240 Birds– Translation

240 Birds– Translation


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Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today we return to our archives, with a story that we originally published in 2016. For that we go to Montevideo, Uruguay.

[Juan Pablo Culasso]: A Literature teacher—I think—poor thing, I feel … I feel sorry for her, it took her about three months to realize I was blind.

[Daniel]: Juan Pablo Culasso speaks freely about his blindness. He can even laugh at the difficult situations he’s faced. Like this story from high school, when a teacher didn’t even realize she had a blind student in the class, despite the fact that Juan Pablo spent the entire class period writing on his Braille typewriter.

[Juan Pablo]: There was an awful noise in the Perkins machine room, that was like (banging) all the time. But … but she didn’t realize it. “Oh, no,” she said to my parents, “I did hear some noise in the classroom, but I didn’t know your son was bind.” Well, now she knows.

[Daniel]: And here’s something that’s maybe even more incredible: It took Juan Pablo years to realize that he couldn’t see. He was born blind and could barely perceive some rays of light. As a child, he would sit in front of the TV and say he was watching.

 [Juan Pablo]: I rode my bike, roller-skated, climbed trees, I would fall, scrape my knees. And I never heard, “Oh no, no, don’t do that because you can’t see.”

[Daniel]: And that’s because his parents did everything possible to raise him without any barriers.

But it wasn’t so easy. During his lifetime, a lot of people said to him no, he couldn’t do that because he couldn’t see. All due to a genetic mishap. What they didn’t know during those first years was that Juan Pablo’s future would also depend on something else that he was born with.

Producer Nausícaa Palomeque tells us the story.

[Nausícaa Palomeque]: Juan Pablo remembers vividly the moment he realized he couldn’t see. He was at home in the Prado neighborhood in Montevideo. He grew up there with his parents and two brothers. He was about five or six years old. Up to that age, he oriented himself using his other senses. For example, he memorized the colors of the glasses in his house according to the shape they had.

[Juan Pablo]: There were glasses of different sizes, and each glass was a different color. And I used to say, “Oh, this is the yellow one.” Not because I knew it was yellow, but because it was the one with two handles.


[Nausícaa]: One day, he was in the kitchen and his father had bought six glasses that looked the same, without handles. And he asked him:

 [Juan Pablo]: “Let’s see, Juan Pablo, pass me the blue one.” And I grabbed the red one. And that’s it. I found out.

[Nausícaa]: But Juan Pablo says that he truly understood what it meant to be blind when he started attending primary school. He used to go to a school for the blind in the mornings, and in the afternoons …

[Juan Pablo]: The regular school, let’s call it.

[Nausícaa]: The truth is that most schools in Uruguay were not—are still not—ready to accept blind children. Teachers aren’t, either.

Juan Pablo is almost 30 years old now, so we’re talking about the early eighties.

[Juan Pablo]: At that first school I attended, the teacher used to send me to another room with who knows what teacher, claiming she couldn’t bear to have a blind child in her class. Well, that was just the beginning.

So we tried to find a way out. What’s the solution when they tell you that public schools aren’t the way to go? Well, going to a private school

[Nausícaa]: But no luck there, either. It was the same Catholic school his mom had attended. They thought they would have more possibilities there.

[Juan Pablo]: And the nuns said, “Oh, no. We can’t accept him here because we don’t know how to teach him, either. We have no pedagogy.” And, well, so much for the nuns. Hey, I send my regards to the nuns.

[Nausícaa]: Finally, they found a school that took him in. But Juan Pablo and his family had to adapt to a system designed for children without any handicaps. For example, in the matter of homework …

[Juan Pablo]: It was much easier if my father stayed up until very late translating the work I did in Braille. A word in Braille, he would write it using ink. Another word in Braille, another word in ink. One after the other. He would spend hours writing.

[Nausícaa]: At least with his classmates, things weren’t too bad.

[Juan Pablo]: I had friends. If we were running this way, I would hold on to their back, grab onto their clothes, and I would run with them that way. The same with soccer, they would let me kick the penalty shots.

[Nausícaa]: Sometimes, when they had substitute teachers, Juan Pablo had fun by making fun of his own blindness.

[Juan Pablo]: A teacher would come in and start to write. “Teacher.” “Yes, what is it?” “The fifth line, third word, has a mistake, it’s missing the accent.” And of course, the whole class burst out laughing. And the teacher didn’t understand why. Until they looked at me and saw I was blind.

[Nausícaa]: At the lyceum—which is the equivalent of high school in Uruguay—things continued to be rough. Juan Pablo remembers a certain biology teacher very well.

