Traveling like we do, there is always a soundtrack playing in the background. Occasionally made of music, it is also the sounds of the streets, the people, the atmosphere that make a place come alive. Sounds continue to define a place long after you are gone, and are part of what makes every day an adventure.

The dog cacophony

A long, continuous whhooooooooooool echoes into the urban night. Then another one, and then a third voice joins the party. Soon, howls and barks run rampant through the streets. Every dog in Mexico knows this song, every dog in Mexico is eager to sing along. I can’t hear every dog in Mexico, but maybe in other cities, in other towns, where dogs get piled up on top of each other like apartments, the dogs are all singing at the same time, all together in one chaotic national symphony. Their dissonance is more prominent here than it has been in any other place. Guanajuato is unlike any other city we have visited in Mexico, at least optically. Its buildings are piled into hills, so the houses form a funnel that streams people into its beautiful, university town center. It proclaims the colorful architecture in a way so it is all on display for your eyes to feast on. But more importantly, it catches the sound, so the yaps and the woofs and the arfs and the wows bounce off of the walls and are reflected back at each other. Maybe it isn’t every dog in the city, maybe it is only the dogs on our street, their sound amplified by the walls so that all of Mexico can hear them calling.

“It’s like a squirrel in the wheel back there”

Sven turns the key and fires up the engine. I put my ear into the open engine hatch, the one that is usually covered by our bed unless it is car-repair-time. I listen. I am listening for a mysterious clack, clack, clack. It is misplaced, it shouldn’t be there, it doesn’t fit into the rhythmic buzz of our healthy engine. Like a nut was bouncing around somewhere where it shouldn’t. Is it a nut? What could it be? We have no idea of course, but identification of unusual sounds is the first step to problem-solving. Maybe this was the sound that How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, the book we call The Idiot’s Guide, describes as a “squirrel in the wheel back there” in its list of non-lethal noises. Was this a squirrel in the engine? Did they even have squirrels in southern Mexico? How would it even get in our engine? I’d like to think that The Idiot’s Guide was doing its best, but I’m not sure what squirrels in wheels sound like. Maybe this sound was a squirrel, asking politely for a long-lost nut.

High up on Hurricane Ridge

The rain hits the outside of the Bus in big, fat, ferocious drops. Smack. I don’t think we’ve ever had a storm this bad. It rains every day on the Olympic Peninsula; in fact, it’s a major theme of autumn in the Pacific North WestSmack smack smack. There is not a lot of room, we don’t want to pop our top in this storm. We have folded down the bed to make Big Emma more comfy. It gets crowded, but meeting up with traveler friends from back up in Alaska is worth it any day. We drink tea and talk about different adventures we have had. The Bus fills up fast with four people inside. Especially when everybody’s wet and there is no other dry place to go. Smack smack. I have to pee. I have been trying for about an hour, but I just can’t hold it anymore. I put my raincoat on, try not to shake water everywhere, pull awkwardly on the sliding door, and run outside. I shiver, I crouch down, and I let it flow. My ass and pretty much everything else gets spattered with cold, fat raindrops. Smack smack smack.

Wandering the streets of a small-town city

San Cristobal de las Casas is a city with a reputation among travelers as a good place to be. High in the mountains, the air is chilly like it hasn’t been since California. The streets are small, cobblestoned, and houses rarely stand more than two stories high. It is a Saturday night, and we have decided to wander the town, avoiding all of the stores and restaurants and bars that will want to trade whatever they have for our money. We walk around instead, enjoying the mix of tourists, street vendors, and locals going about their business. We stop at the next small-town intersection, and wait for a car to go by that is blasting Spanish Shakira out of the windows, inviting the whole town to sing along and smile. We cross the street and turn a corner, and suddenly find ourselves in one of Mexico’s rare pedestrian zones. Complete with the money-suckers, there are street musicians within earshot. To our surprise, next to bongos, one of them is playing what looks like a didgeridoo, adding a long, low bass to the scene. With a crack, fireworks appear in the sky above the street, and people stop to stare. They light up the sky with pops and flashes that make the streets even more colorful than they were already.

The most popular song in Mexico

This has to be the tenth time today, I think, as a car drives by playing that blasted song again. I guess that’s what you get when you live in a massive city like Guadalajara. This time, it stops in front of our guesthouse. My bunk is in the front room, the only thing separating us from the street is a plywood-plastered garage door. Despite the headphones I have on, I can hear that stupid jingle. I can’t make out the words, but I swear it’s begun to echo into my sleep at night. I bet the deaf know what it sounds like. Sven says it’s a jingle advertising propane. The cars that drive around and trade out your propane tank for you play it blasting from the speaker attached to the top of their vehicles. I’ve seen some VW buses with these speakers too, and hope that they at least play a different jingle, that these buses are not condemned like the rest of us to listen to it over and over and over and over again. I press the space bar and pause my video, this is useless until the car moves on. I wait. Eventually it does. But it will be back in no time. I’m sure of it.

