“There was a day when one of my five senses was born again. Or at least, a new way of feeling presented itself during a sunrise in the desert. One that I hope will modify my “half” way of drinking wine, or offer an extra back-up to my exhausted memory…”
“He has inflamed nasal passages”, ensured Jorge Murga, the otolaryngologist that usually dealt with my childhood and pre-juvenile nasal problems. I listened dumbfounded, and I could only imagine two nasal passages ringing on the verge of exploding into the doctor’s huge nostrils; whose logic was for me, what always appeared an unknown world. He was discussing whether or not to operate, and he added: “The swelling isn’t here for good, it will eventually get better…”
Bored, as usual during my childhood, I would interrupt and nasally ask: “Dad, when are we leaving?”, and then I would try to keep my little mouth shut for few seconds. –The repeated-until-infinity “Daaad”, used both to call my father, and my mother during those times, it may have been a sign that India would see the rebirth of my sense of smell; “Dad” is a commonly used word in the sub continent and is the equivalent of friend, brother, etc– Somehow, we relied on the expert advice of the specialist who, besides being a family friend, had, in my psychedelic vision of a 6 or 7-year old, a super-powered nose! Nothing could fail.
Well thanks to the loving and organized effort of my mother, eating delicious cookies in the speech therapist office and despite the countless blows in rugby, were seen with time acceptable fruits. At this point, I could close my mouth when taking pictures, but nevertheless, it was the beginning of a monotonous route, somewhat boring and with a huge lack of options. –The reality is that even though the inflammation disappeared with time, the distinction of aromas was never my forte.
Our first days in India, in Chennai (Ex Madras), kicked off a kind of “Nasal” training that successfully culminated after nearly one and a half months in the Thar desert, near the border with Pakistan. The interesting thing is that nothing was planned, instead, it was completely spontaneous and very intense. Like most things that happen in this “other” world: India.
During the first auto-lessons I wondered: “What is the difference between odour and aroma? Is one rich and the other ugly?”. The truth is that I was not sure. There smells and smells … and one does not imagine a “sewage flavour”. I think stench is the right word, but it’s not too important to classify when everything is everything. Here in India, sewage is the superficial landscape of almost all cities (they don’t go underground). And the rivers, canals and gutters weave an excessively human “stench” that initially sent chills down my back. There aren’t (nor will there ever be) “more than a billion” toilets in India (one per capita). The beaches of Mamallapuram, in Tamil Nadu, are the perfect example. The romance of walking by the sea looking at the horizon, fluctuated with a “faecal smell” that interrupted and forced you to look down so as not to step on “something” different than sand.
Then it became normal to see thousands of Indians squatting while “shitting”, on the beaches, a plaza, town square or next to the train tracks. Quick and easy. With the passage of time, the nose stops shuddering and a very elusive part of self-teaching begins. It would not be accurate to use the word “enjoy”, but one (unwittingly) wants to feel, wants to smell, in a non-masochistic manner. Again, one desires to feel the same familiarity with which local people experience it on a daily basis. For them, it is completely normal, something that goes on in the background. What a dilemma! As the same as with flat feet, I felt at a disadvantage, not only to continue disrupting life for any “Indian flavour” that appeared. If not for my inability to discern, enhance or enrich any environment.
That was growing daily, and my unconscious effort fluffed his feathers. For example, the market in Mysore, Karnataka, had it’s blessed drains in plain sight, and any corner could be used as a urinal. But it also gave off a “beautiful chaos” of aromas of spices of all kinds, and flowers, many flowers. Those flowers are commonly organized into bouquets that decorate temples and women’s black hair. Then I could feel the “paradoxically dry” aroma of salt water that remained inside the ears for hours (or even days) after surfing waves in Varkala, Kerala or in Palolem, Goa. –Wouldn’t it be amazing to feel the smell of a place after leaving?; and coming to this case, it is clear that people on the Arabian Sea side were luckily not trying to fertilize the sand– And that special, indescribable experience, that was perceived when Hindu pilgrims taking purification baths at dawn, in the holy cities of Rameswaram and Kanyakumari, in Tamil Nadu, and in Nasik, Maharastra (this last one especially). A blend of incense, sandalwood and energy, which was naturally INHALED and INSPIRED.
And life was not so regularly interrupted. I was allowed to live more with a better quality of life than other times. So, the balance of the 5 senses that naturally explode in India was restored. Thousands of miles went by and the route took a break as we reached Rajasthan. Udaipur, one of its cities, with glittering palaces and precious streets, romantically smelled of jasmine (a known aroma, one of my favourite and the only one that I could always recognize easily). Jodhpur, the blue city of the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, exhaled imaginary perfumes that Rathores sovereign, from the Rajput clan, dressed for generations (with turbans, combed mustaches, and more decorated and “jeweled” than any theater diva). Arriving in Jaisalmer, the golden city that sits in the middle of the Thar Desert, nothing took me by surprise. As if preceding something, waiting for an “I don’t know what”. The sand and the dry smell were already familiar, and never I could have imagined walking from a Havelli to another, that “the smell of smells… the aroma of aromas” will soon be naked in front of me … (Havelli are super quaint and ancient houses belonging to merchants).
