I have recently discovered that my nose has a heightened sense of smell. I can only assume that this is one of the many traits I have inherited from my mother (along with poor eyesight, a bad back, my gargantuan height (all five feet of me), my high cheekbones and general physique). More than twenty years on this earth and this is something I have only recently discovered.
I’ve known for a while that smells act like a trigger and that a wiff of something can take me to memories as faded as the X on a treasure map. There are have instances walking down the street when an aroma turns me into a curious six year old tugging my mother’s sleeves as we shopped in Hong Kong, and an unknown waff takes me to the arid salty Boston breeze of the sand and beach near where I used to live.
My sense of smell keeps my memory of people sharp. Here and there, I run into rice-paper-thin walls of my ex’s scent and I remember nestling my nose into his hair and wrapping my arms around his neck. With wispy lingering threads of his smell, I can still feel his warmth and the heat of his breathing on my skin.
Here and there, I could bet that a friend just walked by because the combination of cigarettes, musk, shampoo and febreez is as unique as his fingerprints. And once in a while, I’ve caught a trail of my best friend in the air. Smells that are familiar make me breathe in deep if only to hold my loved ones in my lungs for a little while.
Being in Nepal, however, and Kathmandu at that, the aromas I encounter are far less pleasant and more often putrid reminders of the rotting Bagmati and unwashed feet. Every day that I make the drive to my office or into the congested heart of the city, I sit and wallow in the scent of a river that is dying. I bury my nose in my scarf and try to filter the airborne garbage and feces that twists and winds its way up my nasal passage.
I try to hold my breath, but it seems vain – who am I to think that I am better and above the smell that the slum sleeps in? And so I allow a sliver of the river to creep up into my brain, leaving an imprint, a permanent mark to remind me of where I’m from. Should I find myself away from home, there’s a scent waiting to be aroused that will bring me right back to the smog and daily traffic that breeds my frustration at Nepal.
Oddly enough, because this has happened before, I know I’ll allow the smell that now makes me crinkle my nose, to waft over me as I dream of tempos and micros and the potholed roads. Until I leave again and the stank of the Bagmati grows in the winter cold, I’ll hope for smells from another life, of love, of friends, and of memories that beg not to be forgotten.