Friday, April 2, 2010


The Smell of My Childhood
My grandmother’s house is in an old colonial neighborhood in Mexico City called San Angel Inn. Carved wooden doors and wrought-iron windows look out onto cobblestone streets , and bright pink bougainvillea and ivy vines cling to the sides of virtually every stone wall. Occasionally, a street vendor will wander by carrying balloons or pushing a cart steaming with hot, buttery sweet potatoes. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

Being a typical Anglo Mexican family, we had afternoon tea almost every Sunday at my grandmother’s house. And like clockwork, every Sunday afternoon, it would rain. The rain would come out of nowhere, darkening the skies and blocking out the tick tock of the grandfather clock. The sound of the torrential downpour on the cobblestones made it impossible to speak without raising your voice an octave or two. But it wasn’t the sound that I loved; it was the smell.

Rain has different smells, or feels, depending on where you are. Hawaiian rain smells sweet. Mountain rain smells musty and feels heavy. And Mexico City rain smells, well, for lack of a better description, earthy. It’s that earthy smell that reminds me more of my childhood than anything else. Despite all the places I’ve visited, despite all the places I’ve lived, rain has never smelled the same as it does in Mexico City. Last weekend, while I was sitting out in my garden, it started to rain. Perhaps it was the way the sky darkened so quickly, or the way the rain sounded as it hit the limestone patio, but for a fleeting second, I felt like I was Mexico. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it was gone. I was back in the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of miles from Lolita’s house in San Angel, felling nostalgic and, yes, a little bit sad.

The Sounds of Silence
I went to boarding school and college on the east coast (Maryland and Connecticut, respectively). Having grown up in Mexico, I was not used to the snow. In fact, before my first year in boarding school, the last time I’d seen snow was when I spent Christmas in Upstate New York - when I was 5. The first major snowfall my first year away from home was, in a word, magical. The night before, as we were walking to the dining hall for dinner, my roommate Samantha commented that it smelled like snow. I remember putting my nose in the air and inhaling deeply. But all I could smell was the food Ma and Pa (the kind, elderly African American couple that ran the kitchen) were cooking. But Samantha was right; a blizzard was brewing over the Chesapeake.

The following morning, the campus was covered in a white blanket of snow. I followed Sam’s lead and bundled up in more clothes than I’d ever had on at one time. I put on my brand new pair of Eddie Bauer snow boots and headed out to class. As I walked out the front door of the dorm, a blast of frigid air hit my face and I immediately felt a shiver run down my spine. Not because I was cold (though I clearly was), but because I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. From one day to the next, the campus had been transformed. All around us, teenage girls squealed with delight, throwing snowballs at each other and whooping as they slipped down icy stairs. Gone was the typically silent and sleepy trudge to 8:00 AM class. By the time I got to the academic building, I was freezing, but giddy with anticipation for the end of the school day, when I would be free to join in on a snowball fight.

The next day, I woke up to more snow. But unlike the day before, the snow was still coming down. As I made my way across campus, I was suddenly struck with how quiet it was - unusually quiet, even for that time in the morning. It was almost as if you could, quite literally, hear a pin drop. And you could.

And so that sound, the sound of snow falling, the sound of absolute silence, engrained itself into my memory. Winters in Connecticut were harsher, longer and colder, but the sound of absolute nothing followed me. I was able to hear it every snowy morning walking from my dorm to the art building, clear on the opposite side of campus.

The Sound of the Ocean, the Smell of the Sea
A nautical mile or two west of Utila (one of the three Caribbean Bay Islands belonging to Honduras) lies a small privately owned island appropriately named Little Cay. Little Cay is no bigger than half a football field, is covered in coconut palms and surrounded by a coral reef second only in beauty to that of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Getting to Little Cay requires a couple of commercial flights, either a four-seater airplane or a catamaran ferry, and a tiny little speed boat. All in all, almost two full days of travel.

There are two docks on Little Cay – one on the windy side, one on the calm side. In the middle of the island is a modest house that, though a bit run down and in dire need of a facelift, is charming in its own way. The house runs on a generator that is usually only turned on at night. There is running water, but no hot water, so showers are typically very cold, unless you use the outdoor shower and let the tropical air keep you warm you as you wash away the sand and salt. There is no television, no telephone, and the only way to communicate with anyone off the island is by ham radio.

I went to Little Cay for the first time two years ago with my husband Jess, my best friend Cristina, and her husband, Mark. This was my first real vacation and long trip away from my children, who stayed at home under the care of their grandfather. Because of my morbid fear of orphaning our children, I asked Jess to travel to Honduras on a separate flight and even went so far as to rent a satellite phone (the kind used by the US Army) so that I could call home every day to check in on my little ones. Needless to say, my fist day on Little Cay was riddled with a mixture of anxiety and unnerving silence.

The morning after our arrival on Little Cay, I woke up as the sun was rising. Jess and Cristina were still asleep and Mark had left an hour earlier to go fishing with Barry, the island’s “innkeeper” who lived on Pigeon Cay, a couple of islands over. The first thing I did, before making a pot of coffee on the gas stove, was check the satellite phone to make sure I hadn’t missed any calls from home (I hadn’t). While the water was boiling, I looked out of the open air kitchen at the ocean waves crashing a few yards away. Seagulls were dive-bombing into the surf, more times than not emerging with breakfast in their beaks. Although the sun was barely rising, I could see how clear the water was going to be in just a few short minutes. After I poured myself a cup of ridiculously strong Honduran coffee, I went outside, grabbed a chair off the deck, and dragged it on to the sand, close to the shore. I sat down, leaned back, took a sip of my piping hot coffee, and took a deep, deep breath. And then another. And another. As long as I live, I will never forget the smell of the sea that morning. I grew up spending summers in Acapulco. I went to school on the Long Island Sound and I live a few miles from the Pacific. I am no stranger to the ocean. But I have never, ever smelled the sea as vividly as I did that morning.

That Which Takes Us Away
Our lives are filled with the sights and smells that remind us of people, places and events. Drakkar Noir reminds me of boarding school and the teddy bears sent to us by boyfriends from the Blue Ridge School in Virginia. The smell of old, stale beer reminds me of keggers in college, and snowy, winter mornings at our cabin in Bear Valley remind me of school on the East Coast. But while not all smells can be duplicated, and there may be only one place on Earth where I will see a pelican dive head first into the ocean while on my Own Private Idaho, I find it rather comforting that there are a few such sights and smells that belong only to me.

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