The day started as they all do…. Up at 0500, make coffee – contemplate the schedule…… We’ve had twelve hours of continuous pattering rain – a nice background for falling asleep – and the temp has cooled a bit.
The gutter outside is making a drip-drip-drip like a faucet, and I woke a couple of times to remind myself to turn it off – I don’t mind random rain noise but at home at night I can hear the faucet drip in the sill of the night…. The past two days have been lazy around here – nice to recoup after four days in a row of teaching and performing. I am not the kind of teacher who stands behind a podium and drones on – I move around a lot and invest energy in each as if it were a performance. Is this how Olivier would feel after Hamlet?
In search of a Chuba or two
The big adventure yesterday was a sort of a strange date in which I took another trip to Old Kathmandu, the hustling core of this town. Old Kathmandu is a place full of narrow alleyways, a collection of canyons with five-story walls, with a stream of people running through the floor of each as if they were a river, swollen at times then slowing to a trickle at others. The unwritten logic of development has decreed that there will be a micro-neighborhood of bicycle shops, then an adjacent micro-neighborhood of readymade girls wear, or the spice bajar, or any number of categories of commerce. Probably the most outlandish is the bead bajar, where about fifty bead merchants are all congregated in booths each about the size of a Catholic confessional. The bead bajar is a delight, you can order the kind of beaded necklace you want and watch somebody make it for you, if you don’t already see it. The stringer of beads will use his feet to hold the tools while he works. Yesterday my mission was to find Thahithi, the Tibetan neighborhood between Thamel and Ason where you can get the cheapest prayer flags and Thangkas – much less expensive than Boudhanath, the iconic Tibetan neighborhood so popular with tourists. The goal was to buy some Tibetan-style women’s clothes for various friends, relatives and colleagues. Silk blouse, woolen striped apron, and the one-piece ankle-length dress known as a Chuba. These have a nice way to tie in the small of the back that always accentuates the rhythm of a woman’s walk…. And along the way I stopped to take close-up photos of the Toothache Shrine, not far from there.
And throughout the Old City, vegetable markets, beggars, street vendors, people sitting on the stoop in small groups, along with small hole-in-the-wall kitchens serving Nepali specialties – the South Asian varieties of soul food.
There was a line of idle rickshaw drivers waiting patiently as if they were in a petrol queue. There is one particular square on the edge of Old Kathmandu with trees in it, where people go to buy the newspaper, mostly seem to be reading it on the spot while there as well. The trick is to remember the general vicinity of these places in case you ever want to go back and get something.
At Indra Chowk I finally had the nerve to enter the Bhairab Temple which dominates the square….. fascinating.
Olfactory Memories and The Human Bloodhound.
Somebody asked me if it there was much of a characteristic smell to this town. Now, this is a very interesting question and reminds me of one of those writing prompts your kids get in eighth grade (“describe the most interesting person you know..” is the start of one such…) and also reminds me of an exercise in a certain creative writing textbook, The Making of a Story. Of course there are smells. These range from the incredibly pleasant ( baking bread or some kind of curry wafting out a window) to the incredibly awful ( the smell of rotting water buffalo pelvises and other bones as they were being piled in a truck at the neighborhood where meat is slaughtered. I wonder how long these had been sitting in a back room?). Then the smell of raw sewage in a gutter somewhere along the way, or garbage in the street waiting to be shoveled into the human-pedaled wagon used by the collectors, two guys with flat shovels wearing short pants and cheap flip-flops . Piece of a bed sheet wrapped around their heads, it was clean once but not today it is now drenched with sweat and covered with dust.
How can I describe all these things? Some people are oblivious to the smells all around; others are exquisitely sensitive. One of my beloved family members is known as “The Human Bloodhound” and she was famous for being able to guess about events that happened in any given enclosed space hours or perhaps days before (“somebody farted in this room,” or “it smells like somebody spilled coffee on this couch”). A person who possesses this kind of natural gift needs to be in the cosmetics industry or maybe to become a food critic for a magazine. Or a professional wine tester…. Or a crime scene investigator….. My next book will feature just such a person as a main character.
