They say that smell is the most evocative sense when it comes to triggering memories, but if that's the case, then I reckon sound must be a close second. There's a particular quality to the crunching gear box of an old Nepali bus careening around the corners on the road between Kathmandu and Pokhara. That gentle dingdong of cowbells in Switzerland seems so quaint it's as though the cows are playing to a script. And there's nothing like the groaning of a scrub turkey to remind me I'm home.
As Brian Johnston points out, blocking out those sounds with headphones does seem counter productive to the travelling goal of soaking up the moment and stashing away memories for those days when you find yourself chained to a desk at home. Worse even that that though, headphones can't help but seal you off from a chance conversation with a local that plugs you into a place like no guidebook can, an overheard tip-off that takes you on an adventure on a lifetime, the meaning-of-life ponderings with your travel partner that just don't happen at home.
So next time you're somewhere else, do yourself a favour, and ditch the headphones. And you can thank me and Brian later ;)
Why sounds are just as important as sights for travellers
It bemuses me to see travellers wandering around plugged into their iPods. They go away, yet take the sounds of home with them. Why cut yourself off from the delightful foreignness of sounds? To deny one of your senses the chance to absorb a destination's essential characteristics is to miss out on a passing parade of treats.
Some sounds are wonderful. The pretty tinkle of temple bells that carries across a mountainside in China. The stomp of floorboards and twang of a guitar as tango floats down a back street in Seville. The puff of a steam train, the cry of a lonely seagull, a kookaburra's chortle. There's a sense of anticipation in the whine of a jet engine, the click of a seatbelt, the bang of a train door. And who doesn't like a good conductor's whistle, shrilling with the promise of movement and adventure?
I'm particularly fond of the bells of passing trams, no doubt because I grew up in Geneva and it reminds me of home, even if I'm in Istanbul or Bratislava. When modern electronic beepers began replacing tram bells in Hong Kong in 2000, there was such a public outcry that the old ding-dings had to be reinstated: rather charming evidence that nostalgia still occasionally lingers in the get-ahead Chinese city.
Sounds that remind us of our childhood are among the best travel sounds. They transport us back in a time and place, and are proof of the remarkable connection between ear and memory that is best exemplified by music. When composer Igor Stravinsk recalled his youth in St Petersburg, it was church bells, the cries of street vendors and cartwheels on cobblestones he missed. He also remembered that susurration from the audience just before the curtain goes up in a theatre: a whispering, shuffling, fidgeting sound, suddenly stilled.
To me, childhood is the clank of cowbells, the twang of wires against masts on lake yachts, and the rustle of autumn leaves, which isn't a sound much heard in my particular corner of Australia. Some time ago in Esfahan, in Iran, I passed a stall in the bazaar where a man was sharpening knives, and it brought me back to my teenage years and a department store in Geneva, where I had my ice skates sharpened with the same screech and popping of little orange sparks. I love the sound of snow: that squeaky crunch of an evening walk in the mountains. I have the exile's nostalgia for snowy winters, and was pleased to read of Vladimir Nabokov' fondness for crunching snow in the Russia of his childhood.
Some truly delightful sounds are being lost. Where can you still hear the clank of milk bottles being set on a doorstep, a sound I associate with long-ago visits to my grandmother? In China, the wail of street vendors selling ice cream has all but gone. And screw caps on wine bottles may be so much easier, but gone is the romance and satisfaction of that suck and pop as the cork is pulled.
Sounds can transport you to the past, or to a very specific place. Noises are just as culture-specific as food or language. Hear a mariachi band and you're in Mexico. Monks chanting and you're in a Buddhist culture. In Japan, the raucous clank of pachinko parlours is as unique as African drums, the wail of bagpipes, the popping of firecrackers for Chinese New Year. In India, you travel to the clank of a multitude of bangles on the arms of passing women. In Paris museums, it's the creak of parquet floors in palaces and museums. In Hong Kong, the lilting trill of caged songbirds is an unexpected pleasure above the roar of traffic and airconditioning units.
The general background hum can tell you something too. Some cultures are loud: Aussie schoolkids on trains, Americans in groups, Cantonese on the bus, Spaniards clacking like magpies over a hotel's breakfast buffet. Others are remarkably quiet. On a Japanese train you hear nothing but a polite murmur, and mobiles are switched to silent mode. You seldom hear a French child creating a fuss in a cafe. In Iranian bazaars, polite people never raise their voices. The sounds of a busy Iranian bazaar are crunching nuts, the tapping of bronze workers, the flap of sandals on flagstones.
