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Translation: 240 Birds

240 Birds
Nausícaa Palomeque
25 minutes
Translation: Patrick Moseley

This episode of Radio Ambulante is possible thanks to MailChimp. More than 7 million people and businesses worldwide use MailChimp to send email and newsletters. It’s easy! Even an adult can do it. To learn more, visit mailchimp.com

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Juan Pablo Culasso: I feel bad for her, a poor Literature teacher. It took her about three months to realize I was blind.

Daniel Alarcón: Juan Pablo Culasso doesn’t have any problem talking about his blindness. He can even laugh about difficult situations he’s been through Like this story from high school, when a teacher didn’t even know she had a blind student … Even though he had spent the whole class writing with a Braille typewriter.

Juan Pablo Culasso: She could hear that terrible sound coming out of the Perkins typewriter in the class, which sounds like… And she didn’t realize. “Oh, no” she told my parents “I heard a noise in the class but I didn’t know your son was blind.” “Well, now you know”

Daniel Alarcón: Perhaps what’s even more incredible is that it took years for Juan Pablo himself to understand he couldn’t see. He we was born blind. He could only make out some hues of light. When he was a child, he would sit in front of the TV and say he was watching it.

Juan Pablo: I rode a bicycle and skated, I would climb trees, fall and scrape my knees… And there was none of that “no, don’t do it because you can’t see”.

Daniel: That’s because his parents did everything possible to raise him without barriers.

But it wasn’t easy. Throughout his life he has had to hear “no”, that he can’t do a lot of things because he can’t see. All because of a genetic happenstance. What they didn’t know in the early years was that Juan Pablo’s future was going to depend on something else he was born with.

Welcome to Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Nausícaa Palomeque brings us this story from Uruguay.

Nausícaa Palomeque: Juan Pablo vividly remembers the moment he realized he couldn’t see.

It was in his house in Prado, a neighborhood of Montevideo. He grew up there with his parents and two siblings. He was five or six. Up until that point, he had gotten around using his other senses. For example, he memorized the colors of the cups in his house by their shape.

Juan Pablo: There were different sized cups and each cup was a different color. And I said “oh, this one is the yellow one”. It wasn’t because I knew it was yellow, but because it had a double handle.

Nausícaa Palomeque: One day, he was in the kitchen and his father had bought six identical cups, without handles. Then he said:

Juan Pablo: “Let’s see Juan Pablo, give me the blue one”, and I grabbed the red one. That was it. I found out.

Nausícaa: But Juan Pablo says he really found out what it meant to be blind when he started elementary school. He went to a school for the blind in the morning and in the afternoon…

Juan Pablo: I went to the normal school; let’s call it like that…

Nausícaa: The truth is that the majority of schools in Uruguay were not –and are still not- prepared to admit blind children. Neither were the teachers.

Juan Pablo is 30 years old today, so we’re talking about the ‘80s.

Juan Pablo: At the first school I went to, the first grade teacher sent me to some other teacher’s room because she said she couldn’t deal with having a blind boy in the class. So, starting there… Later we tried to look for a way out. What’s the way out when you say public school isn’t working? Going to a private school.

Nausícaa: But they didn’t have any luck there either. It was the same Catholic school his mother went to. They thought they would have more options there.

Juan Pablo: And the nuns told them “oh no, we can’t admit him here because we don’t know how to teach him either, we don’t have the pedagogy.” And well, the nun were out of the picture. I send my regards to the nuns.

Nausícaa: Finally, he found a school that would admit him. But it fell to Juan Pablo and his family to adapt to a system designed for children who didn’t have any kind of disability. For example, with his homework…

Juan Pablo: It was much easier for my dad to stay up late transcribing the assignments I did in Brialle. He would write every Brialle letter. Braille letter, written letter. One over the other. It was hours of writing.

Nausícaa: At least things weren’t so bad with his classmates.

Juan Pablo: I had my friends. We ran all over, I grabbed them by their back, by their shirt, and went running with them. And in soccer too, they let me shoot the penalty kicks.

Nausícaa: Sometimes, when he had substitutes, Juan Pablo had a good time making fun of his own blindness.

