Nature v. Nurture: On Noise and Dancing

After a year and a half of Peace Corps service in Barranquilla, Colombia, I think I’m closing in on about as “integrated” as I will be. Two things I still find astonishing, however, are the love of noise and dancing abilities of everyone on the coast of Colombia.

As a Midwesterner from a small, farm-bordered city, I’ve found the local, dual love of noise and dancing to be one of the more challenging cultural aspects of my current life. However, its integral role here—from daily life to Carnaval–is fascinating to observe.

My Colombian "nephew" practicing for his first Carnaval
My Colombian “nephew” practicing for his first Carnaval

I can’t speak to how or whether “nature” plays a role, but some “nurture” staples, as seen firsthand:

  1. Babies are always encouraged to play with the loudest toys.
  2. When a baby starts to cry or seems distressed, family members rush to enter the baby’s field of vision, shouting, “¡No llora, no llora!”–Don’t cry!–and shake whatever jangly thing is at hand into the baby’s face.
  3. Babies are nursed speaker-side where the sounds emissions are so loud, house walls actually shake. These babies feed, sleep, and interact happily.
  4. When music is playing, babies are taught to dance to it. Parents manipulate infants’ limbs until motor control develops, at which point the babes mimic happily; folks literally learn to dance before they walk.
  5. Without a hint of pena, babies, children, parents and adults all dance happily in front of each other at every gathering.
  6. Schools are filled with ambient noise. Classes are necessarily held at the level of shouting. This appears to be practice, in many ways, for daily life—or perhaps daily life is practice for the classroom.

In fact, I’d actually go so far as to say that quiet makes folks ‘round these parts uncomfortable. If the rare state of quiet does come to pass, people quickly turn on music players (without headphones), run through their cell phone ringers, sing, or even hold one-sided conversations; on the upside, with an inescapable public-sourced soundtrack, my life is practically a musical.

Clearly, this nurture-from-infancy approach leaves extranjeros like me at a distinct disadvantage for coastal habitation. I’m happy to announce I’ve made a few strides though.

I’m generally able to sleep through the noise of 2 large speakers, 3 TVs, 2 Chihuahuas, and a gathering of 10+ excited people directly outside my bedroom door. I’ve learned to project my voice so that it’s possible to hear in a classroom–at least by the 20 or so closest children. I have no compunction about singing or playing music out loud in public areas. I even can do a bit of dancing to the easiest music genres (vallenato, merengue, etc) with a competent partner to haul me around. It bears mentioning that on the noise front, my adaptation is not due simply to mental strength; I’ve also lost enough hearing to be partially desensitize. This is perhaps a more short term blessing…but one must adapt…

The local saying: “Happy as a Costeño with a new speaker” will probably never apply to me. Still, when I leave here, I have the suspicion I’ll be doing a lot more humming in my daily life–if only to keep that Caribbean soundtrack alive.

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