Cheap International Travel Means Coping With Noise

encountering noise at night in your travels

How well do you deal with noise? If you are about to go backpacking around the world, you had better get good at tuning out cacophony. Or you had better pack a monster bag of earplugs. Get ready to hear night noise like you have never heard before.

I am reminded of this fact every time I go back to my other home of Mexico. In the otherwise lovely city of Guanajuato where I live, a truly quiet night is a rare thing. There are about five barking dogs on the roofs of houses every block and since this city is rimmed by hills, I hear most all of them at some point during the night. If there is also a soccer/football match going on and the bars are hopping, the noise won’t die down until the wee hours.

And throughout Latin America, on it goes with church bells, gas vendors, and drunks singing in the streets. In countries where people live close together and have developed a “live and let live” attitude as a result, you don’t complain, you suck it up and deal. It is often culturally unheard of to complain about the mariachi band next door at 2:00 a.m. or the morning firecrackers as loud as cannons going off at dawn on a Sunday.

mariachi band in Mexico

They’ll be back tonight for your neighbor’s birthday party…

In Asia, you will find people falling asleep on the subway, on the bus, on benches, and on delivery carts. No wonder: you can’t really sleep at night with all the roosters crowing and everyone getting up hours before the crack of dawn to get their business moving before the heat kicks in. You haven’t really experienced the backpacker life until you’ve slept through a cat in heat, two competing roosters, and a woman who starts cleaning the stairs outside your bamboo hut at 5 a.m.

“Oh my god, the roosters!” You will hear this a lot from other budget travelers around the world. Your previous urban upbringing assumption that roosters crow at dawn gets shattered in a hurry. When do roosters really crow? Whenever they feel like it. Which is quite often it turns out, in the light or in the dark.

In the Middle East, the call of prayer is ever-present five times a day, at least one of them when no sane person should be awake for any reason. If you’re lucky enough to be in one of these countries during Ramadan, you’ll also experience the fun of a person parading through the streets waking everyone up by banging on a drum so the faithful can eat before sunrise. (And you’re even supposed to tip this guy for the service at the end.)

In some countries, drivers have one hand on the wheel and one on the horn at all times. In Egypt they may drive with their lights off at night in the mistaken belief that it saves battery life, but that doesn’t stop them from blasting the horn—even when there’s nothing else in sight.

If you are in a swanky hotel, you can mostly avoid all this. I don’t recall hearing even one barking dog when I was cloistered in the Villa Maria Cristina hotel in Guanajuato while on a writing assignment the first time I visited. The Four Seasons in  Mexico City will make you think there’s not really any traffic on that big thoroughfare in front of the hotel and the Oberoi in Calcutta deserves the word “oasis” if any hotel ever did. Money is a great insulator.

Stay at the $4 hostel a few blocks away, however, and it’s a different story. You’ll hear every car horn and vendor shout at close to full voluThat guesthouse “right by the mosque” in Morocco may be easy to find, but Friday morning prayers will drive you to burying your head in a pillow. If you’re on a shoestring budget, or renting an apartment like a typical resident’s, you lose the insulation. I was reminded of this last week when I slept in a tent for five nights in Belize. It was a very nice tent on a frame, one big enough to stand up in, but it flapped in the wind all night at a high decibel level. After a while I barely noticed it and snoozed away, but some people had a really hard time getting to sleep. (They found that rum was a good solution…)

My solution is to forget fighting it and embrace the idea of napping. In most of these noisy places, you’ll see that’s what the locals do as well. Otherwise, you may need some chemical enhancements and earplugs. If you have a noise coping tip of your own, leave it in the comments.

[flickr photo by ***karen]

  1. Leeza

    Could not agree more with every word you wrote on a little talked about fact. I’m an expat who was forced out of my expensive country due to age discrimination which ended a very good career. These days I have been pinging about the globe the last 5 years teaching. Asia is noisy. China is noisy, but Vietnam is on a whole other level. Dead right about the roosters and crowing any time there is light which is all the time in a city like HCM. I’m going to start following you and reading some articles. Interested in buying a foreign base. I have IPs in other countries but I can not live there nor do I want to. Need a home so when job contracts end in China I don’t have to throw everything out and keep what only fits in a suitcase.