Juan Pablo: The teacher would get there and start writing: “Teacher”, “Yes, what is it?” “The third word in the fifth line has a mistake, it’s missing an accent”. And of course, the class died laughing. And the teacher didn’t know why. When he realized I was blind…

Nausícaa: In high school things got more complicated. Juan Pablo remembers a Biology teacher very well.

Juan Pablo: “Oh, but Juan Pablo won’t be able to use a microscope”. Obviously not, I won’t be able to see anything; even though I want to I’m not going to see, dear.

Nausícaa: And one Spanish teacher who told his mother at a meeting…

Juan Pablo: “Why don’t you send him to a high school for blind students?” But that’s not the real world. The real world is that jungle I was living in at the high school. For the teachers it was much easier to give me a good grade, because it was supposedly hard for them. They didn’t know how to teach me or whatever.

Nausícaa: The teacher didn’t even know that there were no high schools for the blind in Uruguay. The laws in Uruguay talk about integration and inclusion, which means in secondary school, all of the students are in the same classroom. But in practice, many blind students don’t make it out of primary school and end up taking some kind of special course or workshop for the disabled.

As a teenager, everything got even more complicated for Juan Pablo.

Juan Pablo: Most people have different objectives by then: who’s going out with who, who did you hook up with, where did you go dancing, things like that. And I said to myself, “why am I not doing the same thing?”

Nausícaa: So Juan Pablo hid away in his house, in books, listening to TV shows…and at the piano.

Juan Pablo: I spent eight years playing piano as a child and I got a very strong education in music.

Nausícaa: But it wasn’t easy. His parents had to go from teacher to teacher trying to convince them to adapt their classes to their son’s needs.

Juan Pablo: Teaching a blind student is complicated.

Nausícaa: Eventually, they found Susie, a short woman with a very kind voice and a lot of patience. Susie had no experience with blind students, but she learned with Juan Pablo. She came up with a way for Juan Pablo to read the sheet music with his fingers.

Juan Pablo: She raised all the staffs, the notes: half notes, quater notes, whole notes, eighths and sixteenths. She made them out of cardboard so I knew what shape they were. And I learned all of the sheet music by ear. From memory. Scores that were seven, eight, nine pages long. And that allowed me to learn music theory.

Nausícaa: Juan Pablo had a very good memory. He progressed very quickly. And one day, he was out walking with his father…

Juan Pablo: We were at the Arapey River and my dad was throwing rocks into the water and I told him “that rock is a C, that one’s an F, that one’s an E and that one’s a D”. And we told my piano teacher, “look, Juan Pablo did such and such thing at the river. What is that?”.

Nausícaa: And Susie told them…

Juan Pablo: “That is called perfect pitch”.

Nausícaa: Susie explained that it was a rather extraordinary condition that few people in the world have, about 1 in 10 thousand.

Juan Pablo: Perfect pitch is basically identifying all of the sound frequencies around you as musical notes, telling them apart and filtering everything around me.

Nausícaa: For example, if you play this chord, someone with absolute pitch can tell you the notes are C, E and G. Just by listening. Without looking at the piano and without having played another note to reference before the chord. It may sound simple, but being able to do that, even among musicians, is rare. Maybe they can train their ear to recognize these notes, but never with the precision of someone who has perfect pitch. One day, the piano tuner went to Juan Pablo’s house.

Juan Pablo: And I say to him “there’s something wrong”. Well, he started tuning it, it was pretty out of tune. The fundamental note of music is 440 hertz. That is an A. And he plays the A and asks me, “is that right?”. And I tell him “no I think it’s flat” And he grabs the electric tuner.

Nausícaa: Which is a machine that measures the frequencies of notes.

Juan Pablo: He measures it and it says 438 hertz. “Well, I’ll tune it a little more”. Pin! He tried it again. “How about now?” “No, I think you passed it”. It read 441 hertz. Let’s just say perfect pitch allows for that kind of musical craziness.

Nausícaa: They can also identify notes in sounds like alarms, buzzing or in this fog horn, which for someone with perfect pitch is an F sharp.

