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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(Soundbite of a church bell)

Now to Mexico City: a noisy metropolis of more than 20 million people. It's known for its colonial church bells and its relentless traffic.

Our correspondent there, Jason Beaubien, has noticed that if you listen carefully to the cacophony, the sounds have meaning. He sent us this audio postcard.

(Soundbite of traffic)

JASON BEAUBIEN: Mexico City is noise. Millions of motorists rev their engines and bang on their horns, dogs yap, green Volkswagen Beetle taxis sputter. When I first arrived, the noise was a bit overwhelming. I'd step up out of the subway and be hit by the yelling, the whistles, the bells, the traffic. But then slowly I came to realize that there's a social order to this cacophony.

(Soundbite of bells)

BEAUBIEN: This is how the day begins in my neighborhood. Right around dawn, the trashmen rumble in in their hulking white trucks. One of them jumps down and walks the block ringing a large brass bell calling residents to bring out their garbage. A knife sharpener rides by on his bicycle blowing a whistle.

(Soundbite of whistle)

BEAUBIEN: In the evening, all across the capital, tamale vendors take to the streets. They play a warbly cassette that sings the praises of tamales from Oaxaca.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: If you're not in the mood for tamales, you can listen for the sweet potato woman. The yams, called camotes, are sugary, moist and too hot to hold.

(Soundbite of whistle)

BEAUBIEN: They cook in the woman's stainless steel cart as she pushes it up the street. She runs the steam out a long whistle to announce her presence. Some cities have a certain smell, or a landmark or a vista. Mexico City has its own soundtrack.

(Soundbite of organ grinder)

BEAUBIEN: Stoplights can resemble carnivals. Organ grinders in beige uniforms allegedly fashioned after those of Pancho Villa's soldiers crank antique music boxes. Vendors walk down the rows of cars, selling everything from cigarettes to candy, bottled water to inflatable maps of the world. Jugglers in clown-face makeup toss balls, hoops and flaming torches.

And the barrel organs pop up at one light after another, pumping out the same melodies and almost all of them are horribly out of tune. Millions of people in Mexico City work in the informal economy - the markets can pop up just about anywhere. Along this street near the Zocalo, the central square in Mexico City, a half a dozen men are selling bras, towels and cheap soccer balls out of black garbage bags.

Unidentified People: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: And there's a rhythm to the week: On Sundays, certain street bands show up.

(Soundbite of music)

BEAUBIEN: They come banging on drums and doorbells. On cue, my children rush out to give them a few pesos. The Mexican capital gets kicked around a lot. People complain about the thick smog, the intense traffic, the brutal crime, but if you listen just right, amidst the chaos is a disjointed symphony waiting to be heard.

(Soundbite of music)

BEAUBIEN: Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You can take a tour of Mexico City's rich soundscape with an audio slide show at npr.org.

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