Monday, April 7, 2008

Losing my religion...and my hearing

"At least you can sleep on the bus." That's what Ana, the obliging Chilean woman I stayed with during my recent research trip to Valparaíso, said when I arrived at her house exhausted after a marathon day of events and press conferences. I nodded gratefully, repressing the suspicion that things would not be that simple.

They weren't. This became evident as the bus pulled out of the station to begin its two-hour voyage to Santiago. That was when the attendant popped in a DVD of Air Supply's greatest hits and I abandoned all hope of a nap.

Frustrating as this was, it came as no surprise. I have long since resigned myself to the fact that most long-distance trips in Chile will involve, at some point or another:

a) bad '80s music that everyone else seems to like
b) someone blasting reggaeton from his/her cell phone
c) graphically violent movies at full volume
d) all of the above

My two hours with Air Supply made me recall a conversation I had with Monica, my coworker's gringa roommate, during my recent trip to Mendoza, Argentina. As we rode back from an afternoon of whitewater rafting listening to funk hits of years gone by pulse from the radio, Monica observed that transportation in Chile (and, in this case, Argentina) frequently seems to involve music that's just, well, out of place.

"Out of place" is a euphemism. The soundtrack to my life in South America is riddled with audio that ranges from being inappropriate for the circumstances to downright scarring. What follows are a few choice examples:

Santiago, 2004: Running behind for an English class, I hailed a cab. As I sat in the backseat wringing my hands and compulsively checking my watch, the driver pumped up the volume of a heavy rock radio station. The singer was graphically describing (in English) the violent sex acts he had performed on children, old men and goats. I was traumatized. The driver, on the other hand, bobbed his head to the beat and began singing along. I assume (hope to God) he didn't understand English. I don't think the radio station's personnel did, either.

San Pedro de Atacama, 2004: A group of friends and I traveled to northern Chile, home to the driest desert in the world. After settling in at our hostel, we enthusiastically booked a trip to a geyser field. The one downside of the geyser tour is that it starts at 3 A.M.; the air is coolest in the morning, contrasting sharply with the hot geysers and making the steam particularly spectacular. No problem, we thought. We can sleep in the van.

Wrong. We can listen to Michael Jackson's greatest hits for an hour and a half. Because there's no better time or place for that than at three in the morning in the middle of the desert.

Chile-Argentina border, 2005: May 21 is a national holiday in Chile, so a few friends and I took advantage of it in the same way a horde of santiaguinos did: We went to Mendoza. After a spectacular trans-Andean bus ride and a weekend full of steak and cheap shopping, we learned there had been a snowstorm in the Andes and the road back to Chile had been closed. Tough luck: We were forced to spend an extra day on vacation.

The problem occurred when the road was reopened and it was finally time to cross the mountains back into the real world. The snowstorm had left a multitude of Chilean tourists stranded in Mendoza, and everyone headed back at the same time. The result was a goliath traffic jam that stretched back several hours from the border checkpoint.

Although I regretted not bringing snacks along, I figured the wait would give me a much-needed opportunity to catch up on some homework. And it would have, had the bus attendant not decided to entertain his passengers with a movie about massacres in African villages. We--as captive as any audience ever was--spent the next two hours steeped in the images and sounds of ruthless slaughter.

Of course, one could roll his or her eyes and mutter, "Poor girl. The horrors of war in Africa distracted her from her homework." Valid. However, I'm sure that close to 95 percent of the world's non-pornographic films would have been more appropriate for a long-distance bus with no headphones and various kids aboard.

Quito, 2006: A group of job-hunting gringos and I piled into a cab. We soon learned that those chanting monks that used to sell CDs on TV had crossed over into the rock scene: Wafting from the speakers was a Gregorian chant version of REM's "Losing My Religion." I spent the entire ride with my lips curled inward, struggling not to burst out in hysterical laughter.

Of course, I'm well aware that out-of-place audio is a worldwide phenomenon. After all, one of my childhood school bus drivers used to blast techno music whenever we got on a highway.

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