The smell of memory

This week’s #ThrowbackThursday is brought to you by Colombia. I was supposed to be at my home-away-from-home when COVID-19 really ramped up, and I’ve been following news of Colombia more frequently lately, trying to get my fix in any way I can. This has me thinking about this piece of journaling from 2009.

San Francisco

As we round the rocky tumble of mountain struggling to meet up with the Andes, the buildings of San Francisco come poking up into view. Orange and vibrant among the greenery of banana trees and coffee farms, the rough ceramic roofs are scattered like tile chips abandoned and alone. As the chips become streets and homes and tiendas, I feel the rush of excitement that sometimes comes when reconnecting with the past. San Francisco is just 30 minutes (by car or an hour by bus) from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.  It’s a farm town, and it is just as much a part of me as the rural Nebraska farm town I once called home.

Even though the town is surrounded by mountains and is sinking into a riverbed somewhere below, it is hot here. Tropical, one could say.   The old road has been washed away by torrential rainfall several times, and even this road, paved and “new” is cracking and yawning in several places along the way.  I roll down my window get a better view of the first waterfall, and before I even see its streets, I can smell the town — and my childhood.

The memory is wet and fragrant, all sun-dappled green leaves and wet black earth. In contrast to the wind-beaten grit of sand and dirt blown dry and rough during summers in Nebraska, everything here is on the verge of molding. It’s a gentle, underlying hint of decay, like something rotting in the garden, but the beauty of what’s still living pushes  past this mossy atmosphere.

As we come out of the tree cover and pull into town, edging tires around gaps in the road that eat boulders like candy, the scent all but disappears. On rough roads cobbled and dry, the scent is replaced by arepas baking on the street and chicharrónes cooling on a table. These warm scents also have a place in my past, but it’s a place that feels like not-quite-home. That first whiff…the memory floods in once, and then the moment is gone, like  all the people I once knew that made this place feel like home.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

But that scent, and the memories — the moldy smell of my abuelo’s blankets as he lay dying in his bed, or the  sweet, light hint of flowers blossoming out of sight — they put my in the past again in that moment, if only for a fleeting second.

A garden of memories

I think of my abuelita and her garden, the garden that took up half the home’s space INSIDE the walls of the home and was both backyard and living room; the garden that sprung up where the final wall of the house had crumbled away; the garden in the home  that missing a section of roof. I remember how the house always smelled like orange peels and roses, but after a heavy rain, it would take on the additional scent of ground coffee.

I used to tell my friends stories about the banana trees growing in my grandma’s house, stories too great for their their little  seven- and eight-year-old minds. A garden IN a house? A banana tree growing from the ground next to the kitchen? No way.

I didn’t need to embellish things because my adventures were always otherworldy. Nothing like abuelita’s house existed in Nebraska; there, there was nothing like Colombia and its charms.

It’s almost haunting how a place I visit every few years retains such visceral memories. Some of these are fainter than others, much like the once vivid decorative patterns etched into the limestone of cobbled streets. There were rose vines and arabesque mosaics blasted into the sidewalks outside the houses I played in in San Francisco, but now, it takes a special eye (and maybe a bit of imagination?) to see them.

Some of these faded sidewalks include chips of memory too, like playing in front of that building for entire mornings then sharing Colombiana and bread with the kids inside. I barely remember that one of the girls was even named Colombia, a memory that comes only because I remember thinking as a child it would be weird to be named “America.”

These memories, the ones of playing with friends on the street, or watching my uncle play soccer until a sweat-soaked jersey was flung up into the stands at me, have their own odors. There’s the bread and chocolate of Colombia’s house, which was also a panaderia. Tio Jose’s sweaty, smelly hugs have only be duplicated a few times, after hugging a high school boyfriend stained and tired from chasing an American football up and down a field.

This journal entry ends abruptly; did I get sidetracked? Did I get up to get an arepa? Where was I as I wrote it? I can’t remember these things lost to the 11 years since I wrote this, but I’m OK with them being gone. What’s more important are the older memories. Today, as I long for family and familiarity — in Colombia or in my Minnesota home — I’m grateful I have those older memories to return to. 

What memories sustain you right now?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s