I just got back from travelling 21 days around the Maya Region of Mexico, especially the states of Chiapas, Yucatán and Quintana-Roo. There are a lot of things that can be said about this region, but I will try and reduce this post to what I saw and most importantly, what I heard.
“Hearing a place”. What a strange notion. Yet, it is something we do all the time. If you live in New York City and you go to the woods for a weekend, one of the first things you´ll notice is the lack of sirens, car horns and building exhausts. You´ll notice the presence of birds, insects and silence(?). This drastic change is something that inspired me to collect the sounds of one of the most beautiful regions of my country. This beauty has caused what I believe to be a great contradiction. Tourists are drawn to the region because of its beauty, yet, it is mass tourism that is affecting the same beauty that draws tourists on the first place. From Cancún to Lacanjá, you can see that Mass Tourism has an extreme effect on the land and how people relate to it. It is not only the beaches changing the mangrove and the white sands for immense all-inclusive resorts, it also the agricultural and fishing towns being pushed towards becoming tourist attractions. I wanted to show these differences and hopefully illustrating the contradiction that I have previously mentioned through sounds.
Disclaimer: This blog entry will include pictures, texts and some sounds related to the project, but I cannot include my final soundscapes as I need to go through hours and hours of sounds in order to have them ready.
(Chiapas July 17-23)
It was fortunate that my project started in Lacanjá Chansayab, where I met Adolfo Chan Kiin. Meeting this wonderful man and his family was a privilege and an eye opening experience. Adolfo is part of a Lacandon Maya community and he has lived next to the Jungle all of his life, he knows how to use its resources in ways that keeps on surprising me. In a single walk around the Jungle he would collect 3 or 4 different products that were useful for his house. To illustrate how knowledgeable he is I would like to share a story. One time, when talking about a TV show that was recorded next to his village called “Naked in the Jungle” (A program that consists of 10 people been left naked into the Jungle to see if they would survive.) he said that they would never invite him to participate, as he would return fat. It is important to state that the sounds I recorded would have been much poorer if not for him, as he knew exactly where all the birds and animals were. During my short but fruitful time in Lacanjá I wrote 2 songs with Adolfo. Our process was incredibly entertaining and enriching for me. He would write a text that he wanted me to turn into a song and I would adapt it. Sitting down in his kitchen. The first song we wrote was about a time he was in the Jungle. I will translate the text:
(“Cuch-Ja” song attached)
The jungle is a song. Now I´m not alone. We often regard the notion of “Our song” as being our favorite songs. Yet, my favorite song was produced in Great Britain by a Nigerian artist. Both places thousands of kilometers from my home in Mexico City. What could be my song then? My national anthem? A song with my name on it? My song is the sound of birds in the huge tree in front of my window, the few but loud birds that live around my house, the cars in the distance, helicopters. It may not be as beautiful as the sound of “pristine” nature. But that is what I have heard for most of my life. I realized that these soundscapes were theoretically not to different from a song. A studio picture from Vogue is different from a Nat Geo in the setting, but both of them have similar characteristics. They both capture a moment. The moment where the model smiled, when the snow leopard appeared. The moment when the guitarist played the killer solo, the moment where the cicada, the heron and the howling monkey sang in unison.
Palenque is a small town most known for its incredible archeological site. This was the first place where we got to explore the combination of natural and human sounds. Getting there from Lacanjá was quite the journey, but it allowed me to sleep early enough (9 am) to catch the howling monkeys in the morning. The first time that I heard this sound I was pretty scared. I was around 15 years old when I first heard this sound, and I got woken up by this very loud primates. I was terrorized. Yet, even if they are the largest primates in America, they are not as scary when you see a picture of them (I find them extremely cute). The soundscape we recorded from our camping site was very rich, as it combined the monkeys with an intense rain.
The other soundscapes we managed to record while in Palenque were recorded in or close to the archeological site. Hoping to achieve a rich soundscape that got the crowds of people and the sounds of the surviving rainforest.
