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The Sounds of Silence

16 Apr 11
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It’s 6:30 on Saturday morning, a day for much-needed rest, but sleep is elusive. Outside, the neighborhood has been awake for several hours. The daily calls to prayer began at 3:30. Now three hours later, the nearby guards chat to stay awake as their 12-hour overnight shift draws to an end. Next door a ping pong game has become heated, the sound of balls thwacking against the wooden tabletop and cheers over good shots echoing in the open-air garage just outside Elana’s bedroom window. Motorcycles, mufflers altered or removed, roar by. It’s just another morning in Bandung.

Every country and city has its soundtrack. The hum, energy, and feel of excitement found in New York is well known, but for Indonesia it’s the bang and the clatter – the sound of cars and motorcycles, power tools, tires beating on worn pavement, and always the voices. That’s at least in part because Java, the Indonesian island on which we live, has more than 130-million people crammed into an area the size of Florida, which has less than 19-million. They live on just about every possible space, making Java the most heavily populated island in the world.

A vendor selling bubur ayam, a rice porridge with chicken pieces on top, is now clanging his bell outside and loudly announcing his wares to let people know his food is hot and available. He hopes to get their attention before they make something else for their breakfast. A few minutes later the guy who sells bread from a container strapped to the back of his motorcycle rides by, his recorded message blaring from a tinny loudspeaker declaring “Roti! Roti!”.

But it’s Saturday, and I hope to sleep in. So with a pillow over my head I make another attempt at slumber. No luck.

Aside from the usual daily noises, we’ve had our own personal soundtrack here. Since we’ve moved to Bandung, we’ve been followed by construction sounds. At the hotel where we first stayed, they began demolishing the room next door to ours while I tried to work. After a week of constant headaches from the pounding, the hotel management agreed to move us to a somewhat quieter area of the building.

But even when the hammers and saws stopped for the day, the sounds of the street were magnified at night by the echo chambers created from the hotel’s balconies. There was no escaping the noise.

So we were excited when we moved into our home. We had more space, and less noise. We could actually sleep through the night.

No more than a week after we had settled in, our neighbor to the left of us began a remodeling project. We found out about the work when the hammering began at 6am. Then came the saws. Sleep was fleeting.

After a few weeks, the work was finished. Then two days later, the neighbor to the right of us had workmen constructing a metal gate to cover the front of their garage. Metal grinders shooting streamers of red-hot sparks served as our early morning alarm clock.

After weeks of metal on metal, their work was finally done – just in time for the neighbor across the street. And that project is the most ambitious yet – near as I can tell they are remodeling and expanding the whole house, inside and out.

After what seems like hours this morning, I do manage to drift off again for a few moments of light sleep. Then the hammering brings me back to consciousness.

One of the things that sold us on the complex where we now live was the quiet. It provided a respite from the sounds of the city. When we saw the house, we could literally feel the calm. My body relaxed, the tenseness from anticipation of noise was gone. But as we found when we moved in, that peace and quiet is fleeting.

After months of construction noise, I finally had enough. I went to the office of the complex’s manager, confident that these construction projects must be violating some kind of weekend rules governing noise. After all, it seemed that at least the weekends should be safe from aural assault. And as it turns out, PRV (our complex) has some of the stricter guidelines concerning such matters. No construction can begin before 7am, and it must end for the day by 5pm. Seven days a week. So no sleeping in on weekends.

Regardless of the rules, I still complained. The manager, seemingly understanding of our plight, dialed the phone number of our neighbor across the street and quickly handed me the phone. I spoke with him, and he was very apologetic. Homeowners, at least those with money, move into hotels while construction is done on their houses, so he had no idea that the noise was beginning so early. He promised that he would stop the louder noises from occurring before 10am. For several weeks he kept that promise. But the workers get paid by the job, not the day, so they are eager to get the work done. It wasn’t long before the hammering once again started at 6:30.

This morning I try one more time, laying now with one ear pressed to the bed, a pillow resting on the other ear, and a shirt across my eyes to block the daylight sneaking past the curtains.

After I complained to management last month, I tried once again to be understanding. But after several more weeks of being jarred awake I finally lost it.

This is not a good thing in Indonesia. No matter the insult, Indonesians don’t raise their voices, at least in anger. I have yet to see one person lose control, no matter how outrageous the insult. While our western behavior of letting people know when we’re upset may be healthier, relieving tension that would otherwise build up, here it simply embarrasses people.

Throwing out my understanding of inter-cultural communication, I once again protest, this time loudly, to the complex manager. I explain that we have lived here for seven months, and endured seven months of construction. I explain that he too would be troubled if it were his child waking up in tears because they could not get enough sleep. And I tell him that I would recommend to the children’s school that they start looking elsewhere for housing. Several of the school’s teachers live here, and Elana’s teacher will be moving her family into our home when we leave. If the school were to pull all its teachers out, it would mean a major loss of rental income for owners. It was an idle threat – I doubt the school would care very much about my concerns – but desperate times call for lying measures.

Since that conversation the construction sounds have mostly stopped, at least early in the morning. But now other noises fill in the gaps between the hammering and sawing. Delivery trucks rev engines as they slow down for the turn outside our house. A baby next door screams at all hours of the day and night.

It’s kind of odd that we’re having so much trouble. My friend Noni, who lives in Semarang, came for a visit several months ago. She actually came during a rare quiet time. She jokingly complained one morning that it was so quiet she couldn’t sleep.

Just as I finally drift off again this morning, a loud motorcycle sputters its way down the street outside the house. So I get up and start my day.

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