Scent, Memory, and Haiti
One of the most common observations about scent is its ability to bring up long-forgotten memories in a way no other sense can. We know it is spring by the smell. We remember people, even, by the smell of their hair, their sweat, their cheap cologne.
Movie theater popcorn, baseball parks, college club events where it’s always the same brand of delivery pizza served (and let’s be honest, that’s why we all showed up for those terrible lectures on “isms”) – these are all memories created and archived by our sense of smell.
But as we all know, smell does not only represent good memories. It can quickly and unexpectedly thrust us into the bad ones as well. For me a good example is the elementary school that made me cry with nostalgia when I went back and smelled the coat racks. But it was anything but nostalgia when I smelled the cafeteria, where I remember often being teased.
Haiti is in scent hell right now. A few articles and televised reports have come out about it. Fortunately for us, unlike sight and sound, scent can’t be transferred to us through a screen …yet.
According to news reports, the people in Port-au-Prince are going to great lengths to cover the stench of dead bodies. Whoever has a surgical mask is wearing one, and they have become a sort of status symbol, a fashion icon for the devastated. The poorer and more desperate people are rubbing toothpaste on their upper lips, attaching orange slices to the bottom of their noses or stuffing their nostrils with basil.
What is missing from TV or the photo images are the smells in Port-au-Prince… The worst, of course, is the smell of death. You can find it nearly everywhere, but especially close to collapsed buildings or places such as the morgue, where about 300 bodies have been placed in the parking lot. In a poor country with few private toilets and public facilities and a large outdoor population, urine is a common smell. The smell of garbage, which is strewn everywhere, is common, too…
Many journalists wear masks, but the masks don’t eliminate the odors, just slow them down. You bring the smells back to your hotel room, on your clothes, your hair, your skin. You want to wash them out, especially the smell of death, but you can’t. It takes more than soap and water. The odors have soaked your memory.
Our memories are like sponges that gather in smell and don’t let go. For the people in Haiti right now, their memories will always be affected, their senses forever traumatized.
An amazing article on the smells in Haiti and how they are affecting the memories of relief workers there who also worked at Ground Zero after 9/11
Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Programme UN Photo/Logan Abass The United Nations