I grew up in a sleepy rural part of New York State, that most people have never heard of. It is pretty quiet.
A dirt track, on the edge of town, where go-karts used to generate a droning sound, audible all over the village on Saturday nights, went bust, years ago. There’s only a subdued hum from the highway going through town; the semis stick to the Thruway, five or six miles north of here. The faint gunshots, from hunters, or the farm boys target-shooting with their knockoff AK-47’s, in the old quarry across the canal, end by sunset. Occasionally, you can hear cheering and honking during high school football games, or snowmobiles whining around the fields during the winter. But most nights, the only sounds are crickets, frogs, and cicadas.
Once in a while, you’ll hear a whippoorwill or mockingbird, or an owl quietly hooting, but we don’t have nightingales. From a pine tree at one of my grandmother’s houses, you’d sometimes be bothered by a pair of Mourning Doves, no one’s favorite.
Then I went to College, where the dorms blared music, and spent a semester in Hong Kong — bustling with all-night markets and traffic, throngs of people 24/7, clanking air conditioners — endless light and sound. A semester at an English university brought recitals of Disney tunes at 3am, by drunken rugby players in the back alley, complete with a percussion section, as they tripped over the dustbins.
And in winter, the natural sounds of Pucón are louder than any place I’ve ever been in before.
I stay in a hostel, built around and above my host family’s house. La familia is nice — a large, extended family with many children, aunts, uncles and others coming in and out, but during the winter, I often have the hostel to myself, and my hosts are pretty quiet really. Even the youngest, who careens around all day, nonstop, crashing into things and laughing maniacally, settles down by nine.
But here, in a stunningly beautiful place, next to a sparkling lake, in the shadow of the Andes and a spectacular nine thousand foot snow-covered volcano, it’s harder to sleep than anywhere I’ve been before.
Perhaps it’s the winter weather, not especially cold, compared to home, but often unrelentingly gray and rainy, which has been blamed for the region’s high suicide rate. Perhaps it’s a psycho-electrical effect on my brain cells, from the unfamiliar pull of the volcanic region and the southern magnetic pole. But despite all the natural beauty, there is something unsettling and almost unworldly about Chile during the winter.
For creatures like us, mostly dependent on sight, noise is amplified at night. And the hostel, a weird echo chamber, exaggerates the weather. Once inside, it seems like wind storms and rain almost constantly buffet my little fragile house, and as soon as I step outside, there is sun and calm. I go back in, and it sounds like the storm of the century is sweeping in.
My hostel is wooden, casually minimalistic in construction, added as a kind of afterthought-second-story, precariously hanging over the house below. Rickety and probably a fire hazard.
Some of my light comes from a plastic sky roof, loosely bolted into the tin roof. So, when it rains, it reverberates like a thousand drums; and the wind threatens to rip the corrugated tin and plastic panels off the roof. I watch them twitch and rattle in the storms, and wonder just how long before it comes flying off or crashing down.
Threatening sounds echo off the angular roof. Sound is reflected strangely. If someone is walking down the hallway, it sounds exactly as if they are walking on my roof.
There are few street lights, and most people heat with wood, creating a smoky haze. At night, this is a very dark town, and you cannot see your hand in front of your face. And that is when the howling winds start to tear at the roof, while rain batters it – deafening and threatening. During the winter here, it isn’t a pleasant pitter-patter of rain on tin, like you get on a warm spring day – this seems more like some horror movie, where the denizens of a haunted hostel attack and devour visitors once the storm strikes!
At least the House of Usher sank into its bog quietly, in a reserved, British sort of way, without all this demonic clamor.
The din is compounded by the pervasive and never-ceasing uneasiness you feel when you learn the history of this region. We are surrounded by the sites of graves from centuries of Mapuche-Spanish conflict, and victims of a great drought, one of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history, and Pinochet’s police state. There are active volcanoes, and at night, all in all, it seems pretty likely that some angry spirits are out, looking for blood.
And on top of that, the dogs.
The strays of Pucón, apart from a few Labradors, are very large wolf-like animals – and I like them all. They’ve proven to be sweet and friendly. After a couple of days here, trying to find my way to work, one of them seemed to recognize that I was lost, and walked along with me, until I got to the school. He showed up every morning after that to walk with me. Even though they’re strays, the community feeds them and gives them blankets in cold weather.
But at night, they roam the town. You see their glowing eyes in the dark, like the Hound of the Baskervilles, and during the worst of the storms, when it thunders, they howl.
So picture: lying in bed, already feeling uneasy as the building shakes and vibrates, rain is smashing down on the roof, the wind slams the plastic panels against the tin, and the tin against the wood rafters — and then there’s the sound of footsteps above you, like someone insane is walking around up there in the lightning storm. And then dogs begin howling and baying like wolves from the depths of hell.