  2. Pop

    Bose QC20 active noise cancelling headheadphones are essential gear. The are others almost as good for much less, but nothing quite as good that I’ve found, not yet.

    • Scott

      The new Sony WH-1000XM3 noise cancelling headphones are phenomenal and are the new industry standard. Check out the reviews.

  3. Dean

    This is why I returned to the USA and now a nomadic vandweller. The people of other countries are great but it is their culture that most westerners will tire of quickly. ‘Culture fatigue’ is the term and that is why I returned. You can actually live cheaper in the USA if you don’t pay rent. This is a growing movement that meets in Arizona in the winters. The RTR (rubber tramp rendezvous – check it out on youtube) was attended by over 4 thousand people in all types of RV’s and vans etc. I have visited and traveled in 21 countries, know 27 of the Mexican states. It is great to visit these places but the burnout rate is very high! There are many youtube stars now, (Tim your side-hustle is pale in comparison) that make a living leading the new-commers.

  4. Hank

    We travel mostly to SE Asia when the high season is not quite revved up yet. Folks are usually more welcoming as we represent early signs for a prosperous new high season and availability and prices are usually at a discount. We aim for $30 per night and under for each night’s rest. Unfortunately we seem to attract workers with impact drills who are charged with getting the places we stay ready for the pending holiday influx. I guess we should feel fortunate that they drown out the roosters :-)

  5. Jesse

    I’ve live abroad much of my life–and in “barking dog cultures” that do not score well on civic virtues (consideration for others, “disturbing the peace.” The main solution is very simple: sleep and nap with earplugs. Really. Fans are also good for white noise. The next step is choose your town and its neighborhood with care. Talk to people, ask questions. As a general rule, the lower the average income area the greater the noise. Rent long before you even think of buying (in fact, for the most part, why buy and tie up your capital?). Finally, look at the bright side: most of these cultures are happy to “live and let live,” and for the most part are less stressful and freer of government interference than life in the more “developed” countries. The climate tends to be more pleasant too.

  6. tavet

    Excellent post – so many great tips and very helpful

  7. ventsi

    Ear plugs can not always be the solution. I spent 3 weeks (December 2015 – January 2016) in a sport hostel in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia (on Borneo island). Yes, it was cheap – about 4 USD per night, being alone in a room with 4 beds, with bed bugs, etc. As you can imagine, the hostel was full of young (teen-age) sportsmen. In the evenings their favorite exercise was jumping from the upper beds (you know double bunk beds) on the floor. The vibrations (it is an old wooden building) were terrible. It was simply impossible to fall asleep before they fell asleep (normally at 1-2 a.m.). I was 51-52 years old at that time. Not mentioning that there was no hot water in the common bathroom. No air-conditioning, of course (not a problem for me). Surreal experience. However, I survived.

    • Tim Leffel

      Yeah, sometimes you really get what you pay for!

  8. Michael

    Is it really impossible to find somewhere quiet to live in Mexico, even if one pays a little more? It seems to check so many other boxes.

    • Tim Leffel

      Michael, it can be done, but that usually means finding some physical separation. If you live in a rich gated community, it will be pretty quiet, as will any development where there are mostly foreigners living. Or if you’re in a high-rise building with good double-glazed windows that’s not on a busy street. Or if you choose to live out in the countryside, with some land around you. (Ranches are pretty quiet apart from the chickens…)

      • Michael

        Thanks for this, Tim. I think I’ll head for Guanajuato & see what I can find. Michael

  9. Michael Patterson

    Hi Tim,
    I know… bitch,bitch,bitch, but – 5 years later now. When will we see a 5 th edition of WCTD ? Thanks,

    another Michael

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