Oh! for the sound of silence
One of the first things that strike you in most European countries is how life goes on with minimum of noise. First impressions of Germany four years ago were as if someone had pressed the mute button on a giant remote. Cars whizzed by softly, buses plied silently and trains ran smoothly. Even on a normal weekday in Munich or Berlin or Dortmund, all you heard was the sound of silence. Ditto Switzerland, England and France.
During two previous visits in 2008 and 2009, South Africa seemed similar. Cars and buses sped by on huge highways and though traffic snarls happened at rush hours like in most top-line cities (and so unlike India), South Africans bore it stoically. And quietly.
That’s changed so much this time that the experience of my past visits seem almost surreal in comparison. Ke Nako or it is time is what this World Cup’s supposed to be about but sticking to time seems as possible as goals from free-kicks in the finals so far. Our driver took three hours to get out of Soweto on the night of the kick-off concert on Thursday and the drive to the stadium on Friday morning, some four hours before the opening ceremony was through roads clogged bumper to bumper.
The World Cup’s ensured that all estimates of time be at least trebled. Like back home, traffic can and is cited as an excuse for delayed or failed appointments.
The other thing that’s changed is the noise. If nothing else, this World Cup will be remembered for that. By now, everyone’s familiar with the incessant drone at all games making the stadiums seem like giant bee hives. Long after competition ends, it will continue to buzz in the ears of those present here, players, fans, the media etc. Apart from tickets, the one thing in demand are ear plugs.
And with a local organising official vehemently insisting that the vuvuzelas will continue to have a blast, this concert is some time away from ending. Only during national anthems are they banned at game. Before and after they end, and through the day, short sharp bursts and long blasts of the plastic horns have become part of workaday lives. So what if France skipper Patrice Evra’s complained that it gets in the way of a good night’s sleep. So what if Cristiano Ronaldo’s admitted to it being a distraction. So what if television viewers worldwide want it to stop.
According to a hearing expert quoted by Reuters last April, the levels of noise these trumpets generate is well above what is allowed in South African factories without protection. The study by professor De Wet Swanepoel of the University of Pretoria and Dr James Hall from the University of Florida, published in the South African Medical Journal, said 11 spectators exposed to vuvuzelas at a 30,000-seat stadium showed a significant decrease in hearing.
Prolonged exposure may lead to permanent damage, he said. “If you are exposed to these levels that we measured for 10,15, 20 minutes continuously, you are exposing yourself to a definite risk in noise-induced hearing loss,” Swanepoel said.
According to Reuters, the maximum noise exposure in a South African working environment without protection is 85 decibels. The study showed an average of more than 100 decibels from the trumpets, rising to a maximum of 131 decibels. “That’s very loud, that is the sound of a jack hammer,” Swanepoel said.
Swanepoel said he doesn’t recommend vuvuzelas be banned but that spectators come prepared. Hence the ear plugs.
Being greeted by trumpets, plastic or otherwise, seemed an unexpectedly pleasant welcome one week ago. Now, the thought of having to live with it for nearly four more weeks is unbearable. And know what, I’ve already been asked by friends back home to get vuvuzelas as gifts. Oh! for the sound of silence.