Even with your eyes closed, night time in Oaxaca, Mexico, is different from night time in Richmond, Virginia. One reason for this is that buildings in Virginia are sealed up from the weather while buildings in Oaxaca are open to whatever the heavens offer. Even the dentist office is opens to a courtyard.
In Oaxaca, we slept in a room screened off from a small interior courtyard. At night, as I fell asleep, I could hear a brass band playing from a square two or three blocks away, laughter and chatter from every direction, a men’s chorus practicing somewhere close by, sporadic barking from rooftop dogs with strong objectors to the people passing below, and occasional fireworks. (Oaxacans, it seems, consider concussive booms essential to any celebration.) I fell asleep while life went on exuberantly in the city around me. It was an exotic kind of quiet to my ears, almost too stimulating for sleep, but I fell asleep easily and slept well anyway.
Those night noises were all festive, as far as I could tell. My sleep was never disturbed by the blare of hyped-up TV drama, that artificially charged communication designed to upset listeners and reel them in for commercial messages. I never heard voices raised in anger, children crying, or drunken carousing.
Sitting with our morning coffee on the rooftop patio above our bedroom, the buildings stacked on the hills behind us looked down on us, and the other rooftops spread below us were punctuated with flowering trees. Beyond the city, mountains appeared suspended in the low-hanging clouds.
One morning we drove into those mountains, up and up on switchback roads. Our ears popped as the landscape changed. We arrived in a well-kept village clinging to steep slopes with bright flowers trailing over stone walls, hummingbirds the size of sparrows, and goats tethered in the yards. Here we hired a guide to help us hunt for mushrooms. The guide and his bright-eyed seven-year-old daughter led us further up the mountain roads, “fenced” on both sides with huge agave plants, and then on into the pine woods. Two or three hours later, our mushrooms were served to us cooked with fresh trout and soft tortillas in the shade of a pavilion.
That night, we bunked in a comfortable cabin at an eco-lodge still higher up the dirt road. After the maintenance crews left, we were entirely alone. We finished a late meal of grilled steaks and veggies and broke out the dominoes as dusk enveloped our picnic table. Before we (literally) bunked down, we stood on the porch in the chilly dark and looked out across the clearing. No lights anywhere. No sounds except for one bird calling from the edge of the wood. Inside, we slept under wool blankets while logs sizzled in the fireplace and the orange light of flames flickered on the walls.
Just after sunrise, we stood on the cabin porch again. We were inside a cloud. The trees were shrouded. The silence was broken only by solitary bird calls somewhere in the trees we couldn’t see. There was a sound like a river running in the valley below us where there was no river. It was wind passing through the tall pine trees. There was nothing else. It was profoundly quiet.
Back in Virginia, in my own bed, I sometimes wake briefly during the night, as I did this a.m. The windows are open for the cooler air. Everything is quiet.
Of course, quiet here is composed of layers of sound: The distant whoosh of traffic; the occasional shudder of trains coupling from down in the rail yards; the soft whine of a far-off siren. Closer by, frogs call and answer from the drainage ditches, crickets chirp, and a mocking bird pours out his myriad songs into the night that holds us all, note after note after note, all that sweet liquid clarity falling down into the dark.
This quiet is familiar, and comfortable in its familiarity. I am home and the night is playing my song.