I grew up mostly in quiet places despite usually living in heavy traffic areas. It wasn’t until I visited Cairo in 1988 that I became so aware of honking. Cairo traffic is congested to be sure but honking never helped to de-congest the streets. The same is true in Panama City. I live high above the streets of the banking district here, but still from 6 AM ’til maybe 8 PM, there is a constant din of honking. It’s something you have to get used to when you want to save on electrical bills by keeping windows open.
I’m not just talking about car honks. Here I have discerned at least four different types of honking. 1.)Expressed frustration in traffic delay honking; 2.) Your taxi is calling honk; 3.) Red Devil honks and, finally, street vendor honks. Each style is quite distinctive and adds to the weekdays’ orchestral tones. As I mentioned, I am in Panama City’s banking district and with most banks closed on weekends, traffic dies down considerably but where two or three cars are gathered, there will be at least one honk!
People like to express their frustration in traffic delays by honking. The delay really doesn’t have to be very long before someone will honk. There are many reasons that cause delays in traffic flow and each deserves a short beep or a long drawn-out honk. One reason might simply be the numbers of cars on the road and not all of them can get through a green light. This is the kind of congestion that is directly linked to the number of cars using the same street and converging with other motorists from other streets. A classic traffic jam. These times usually occur when people are tired after a day’s work and just want to go home. Frayed nerves then activate a car horn and, while it never speeds of traffic, I suppose it releases tension. Better, I suppose, to hear honking than to witness road rage. As is the case, when someone starts to honk, everybody else wants to join in the action. Honk….honnnnnnnkkkkkkkk.
Here in Panama City, it is common enough to hail a cab, but usually cabbies will hail you first. These yellow cabs are legal and yet have no meters. If you look like someone who could use a ride, the cabbie is likely to give you a quick honk to let you know he or she is there for you. Cabbies often honk as they approach bus and metro stops. One might emerge from the subway and need a lift…very convenient, especially if it’s raining. The cabbie’s honk is swift and sure. Honk honk.
Before a transportation system was inaugurated in Panama City, residents here depended on Diablos Rojos, Red Devils. These are converted American school busses that are all individually owned and operated. These busses are technically illegal, but still some remain on the streets and run on their own schedules and routes. You will recognize these iconic Red Devil busses by three ways: 1.) They are school busses; 2.) They are each painted in wild colors and designs; 3.) They all honk a bellowing base sound. These busses compete with each other and with the municipal bus system for fares. Hence, they are viewed as reckless largely because they move a lot faster than a city bus. These busses have a distinct base honk and is usually repeated twice as the bus approaches a bus stop. Since they are illegal, they are not supposed to stop and so they often roll up to a regular bus stop, music blaring from the inside (sometimes outside) speakers, the door is always open and a man is leaning out the doorway to advise the driver if any customers are looming so as to prevent an unnecessary stop. These doormen are called turkeys. Honk…honk.
The fourth and last honk is that of the street vendor. Their honk is the sound you might hear from the horn pictured above. It’s a honk that might best mimic that of a goose. These street vendors are on bicycles or motorcycles to which is attached a cart. The vendor in my neighborhood works Monday through Saturday and I hear his air horn just before 6AM when church bells start to ring. These honks are old-fashioned in sound since they are not electric. The vendor I’m thinking of makes an initial round with lightening-like speed just to let you know he’s up and selling. Then he returns at a slower pace which will allow you to signal a stop. Many of these vendors don’t need a horn very often because they have established routes, stops and clients. Honk. Honk. Honk.
As I have been writing this, I have been listening to hundreds of honks and it isn’t even rush hour. The sounds are distinct and even from my high-rise windows, I can tell you with 98% accuracy what kind of vehicle is behind the honk and what the honker means to say. Gee, and I didn’t even mention car alarm honks and police whistles!