Friday, June 1, 2012

Les Parfums de Sénégal

Not long after I came to Senegal I was in a car with a few other PCVs, and we got to talking about what scents a Senegal-themed scented candle set would include. (I think it was April's idea.) In any case, I still think about that when I catch whiffs of  Senegal-specific odors. As best I can recall, here are some of the odors we identified as being the iconic smells of PCV life in Senegal: 
  • Café Touba: at pretty much every bean sandwich lady's stand in the whole country you can buy hot, sugary little cups of Café Touba to go with your breakfast. (Many PCVs love it; I am not so much a fan.) It smells over-boiled and slightly peppery, like cloves and leaves and instant coffee.
  • Fish Market: in most markets there's a section devoted to selling all kinds of fish - big, small, fresh, dried, semi-spoiled - and it always reeks of fish guts turning rancid under the most powerful heat lamp in the world. 
  • Trash Fire: one of the least-lovely smells to wake up to. 
  • Tea Time: the singed-sugar smell that comes from cooking up the scalding, hyper-sweet ataaya tea that many Senegalese like to drink int eh afternoons (and mornings... and evenings...) 
  • Dust: it's subtle, just a light, hot, dry smell, but it's also everywhere, especially on transport. It cakes up on clothes and in sinuses and gets way down into the seams and cracks of everything, from books to keyboards to skin and hair. 
  • Mango: fresh, sweet, sun-warmed and lovely, mangoes right from the tree are one of the few silver linings to hot season. 
Other suggestions were Overpowering Body Odor (particularly while crammed in a crowded bus or a station wagon with nine other people), Sewage Puddles (a rainy season fixture in all cities), and Adji (the bullion packets that are the base flavoring for nearly all Senegalese dishes we eat on a regular basis).

Maybe the candle set would look like this. 
Sadly, for me (and the other people in the room with me right now) Trash Fire would have to be the smell that I most strongly associate with living here. While away on vacation I stepped out of the car after being picked up from the airport and the first things I thought was "Oh wow, it smells so nice here." I've heard that repeated - unprompted and almost verbatim - from several other volunteers.

There are many other smells that spring to mind when I think of my life here in Senegal, many of them quite pleasant - babies all freshly washed and lathered in warm, nutty-smelling shea butter; sweet, floral "chourie" incense paste; the fresh-baked bread smell of tapalpa village baguettes. But really, Trash Fire tends to overwhelm them all. 

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