[Juan Pablo]: “Oh, but Juan Pablo won’t be able to see the microscope.” Obviously not, I wouldn’t see a thing; even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t see a thing, my dear.

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

[Juan Pablo]: “Why don’t you send him to a lyceum for the blind?” But that’s not the real world. The real world is precisely that other jungle, the one I faced at the—at the lyceum. For a teacher, it was easier to write “pass,” because it was hard for them, it was supposedly hard, they didn’t know how to teach or whatever.

 [Nausícaa]: The teacher didn’t even know that in Uruguay there’s no such thing as high schools for the blind. Uruguayan laws talk about integration and inclusion, which means that in high school, all students share the same classroom. But in reality, many blind students don’t manage to graduate from primary school, and they end up taking some private course or some kind of workshop for the disabled.

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

 [Juan Pablo]: Then the—the goals for most people are different: to see who is with whom, who are you going with, who … where did you go dancing, that sort of thing. And I said, “So, what’s going on with all this that I’m not doing at all?”

[Nausícaa]: So Juan Pablo took refuge in his house, reading books, listening to TV programs and playing the piano.

[Juan Pablo]: As a child, I played piano for eight years and got a very strong musical education.

[Nausícaa]: But it wasn’t easy. His parents had to go from one teacher to another, trying to convince them to adapt their classes for their son.

[Juan Pablo]: Teaching a blind kid is very complicated.

[Nausícaa]: Finally they found Susie, a short woman with a warm voice and a lot of patience. Susie had no experience with blind persons, but she learned with Juan Pablo. She invented a method so that Juan Pablo could read the musical scores with his fingers.

[Juan Pablo]: She made all the musical scores in relief, the notes—half notes, quarter notes, whole notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes. She made them all out of cardboard so that I would know their shape. And I learned all the scores by ear. From memory. Scores that were seven, eight, nine pages. And that provided me with music theory.

[Nausícaa]: Juan Pablo had a very good memory. He got ahead quickly. And one day, strolling with his father …

[Juan Pablo]: We were by the Arapey River, and my father was throwing stones in the water, and I said to him, “That stone is a C, that one is an F, that one is an E, that one is a D.” And so we told the piano teacher, “Hey, Juan Pablo did such-and-such at the river, what does that mean?”

[Nausícaa]: And Susie replied:

[Juan Pablo]: “That’s called perfect pitch.”

[Nausícaa]: Susie explained to them that it is a fairly rare condition, that not many people in the world have, maybe one in ten thousand.

[Juan Pablo]: Having perfect pitch is basically the ability to identify all the sound frequencies around you in terms of musical notes, it’s distinguishing, filtering everything around me.

[Nausícaa]: For example, if you play this chord, someone with perfect pitch can tell you that you’re playing: C-E-G. Just by listening. Without looking at the piano and without hearing another note as reference before they hear the chord. It may sound simple, but being able to do this, even for a musician, is very rare. They may be able to train their ear to recognize those notes, but never with the precision of someone who has perfect pitch. One day, the piano tuner went to Juan Pablo’s home.

[Juan Pablo]: And I said to him, “There’s a problem with this.” Well, he started tuning it, and yes, it was out of tune, way out. And … the fundamental note in music is 440 hertz. It’s an A. So he plays an A and asks me, “Is that right?” And “No, I think it’s still off.” So he grabs the electronic tuning fork …

[Nausícaa]: Which is another tool to measure note frequencies.

[Juan Pablo]: He measured and he got 438 hertz. “Well, ok, I’ll tune it a little more.” Ting!, he hit it again. “How about now?” “No, I think you went over.” He got 441 hertz. So, let’s say that perfect pitch allows you those kinds of … of … of musical craziness.

[Nausícaa]: They can also identify notes in sounds like alarms, buzzing, or even this boat horn, which for anyone with perfect pitch is an F-sharp.

It’s something you see more often in people who were born blind. It has to do with the development of your hearing during those first years.

Juan José, Juan Pablo’s father, got excited about the news and decided to invent a sound game for his son. At home they had an encyclopedia with recordings of hundreds of birds. His father had him listen to those discs.

[Juan Pablo]: So I memorized them. He would asked me, “Hmm, which one is number 144?” I said such-and-such, “that’s the wood- wood grouse .”

 [Nausícaa]: And there he was applying not only his memory but also his perfect pitch, because with this he could identify notes in each birdsong and create associations among them as if they were a musical composition.