I love the clang of church bells and the Islamic call to prayer, though not at the crack of dawn, when it can erupt like an alarm clock for which you have no off button. There are other travel sounds I'd rather not hear, mostly associated with hotel rooms. The alarm going off at 4am, thanks to the previous occupant. Traffic noise. The rustle as staff put a bill under your door, spoiling the visit before it has quite ended. In a river-ship's cabin, you don't want your tannoy inadvertently turned up too loud: the sudden shriek of an announcement is enough to stop your heart.
Early 20th-century United States naturalist Henry Beston listed waves on a beach, wind in the trees and rain as the "three great elemental sounds in nature" that we all enjoy. True, the lulling ebb of waves on a sandy beach might be soothing, but the gurgle and rasp of pounding waves retreating down a pebble beach is something else entirely. Wind in trees can be unnerving too, and the sound of rain is seldom heard with pleasure, unless you're happily snuggled in your hotel bed and it's beating beyond the windowpane. The thunder of waterfalls and the bang of volcanoes are other unnerving natural sounds.
Nature provides plenty to listen to. Animal noises can be startling, and not just the obvious roars and grunts and hoots. I'm utterly entranced by the ripping noise made by giraffes as they strip leaves from acacia branches with their long blue tongues. The African bush is alive with sound: pinging fruit bats, the eerie cry of bushbabies, the unnerving grunt of a lion. In the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, listening posts relay the sounds of whales from an underwater microphone. It's like eavesdropping on aliens.
There are few more Australian sounds than the shriek of cockatoos against a blue country sky. The sounds of Australia confounded me when I moved here from Europe 20 years ago. It was nature introverted. Travel anywhere else, and animals yap and yowl and gibber, while birds trill politely in the bushes. In Australia, animals barely make a noise, while birds go berserk with their cackling and hooting and hollering. At 5am in country Australia I lie in bed and wish I had handy access to a shotgun. Boom! Take that, you feathered fiends.
Sounds remain uncaptured from our travels, while memorialising a scene with a camera is easy. You can describe a landscape in writing, but representing sounds in words has always challenged writers. Edgar Allen Poe invented the word "tintinnabulation" in the 1840s to represent the sound that lingers after a bell has been struck. You can try for onomatopoeia like Tennyson and his "murmuring of innumerable bees", or let your language tremble like poet Eve Merriam's: "The rusty spigot sputters, utters a splutter, spatters a smattering of drops ... slash splatters scatters spurts ..."
Alternatively, you can try and describe the effects of sounds, rather than the sounds themselves. "A great thunderstorm of sound gushed from the walls," writes Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. "Music bombarded him at such an immense volume that his bones were almost shaken from their tendons; he felt his jaw vibrate, his eyes wobble in his head." Cathedral organs provide this sort of shock and awe. The cathedral of Fribourg in Switzerland is renowned for its 7,800-pipe organ. Franz Liszt came to Fribourg just to make it thunder and hoot, and it made the heroine inMiddlemarch sob in amazement. I once heard a concert there that made my ribcage tremble.
The internet has the potential to blend sound with travel but, on the whole, has yet to do so. How fabulous if we could hear the background sounds of Berlin or Bogota while reading about those cities. So far, only some sound-mapping websites such as soundcities.com and soundaroundyou.com have tried, along with attempts at sound maps for cities such as Montreal, Toronto, Chicago and London. Favourite Sounds (favouritesounds.org) allows you to pick destinations in Birmingham off Google Maps and hear the noise associated with them. Listen to the sounds of walking up Soho Road on a cold afternoon, early evening in George Park, Turkish supermarket music, kids jumping in a fountain. Locals also talk about their favourite sounds: "The clumsy waitress who drops stuff and you can hear them crack and break."
I like naturesoundmap.com, which brings you the sounds of the Sabah rainforest, a national park in India, or evening over an Ethiopian lake. On turbulence.org/soundtransit/ you can listen to howler monkeys in Costa Rica, the sounds of Tivoli amusement park in Copenhagen or hill-tribe music from Vietnam. In a travel world rather obsessed with the visual, these sounds have the ability to transport you to distant places. And when you actually are in a distant place, listening to sounds can provide another whole level of enjoyment. Keep your ears tuned in, and enjoy the clip-clop, hip-hop, ding-dong and sing-song of the world.