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Fox Hill - Tapestry
Fox Hill, Freelance Writer and Photographer

I awaken to the distant, barely audible sound of a dozen smoke alarms going off all at once. It rises and falls, seeming to swirl around the house in waves. The sound is the dawn song of insects called cigarras, whistling a prolonged single note. Lying in the gray morning light, I listen for twenty minutes until they stop, and then it's time to start my day. I'm on my way to the kitchen when a gravel-truck thunders by, shaking the house like a five-second earthquake. Next, a wrench banging on an empty gas cylinder marks the approach of the propane truck. Then the sounds of Cozumel's "movable feast" follow, and like a slow motion dim sum, food will make its way past the house all day. The banging of a tiny hammer on a school bell signals the coming of the ice cream cart. The tooting horn of a small truck proclaims the arrival of the water man, with his load of blue, five-gallon bottles. The clapping of hands; so loud and sharp that visiting friends thought it must be two wooden boards being slapped together, heralds the coming of the pastry cart. The shouted cry, "Elote!" alerts me the corn-on-the-cob vendor is making his way down the street. I always get two with everything, which means slathered in mayonnaise, drizzled with lime-juice and chili, and then rolled in grated cheese. Later I hear the Marquesita cart, bringing thin, crispy, crepes, rolled around a cheese filling. Maybe the fruit truck will be next...

Cozumel is draped in a rich tapestry woven from sounds, ranging from the annoying to the sublime. The dictionary defines noise as, "undesired sound" -- leaving the definition of noise up to the listener -- and Cozumeleños have never met a sound they didn't like. A friend once referred to the people here as having a, "sonic powered culture." For instance, there doesn't seem to be a working muffler on the island. Why fix it when it sounds better this way? (I admit that as a boy, I taped cardboard to the forks of my bicycle so the passing spokes would make a "rat-a-tat" sound). It's true that louder is better here, but I chose this as my home, and everything is just the way they like it. So keep your ears open, and you'll get more of the best that Cozumel has to offer.

I hear shouting from the street again, but this time it's not food. Three-wheeled carts loaded with furniture, toys, bedding, cookware, and silk plants ply the neighborhood, the drivers shouting out their list of wares. The roar of an airliner bringing more tourists drowns the splashing water sound of the fountain in our courtyard. The itinerant knife sharpener pushes his grinding wheel ahead of him, blowing a panpipe with a "tweedle-ing" sound. Each scooter passing the intersection in front of our house beeps its horn in warning to those that might not defer the right of way. The wind blowing through the fronds of the royal palm trees makes a whisking sound. An old Volkswagen passes by with enormous loudspeakers on its roof. The speakers are blaring an advertising spiel about something or other, but like a giant version of the clown's mouth at the hamburger drive-through, I can't understand a word they're saying. A small crow chirps and whistles as it splashes in the fountain, ruffling its glossy, blue-black feathers. A car goes by - with no muffler of course -- sounding like a machine gun blasting past the house. The neighbors must be working in their garden again, as music loud enough to play a small stadium roars from next door. Time to get on my bike and ride; I've got errands to do.

The very concept of noise appears to be unknown here, with all sounds embraced equally. This love of sound has no finer showcase than Carnaval, the annual Mardi Gras celebration. An orgy of volume, Carnaval proves there is no shortage of 5000-watt generators and concert sized sound systems. As the date approaches each year, I feel a bit like the Grinch, dreading the arrival of Christmas. "Oh the noise, noise! Noise!...they'll bang on tong-tinglers, they'll blow their foo-flounders." I passed by a schoolyard one evening in which dozens of children were learning a dance for the Carnaval parade. The music was playing at an ear-splitting volume, uncomfortable even for me out on the street. It's not unusual to see pickup trucks loaded with huge speakers, roaming the neighborhoods playing music loud enough to rattle the dishes, just because they can. My wife and I have wondered -- half jokingly -- if the apparent acceptance of noise isn't because everyone is partially deaf. Despite this, Carnaval is an integral part of the life and culture here, and I would never miss the festivities. So every year we go to the parade, and then wander in the plaza drinking cold beer and enjoying the tastes, sights, and sounds of our noisy but vibrant island.

I unlock my bicycle and push it out to the street. Climbing on, I pump the pedals a few times, listening to the soft ticking of the sprocket, and the gravel crunching under the tires. Turning onto a major road, I hear the "chip-tink-tink" sound of a bottle cap being fired to the side by one of my tires. I pass cantinas advertising their presence with blasts of live music. People are in their front yards, talking and laughing while the children play. Closer to the waterfront, I hear the whistles of the policemen directing traffic, accompanied by the soft lapping of the Caribbean against the shoreline. The wind carries the ringing of the carillon chimes from the church. Car horns honk impatiently at every tiny holdup in traffic. Scooters are everywhere; many fitted with horns that wolf-whistle instead of beeping (a real labor saver for the men). I arrive downtown, and walk my bike into the Plaza, weaving through a sea of cruise ship passengers. I hear bits of conversations in Spanish and English, the people and languages mingling, and making music.

