Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Ahh . . . the sweet smells of roses, the spicy smells of berbere, cinnamon, and cardamon, and, of course the earthy smell of grass after a light rain . . . wait, wait . . . that is not right.
Why you might ask? Because there are four dominant smells which I found constant, at first offensive, and then eventually comforting.
Those three smells would be diesel exhaust, kerosene, woodsmoke, and charcoal. The former belongs to Addis and the latter two to Masha, while charcoal belongs in both.
Diesel exhaust has a life of its own. It seems to settle on the ground and then get kicked up into the air as people walk and drive over it. Without meaning to insult my fine Ethiopian friends, the closest description I could come up with for describing Addis' exhaust is the Peanuts character, Pigpen. For me, the diesel dustiness of Addis quickly became part of its charm, just like Pigpen.

Sacramento is a smoggy place, known for its many asthma patients and spare the air days, but it differs from Addis in one respect - distance. Here the smog seems so off in the distant or so high up, whereas in Addis it seems to always be in your face, particularly while traveling on the road. But that is not the only smell which eventually became a smell of home for me.
Kerosene was used to cook our food and boil our water. It too had an incredibly strong smell which wafted through the house even when Almaz and Yenenesh were not cooking. Tasty meals were cooked using only the cooking stoves you see in this photo, using kerosene. Kerosene was also used to burn our toilet tissue, but that is another story altogether.

Woodsmoke is the third smell that I remember. Sometimes the whole valley behind the guest house would fill with smoke as it mixed with the moisture in the air. Houses smoked. If you did not know that someone was cooking inside you would be inclined to toss water on the house for fear it would burn down the neighborhood. Traditional houses do not have an exhaust or chimney for letting smoke out. Besides, I was told, a traditional house requires the smoke to chase out the bugs and the heat to dry it out after the rain. Living amongst smoke is a very common experience for many Ethiopians.
But the best smoke of all is the smoke of charcoal mixed with incense. Out of our four coffee ceremonies the one most pungent was at Alazar's house. His sister tossed copious amounts of incense on hot coals, filling the entire front room with smoke. I'm pretty sure most of us Westerners would never allow our whole house to be filled with the white smoke of incense and charcoal. But for our Ethiopian friends it was a joyous occasion.
I find myself snickering at our "spare the air" days. The next time I find myself cycling behind a Mercedes Diesel, I'll take a big sniff, and the next time I'm camping and some old timer brings out the kerosene, I'll tell him about lentils and cabbage, and the next time we light a fire or the bbq, I'll be tempted to thrown some incense on it.

I know, I know, it sounds crazy that I would find comfort in the billowing and wafting scent of pollutants which are helping to create "global warming", but I can't help but be reminded of my great, smoky experience in Ethiopia.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was the kid that used to love the smell of gas when mom or dad would fill up at the gas station. Now it gives me a headache. Interesting that you became accustomed to those smells which to me would seem that you became very comfortable with your new surroundings. I've always been confident that you could adapt to pretty much anything though. Like I've always said, you grew up in the wrong era. Not many, if any, are comfortable wearing a wool outfit on a hot summer day in Sacramento to re-enact a civil war battle, but you were so I could see how you adapted so well to your surroundings and the smells while in Ethiopia. When's your next post going to be?

Your Bro,