Pass the water, Eduardo

I pump one-whizz-two-whizz-three-whizz-four-whizz. Up and down and up and down, as I watch our water bottle slowly fill up. Each pump gives me three more centimeters of water. The sound is almost painful, but I need more, so I do it again. It makes you think the pump is about to break. Lucky for me, I don’t think it will. This is the sound Eduardo, our water-tank, has always made since we installed him back in Illinois. The air I’ve just pumped in builds up the pressure, which forces the water out. As the pressure releases, he extends himself back to his normal height and straightens out. It’s a bit like a fart, one of those slow ones that takes a few seconds to come out. A kind of hiss. But I don’t really want to associate farts with my drinking water, so I paint a mental picture of air being released from a balloon instead as I wait for Eduardo to equalize the air again, and take a refreshing sip of more-than-lukewarm water.

The music or the road, but not both

I used to be able to write while we were driving in the Bus. Or get other things done, or even read for hours. With time, that skill has waned. It’s gotten harder to concentrate. Maybe it’s because Mexico’s highways make for better entertainment looking out the window than the States’ did; maybe the roar of the road is getting to me.  Occasionally we catch rides with friends or Couchsurfing hosts in other cars, and it is always weird, because it feels almost silent, nothing like riding in Big Emma. We turn a corner, and Sven slows down. Most of our lane is missing, it has crumbled away beneath the weather to whatever lies below it. We slowly maneuver around it, careful that cars are not coming from the other side. “I’m excited to see my parents,” I tell Sven. We are on our way to Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s southern coast, where they will fly in to meet us in three days. “What!?!” He answers and looks for the speaker that is blasting Yellowcard. I cover it with one hand, dimming the sound, and repeat, “I’m excited to see my parents.” “Oh. Yeah!” he answers, as carefully glides around the next curve, that will probably be full of surprises.

Really listening to the rain

Photo by HV Adventure.

I love playing Settlers of Catan, but it doesn’t happen very often these days. Today is my lucky day, however, because our fellow travelers HV Adventure have a rare miniature travel edition. We’ve parked our vehicles sliding-door-to-sliding-door and play at their folding table in between. Their solar lights illuminate our game, a picturesque scene indeed. I trade in wood, clay, hay, and sheep and buy a settlement before passing the dice. I look up and catch Hanna’s eyes, a strange look on her face. “Is that rain?” she asks us. We listen. “No,” Venca says, “It’s just the wind picking up.” Sven rolls the dice. I get a rock. “Maybe it is rain”, he says. “No, maybe not,” Hanna replies. We look at each other. “It does smell like rain,” I add, calm as ever. Everyone ponders the sound with a mutual agreement to think about it a little longer before coming to a conclusion. All heads are cocked, puzzled. The noise suddenly hits a crescendo and our eyes get wide. “FUCK!” we yell collectively, and at once become ants as the night sky explodes onto us and we throw things into whatever van is closest. “See you in a bit!” somebody exclaims, and I remember that we still have to put our rainfly up. So much for my new settlement.


We’re in the hills of south-central California, near a town called Coalinga, which is basically three or four streets with a few fast food joints surrounded by a forest of oil pumps. We are about 20 minutes outside of town. There is actually a campground here, but we couldn’t figure out if we were supposed to pay for it. Lucky for us, there is just nobody else here to ask. Campsites with picnic tables look like they wish they had guests in the dark night. Not even the wind is blowing. Like usual, I am cold, so I prefer to cuddle in our Bus while Sven is outside taking star pictures with our new wide-angle lens. He calls me outside, and I wrap myself in a blanket before heading out into the chilly winter air. “Listen,” he says. I listen. But there is nothing to listen to, and I smile. We seem to be in one of those very rare spots where there is just no sound to hear, nobody around for miles. We are surrounded by complete and utter silence. It is just the three of us, two Emmas and a Sven, hidden away somewhere in the the USA’s most populous state.

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      • My mom is from a small town in Jalisco, and like a lot of Mexican-Americans, I spent almost every summer and Christmas holiday of my childhood traveling back to Mexico.

        I remember the Zeta Gas jingle, but my favorite was another gas truck in Atenguillo, Jalisco, that played a man’s voice crooning “EL GAAAAAAAAS” followed by a cow mooing sound effect.

        My parents took us to Guanajuato to see the mummies when I was a kid. We spent the night in a castle that was converted into a hotel, but I don’t remember any dogs. One of my favorite memories is seeing my parents kiss at the Callejón de Besos in Guanajuato.

        Nice blog, I hope I can read more about what you saw in Guadalajara.

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