Friday, February 22, 2008

Roof Dog Rant

Two doors down from our little row house in San Miguel a huge black Doberman perches on the edge of a flat concrete roof among the rusting rebar and dead potted plants, its dark ominous shape looming over the street below. Yellow eyes, a stray tooth poking out over its lower lip, one ear sticking straight up, the other bent at an odd angle. At any time of the day or night, motivated perhaps by a passing street dog, a running child, the gas man or the rising full moon, it lurches into a barking frenzy, overtaking any other activity such as conversation, reading or sleeping. It is a deep-throated explosion of sound, a thunderous dark bellowing, a bone racking howl and cry that echoes off of the walls and down the cobblestone streets below.

The Mexican roof dog. It is a phenomenon that is difficult to understand, especially by someone who comes from a culture where animal cruelty is frowned upon and peace and quiet revered. Aside from offering a sense of protection against crime, the roof dog owes its meager existence to a lack of space in a city where houses share walls and small patios and courtyards don’t allow for pets and the messes they make.
To complain to the dog’s owners would be futile, I am told. It would only invite bad relations and would not do anything to resolve the problem. What problem, gringo? So I have tried joking about it, forcing a laugh. I have tried listening to the barking without letting myself become irritated, attempted to hear it as mere sound without judgment. I have tried to feel love and compassion towards this poor wretched creature whose pathetic fate consists of several square feet of concrete under a hot sun. I will be like the Buddha, I say. I will practice acceptance and gratitude. But it isn’t long before my throat begins to tighten, my chest contracts, and I feel my jaw begin to twitch. Soon any semblance of spiritual progress I have made in my life shatters like a frail illusion as I envision myself shooting the dog in the head or tossing up a little meat injected with rat poison. ‘Just don’t listen to it,’ says my Mexican neighbor. But how? After all, you can’t close your ears as you can your eyes and mouth.

Years ago, I befriended a young Zapotec Indian man who invited me to spend a few days with his family in their village on the coast of Oaxaca. I spent the night in their one room house along with his parents, grandparents, children, cousins, and in-laws, all sleeping in hammocks strung across hooks in the walls. I remember lying awake for hours listening to the roosters crowing and dogs barking until I finally fell asleep from pure exhaustion, only to be jolted awake a few hours later by the sound of a screaming woman. I bolted upright in my hammock to see my friend’s ancient grandmother perched in front of a television set turned on full blast to a late night telenovela, in which an angry woman cursed and wailed through the worn speakers, mascara streaming down her face.
I must have shouted in my surprise because the old lady turned to me from across the room, smiling a toothless grin. “Que pasa, guera? She asked. “no puedes dormir?” “What’s the matter, blondie? Can’t sleep?”
Furious and confused, I looked around me at the dark room, illuminated by the dim blue light from the television. What I saw seemed impossible. Everyone was still fast asleep, snoring in their hammocks, sleeping children sprawled on a mattress on the floor at various angles, oblivious to the deafening noise. And that’s when I got it. It’s not that they learn to cope, because this is all they know. Raised in large noisy families in a cacophony of wailing radios, blaring televisions, clanging church bells, the barking and crowing and screeching of animals and honking of traffic, they learn to hear selectively, to listen only to what they need to hear.
Levels of tolerance to noise seem to be a learned thing that develops within a culture.
Once I met a man from Switzerland who told me that in his apartment building in Zurich a person could call the police on their neighbor if they took a shower after the 10:00 curfew, as the noise would be too disturbing.

When I lived in San Cristobal my friend Anie, a painter from Australia, rented an apartment above a restaurant in the center of town, where she would paint beautiful delicate gouache paintings of Buddhas and clouds. One day the restaurant began doing remodeling construction, and she was tormented every day by the sound of hammering and machinery below her feet. She would come over to my house in tears, unable to work or think. “Help me! She would cry. I’m losing my mind!” When she complained to the restaurant owner they told her not to worry, that it would be over in a few weeks. So she toughed it out, and after about a month the noise finally ceased. She was so grateful she spent the first day sobbing with relief. What she didn’t know was that what they had been building the whole time was a dance floor for their brand new discothèque.

And so it is. Mexico does not promise peace and quiet, only the incessant sound, color, and smells that constantly assault and entice the senses and remind you that you are never alone. The chaos of life is always present and abundant, buzzing and exploding with unpredictable energy.

Meanwhile the roof dog is at it again, and I wonder if I can possibly learn to find some semblance of peace amidst the discomfort I feel in the midst of its barking. If so, perhaps I can find peace anywhere. I practice “selective listening” as if it were yoga. And once in a great while I do succeed.
Meanwhile, I try to be thankful every day for the small miracles in my life. Like ear plugs, for instance.

1 comment:

Apria said...

Well written article.