The Things People Smell

You can read about India and watch movies set in India and buy coffee table books with pictures of India and even gather together all of your friends, shoehorn them into a room way too small to house them all and imagine you are on a bus in India, but you cannot truly understand what it’s like being in India because you are missing the smells of India. My wife and I traveled in southern India a few years ago and of the many things that struck me, the one I was the least prepared for was the intensity of the smells I experienced, particularly in Kochi, Kerala.

In Kochi, we visited a ginger packaging centre, walked by a tea packing shop, a Hindu temple with incense pouring out, and drove by cardamon vendors, a fish market, and a sewer line spilling into Vembanad Lake, all while in the backseat of a autorickshaw with a single stroke engine emitting dirty gasoline fumes. It was an olfactory rollercoaster and it was what makes India India to me.

We have our own smells here, but, despite the density of the neighbourhood, the open markets of Chinatown, and its proximity to the sea, it disappoints in it’s aromatic intensity. It is still Canada, after all.

Nevertheless, there are some smells that distinguish the Downtown Eastside from most other places I’ve been. Whenever I take the kids to the playground in the park across the street, it is only a matter of time before a thick waft of burning marijuana overwhelms my senses. The strength of “BC Bud” is legendary and, though I’ve never smoked marijuana, I have no trouble believing in the legend. I’ve traveled to many different places (though, admittedly, I’ve never been to Amsterdam), and have never smelled anything as strong as I do on my almost daily walks.

The smell is not relegated to the DTES. In our old neighbourhood I witnessed people smoking openly in the open in the park. There are also several medical marijuana establishments throughout the east side of the city and downtown. Often I’ll be walking down what seems like an empty street and smell a burning joint but have no clue where the smoker is. I assume he is in a room above the first floor of the building I’m walking by, but he might be around the corner for all I know. Even so, if someone wished to witness the particular smell of BC bud I would direct her to the park across the street since it is rare that I do not smell it there.

The other drugs used the most in the neighbourhood are generally odourless or, at least, have weak smells comparatively. Even, it seems, crack cocaine, which I witness fairly often but have yet to pinpoint its particular odour.

But then, there is also alcohol. Alcohol is pretty expensive here since it is taxed so heavily. Nevertheless, alcoholism is a serious addiction and one that is prevalent down here, perhaps as much as heroin, crack, and meth addictions. Because of its expense, though, poor alcoholics often find other sources of alcohol than are found in liquor stores (beer and wine are not sold in grocery stores and convenience stores in Canada like they are in other countries).

Earlier this week, I took the boy grocery shopping on his new tricycle which I can steer via the push bar out the back. We went into the grocery store which somehow acquires loads of fruit that is close to spoiling and which it sells for about 50¢ a pound, including very ripe strawberries and nectarines. This being the west, though, the sweet smells of fruit are dampened by cellophane.

The boy and I had bought several pounds of strawberries to make what appears to be 15 jars of strawberry jam for about $8 and with some leftover for cereal. We were walking back home and our walk was impeded by someone who seemed unable to walk in a straight line. I am a brisk walker and can become quite impatient on sidewalks accommodating people who walk slower than me (read: almost everyone). This man was walking quite slow and I had to time his wavering steps just precisely in order to sneak right by him. In attempting to move quickly to his left, the man stumbled and almost knocked the boy’s tricycle right over (fortunately, this is Canada and my wife is Canadian, so the boy wears a helmet while riding his tricycle). The man recovered, but seemed otherwise not to notice he almost drove a 1 year old into oncoming traffic. I raced by before he could stumble again and that’s when I noticed the very strong smell. He had clearly consumed a large amount of Listerine and perhaps even spilled some on his clothes.

Listerine with mint has about 22% ethanol alcohol. A litre of Listerine can run about $10 while a half litre of vodka at 40% alcohol costs a little over $15.

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About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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