Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The monophonic symphony

Back in the days when Santiago city buses were yellow, many passengers engaged in an activity that oh-so-efficiently accomplished two things at once: keeping them entertained during the ride and aggravating the caca out of everyone around them. These considerate individuals took it upon themselves to treat their fellow passengers to a medley of five-second snippets of the contents of their ringtone libraries.

Bear in mind that this was a few years ago, so we're not talking symphonic masterpieces here. We're talking the Nokia jingle and monophonic tunes with names like "Summer Breeze." In other words, abrasively, unbearably obnoxious. I would tense up every time I saw a cell phone emerge from a a pocket or purse, praying its owner was not responding to a sudden urge to take ringtone inventory.

Fortunately, this custom seems to have disappeared with time. I can think of a few possible explanations for this. First, mp3 players and iPods have since provided Chileans with much snazzier ways to entertain themselves on the bus. And why flip through a list of ringtones when you can take photos, play Tetris and send e-mails on your cell phone instead? Also, Santiago's new buses have very few seats, meaning most people are too concentrated staying upright to get extremely bored. Who said Transantiago doesn't have its benefits?

Just when I thought I was in the clear, I went to the immigration office (Extranjeria)* last week to address what ended up being unfounded visa-related hysteria. I was sitting in the waiting room when I heard it: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture -- about four seconds of it. Then the opening stanzas of the theme from The Simpsons. Then the chorus from Good Charlotte's "I Just Wanna Live." In all their monophonic glory. The DJ: the guy seated in front of me.

Apparently, the public ringtone roll call is alive and well in other countries. Or at least at Extranjeria, where the wait is longer and more eyeball-twitchingly boring than the vast majority of bus rides. And when you're sitting in a hard plastic chair waiting for strangers to decide your future, there's nothing like fragments of high-pitched electronic melodies to calm your nerves.

*Some tips about Extranjeria: Go early, go with a book, and -- when in doubt -- go in person. The information I've received over the telephone has rarely been correct.

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