by Aimée Dowl
Living nine thousand feet up the slopes of an Andean volcano requires that I relinquish attachment to certain things, such as air. And sleep. For some reason, the rarified atmosphere makes for restless nights, and many people tend to dream epically. As a writer, I am grateful that my slumbering imagination runs wild, but I am always looking for some decent rest. A sojourn at lower elevation tends to oblige my strung out brain with a shower of oxygen and some serious shuteye, but when at home I simply do everything I can to make sure I’m not disturbed while sleeping. Being prepared means, above all, having a good pair of earplugs.
In moments of desperation, I’ve resorted to saliva-moistened toilet paper, but whenever possible, I go with those “ear putty” outfits, which I found were the best at rendering the world mute. These little wads of clear, doughy material come in packs of four and must be flattened like a pancake over the opening to the ears. The manufacturer instructs the user to never insert the stuff directly into the ear canal, which is smart because it’s a strangely tempting proposition. After discovering this breakthrough in sonic technology, I no longer had to shudder into consciousness as steel knocked together in a backyard refinery or slip into drowsy madness as a neighborhood dog barked pointlessly at the night. Earplugs had rendered maddening racket pure silence, and now my only aural anxieties revolve around oversleeping the buzz of the alarm clock. How had I managed without those miracles made in Taiwan Why did it take so long, even with a well-provisioned backpack of traveler’s conveniences, to find the one thing for which I would have gladly traded clean drinking water in the Sahara
I was therefore surprised to find myself without this essential travel gear in Tena, a small, low-altitude Ecuadorian jungle town. Tena is one of those provincial capitals in Ecuador that built a landing strip thirty years ago, but is still waiting for the funds to complete the rest of the airport. For now, cattle graze where the planes should touch down, and the distance covered in those much heralded fifteen-minute flights still takes six hours descending on gravel roads. After squeezing my bladder shut for all that time on a Tena-bound bus, listening to locals discuss the death toll from the last landslide on the “highway,” I was ready for some good, hard sleep. I found a room in a guest house and paid a few bucks to the family that lived there. I could finally unburden my shoulders, and I hurried to unpack the necessities of rest.
I always stash my earplugs in an outer pocket of my pack or some other easy place to get to. But the little plastic duo, in this case made of spongy, foamy stuff and intended for machine workers, were not in their home. Recalling my rushed morning at high altitude, I mused that I might have misplaced the precious plugs on my nightstand. I repeatedly searched the bowels of my large canvas pack, but they coughed up nothing. I searched again. Frenzied and worried by what noise this neighborhood would be offering in the wee hours - I could already hear the droning thumps of reggaeton in the distance — I anxiously and meticulously removed every last item. After throwing my flip-flops and undies and everything else to the floor, I carefully dragged my fingers across the inner lining like a sergeant white-gloving his privates’ quarters. Nothing. I felt panic. I shined my flashlight into the empty bag. Nothing.
I sat defeated on the bed and put my hands over my ears, as if I could keep them there all night. Brushing against the mosquito net, I contemplated the possibility that my earplugs had been stolen, but I regained some faith in humanity after realizing that no one would take a few cents’ worth of plastic, not to mention plastic that had recently been fitted in the moist recesses of my ears.
It smelled a bit of rain on the breeze coming through the window, and I was relieved that the heat might soon break. Houses in the jungle have only a small division between indoor and outdoor, and every day of the year the window panes swing open, if they exist at all. Built on stilts to avoid sinking into the waterlogged rainforest floor, the clapboard homes seem to float above the earth, and sounds and smells stream in even from below. Fortunately, for now the beats of the discoteca were muffled in the muggy night. I was dead tired, and I convinced myself that nothing could wake me. Insulated from mosquitoes by the cascading net, I turned out the lights and settled in. I surrendered myself and my ears to the sounds of the night. I breathed easily in the oxygen-rich air and fell asleep quickly.
Tena is a stone’s throw from the equator, where the sun rises and sets twelve hours apart, at 6 o’clock in the AM and PM. It was some lost, dark hour in between when I began to dream of a rooster crowing. Nothing and no one else appeared except this clear auditory motif against a deep blackness. Even in a dream state, I asked the obvious question, Don’t roosters crow at day break What time is it And at this rate, the damned creature would crow hundreds more times before the sun comes up. By dawn, maybe thousands more. I dreamed of a ticker counting off the crows, an image which jostled my brain into the waking world. That’s when I became alert to the fact that the prolific cawing had not been my subconscious but a very real rooster pacing outside my window, just a few feet from my head.