It’s a phenomenon that’s often seen in people who were born blind. It has to do with the development of hearing in the first years of life.

Juan José, Juan Pablo’s father, was excited at this news and decided to invent a sound game for his son. At home, they had an encyclopedia with recordings of hundreds of birds. His dad played the records…

Juan Pablo: And I memorized them. Then he asked me “what is 144?” and I would say to him “this or that”, the capercallie.

Nausícaa: And so he didn’t just put his memory to use, but also his perfect pitch, because with that he could identify every bird call and make associations with them as if it were a musical composition…

Juan Pablo: The sound the cardinal makes, for example, is a combination of notes that are in the fifth or the sixth octave on the piano. A combination of chords, a musical scale, a different rhythm, staccatos. And I put all of that information together to record in my head how a bird sings.

Nausícaa: His father started taking him to the countryside to look for birds and learn how to identify them. And when he was 15, during one of these excursions, Juan Pablo met someone who would become very important.

Juan Pablo: His name is Santiago Claramount.

Nausícaa: He was part of a group of bird watchers that were out recording and identifying bird sounds. In Uruguay there are 450 different species. To put that in context, that is one fourth of the amount species in all of Brazil.

That day, they were looking for birds migrating south to record them. At some point Santiago handed his recording equipment to him and said:

Juan Pablo: “Well, Juan Pablo, here is the recorder and the microphone. This is record and play. I need you to record this or that thing”. Which is to say “Good luck, do the best you can. I have to do other things. Record”.

And after that moment, when he gave me the recorder, I said :”this is what I want to do”.

Nausícaa: He started doing it as a hobby. He kept on thinking he would have a career that was more common for a blind person. He entered into a public university to study International Relations but from the start, things didn’t go so well.

Just like when he tried to register for school to learn English.

Juan Pablo: They didn’t admit me because they said the course was extremely visual and the English pedogogy at that institution employed many visual concepts. Well, perfect, then I’ll keep learning English on my own, however I could. And what happens? You go to a job interview and they say “do you speak English? Well, where is the diploma?”. “I don’t have one”. “Why don’t you have one?”. ·Because they didn’t want to accept me anywhere, what do I know?”. And it’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it.

Nausícaa: There are some careers that are more available to blind people, like literature, philosophy and history. And when that person graduates…

Juan Pablo: Then they try to go into public service, to government jobs. And they earn a living that way. Some aren’t pushed very hard but they get paid a salary every month and they don’t care. But that isn’t what I wanted for my life. I want to be treated like a professional, I don’t want to by a charity case, I don’t want them to give me less to do because I’m blind. I want to release my full potential doing what I know how to do.

Nausícaa: So Juan Pablo decided to end his studies at the university and see if he could make living doing what he liked the most: recording sounds in nature.

At the same time, Juan Pablo’s dad got a job in Brazil. Juan Pablo went with him and looked for someone he could continue learning with. Amazingly, there he got in touch with one of the most renown sound engineers in the world.

Juan Pablo: A Frenchman named Jacques Belliar, in the fifth largest sound lab in the world. I visit him and he asks me, “What do you want to do here?”. “I want to learn and acquire knowledge.” “But you see I can’t pay you anything to be here and work with me now.” “No, professor, don’t worry, I’m here to learn”. “Well, if you’re here to learn, I want you here on Tuesday”.

Nausícaa: Maybe you’re wondering what it takes to be a professional sound engineer. Well there are several things: Like using different recorders and microphones; not just knowing when to use which but knowing how and where to put them. And then there is the whole issue of digitizing and editing the sound. For two years, Juan Pablo learned all this in Jacque’s lab.

In 2008, his father gave him his first piece of recording equipment as a gift. And two years later, he released his first CD.

Nausícaa: Juan Pablo starting giving conferences and recording CDs as educational materials. Almost entirely for free. So he recorded, for example the sounds at Bañado de los Indios on the coast of Uruguay.

Juan Pablo: We have chestnut-capped blackbirds, rushes, lapwings, there are some parrots…

Nausícaa: He learned a lot. Today, Juan Pablo can identify hundreds of bird sounds.

