Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sounds of the 'hood...

Marfil is my 'hood these days. It’s a small (about 24,000 people) colonia (think precinct or neighborhood) of the city of Guanajuato. The B&B I used to manage, La Casa de Espíritus Alegres, is also in Marfil, just across the road about a hundred yards. What a difference those hundred yards make. Well, a hundred yards and a few hundred years—this house
was built in 1960s, La Casa in the 1600s.

The B&B is part of the Ex-Hacienda La Trinidad, a former silver-processing hacienda built along the Rio Guanajuato that is currently divided into a few private residences, the B&B, and in the hacienda’s former chapel, La Capilla, a kindergarten of all things. The gardens at La Casa are venerable and lush, a canopy of Jacaranda and Pirul (Peruvian Peppercorn) trees lace one's view of the sky; ivy, bougainvillea and copa de oro vines climb the ancient walls. It's absolutely gorgeous and I spent many a happy hour (and even a few Happy Hours) enjoying the beauty of Marfil from there.

The house I’m in now, however, is on the hill across the street and it is quite literally a completely different world up here. This house has towers of windows that provide a 180-degree view of rugged mountains, more haciendas along the river below, and sunrises over the the outskirts of Guanajuato in the east. In the eight years I worked at the B&B I had no idea that hundreds of egrets fly over Marfil every evening on their way back to the reservoir on the far side of Guanajuato. When I watch the skies here fill with spectacular cloud formations that end some lucky days with lightning, thunder, and rain, I’m reminded of the “big weather” of southwestern U.S.
By being one block up above the main thoroughfare of Marfil I can barely hear the traffic below, and instead am treated to an entirely new set of only-in-Mexico auditory treats (and some tricks) such as:
  • The distinct calls, bells, and whistles used by vendors as the pass through town. The knife sharpener is my favorite, he plays a five-note scale on his whistle—up, hold, and then down—to announce his presence. One guy goes by every day beginning at about 7am crying out a word that I cannot for the life of me understand. It sounds like “Arroz!” which means rice in Spanish, but I’m pretty darned certain I’m wrong on that one. “El Gaaaaaas!” is common as the LP truck rumbles through, and then there’s the ice cream truck that slowly rolls along each afternoon blaring a honky-tonk piano version of "The Alley Cat Song" from a speaker wired to the roof. Is that the international song for “Buy Ice Cream Now” or is it only in Mexico?
  • Children playing in the street in front of the house. I'm not crazy about the clatter produced by this year's most popular toy. It is basically just two plastic balls on either end of a string; you hold the string in the middle and bounce up and down to get the balls to click. Newbies are fine, they don't succeed in clicking the balls that often, but the older boys are really good at it, and they have big balls, it you'll forgive the pun, that make an extremely loud "clackclackclackclack" that seems to go on forever. Think dentistry tool and eardrum; just horrible. But then there are the laughter-filled evenings and weekends when the kids bounce a ball in the street and up against the big stonewall at the bottom of the garden. That one I especially love, it sounds exactly like a happy childhood should sound. When the ball gets away from them and escapes over the wall they ring the bell to come and retrieve it which gives us a few minutes to get to know each other. That I treasure.
  • The birdsong is amazing here, beginning with the 3am chatter of parrots who've set up housekeeping in a tree outside my bedroom window. Parrots in the high desert of Guanajuato, you ask? Apparently they were (illegally) bought as pets and escaped from their cages. Go parrots!
  • There are people walking, driving, and riding horses on the cobblestone street that passes behind the house and leads to a large part of Marfil that I never even knew existed. The lane passes just below the third floor window where I spend many hours working, so I pretty much hear the coming and goings of the entire village’s day. This one fascinates because I can’t actually see the road, just hear the sounds, so I imagine the stories to go along with the sounds. My favorite is the lone rider on horseback who goes down at 10 and back up a 10:30 almost every night. I’ve made him out to be a campesino who lives miles beyond here on his ranch in the hills and who comes down each evening to reward himself for his day of toil in the soil with one ice cold cerveza from the little store down the way.
  • Then there are the bells of the church just a few doors away. Since the church is so close they provide the daily soundtrack to life in this house, but I've been here over six weeks and but I still haven't figured them out. They ring on the hour, obviously, and then 15, 30, and 45 minutes after the hour are marked with a different tone. Okay, got that part. Then there are the calls to mass, which seems to happen most mornings at 8:30 and a few times a day on the weekends. That’s when they ring and ring and ring, announcing first, second, and third and final call, basically. Got that part too. But then sometimes I swear I am listening for them and they simply don’t ring. Sleeping bellman? Broken auto-chimer? Then one day the tones sounded different to me. That had me picturing someone up there 24 hours a day and when they switched shifts the tone changed. But that couldn’t possibly be true, who the heck would sleep on a church roof and ring bells every fifteen minutes all day every day, right? Then one day, when I had just about convinced myself that they were definitely on auto-chime, I was standing at the kitchen window washing dishes when the call to mass began. I looked over to see a real person pulling the rope, over and over. Theory bashed. My current thought is that it is some combination of automatic and hand rung, both of which sometimes malfunction, allowing for the missing clangs and mysterious changes in tone. Before I leave town I intend to get to the bottom of this, even if it means putting on a skirt and going to mass.
  • And just today I realized that my 'hood here, especially in the morning with all its roosters and chickens and burros, sounds exactly like my farm on Farm Town (a face book app that I am hooked on), which just delights me. When I return to Happy Valley and the familiar howl of coyotes and screech of red-tailed hawks I can turn on Farm Town any time I like and hear my Marfil 'hood.

I'm the one with the blond ponytail, Farmer Betty.


  1. This sounds so lovely--in a few years I would like to spend some of my free time living in Mexico--

  2. a few notes for you:

    1. stay away from Mass - at all costs!
    2. stay away from young boys with big balls...
    3. glad to hear that the campesino is on the road for cerveza. (fact or fiction?)
    4. thanks for introducing me to Farm Town (scary as it is!!)

    When in Mexico do you cook Mexican, American or other?

    I've been living on beans, chicken, green hatch chiles and tortillas this week.

    Second question: see email

  3. When I came back to Aptos after 4 months in Mexico the silence was almost scary. I actually miss all that lively and chaotic noise. Especially the music and vendors. Not the roof dogs, though...
    Read "Roof Dog Rant" on my blog at if you get a chance.
    Que sigas gozando la visa buena, Betsy!

  4. I mean la VIDA buena...oops.

  5. don't forget the barking of the dogs in the night... John S.

  6. Guess what. The Arrooooooozzzz guy? He's saying Gaaaaaaas! I still can't hear it, but I stopped him in the street the other day and asked him to repeat his song, which he kindly did. What a voice!!

  7. Do you hear the noise of the camotes guy or the bell that announces that the garbage truck has arrived or the noise of the balloon dealer? Those noises are common here in Toluca.


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