[Juan Pablo]: The sound of the cardinal, for example, is a set of musical notes that are in the fifth octave, or sixth octave of the piano. A set of chords, an assembled musical scale, a different rhythm—staccatos. I use all that information to record in my head how a specific bird species sings.

[Nausícaa]: His father started taking him outdoors to search for birds and learn how to identify them. And when he was fifteen years old, on one of those outings, Juan Pablo met someone who would end up being a key person.

[Juan Pablo]: His name is Santiago Claramount.

[Nausícaa]: He was part of a group of bird watchers who would go out to record and identify birdsongs. Uruguay has about 450 different bird species. To keep this in perspective, that amounts to one fourth of the birds there are in all of Brazil.

That day, they were looking for birds that were migrating south in order to record them. At one point, Santiago handed him the recording equipment and said:

[Juan Pablo]: “Ok, Juan Pablo, here’s the recorder, the microphone. This is rec, play and you have to record such-and-such a thing.” What’s more … that is, “you figure out how to do that, I have to do other things to do, so go ahead and record.”

And as soon as he handed that recorder to me, I said, “Man, that’s what I want to do.”

 [Nausícaa]: He started doing it as a hobby. He was still thinking of following a career path that more common for a blind person. He started attending a public university to study International Relations, but from the beginning he didn’t do well. The same thing happened when he tried to get into a school to learn English.

[Juan Pablo]: They didn’t accept me, claiming that the course was extremely visual and the institution’s pedagogy taught English through a lot of visual concepts. “Fine, then,” I said, “so I’ll keep on learning English on my own, in any … any way I can.” And what happens? You go to a job interview and they ask you, “Do you speak English? Well, where’s your diploma? And, “I don’t have one.” “Why don’t you have one?” “Because I wasn’t accepted in this place, or that place, whatever.” That’s the vicious circle, right?

[Nausícaa]: There are some careers that are easier for a blind person, like literature, philosophy and history. And when they graduate …

[Juan Pablo]: They enter public service, working for the State. And they go in, earn a salary. Some are underused, but they get paid every month and they don’t care. And … but I don’t want that for my life. I want to be treated like a professional. I don’t want them to use philanthropy with me. I don’t want to be given less to do because I’m blind. I want to reach my full potential doing what I know how to do.

[Daniel]: That’s how Juan Pablo decided to drop out of the university and see if he could earn a living doing what he loved most: recording the sounds of nature.

We’ll be back after a pause.

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[Daniel]: We’re back at Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the pause, we heard how Juan Pablo was struggling to find his path in life. He wanted a regular career, a quote/unquote “normal job,” but his blindness in Uruguay brought him a lot of rejection.

Juan Pablo felt frustrated, so he decided to abandon his plans and pursue his true passion: listening to the world around him.

Nausícaa continues the story.

[Nausícaa]: Just around that time, Juan Pablo’s father got a job in Brazil. Juan Pablo left with him and looked for someone he could continue to learn with. Incredibly, he got in touch there with one of the most prestigious sound engineers on an international level.

 [Juan Pablo]: A Frenchman called Jacques Belliar at the fifth largest sound lab in the world. He welcomes me and says, “What do you want to come here for?” “No. I want to come and learn and … and acquire knowledge.” “But look, I can’t … I can’t pay you anything for being here, for working with me now,” and this and that. “No, no, professor, don’t worry. I’m here to learn.” “Well, if you’re coming to learn, I want you here this coming Tuesday.”

 [Nausícaa]: You may be asking yourselves what you need to learn to be a sound professional. Well, there are a lot of things: how to use different recorders and microphones, knowing not just which one to use and when, but also knowing how and where to place them. Then comes the whole issue of digitization and sound editing. Juan Pablo spent two years learning all of this at Jacques’ lab.

In 2008, his father gave him his first recording equipment. And two years later, he released his first CD.

[Nausícaa]: Juan Pablo began to give lectures and record discs as teaching material. Almost everything was free. So he recorded, for example, the sounds in the Bañado de los Indios, on the coast of Uruguay.

[Juan Pablo]: We have chestnut-capped blackbirds, southern lapwings, there are some parrots.

[Nausícaa]: He learned a lot. Today Juan Pablo is able to identify hundreds of bird sounds.

 [Juan Pablo]: We have the limpkin, blue cardinal, black-faced ibis. But everything was somehow amateurish, because I made my own CDs. I made some money but I used it to improve my equipment. Always with that desire to improve, and improve, and improve the equipment.

[Nausícaa]: What he earned wasn’t enough to become independent. No one makes enough in this profession, and the recording equipment is expensive.