Juan Pablo: There’s the limpkin, blue cardinal, black-faced ibis… But it was all very amateur, because I made my CDs and got a little money but I used it to improve my equipment. I always had this drive to improve and improve and improve my equipment.

Nausícaa: But what he earned wasn’t enough to live independently. It’s a difficult career for anyone. No one makes a lot of money in the profession and recording equipment is expensive.

Juan Pablo: A lot of people tell you “oh, how nice, how nice, how nice”, and you ask for some help, for some financial support, you show that… And no one gives you anything.

Nausícaa: He even considered going back to study the humanities. But on June 5, 2013, he got an email from a show from National Geographic.

Rafael Araneda: We’ll be back with SuperCerebros!

Juan Pablo: SuperCerebros is a game show made by National Geographic which aims to find the person with the most brilliant mind.

Nausícaa: It’s a competition for various talents. It was the first SuperCerebros competition in Latin America…

Juan Pablo: I said, “Well, who knows if I’ll get something from this? Who knows if this is an opportunity? We’ll give it a try.” My dad said something to me that he always says, that I tell people I say, even though that’s not true: “You already have the ‘no’”.

Nausícaa: So he sent all the information he needed to sign up.

Juan Pablo: I was selected along with 300 other candidates in Latin America.

Rafael Araneda: Welcome, Juan Pablo from Uruguay!

Nausícaa: Juan Pablo remembers how he felt when he went on stage for the show the first time, how he could feel the intensity of the light. He remembers that there was an enormous light.

Juan Pablo: On of those spotlights that hits your eyes and makes you close them, and the people clapping. I said, “oof, what have I gotten myself into? What is this?”. I went down the stairs, I went to my seat and sat down: “Well, we’re already here”. It’s like when you jump on a trampoline and you’re going to cannonball into a pool. You’re in a free fall, you let it take you, there’s nothing else to do.

Nausícaa: The show has two phases: the first -even though it seems odd- is called the semifinal. They divide 20 contestants into 5 groups of 4. That is to say, there are 5 semifinals. And the winners from each group go on to the final.

Juan Pablo: In my case, I competed against Carmen from Colombia, Arturo from Peru and Robert from Mexico.

Nausícaa: All of the contestants had really unusual talents.

Carmen: I can memorize any information in a short time.

Juan Pablo: Carmen had a binary memory, which is basically binary numbers: zero, one, white, black…

Nausícaa: Arturo from Peru was very good at mathematical calculations.

Juan Pablo: Like, you say 37 times 48 and he answers in half a second. Or take the square root of 147,508 and he tells you really fast.

Arturo: When I was very little my dad would do math problems and I knew the answers before they told me.

Nausícaa: Roberto from Mexico had an incredible short-term memory.

Juan Pablo: They show you a certain number of data in a limited time and you have to memorize all of it really fast. And then there was me, with the birds.

Rafael: Juan Pablo, I’m going to ask you a question. Are you ready to put your auditory memory to the test?

Juan Pablo: More than ever.

Rafael: More than ever. In that case, your mental challenge begins now.

Nausícaa: His first test consisted in identifying ten sounds at random out of 240 bird songs.

Juan Pablo: And I had to say the scientific name of the bird in Latin.

Juan Pablo: Cantortirus longilostrus…

Rafael: Next bird.

Nausícaa: Juan Pablo was well-prepared. He had studied for weeks. But he was unsure of one of the names.

Juan Pablo: I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t remember and I said “oh, godammit, I can’t lose now.” And then plin the light bulb went on and I remembered.

Juan Pablo: This one is a little long…it’s a Pseudoleistes guirahuro.

Rafael: There are three left.

Nausícaa: In the end, he managed to identify the ten sounds.

Rafael: Congratulations Juan Pablo! You did an incredible job!

Nausícaa: After the first phase, the contestants moved on to the judges’ voting round.

Juan Pablo: I was really worried that what they were evaluating was my talent.

