My most overwhelming first impressions of Nairobi are centered on the smells. As my friend Julie pointed out to me, the U.S. is so sterile. People wear deodorant; we clean ourselves, our clothes, and our homes obsessively. Our trash is stored in dumpsters and cans and taken far away to decompose. My husband puts it like this, “At home, I never smell anything, and here I can smell all sorts of stuff.” Touche.
Life is smelly here. You can see black car exhaust escaping from the tail pipes of buses. You can obviously smell it too, along with the trash that someone around the corner is burning. The sidewalks collapse into knee-deep gutters, where food wrappers and grass cuttings float in greasy rain water. A short walk leaves my nose running and my throat scratchy.
Body odor is a prevailing scent on the sidewalk and in stores. It’s not gross, but it is strange to someone not used to smelling other people. I can see why people are sweating; it’s warmer and more humid here than I expected. And I guess it makes me feel less conscious about my own sweating.
The grocery store smells like a cat died behind the milk section and no one did anything about it. Needless to say, we haven’t bought any milk yet, although the smell permeates the entire store. The grocery store scents have migrated back to our house with our groceries. Apparently Kenyans like their fruit extra sweet, which means extra ripe. The area around our fruit bowl has that sickeningly sweet smell of fruit on the edge of rotting. Other groceries have left a lasting impression too. We didn’t realize that a jar of hot sauce we had bought had started to ferment. When my husband opened it, it released a potent hot pepper gas that left us coughing, and laughing. If you know my husband, you know that he still used the fermented sauce to top off his food.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how songs always conjure up memories of places I’ve traveled, but now I wonder if smells are just as powerful. What do you think?