April 12, 2010

Guatemala: Scents of place

The other day my neighbor was burning brush. I breathed in what the breeze blew and went to Guatemala in my mind.

Traveling with all one's senses makes for a rich experience, and Guatemala is a sensory feast.

For the eyes: bold reds, greens and aquas of the hand-dyed fabrics of women's clothing; for the ears: dawn crows of cocks in mud yards behind stick and stucco houses; for the tongue: velvety frijoles negros, mashed, refried and spiced with chunks of cold pico de gallo; for the fingers: sharp bristles of a donkey's battered hide as he brushes past on a thin dirt trail.

And for the nose: wood smoke.

Not an ordinary wood smoke smell but a thick, organic olfactory soup that simmers with sweat and incense, toil and joy, earth and faith, roasted meat and cracked corn and hangs so palpably in the air everywhere from cities to highlands that you feel you could grab it and pull it around your shoulders like a shawl.

My neighbor's brush fire was uncomplicated, utilitarian, and told me no stories.

But it was enough to evoke the complex, sweet-sour scent that, for me, defines Guatemala.

Sometimes I smell Guatemala in my sleep.