Sleepless in Las Palmas

With thanks to Mariusz Kucharczyk for the image.

One of the striking differences between life in Ireland and life in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the amount of noise. While I’m definitely not talking India levels of blaring car horns or a SE Asia-style infestation of mopeds, the general ambience on the streets is a good deal louder than back home. Never is this more noticeable than at night.

I’m really not sure how native Canarians sleep. Before Christmas I put the noise levels down to the fact that my AirBnb was situated between a busy-ish road and a pedestrianised street that many revellers use as a thoroughfare on nights out. The location was fantastic and my apartment was lovely, but rarely a night would go by that I wasn’t woken by loud laughter, good-natured yelling or even singing, particularly at the weekend.

One memorable night near the beginning of my time there, I was woken by a gang of passersby that consisted of more than one guy and at least one girl. I could hear the guys murmuring away, talking at a normal level, while the girl made loud overtures about how “Maradona was the shit” in Spanish. You might be wondering how a relative Spanish novice like me understood what she was saying so early in my stay? Well, perhaps owing to the fact that her male companions seemed to be ignoring her concise and nuanced opinion, the lady in question was screeching this over and over again at the tops of her lungs for the long ten minutes it took her to walk into – and then out of – earshot. Rarely have I felt so homicidal at four AM on a Friday morning.

Since my post-Christmas return to LPA I have moved with Jerome into an apartment halfway down the main beach and one block back from it, and had naïvely assumed that given its less central location it would be a good deal quieter. However, writing this after another night of broken sleep, I have to admit that I was overly optimistic and my stoic resistance to the idea of buying and relying on earplugs lies in tatters.

It’s pretty well known that, in general, Spanish culture is predicated towards very late nights out. This suits my natural tendencies really well, and before I made my current switch to early morning productivity I was pretty at home in a place that wonderfully allows for a beach sports night that doesn’t even start until 2100 on a Monday evening. Depending on how this experiment goes (for example, if I discover I write better in the evenings after work than before it – unlikely given past experience but possible) I may well jump back into that late night life with gusto. For going out I still love it – if you’re having a good time you can pretty much stay out as late as you want. Watching the sun rise on the beach at the ragged end of a fiesta is a nice way to close it, even if the feeling that you have just borrowed from the next day’s happiness is never stronger.

What this means is that there is a large contingent who just do not seem to be able to comprehend that there are people trying to sleep at 5am on a Saturday morning. I don’t even personally mind the laughter and yelling so much – as long as it’s not totally flagrant (you do occasionally get the impression that certain people are actually trying to wake the whole place). You get some of it in Ireland as well, but things are different here and skew later in general. However, what I’ve noticed in this new, more motorised area is that people seem to think nothing of honking their car horns in both greeting and farewell as they roll slowly around the streets blaring reggaeton at levels that must render everyone inside the car stone deaf within minutes.

In fact, writing this I suddenly understand how they manage to end up leaning on the car horn for five second blasts at 0430:

“Is your horn broken again man?”
“God yeah, must be. Maybe if I hold it down long enough it’ll start working again?”
The music reaches a crescendo and then drops into the quieter bridge, revealing the very-much-functioning car horn
“Oh yeah, there we go, it’s working now! Thank God we were able to warn that attractive young lady not to step out in the road just now.”
“What did you say!?”

Other road users can be just as bad. Although scooters are not the main mode of transport, there are a lot of them around. Owing to the narrow (mostly one-way and therefore one lane) calles and prevalence of apartment blocks, one scooter driving up the street generates an astounding level of noise. The obnoxious wah-errrrrrrrr of the engine bounces around in the confines of the high-rises like it’s an echo chamber. It’s made worse by how quickly they go and some weird property of the noise they produce – instead of having time to get used to the sound as it slowly gets closer, they pass the apartment in a shot, blasting the windows with what feels like a thousand decibels of “sleeeeEPTHROUGHTHISYAFUCKEEEerrrrr” and are gone again, into the night (or day). Were I the mayor, I’d happily ban them from use between 11pm and 7am in a heartbeat.

Then there are the bins. I feel for the refuse collectors of Las Palmas, I really do.

I’d better backtrack and explain how the bins work. For apartment dwellers, at least in my experience, the bins are either dumpsters or normal wheelie bins somewhere in the vicinity of the main apartment block doors. They’re out on the edge of the pavement or road. Because all these bins are shared, and because Las Palmas council don’t want rubbish piled in the streets, these bins are collected every night. It’s a nice system, keeping the streets clean and meaning nobody has to really worry about their bin filling up, though it’s harsh on the refuse collectors who have to spend their every night dealing with rubbish.

What this means though, is that every night between 0200 and 0230 I am woken by the incredible cacophony of heavy bins being lifted and emptied in great crashing loads before slamming back down onto the street – hollow now, for better acoustics – with their lids clattering shut. All this has the beautiful backing track of a throaty garbage-truck engine, roaring away at double intensity during the lifting and crushing of the bin loads. Remember the echo chamber effect? It’s audible again in all its glory, building already loud sounds into something I believe it’s almost impossible to sleep through. The first time I was woken by it I jumped out of bed looking for the nearest ARP officer.

And yet, far from the mecca of affordable, comfortable and effective earplug technology you’d expect Las Palmas to be, most people appear to get on without them. At the very least, it’s not spoken of and I don’t see major billboard ads for the latest earplug breakthroughs. I can’t understand it. There’s a real opportunity for science and commerce to come together and solve real problems here, people!

So, with a heavy heart, I have to announce that I’m going to wimp out on my attempts to fully acclimate to the city and buy myself a couple of months worth of earplugs. I really thought that I could get used to it in time, becoming more resistant to noise and thereby improving my ability to sleep in general like some kind of Rocky training montage for sleep. Instead, it turns out it’s pretty difficult to get used to unpredictable super-loud noises when trying to sleep, and that the problems are only compounded when you embark on a new routine that requires you to both go to bed and get up earlier. Who knew!?

I should note that this post is heavily tongue-in-cheek and I like LPA so much I’ve come back for a much longer second stint. I’ll be here until May, most likely, and I’m still enjoying myself even with my more studious and early-rising new lifestyle. Part of any relationship getting deeper is facing and accepting faults, and surely one with a city should be no different.

Las Palmas, honey, I’m sorry, but you keep me up all night long. And not in a good way.