Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Olfactory Obsession

I have become aware of something quite recently. I mean, when you have lots of time to meditate on the power of the universe, you begin to uncover truths about yourself, humanity, and life in general, and it's a scientific fact that while in the village, musungus think. Among the many curious and startling revelations I have had is the knowledge that I, Ashley, have become obsessively fixated on smells.

This awareness has been taking shape in my head for a while now, but it was only just confirmed upon the arrival of one of my best packages yet, the contents of which included not only delicious Jerky Hut Spicy Teriyaki Jerky and dried blueberries, but a small selection of Yankee candles. I could smell them through the packaging at the post office and my heart nearly stopped. Returning to my modest mud-brick hut, I promptly lit one of my favorites, laid on my bed, closed my eyes and just smelled, breathing deeply the scent of home. Aside from being very yogic and zen (all that inhaling and exhaling, you understand), it gave me pause to think about why this silly $1.99 candle was sending me into emotional transports of delight.

You see, you don't realize it now, but in America, you are constantly surrounded by nice smelling things. Everywhere you go, your nose is in a perpetual state of comfort, and unless you happen to walk too close to that lovely hobo on the street or have the misfortune to be downwind of the Mill on a bad day, you pretty much are never in need of crinkling your nostrils in distaste. Think about it: Everyone you meet has cleansed and styled his or her self with an average of about twenty different products, houses are littered with potpourri, wall sconces and Glade Plug-ins, buildings are constructed with a variety of manufactured materials and washed with industrial cleaning agents, stores are filled with new clothes, shoes, and furniture, and at any given moment there is a restaurant grilling, frying, sautéing, brewing, or baking delicious things within sniffing distance. America is a fragrance utopia.

Now, it’s not like I don’t get an abundance of fresh air here, and it is really nice. Refreshing, even. I had just forgotten how good things smell. You can’t tell me that it’s not weird to sniff wistfully after the snappily-dressed lady in Shoprite and think “Wow! She smells fantastic,” because it is. She’s only wearing cheap, drug-store perfume, and yet I feel like I just walked by a Calvin Klein model. It’s just that deodorant is a luxury in the village. Heck, fragranced soap is a luxury, and when you’ve been laboring in your fields all day in 90 degree heat only to come home and rinse off with manky dambo water, you begin to acquire that age-old musk I like to refer to as “Human Being.” A coarser individual might call it “B.O.” I do my best to smell good on any given day, but for the most part, delightful odors are few and far between here.

As I lay on my bed saturating my blood with sweet-smelling oxygen, I began to think about all of the good memories associated with this particular candle scent, and I was smiling. Then, I started to think about the smells from home that I really miss the most, not just the frou-frou candle that’s always burning on the stove. I’m not sure about the target market, but I would pay millions of kwatcha for Yankee candles to make scents like Grain Sack, Hay Loft, Daddy’s Sweatshirt, Freshly Printed Checks, Warm Goat Flank While Milking, and SID Breath (Well, maybe not so much SID breath...). I mean, the other day I got a whiff of what I’m sure was a particularly rank cassava fart, but it smelled vaguely like skunk cabbage and for an instant I was transported to Camas. Sad, huh?

I know that as soon as I leave, I’ll be dreaming about the virtural Yankee Candle Zambia line: Frying Isabi in the Evening, Mango Blossom, Fresh Rain on the Dambo, Fresh Guavas, Cooking Fire, and Tute Drying in the Sun (Well, maybe not so much Tute Drying in the Sun…). But the point is that I have become a very smell-oriented person. And when you have such a crazy wild adventure like this one, you become more sensitive to the little things you never noticed before. They connect you to memories of people and places, and when you’re far away, that’s what you need most. Songs are great, pictures are great, but for some reason, I have come to realize that smells are the most powerful memory trigger for me. I suppose I always had an inkling, it just took me moving 7,000 miles away to fully understand.

Thanks for the candles, Mom and Dad. :D


*To the family and friends of Thomas Maresco and other Lesotho volunteers, all of PC Africa mourns with you. Mwaculeni mukwai.

1 comment:

  1. These smells surprise me when I drive through the gate at our orchard. It's weird stuff for me too. Pesticide on the trees, weird musty dirt smell, the cedar deck, the air during summer before it starts to get hot again, usually 7am. I think it may be from living in the same place for 20 years.