(I invite to to listen to the following soundscape with the best headphones you have. )
YUCATÁN AND QUINTANA ROO (23 Jul- 3 AUG )
After leaving Palenque, I headed to Mérida. The capital of the state of Yucatán, and the city that initially brought this project to my head. When I visited Mérida as a child I was amazed by it ́s central plaza. I must say that Yucatán is known for being a paradise for bird-watchers given its incredible bird diversity. This characteristic allows the central playa of the capital and biggest city of the state to be a place of great sound richness. Combining the busy and noisy soundscape of a capital: street vendors, church bells, sirens, etc. And countless bird songs that survive in the 20 trees (approx) that are left in the plaza.
I was a bit disappointed at first, as I encountered a plaza that seemed a bit shaved, compared to the green park I saw years ago. But as soon as I closed my eyes I found what I think became one of my favorite soundscapes of the whole trip.
I must also say that I discovered one of the great challenges of soundscaping as an artform. As I encountered a great obstacle in the form of a religious man screaming apocalyptic messages in the middle of the plaza (for four hours), and had to change the itinerary to be able to record once he was gone.
Uxmal is a baffling archeological site close to Mérida. I wanted to go to get there as early as possible to get the song of one of my favorite birds: the common swallow. I was very eager to see the combination of their song and the traditional sounds of tourists. The recordings I got this day were very fun, since they combine the click of cameras and the playful song of the swallows. Another interesting thing I managed to capture was a group of workers renewing a pyramid. I was surprised to see that amongst the construction workers you could hear both Maya and Spanish (and different central american accents of spanish).
After coming back to Mérida from Uxmal, I headed to Celestún. A place often seen as a day-trip from the Yucatán capital. Most famous for its beautiful Mangroves. I was very excited to stay overnight to be able to see and hear the “awakening” of the mangrove. Once again, I had to wake up around 3am to witness a places
beauty. I must admit that as soon as I jumped on the canoe (It couldn´t be a boat as it would have caused too much noise pollution) I realized that I had made a huge mistake. Mangroves and swamps may be home to a great variety of beautiful birds and reptiles, but they are also highly populated by mosquitoes. Although it may seem irrelevant when listening to the recording, I was being eaten by them as I held the monopod with the microphone. I got bitten approximately 60 times, I was very lucky to not catch Dengue or Chikungunya. On top of this, I wasn’t getting ANY sounds on the recording. All the birds were sleeping, the only sound I captured were the insects that were eating me alive and suddenly… “pio pio”. The sound of the first bird. I guess we ignore that one bird has to be the first to sing in the morning. All the mosquito bites were worth it. The choir started singing and all those bites had no way to dull the beauty of that very ephemeral moment.
After recovering from the exhausting trip to the Mangroves in Celestún I had to head to the most famous place in the Peninsula. The wonder of the modern world, the wonderful city of Chichen Itzá. It was the first place that I visited one of the most famous places in my country, so I was extremely excited. I was also very nervous, as this place was going to be one of my most challenging soundscapes. I wanted to capture the sounds of the hordes of tourists, which is remarkably easy. But I wanted to make sure that my recording would give some context of the place where these tourists were. I recorded a couple different locations inside the archaeological center and tried different setups to be able to get an interesting soundscape. In the end I got an interesting combination: different languages, tour guides, jaguar-whistle sellers, people screaming, and some other characteristics that made this one of the most entertaining pieces to record.
The main point of my project was to combine the sounds of nature and mass tourism in the Mayan region in Mexico. At this point I had recorded beautiful sounds in the mangroves, the coast and the jungle. Having recorded the seemingly easier part of my sound map of the region I had to record Cancún. The must-see destination for spring breakers. Known for its parties and its all-inclusive resorts. Something that made this an interesting visit was the presence of sargasso. The most popular beaches were empty for the first day of my stay, luckily for the project, the second day marked the day where the algae started reducing. This allowed me to record the great number of tourists that had drawn me here. Although I was sure of what sounds I wanted to record in Cancún, I wasn’t entirely sure of what was the best way to capture them.