[Juan Pablo]: A lot of people say, “Oh, how beautiful, how beautiful.” But … but you ask for some help, a sponsorship, you show that … And nobody gives you anything.

[Nausícaa]: He even thought of going back to study Liberal Arts of some kind. But on June 5, 2013, he got an email from a National Geographic show.


 [Rafael Araneda]: Welcome, SuperCerebros! My name is Rafael Araneda.

 [Juan Pablo]: SuperCerebros is a game show made by National Geographic, that tries to find the person with the brightest mind.

 [Nausícaa]: It’s a contest of different talents. This was the first SuperCerebros competition in Latin America.

[Juan Pablo]: I said, “Well, who knows that it won’t happen here? Who knows if it’s not a … an opportunity? Let’s … let’s try.” Something that my father always says, and I always say that I’m the one who says it, but it’s a lie. No, my father says it: “No one has got it already.”

[Nausícaa]: So he sent in the information to apply.

[Juan Pablo]: And I was selected from three hundred candidates from all over Latin America


 [Rafael Araneda]: Welcome, Juan Pablo from Uruguay!

 [Nausícaa]: Juan Pablo remembers very well what he felt when first got on to that stage. Because he can perceive shades of light, he remembers that there was a very strong light.

[Juan Pablo]: One of those bulbs that … that hit your eyes and make you shut them. And people were clapping. I said, “Yikes, what did I get myself into? What is this?” So, I went down the steps, I went to the chair, I sat down: “Well, here we are.” Now … it’s like … it’s like when you jump from a diving board and splash into a pool. You find yourself in a free fall. You let yourself go. There is nothing else you can do.

[Nausícaa]: The show has two stages: the first —although it sounds strange— is called the semi-finals. The twenty participants are divided into five groups of four. That means there are five semi-finals. And the winners in each group go to the finals.

[Juan Pablo]: In my case, uh, I competed against Carmen from Colombia, Arturo from Peru, and Roberto from Mexico.

[Nausícaa]: All the participants had really unusual talents.


 [Carmen Coronado]: I am able memorize any information in a very 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 calculation.

[Juan Pablo]: Let’s say, something like figuring out the square root of 147,508 and being able to tell you the answer very quickly.


 [Arturo Mendoza]: When I was very young, my father would review calculations, and I would give the results without being told.

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

[Juan Pablo]: They show you a … a large amount of data for a limited amount of time, and you have to remember all of it very quickly.

And I had all those birdies.


[Rafael]: Juan Pablo, I’m going to ask you something. Are you ready to put your sound memory to the test?

[Juan Pablo]: Readier than ever.

[Rafael]: Readier than ever. So, Juan Pablo, your mental challenge starts now.

 [Nausícaa]: His first test consisted of identifying ten random sounds, out of a total of 240 bird songs.

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


 [Juan Pablo]: Cantortirus longilostrus.

[Rafael]: Next bird.

[Juan Pablo]: That’s a Caracara plancus.

 [Nausícaa]: Juan Pablo was well prepared. He had studied for weeks. But he hesitated with one of the names.


 [Rafael]: Next bird.

[Juan Pablo]: I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t recall it, and I said, “Oh, shit! I can’t lose here.” But suddenly ding, the bulb came on, and I … and I remembered.


 [Juan Pablo]: This one is kind of long. It is a Pseudoleistes guirahuro.

[Rafael]: Three more.

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


[Rafael]: If I say Drymophila

[Juan Pablo]: Drymophila squamata.

 [Rafael]: Congratulations, Juan Pablo! You did great!

 [Nausícaa]: After that first stage, the participants went on to the jury vote.

[Juan Pablo]: I was very concerned that what was evaluated would be my ability.

[Nausícaa]: The public knew he was blind, because he came in with Rania, his guide dog, who accompanies him everywhere. But …

[Juan Pablo]: I never, uhm, gave any kind of speech about a poor guy, or a poor blind guy who struggles with everything in life. Just to cause pity, no. I made sure that the audience, the host, and all the questions were addressing my work, my ability.

[Nausícaa]: Roberto from Mexico made a mistake in his test and was eliminated. Then the audience had to decide who—Juan Pablo, Arturo, or Carmen—would win the semifinals.

 [Juan Pablo]: And that … that … those voting seconds, when the host says, “Ok, you can vote now,” I swear, I had no idea where I was. I, uh, could hardly even feel the floor. I felt like, “What is happening?” My heart was beating very fast and when he said, “Now we have a result.”


 [Rafael]: The audience has voted. And the winner of this episode is …

 [Juan Pablo]: And he paused for about forty seconds.