Every person reading this needs to go with me to spend ten rupees on my favorite all time street food here – panipuri. For that money you get five, served in a small metal saucer one at a time. The vendor is invariably a dark skinned guy we’d call a Maidhesh, from the Terai, of Indian extraction, laughing as he puts it together since the assembly is part of the show. He will first check to make sure the onion is freshly sliced with a large knife. The cart has a huge bag of the crispy pastry like a ping pong ball that is crunchy like an ice cream cone. He reaches in and uses his thumb to break a hole in the shell, then spoons in a bit of of potato curry. Next some sliced onion, maybe the secret green spice and red khulsani powder, then dipped in the sugary sour clear liquid before being deposited on your dish. Pop into your mouth and bite down – sweet/sour/salty/bitter/pepper/crunchy/gooey/umali/oniony all at once. The best ones give you a tingly sweatiness right away. Then the next. After the fifth, if there is a puddle of the juice most people drink it, one last bit of fire before moving on. The dish goes on the ground next to the cart, eventually washed I suppose but you never know since this step takes place later after you have gone. I have never gotten sick from these….. I need to make a YouTube video of this – I want some as I write this. Later today……
Nobody here seems to wear perfume, and the sweat of most Nepalis does not smell “bad”. I think there is a genetic or dietary component that makes it this way. The locals are always surprised by how much I sweat and how much water I drink – the local rehydration strategy is to drink only until your skin is moist, and not beyond that – they make less urine as well. There is a higher incidence of bladder stones in South Asia because of this I have been told.
The Making of a Story.
At the time of deciding to write a book, I knew my writing was not enough to express what I wanted to say, and so I went to Barnes and Noble and picked out this book. Originally it was put together for use as a textbook of creative writing, and it gave illustrations of common practices of the writer’s craft – point-of-view, creating dialogue, finding deeper meaning. As I edited my book, I looked through The Making of a Story to find ways to improve the writing, and incorporated some of the exercises into my editing. One such was the Five Senses exercise of description. The reader is put into a place and time. Maybe something happens, maybe it does not. Maybe there are people there, maybe alone. But the location or the events are described according to each of the five senses along the way. What did it taste/feel/look/hear and smell like? This is a great way to bring the reader into the scene. When you are at a loss, stop and describe the contents of the room where the action is taking place, this way. When you are bored, look around and ask yourself how would I describe this scene? For a medical story there will always be smells. When I send UH students off to observe in the Operating Room, my first question on return is about the smell, their reaction to it.
My list of the Top Ten medical smells
Cautery. (electric current applied to human flesh during surgery. Always a lost-your-virginity-in-a-medical-way milestone)
Gas Gangrene. (unforgettable sweet smell. If you have it in a limb, the limb has to go – now)
Smegma. (Google it, you will remember it longer. Never met a female nursing student that wasn’t gagged by this smell immediately)
Fresh Blood. (It has a smell, and it’s not the tissue-ey smell of menses either)
Partly-digested blood. (vomited onto every flat surface. And the smell of fully digested blood in loose feces)
Pseudomonas. (every ICU nurse knows this)
Baby powder (especially on a baby but also on mom. Not all smells are bad smells.)
Saliva that has sat around too long.
Sarbotham Pito cooking in a Nepali hospital ward in the morning.
Tissue that was accidently autoclaved and forgotten in a covered dish until it rotted at room temperature.
And of course, that dish they serve at church suppers in Maine, named “Ambrosia”, when mixed with gastric contents. You know the one I mean – partly cherry jello/whipped cream but with mandarin oranges and little marshmallows in it…. The world is still not ready to hear the medical story in which Ambrosia is featured, I apologize for the dozen or so times I inflicted this on my daughters while they grew up.
Okay that’s twelve not ten – can you add others? Smell is intimately mixed with memory and taste… there are certain combinations of taste and smell which a person can crave even though they are not sweet.. … do you know what I mean?
Other writers, better writers than me, have used this exercise to evoke , and the first example that comes to mind is a long passage from For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which Pilar, the gypsy woman, sits in a cave with Robert Jordan, passing time and discussing the leader of the band, whose manhood she has just challenged. Pilar has had a previous liaison with a famous bullfighter, one Robert Jordan admired, destined to die. She uses smell to describe how she foretold this future…. There is a romp through the olfactory senses, as well as memory, as we learn about the smell of death from Pilar. One image of decay is heaped upon the next. At first we take the sequence seriously then ultimately we laugh with the incongruity, each successive image weighing us down until we cry enough is enough.
And this is the smell of Old Kathmandu……