Nausícaa: The audience knew he was blind because he went on stage with his seeing-eye dog, Rania, who goes with him everywhere. But…

Juan Pablo: I never gave any speech about being a poor blind man who struggled with everything in life, to make them feel sorry for me, you know? I made sure that the people, the host and all of the questions were directed at my work and my talent.

Nausícaa: Roberto from Mexico failed his test and was eliminated. Then the audience had to choose between Juan Pablo, Arturo and Carmen, to see who won the semifinal.

Juan Pablo: And in those seconds when they were voting, when the host said, “you can vote now”, I swear I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t feel the floor. It was like “what’s going on?” My heart was beating really quickly and when he said: “The results are in”.

Rafael: The winner of this episode is…

Juan Pablo: And he waited for about 40 seconds.

Nausícaa: Juan Pablo grabbed Carmen’s hand, who was also competing to move on to the final. Until the host, Rafael, announced the winner:

Rafael: Juan Pablo from Uruguay!

Nausícaa: Immediately, Juan Pablo threw himself down and hugged his guide dog Rania.

Rafael: And that’s all we have for… SuperCerebros!

Nausícaa: And the show ends. The lights turn off and they start to take down the set and Juan Pablo goes to a room where the production assistants ask him how he feels.

Juan Pablo: I had to think a little because I didn’t know how to respond yet. Let’s just say that I was starting to have a little trouble breathing and they asked for a seat for me to sit down in and Rafael came in and said “What’s going on? Say something, say something”. I tried… Well, in the end I don’t know how to tell you.

Nausícaa: He had only won the semifinal and the prize was 4,500 dollars. But he was euphoric. More than about the money…

Juan Pablo: Because I spent many years working on this without any recognition, you know? And when I passed the first phase, there’s no way to say it. I cried a lot. I nearly couldn’t speak. I called my dad and told him what happened. Of course, he broke down on the phone. There’s no other way. There’s no other way. Because he was always there, you see? He always paid for everything. He helped me against wind and tide, inside and out.

Nausícaa: A few days later they shot the final. Juan Pablo was competing against other finalists.

Rafael: The winner of the SúperCerebros title with a 45,000 prize and this trophy is…

Nausícaa: And, you guessed it.

Rafael: Juan Pablo!

Nausícaa: Juan Pablo won.

Juan Pablo: I celebrated and everything. I talked to everyone. But… It wasn’t that it wasn’t great, but the emotional impact wasn’t as strong as at the semifinal.

Nausícaa: 45,000 is no small sum to anyone. And it wasn’t for Juan Pablo either. But the most valuable part wasn’t the money.

Juan Pablo: Yes, obviously the prize is very important. But showing that a blind person can do something other than what society thinks, that is something that you can’t buy. That is priceless. It’s practically incalculable for me. That is the most important part. Doing a little to change the image that society has of people with disabilities.

Nausícaa: He used the money to buy better equipment. And with the acclaim of the prize he managed to travel to the Uruguayan Antarctic station, which is one of the most interesting experiences a sound engineer can have. But that didn’t change his life.

His problems continue. Today, Juan Pablo is preparing to apply for a sound engineering program at a university in Canada. He has not been accepted in Uruguay nor in Brazil. And the reasons are the same ones he heard as a child: no, they can’t because they still haven’t learned how to teach someone who is blind.

But for him, it’s different:

Juan Pablo: I always say that those of you who can see are limited because the sense of sight only lets you see 70 degrees in front of you, more or less. If we put the head on a straight line. I, on the other hand, can see the world in 360 degrees, because information comes to me from all sides: left, right, ahead, behind. That’s why I say that: you see less than me.


Daniel Alarcón: This story was produced by Nausícaa Palomeque and Martina Castro. Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas and I, Daniel Alarcón, edited this story. Martina did the sound design.

Nausícaa is an Uruguayan journalist living in Montevideo. Juan Pablo recorded the natural sounds you heard in this story. You can find more on his website, www.jpculasso.net.

The rest of our team includes Luis Trelles and Barbara Sawhill. The executive director is Carolina Guerrero.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American To hear more, visit our website,radioambulante.org. Thanks for listening.

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