From the July/August 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Passport, boarding pass, cell phone....” As my taxi zips down Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, destination JFK airport, I’m performing my anxious ritual: the pre-trip inventory.
Yes, I’ve made this airport trip hundreds of times. No, I haven’t ever left my passport behind on the counter. Still, I put myself through the back-seat drill every time because it’s how I cope with tearing myself away from home. Phone number of hotel? Yup. Power adapters? Extra pair of eyeglasses? Got ’em right here.
Then, suddenly, a cord of panic pulls tight around my chest. I thrust my hand into one compartment of my handbag, then another, frantically fishing for the reassuring plastic bag filled with squishy lumps. It’s not anywhere. My mouth opens, and the words, “Driver, turn around! Now!” almost spring out. But I swallow them. We’re halfway to the airport, and I’m already running late. Surely I can survive one trip without my supply of foam earplugs?
I’m a generally invulnerable traveler except for one thing that undoes me every time: noise. Ask me about my absolute worst travel experiences, and you won’t hear a peep about flight delays or bumpy bus rides. Instead, I’ll tell you the story about that night I missed the connecting flight in Tonga and the airline put me up in a cheap hotel room in the town of Tongatapu. Grayish sheets, moldy smells—I could deal with that. But at 10 p.m. my room suddenly began throbbing with powerful, low-frequency rumbles that shook the walls. I jumped out of bed, flew out the door, and rushed down the stairs, thinking, “Earthquake!”
Not quite. There was a lot of shaking going on, but the event was purely man-made: That particular cheap hotel doubles as Tongatapu’s most popular Saturday night disco.
Then there were the roosters that always began crowing at 2 a.m. at the rural retreat in Bali (no one, I guess, informed them that they shouldn’t get going until dawn). And there were the deeply discounted hotel quarters with “swimming pool view” that I was so pleased with myself for snagging in Mexico. The swimming pool, it turned out, was under renovation. Actively. With jackhammers. Directly below my window. I didn’t know whether to feel furious or cry, so I did a little of both.
Many years before I wrote about travel I was a pop-music critic (and musician). For a living I listened, intently, to sounds, which I think made me extra sensitive to them. I am the only one among my writer friends who works without music playing in the background; when the sound of my own words are playing in my mind, I just can’t bear the distraction of anything else.
In my ideal travelers’ world I’d control the volume of everything, like a music producer at a giant mixing board. There would be no blasting television sets hanging above public squares or embedded in taxi seats, no cheesy new-age songs playing while I had a massage. Loud, obtrusive, offensive, or extraneous whines, whirrs, honks, bleats, or bellows would be completely absent. Everywhere.
But no traveler can remain in a perfectly controlled sonic bubble. Not when we’re moving through a world in which what constitutes noise has so many different interpretations, including whether noise is ever a bad thing. For sound is relative: One person’s noise is another person’s music, or prayer, or expression of happiness.
On one of the first extended trips I ever took, I traveled to the Caribbean island of Trinidad for Carnival, which is basically like deciding to pitch your tent inside a dance hall for three weeks. At any hour, the ram-ba-lam-bam of a wayward sound-system bass speaker or the tin-tin-tinna-tin of a wooden mallet teasing a melody on a steel drum would float through the air and, without warning, straight into my ear. Neighbors shouted to each other over the din, then turned up the volume on their radios. It was a nonstop tumult of celebration, during which I got very little sleep. It was fabulous.
As was the modest backpackers hostel next to a mosque in Chennai, India, where, five times a day, starting at 4:30 a.m., a recording of the Muslim call to prayer, Allllahhhuuakkkbar!!!, blasted out from cheap metallic loudspeakers. The prayers woke me, then seeped into my dreams as, soothed, I fell back to sleep.
The thing is, the noise that wraps a city in Carnival happiness or leads a neighborhood through its daily rhythm of prayer is more than just noise: It’s the sound of a human community. To block it out is to risk missing something really fundamental about a place—and the reassuring feeling of being part of something larger than yourself. Noise brings people together. I’ve learned this over and over in my travels, but it hasn’t been an easy lesson to accept.
At a Chinese dinner in Hong Kong, for instance, where restaurants are filled with big, chatty, boisterous families, it drives me crazy that you can never have a proper conversation. But when you ask a local person if a particular restaurant is good, almost always they will answer with, “Yes. It’s tasty, and bustling, and noisy.” The decibel level is as important as the cuisine. Just as there is comfort food, there is also comfort noise.
I struggle against my instinct to isolate myself in a cocoon of silence. I really don’t want to cut myself off from the thrill of human cacophony. But I don’t want to go crazy, either. Nowadays, unwanted—and largely non-human—sounds push and shove travelers from all directions. Cars, subways, construction, jet engines: Their clamor seems omnipresent. Yet instead of lowering the volume of everyday living, we seem to layer noise upon noise. The hotel bar jacks up its techno music to counteract the babble in the lobby. The traveler walking along traffic-choked streets retreats into her iPod.
On the plane at JFK airport, I squish my high-density foam earplug into a cylinder, then press it deep into my ear. As the foam slowly expands to fill my ear canal, I savor the journey into the bliss of noiselessness. Thank goodness the convenience store at JFK stocks one of travel’s most essential items. The headache-inducing whine of the jet engines magically fades away, and I’m once again the master of my private sonic world.
To appreciate the comfort of noise, you also need the comfort of silence. I’ll unplug when I get to where I’m going.
Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com.