My 2 sounds of choice were the exhaust vents of the humongous resorts and the strip of the bay that has the most important nightclubs. I assumed that the exhaust would be noisy enough to capture them from different points, and that allowed me to try different things. Luckily for me, a guy recording sounds in the back of a hotel without anyone’s permission is by far not the strangest or most illegal thing that people will ever see in that city.
As for my second soundscape, I thought of a different approach. The nightclub street is noisy to say the least. I could have captured the noise pollution from many different positions, but I wanted to show the difference between the calmness of the outskirts of the touristic area and the great noise of the clubs. I decided to install my recorder in the car I was using to travel and I drove from the outskirts to the club area several times. This was a hard task to get, as the nightlife street was so loud that it would make my mic clip even in extremely low sensibility.
In the end, I managed to get a soundscape that shows how dreadful the noise pollution of that street is.
Playa del Carmen
It was my first time travelling to the most touristic locations in Mexico, which strangely caused a sort of chock in me. Playa del carmen was definitely calmer than Cancún, but I was still surprised to see how the place was influenced by foreign tourists. I was even more surprised to see the great number of foreign workers, especially the great number of Italians and argentinians working there. Having travelled to Lacanjá before really gave me a perspective on the great contrasts that exists within my country. An anecdote that summarizes my shock is the following.
Every time I walked along the
and I heard the following “Trips to cozumel! Buy your tickets to Cozumel!” and as soon as I came close to the man selling the trip he would say in a much lower and faster voice “
. This happened so many times I decided to count how many times I got offered drugs while walking in the main tourist street of the city. The first time I counted was during a 2-2.5 km walk. Where I got offered drugs a total of 22 times. The relevance of this story is that of course, I wanted to record my walk, but I encountered many technical problems. The main one was that in order to get a good sound recording I would have to expose my recorder or microphone. I tried to hide it under my sleeve, shirt or in my back pocket; but I wasn’t very successful. I tried different combinations, but I wasn’t able to get a good recording of the walk.
After visiting the part of the city I wanted to go the more local part of the city. It was surprising to see the clear division between the tourist and the local parts of the city. In this part I was very happy to record another beautiful plaza full of great sounds.
While in playa del carmen I decided to visit the blue cenote. Cenotes are groundwater bodies, and they are common in the yucatan Peninsula. Cenotes had a great spiritual relevance to the Mayans, which is why archeological sites tend to be close to a cenote. Nowadays, they are used as pools and ecotourism attractions. Amongst the great number of options close to Playa del Carmen, the cenote azul is by far the most popular amongst locals, which is why I thought this would be a great place to record a nice soundscape of children playing in nature. Although its ceremonial use is certainly not very common nowadays, I was surprised to see what a beautiful use the people gave to this place. It was a combination of a beach and a public pool. Although it was full of people there were still many beautiful sounds of birds around us.
Coming back to México City after this trip gave me yet another perspective on the relevance of our soundscape. It was overwhelming to see the great sound diversity in the Maya region of my country. But I can’t deny that I was more surprised to see the great socioeconomic diversity between the great beacons of mass tourism and the slower calmer small villages. In one hand I saw opulence and in the other damage caused by this. I hope that after processing all the sounds that I recorded during this trip I am able to show what I felt in this trip. I hope that I am able to show how the beauty of these places, and how that beauty is being harmed. I hope that the sounds I recorded show the listeners that we need to find a more sustainable way to approach tourism in the region. Is it not contradicting that we are harming a place ́s beauty by trying to engage with the wonders that brought us here?
The soundscapes included in this post are going to be used in an installation I ´am currently working on. They were also used in combination with music in my upcoming EP. I´m looking forward to share both of them with the Lang Community.
I couldn´t be more grateful with the ELOA award for allowing me to explore soundscapes as an artistic medium.