In many cities in the US, using your car horn is considered rude, and reserved for only the most serious situations. This is not so here, and horns are used freely. It isn't unusual to see people sitting on the street in front of apartments or businesses, honking their horns to get someone's attention. A neighbor routinely sits in his car and honks his horn for as long as five minutes, before the gate is opened for him. Someone once joked that the International Standards Committee came to Mexico to measure the nanosecond, defined as the length of time between the light turning green and the second driver at the intersection honking his horn. At the movie theatres, locals think nothing of taking phone calls during the film, but of course, most of the audience is reading subtitles, not listening to the dialogue. I'm sure that roosters are kept as pets because it's noisier than not keeping roosters. The voices of customers are so loud at the Internet café that I often wear earplugs. One sound I don't hear much anymore is the pitchmen downtown, selling everything from wooden carvings to time-share condominiums. (My bicycle marks me as a local, so I'm left alone these days). There are some advantages to this idea that no amount of noise could possibly bother anyone. The surround-sound system for our TV has a sub-woofer the size of an end table. While watching a DVD, we can get the volume up to movie-theatre levels, and no one will ever complain. And I can finally play my stereo as loud as I like, but I'm too old to want to.

I'm back from my errands now, and night is falling, bringing different sounds. The raucous cries of birds at sunset are everywhere as they settle into the trees for the night. Geckos in the house make a kissing sound, as one might to call a pet dog, or cat. In the distance, the booming horns of the cruise ships sound sad as they prepare to leave. Tiny frogs in the garden belt out a croak as loud as a barking dog. Crickets chirp, and the roosters begin their long night of crowing, each calling or answering another. The wind carries the thumping cadence of dance music from a nearby hall that caters to large parties. I sit on the rooftop patio of our house, a glass of wine in hand, and reflect on the day. A spectacular lightning show is taking place far to the south. The sky between flashes is a uniform gray-black, until bright blue bolts crisscross the sky, revealing towering, backlit thunderclouds for a flashbulb moment. The storm is too distant for the thunder to be heard, so it's like watching a celestial silent film. The accompaniment for tonight's presentation is provided by the barking and howling of the Cozumel Canine Choir. One bark starts a wave of barking, spreading into the distance like ripples on a pond. The storm moves slowly northward, and eventually I feel the thunder more than hear it; a low-frequency rumble transmitted through the earth. Soon, my ears detect the sound, and I know it's time to move inside. The rain comes suddenly, and is so heavy that it runs from the sloping roof in a smooth sheet like a waterfall, splashing on the concrete below; but it rarely lasts long. It's time to get some sleep, and I lie on top of the sheets, the humidity making the air seem thick. I listen to the night breeze pushing moonlit air, rustling the fan palms between occasional thuds, as the fruit of the almond tree drops to the courtyard. The traffic has died down, at least a little bit, but Cozumel too is a," that never sleeps." Sometimes strange periods of silence, noticeable for their rarity, remind me that if you relish quiet, you've come to the wrong town. The dogs and roosters, the cars and scooters, the parties and music, they go all night: until the dawn comes again with the eerie smoke-alarm sound of those insects, weaving the first thread into another day's tapestry.

Listen. ©2004 Fox Hill  
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Fox hopes to share his view of Cozumel with you through his column and photographs and welcomes your comments.
 Fox Hill - Under the Big Top
The hands of the clock don't move any slower here, they just don't matter. If you're married to the idea of firm schedules and on-time performance, you'd better stick to Cozumel as a tourist destination.
 Fox Hill - Jewels
The color is so intense in the setting sunlight that it doesn’t even seem real. The locals are fearless about their use of color in decorating, with vibrant yellows, blues, and reds everywhere. My neighborhood back home was brown and gray.
 Fox Hill - All Around Me
Freedom is a thing so clear and light, that you don’t notice when it starts to slip away; and once lost, it’s not easy to find again.
Personal Experiences
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As a published underwater photographer with 15 years experience, I was amazed by how much I learned from your underwater photo course. Your depth of knowledge, friendly teaching style and technical tips made the day a great investment for me. I would highly recommend your course! Thank you! Fox Hill Underwater Photography Class M. Cowman ~ Fla

It is clear you have a love of teaching as an art in addition to photography... My expectations for this course were only slightly more than: This is a camera, point at fish, shoot...However, this course was outstanding and could appropriately be titled: An Introduction to Becoming a Professional Photographer. Fox Hill Underwater Photography Class Rory Tucker ~ Not Given

The material presented was so much more than I would expect. Everything was explained clearly. The manner in which it was taught made the concepts easy to understand and follow. I learned a tremendous amount and I look forward to significantly improving my photographic efforts and experience. Fox Hill Underwater Photography Class Ryan Meglathery ~ Not Given

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