With no hope of getting back to sleep, I began to count crows the way an insomniac counts sheep, each one waking me and my ire more. A glance at my glowing traveler’s alarm clock saw that it was 3:45. Was the bird hurt Were his circadian rhythms screwed up Did he have avian flu And despite my love of animals, I wondered why had no one strangled him yet. Why on earth does anyone keep a rooster that keeps up the whole street all night
He continued to crow his five-syllable call: a cock-a-doodle-doo that Spanish-speakers call kee-rickee-rickee. The repetitive caterwauling gave me ample opportunity to analyze the ridiculous, so-called onomatopoeic words. To me, it seemed the wincing noise of an absent-minded driver choking a car’s starter, turning the ignition again and again while the motor is running. There is no kee, and there is certainly no doodle in the call of the rooster, and only a writer of children’s books could have seen the farm through such rosy-tinted glasses. As far as I had seen, most Ecuadorian kids either ignored or happily tortured the resident fowl out of boredom.
Bird calls are hard to duplicate with human vocal organs, but I was bound and determined - such was the futility of trying to get back to sleep. I started to imitate this arrogant noise at 5:00, just to spite him. Following each crow, I replied to the noble beast, who seemed to be enjoying this nonsense, and with each effort, I came closer to mimicking his unusual speech. The call comes from deep in the throat, behind the tonsils, with the back of the tongue sealed to the roof of the mouth. If I had to come up with the phonetics for it, it would be something like er-er-er-er-er.
Just before 6:00, the sun was brimming over the mountains. I realized that this vocal harmony needed to end. Surely, the neighbors would soon be hunting the obnoxious new rooster in the neighborhood. I lifted the mosquito net, dressed, and went to find other early risers, but no one was awake. I invaded the kitchen and boiled my own water, threw in some mealy Nescafé grains, and sat alone on the porch, listening to the rooster’s waning enthusiasm until seven o’clock. By now the sun spilled over the mountains and the jungle’s dew was steaming off the earth. The saffron parakeets caged inside were filling the house with their soft, polite songs, and emerald hummingbirds were poking at flowers along the road. When some local folks, still bleary-eyed from deep, abundant sleep, stumbled onto an adjacent porch to take in the morning, they kindly asked me if I had slept as well as they had - durmiste bien tu — even as the rooster haunting my window putted out another er-er-er-er-er.
Sí, durmí bien, I lied.
I wandered around town wondering how people were able to sleep amidst all this clatter. They must get used to it the way I got used to blaring car horns in the capital. Humans have to sleep, no matter where they live, and insomnia is a first-world affliction, generally found in places where the makers of Unisom declare it so. Tena folks definitely don’t use earplugs, and one reason I know this is because no one in this jungle outpost has ever heard of them. Indeed, there is no adequate translation for the gizmos, and with the help of a local I ended up in a place that sells stereo headphones. Such a blatant omission of imported luxuries reminded me of a nauseous Mediterranean ferry crossing one stormy night years before. I was on a catamaran that, instead of speeding directly to Tangier into its customary way, slowly zigzagged from Spain through heavy squalls, hulking nervously across the strait to avoid capsizing. To while away even shorter, smoother passages, Moroccan ferries are provisioned with exorbitantly priced diversions and all kinds of things a person might want to buy in international waters, including Unisom, but this massive, heaving vessel failed to sell the one thing that every green-faced passenger in the latrines would have traded their life preservers for: Dramamine.
Okay, maybe Tena wasn’t that bad - I still had my spit and plenty of toilet paper.
Late in the afternoon, after a long groggy day, I encountered an old lady pacing up and down the street. The drooping lines on her weathered face betrayed an expression of urgent dismay. She bowed her knees and leaned on her cane to look through the tall jungle grasses growing under the houses. I asked her what was wrong, and she replied that she could not find her caudillo, a rooster bred for cock fighting in those parts. I asked how long it had been missing. She said since morning. I told her I would keep a look out, and wondering who else had trouble sleeping last night, I turned away with a wry smile.
Aimée Dowl is a freelance writer who lives in Ecuador, home to the largest number of bird species in the world.