If you spend any amount of time in the developing world, there is a set of scents that become familiar to you: rotting garbage, cooked cabbage (or the local equivalent), B.O., cheap tobacco, expended automobile and railway fuel, and the heavy smell of toxic cookfires. The toxicity comes from the often unnatural substances used to maintain the flames.
I associate the cookfire smell most strongly with Thailand, a country I dearly love, but still has a great deal of growth to achieve. Bangkok is one of the most amazing and polluted cities I've ever wandered, and the Chatuchak weekend market is one of my favorite places on the planet - this despite an array of stenches and debris that might make most people pass out. I was mugged the last time I was at Chatuchak. I was threatened at knifepoint by a small group of ethic Chinese gang members and had my security wallet cut from around my neck. I had $800 dollars in Thai baht in my wallet - carefully changed from travelers cheques that morning to make a cash-only purchase of handwoven Thai silk. The tourist police were appalled - violence against foreigners is rare, and thievery at Chatuchak is usually limited to light pickpocketing.
I also got the worst sunburn I've ever had in my life (I recall several nights of vomiting, sleeping sitting up, and aborted attempts to shower) and the most painful case of food poisoning on record in Thailand. Yet I love it still.
And the whole country has that cookfire odor. The first time you smell it, it can be overpowering. But then, you get used to it. It's familiar. It's almost comforting, in some noxious way.
This morning I had a dental appointment, just up the road a mile. I'd meant to be up at 6 to do the dishes, run to the gym, breakfast, and shower before having my semi-annual cleaning. But, when the alarm went off, I must have hit the snooze button, and I blinked. Until 9 a.m.
I shot out of bed, turned the local news on the TV and grabbed clothes. Just past my dentist's office, the local Maytag store and warehouse was in flames. The Maytag store is located on the Block of Death, a stretch of Randolph Road with a railroad crossing. This particular crossing is the suicide site of choice among despondent single mothers and men down on their luck. More than one unlucky commuter has been trapped by the crossing bars, unable to do anything but watch, horrified, as a mother kneels down on the tracks, sometimes with children in tow, as the Metroliner or CSX engine powers through with deadly force. The train whistles always sound evil to me for a few days after one of the suicides. I know I've read too much Stephen King, but the trains sound... hungry...
Today, though, it was Maytag that succumbed to the dark forces of the Block of Death. And, racing out of my apartment at 9:15, I stopped on the front step and breathed deep. Omigod. It was the smell of Thailand. That smell of toxic fires cooking chicken satay and blazing hot peppers and cuttlefish.
And I grimaced. Christ. If this was the smell of a warehouse full of washing machines, just what the hell were they cooking the food on in Thailand? I have to wonder how much charred insulation I've consumed over a handful of trips there.
Then again, if I could eat the weevil-riffic soup in Moscow and the dog food kabobs in Uzbekistan and three-eyed river fish (and giant mutant chicken eggs) from the post-Chernobyl Kuban', I probably am immune to the effects of artificial campfire. (Hell, I grew up in a house where Duraflame logs were burned every damn day, all winter long. I probably am just one big walking chemical disaster.)
I coughed the whole way to the dentist's office - the fire was still burning at Maytag. It was still fairly stinky when I went back out to my car, after the appointment. The dental clinic is inside White Flint Mall, the upscale shopping emporium of North Bethesda. Lord and Taylor, Bloomingdales, a kiosk selling gourmet doggie treats (and these creepy figurines called "Doogies" that have human bodies in a variety of garments and uniforms - you purchase the appropriate dog head to meet your needs and pop it on the torso.) Walking through White Flint is a little weird now. I'm not a viable customer for any of the stores there, save Borders - and that's really out of my $$ league right now. This was a commando raid - clean those choppers and go! My teeth are fine, by the way. My gums are happy and healthy. They wanted to do bitewing x-rays and a flouride treatment, but my wallet is too light for that. First time in my life I've had to ask for "just the basics, please" on my dental care. This, too, shall pass. I am confident. Maybe selling a few craptacular pieces of Soviet junk on eBay would cover that. (Uzbek goathoof whip, anyone??)
I got home to no cable and Internet service. Comcast was down right before I headed out in the morning, but I figured it was a temporary outage. Happens a lot here. Trees fall over all the time, like movie props, I swear. They take out neighbors' cars (one was smacked hard last night), phone lines, cable lines, you name it. I lost a windshield to the killer trees last year. The director of my old office didn't believe me, I'm sure, when I'd call in and say I would be late due to a tree in the street. In a decade of living here in The Land of Weak Trees, I've seen more Asplundh trucks and woodchippers come through than most people see in a lifetime.
There was a Comcast truck idling outside my building, so I went and bugged the nice man with the lilting African accent and asked if there was an outage. He shook his head - he was just there to install cable for the nice British couple who have just moved in across the hall. (They have a cute, gurgly baby who coos each time they come home. I get the giggles, when I hear "oooooooooooh!" out in the hall.)
The gent from Comcast went into the basement and fiddled with some wiring and then went back out to his truck. Suddenly, my cable was back, and there was a knock at my door. "Someone upstairs is stealing your cable." My jaw just about hit the floor. "Comcast checks connections periodically, and they discovered someone with regular service here has tapped into your digital service line. They are stealing signal from you, so Comcast cut you off so they could research who is stealing."
Nice. There are only 9 units in this building. Four of us have been here for ages now. 5 units are filled with new arrivals. Looks like one of the new arrivals is a stinkin' cable thief, and I'm getting punished for it. I've called the condo association, so they can put notes under doors. Comcast is going to have to basically do a house-to-house search to find the culprit. All the technician could tell was that it was being stolen by an upstairs unit. Losers. Stealing cable is so lame.
Cutting me off because someone else is stealing my cable? That's even more lame.
And the smell from the burning washers is now seeping into my living room. Hooray!
At least my teeth are clean. Yep, it's just another beautiful day.