 [Nausícaa]: Juan Pablo grabbed Carmen’s hand, who was also competing to get to the finals. Until the presenter, Rafael, announced the winner:


 [Rafael]: Juan Pablo from Uruguay!

[Juan Pablo]: Incredible!

 [Nausícaa]: Juan Pablo jumped immediately to the floor and hugged his guide dog Rania.


 [Juan Pablo]: So it’s goodbye …

[Rafael]: from …

[Juan Pablo]: SuperCerebros!

[Rafael]: There you go!

[Nausícaa]: And the show ends.

They turn off the lights, they begin to disassemble the stage, and Juan Pablo goes into a room where the production assistants ask him how he feels.

[Juan Pablo]: Something was happening because I could no longer answer. Uh … Let’s just say I was struggling to breathe. And they ask someone for a … a chair for me to sit on, and Rafael comes in and, “What’s wrong?” And … “Speak, say something.” I was trying … Well, so I don’t know how to explain it.

[Nausícaa]: He had only won the semifinal, and the prize was $4,500 dollars. But he was elated. It was more than just the money …

[Juan Pablo]: Because I had spent so many years working on this and no recognition, you see? And … and when that, that first stage happened and … there’s no way. I cried a lot. Uh … I could hardly speak. I called my dad, told him it had finally happened. Naturally, he broke down on the phone. He had to, he had to … Because he was always there, you know? He always paid for everything, and he helped against all odds, inside and out.

[Nausícaa]: A few days later, they recorded the finals. Juan Pablo competed against four other finalists.


 [Rafael]: Attention. The winner of the SuperCerebros title, with a prize of $45,000 dollars. And that is …

[Nausícaa]: Well, you can imagine.


 [Rafael]: He is from Uruguay. It is Juan Pablo!

 [Nausícaa]: Juan Pablo won.

[Juan Pablo]: I celebrated, and all that. I spoke with everyone. But the emotional shock wasn’t as strong as in the semifinals.

[Nausícaa]: Forty-five thousand dollars is not a negligible sum for anyone. It wasn’t for Juan Pablo, either. But the most valuable thing wasn’t the money.

[Juan Pablo]: Yes, obviously, the award is very important. But to show that a blind person can do things that are dif- different from what society believes, is something that has no price, let me put it that way. No, you can’t set a value on it. It’s practically incalculable to me. And that is the most important thing. To make some change in the preconceived ideas that society has of persons with some kind of disability.

[Nausícaa]: With the money, he bought the best equipment. And with the prestige of the award, he was able to travel and record at the Uruguayan station in Antarctica, which is one of the most interesting experiences for any sound professional.


 [Juan Pablo]: Summit of the Collins Glacier, extremely cold.

[Nausícaa]: But his life didn’t change.

The problems continue. Today, Juan Pablo is preparing to apply for a career in sound at a university in Canada. So far, neither Uruguay nor Brazil have accepted him. And the reasons are still the same ones he heard when he was a child: No, you can’t because they haven’t learned how to teach a blind person yet.

But for him, it is different:

[Juan Pablo]: I always say that you who can see are the ones with limitations, because your sense of sight allows you to see ahead about 70 degrees, more or less. That is, if we place the head in a straight line. I, on the other hand, can see the world in 360 degrees, because I receive information from all sides: left, right, back, front. That’s why I say this: You see less than I do.

[Daniel]: Juan Pablo now lives in Colombia with his wife. He didn’t get to study a career in sound, but he continues to work with his passion. In 2017 he had an unforgettable experience. He was invited to give a lecture at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. And there, he was able to visit the largest sound library in the world.

He has continued to publish audio bird guides, but now with the support of very important international environmental organizations. And this year, he and a colleague won an award in Colombia for the project of the first bird-tourism route for people with visual disabilities in South America. They received $50,000 to launch that route in the San Antonio Bosque de Niebla, in Cali.

Nausícaa Palomeque is a Uruguayan journalist. She lives in Montevideo. She co-produced this story with Martina Castro. Martina is the CEO of Adonde Media.

Part of the natural sounds you heard during this story were recorded by Juan Pablo. You can find more on his website, sonidosinvisibles.com.uy.

This story was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas and by me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Jorge Caraballo, Aneris Casassus, Victoria Estrada, Xochitl Fabián, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Desirée Yépez.

Fernanda Guzmán is our editorial intern.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

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Massimo Di Ricco y Victoria Estrada

Camila Segura, Nicolás Alonso y Daniel Alarcón

Andrés Azpiri

Rémy Lozano

Desirée Yépez

Daniel Liévano