an ear-plugger. By the way, I hope it’s OK with the pandemic and all for me to stick my fingers in my ears. They say you’re not supposed to touch your face, but really? I can see how it’s socially offensive for me to touch other people’s parts, but I’ve got to draw the line when I can’t even touch my own parts. And what if you really could get Covid by plugging your ears with your fingers? Ear Covid! What would those symptoms be? Would they alter the sounds that enter your ears? Maybe it would make everybody’s voice sound like Anthony Fauci. Wait a minute. Somtimes everybody already DOES sound like Anthony Fauci. I should probably get this checked out.
Back to the common car horn, the problem is it provides no warning. This gives me no time at all to plug my ears. A word to the wise, if you see a traffic light turn green it’s safe to assume the lead car has his head buried in his cell phone. The honking horns of his fellow drivers are soon to follow. Once I saw an Ecuadorian man holler back at a honking driver “¡Cállate!” (Shut up!) but I’m not going to take up that practice. The last thing I want to do is provoke an already angry driver. He might just pull on the emergency brake, hop out of his car and go to work not just on my ears but the rest of me.
So when it’s all said and done I can listen to and often enjoy the many “Sounds of Cuenca”. I can also wish certain ones could be dialed down a knotch or two, but I can’t really complain about them. Not really. I remember how deafeningly quiet it was in the historic center during the lock-downs of 2021. Today it’s a thrill to see the city back alive again. In Petula Clark’s 1960’s hit “Downtown” she sings “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go, downtown”. And it really does get your spirits up just being part of the hustle and bustle.
Cuenca, I love you!