Thursday, December 29, 2011

Worth a Thousand Words

A picture is worth a thousand words, but a smell can leave you speechless. It can take your breath away, reducing expression to phonemes and diphthongs: sigh, grunt, ick. Sounds that would never be spelled were it not for the Sunday comics.

I just returned from a six week journey in Southeast Asia. Yesterday I left Bangkok at 10am, connected in Shanghai, and arrived in Los Angeles around 4pm. All on a very, very long Wednesday. 

There was a hint of autumn in the air and the light, that slight golden crispness of late afternoon that makes my heart float a little. I was glad to be back in LA's embrace.

Tonight I took a walk around my neighborhood in West Hollywood. It was quiet. It is that lovely window between xmas and new year when the city smiles and rests. The evening air had a watery freshness. I strolled by rosemary and lavender bushes and drought resistant yards full of sculptural succulents and agave.

The sidewalk sparkled a bit in the high pressure sodium glow, an even, smooth right angled path washed free of detritus and edged with greenery.

I took hundreds of pictures in Southeast Asia. But in as many moments I just had to stop, glitteringly aware of the swirl around me that a camera can't capture. Sounds. Snippets of conversation. A brief altercation between young lovers on the street that made my heart tighten, or a conversation in sign language on a sidewalk in Bangkok that made me smile for human creativity.

And scents. The tropical heat and bodies and manic pace of life pressure cook everything into nuclear strength in Southeast Asia. As this was the mild season.

As I walked through the cool, simple almost odorless air of Los Angeles, these are some smells I recollect:

Offerings to Ly Thai To, Hanoi.

burning. incense burns constantly in vietnam. a woman lights a single stick and, clasped between flatted palms, she waves it in the air before placing on her fruit cart. small shrines on the street curb in front of a house, or affixed to a telephone pole before a business, hold a flower, a portrait, a few joss sticks poking out of sand. massive censers in public parks push smoke into the air.

burning leaves. gathered garden waste smolders in yards. it is warm and feels like fall. the incense and wood smoke waft in and out of each other, weaving a rich warm tapestry, a hug.

the rainbow of the marketplace. fruit in various state of ripeness or rot, the cold metal smell of blood from open animal carcasses. the tang of drying fish.

this insistent freshness meets the smell of cooked food on the perimeter of the raw goods market. women squat beside cookpots, faces obscured as they watch their work: sweet earthy yams over charcoal; the bright smell of corn in roiling pots of water; the headiness of bubbling cooking oil working springrolls, fresh bricks of tofu or bananas a golden crisp.

Statue of the King of Fruits in Kampot, Cambodia.

the perplexing smell of durian. and the ghost of it. on the east moat road in chiang mai i passed a sidewalk seller with rectangular cello wrapped trays of the golden strips. walking back after dinner and craving a sweet bit of fruit, i looked for the little cello trays. they were gone, but i knew where he had been. i could smell the empty husks that must've been behind darkened metal shutters.

waste. animal, human, raw, rank.

five pots of steaming rainbow-colored rice on a xoi cart: green, pink, deep aubergine, orange, brown. white speckled with cedar-colored raw peanuts. a glutinous pillow of starchy steam caressed passersby.

rain falling and mist rising from the terraced hills in sapa, in the hills of northern vietnam.

Phnom Penh
synthetic perfumes. strawberry hand soap, whatever the local laundry used for my floralized clothes, the rolls of scented toilet paper that ribbon up out of square candy colored dispensers on restaurant tables for napkins, rosy brand wet wipes. i could not wait to get home and wash my clothes with unscented soap.

devilishly black coffee beans steaming on woven trays on a side street in phnom penh.

unfiltered exhaust. fumes so potent they were almost chunky. emissions controls on cars and petrol pumps in california were contemporaneous with my birth, so the rich, cloying backspray from thousands of scooters took some getting used to.

garlands of jasmine that beckon you forward before you even see them, a sensual bath that half closes your eyes. offerings to a thousand buddhas and the buddha in each of us. 

Offering at Angkor Thom

The sense of smell roots you wholly to the present. It's like a moment in architecture: you round a corner and find yourself in perfect relationship with right angles of stone, a decorative flourish, the aspect of the sun's light, the intersection of building and nature and your own fragile life. You are caught in full awareness of yourself in present space, as a rush of chemicals tingles in your blood. And all you can do is stop and take it in.