The jeep threw sand as it ran along the desert road, a few kilometres from our encounter with the camels and camel drivers that would guide our two-day journey through the inhospitable desert environment. I had never paid attention to these cartoonish looking animals. Nor I had ridden one. They have a look and totally carefree attitude, somewhat enviable at times. Nothing seems to stress this “monument to evolution” that can live with little or nothing. Their body is blatantly prepared for this environment, and to enjoy themselves. The legs rest as if they were supported by pillows both on pure sand and rocky areas. They accumulate liquid in their hump and have another bump on the belly (closer to the front legs) which provides support when sitting. If they didn’t have it, the length of their legs would leave their belly in the air when sitting. The tail is what really caught my attention. I spent part of the long hours of heat, riding the camel and almost always third or fourth in a row of four. Therefore, in a desert where everything is the same, that line was a show and having it always before my eyes, there was no way to escape it. It’s like a brush with hairs on the sides (like horsehair). The “brush” brushes the ass, balls and the “fascinating member”, exposed and at the mercy of sticky insects. Well, just like the camel as a whole and separately, the tail makes very graceful movements. Not to mention the “fascinating member” of which movements of contracting the “pelvis” (just like Elvis), attacks sticky bugs inhabiting the groin like a dart. Awesome! To have body parts have life of their own! And meanwhile, they ruminate, burp, and nothing alters them. They have a tired and wobbly gait, which quickly begins to take a toll on your ass. One tries to find position (without much success) in the odd love-seat frame; and at the same time, while they walk, the animal’s gelatinous lips resemble constant babbling of a drunk. You could say that during the first day, when the sun was so strong it was mind-numbing, I had some indication of the “I don’t know what” I mentioned earlier. I felt an aroma with plenty of power, but it was just a hint. I could not figure out what it was (I was doped by heat). This, was repeated three or four times, and my dull nose was unable to catch it. It was probably not the right moment.
And night fell. We settled on a slope of the dunes, after the basic vegetarian meal. It was impossible not to look at the stars, or not to hear the absolute silence, even if the moon had not risen yet. I saw it several hours later, as close to the ground that I was nearly able to hug it. I slept so well that I did not realize that an army of peaceful ants were incidentally making base at the foot of the blanket.
It wasn’t dawn yet when I woke up. But I could see it while pushing the light from behind the horizon. I dozed a few minutes, and I got up to drink Indian “Chai” tea. I made myself comfy over some other blankets, surrounded by Oscar and Sara (my vibrant Catalan companions), and a Frenchman named Arnaud. To my left, about four or five meters away, one of the camels was sitting showing me his ass. His graceful tail “with a life of it’s own” swept from side to side, and the dromedary quietly ate sprouts out of a bag. Awkwardly the chai burned my lips and a moment of uncertainty alerted me. Right as the sun showed its first ray, as a divine illumination, the “smell of smells” hit. –I do not know if the fact of being half asleep increased its power– “An aroma, a smell, a stench, oh God, what is this?” I thought. Both Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, as the most emblematic gods of Hinduism, broke into laughter. “Do you expect your God to explain this moment to you?” Vishnu said as he was giving a foot-massage to Ganesh (another god, with an elephant head).
“Oh God!” I repeated again –I was “paralysed”– The air had caught me like a bubble, it was thick, and only allowed my nostrils to inhale deeply. I was in the presence of “The fart”, the fart of farts, the aroma of aromas, the smell of smells, the stench of stenches. It doesn’t have a qualifier, and yet can be described by all.
I remained motionless, except for the vibration of my nose. The second ray of sunshine made me wink. The camel turned his head and mumbled something (probably belched), as he dropped fifteen or twenty perfectly moulded balls out of his ass. One of them rolled a little more than the others, and came within a metre from me. A pearl black beetle that was passing by, frantically pushed it with all its body, rolling it over and “sand-crumbing” it. It continued the rolling to who knows where, I could not even try to follow it with my eyes. At this point, I was numbed by the sun, and continued breathing without stopping. I don’t know how much time passed before I could come to my senses again. Just then, I could see my companions cursing with funny faces. This path towards “the fart”, which began with the powerless nose damaged from my childhood, had its culminating point, its climax at dawn in the desert, in India. Where my sense of smell was reborn, opening a new door to my future feelings. I could taste victory, without having run away. It took more than twenty years.
Today I feel expressive as to distinguish a “bad wine” from a “good wine”, and the memories I would usually forget, are already part of me. They are not just words.