All this heap needs is a soundtrack playing the “Danse Macabre” and “Mephisto Waltz”.
Even the birds hereabouts are creepy at night. During the daytime, there are beautiful green parakeets near the lake, and all sorts of ducks, geese, and diving birds on the lake. In the hills around town, the Roadside Hawks are very handsome little guys. But at night…
When I first arrived here, after an 12-hour bus ride from Santiago, pretty exhausted, I lay down, but with the rain bashing down on the tin roof, I couldn’t sleep. Then, during a lull in the rain, there was a weird, unholy keening.
It sounds like…out there in the darkness…a bagpiper is dying.
But not…quite…dead. Trying to finish his last Lament. “A Haggis Fell Upon His Head, An’ Now My Love Is Deid,” or “The EU’s Ga’n Awa’ O’er the Sea, And So’s Our Economee,” or something like that.
I peer out the window, but don’t see anything ghostly in a kilt. Or any sinister crones ’round a cauldron with curséd kazoos.
But then, wait, there is something moving on the rooftop opposite my window.
It’s a bird, with a long, curving beak. And it’s making a god-awful unhappy sound, like it was in deep mourning. And extremely constipated.
This was my introduction to the Black-Faced Ibis of South America.
Edgar Allen Poe had his raven, the Ancient Mariner his albatross, Hitchcock his homicidal gulls.
Me, ibises. Why did it have to be ibises.
Tut, Tut, it’s raining birds
Yes, there are ibises here. And they are horrible. What normal birds sing funeral dirges at night during a lightning storm?
If you’ve ever looked at those old stone Egyptian carvings, full of hieroglyphics and weird half-human creatures, there’s an ibis-headed god sometimes called Thoth.
Thoth was the patron of magic, math, and accounting among other things, so you know right away, he’s gotta be maladjusted.
I won’t even get into his other hobby, weighing human hearts.
And so, getting back to the midnight revels in Chile — since I’d never seen an ibis outside a zoo, or mummy exhibit, I thought ibises lived in Egypt.
I believe, that the Black-Faced Ibises feel this way, too. Misplaced and resentful. Chile is not the warm Nile delta, they’re not worshiped here, there are no pyramids, and they are pissed.
When I looked them up, some birder described them as “highly sociable.” I guess you could say, that Charles Manson liked to have people all around him, too. Ibises are also intensely territorial. One night, I woke up to find two of them fighting to the death on the rooftop across from my window. The larger one, in a “highly sociable” way, snapped the neck of the other, and then slammed its body again and again on the roof, to make sure it was dead.
These birds are just plain creepy, and their ominous, mournful song really does sound like a creepy dirge. They stare at me. Even during storms, when it sounds like the winds of Satan are blowing my roof off, and all other birds have vanished, the ibises sit on my window ledge and stare at me, as if watching for me to die so they can come and peck out my eyes. The dogs howl, the winds try to cave in the small weak hostel, and the creepy birds start their eerie dirge.
So this is the kind of crap that haunts the nights around here. And this is why I come to school exhausted.
I wrote this as my first diary entry from Pucón, and re-reading it, it sounds a bit…overwrought? feverish? As it turned out, I wasn’t just feeling creeped-out, I actually was feverish, and having a flare-up of a medical problem. So I took the bus down to Valdivia, where there’s a hospital, had some tests, pills, antibiotics, etc. and feel a lot better now. And spring is on the way.
Feeling much more like myself, but sticking to the story, sorry, at night, this is still the noisiest Halloween-kind-of-place I’ve ever been.
Love my school, the students, the teachers, the stray dogs, the Andes, and my host family. And man, all God’s creatures got a place in the choir, and no doubt I’m invoking the wrath of Thoth, the Audubon Society, and the Ghost of Roger Tory Peterson, but I don’t care, I still hate these wretched Black-Faced Ibises.
When I cannot sleep, I send emails to KFC, praising the bird’s flavor and low fat content, hoping they’ll take the hint.
In a museum in Holland, there’s an ancient papyrus, listing all the calamities that finished off Egypt’s Old Kingdom (long before Moses) and one of the curses? “Men behaving as wild ibises.”
And at Saqqara, in Egypt, they say they’ve found a million and a half of them, mummified. The historians think this has deep religious significance.
Personally, I think they just got on everybody’s nerves.
And I also think ol’ Pharaoh had the right idea. Wrap ’em up tight & stick ’em in a sand dune.
Over and out, from me and the Weird Birds of Doom, here at Night on Bald Mountain, Chile.