Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ethanol, fast cars, and dirty money

I began my last post speaking not about Peru, but rather about my year in Brazil. This came about in the following way: I knew I wanted a Peru blog, but had no idea of how to begin. Then, the other day, I was walking down a broken sidewalk, flanked by faded colonial architecture and smooth trunked trees covered in glossy fat leaves, when a battered white taxi honked hopefully at me as it passed. I ignored it and it sped away, leaving a cloud of exhaust fumes in the humid air. The smell of the exhaust took me right back to the streets of Volta Redonda, Brazil. Car exhaust smells different there, and occasionally here, due to its ingredients. I smelled so many new and unfamiliar things in my first year away from home, all of them making a permanent mark on the blankish slate of my young mind - fresh passion fruit, clove cigarettes, cilantro, cashew juice, dende oil, guarana, green coconut, Cacharel's Anaïs Anaïs - but for some reason the first and foremost remains the smell of the exhaust produced by burning Brazilian gasoline.

Some 25% or more of the fuel used in Brazilian cars is anhydrous ethanol. They make it from sugar cane. The exhaust it leaves, especially on a bright hot humid day, smells rather like the result of soaking a cotton ball in rubbing alcohol and then putting a match to it. It may have been the most aggressive sensory imprint I made that year, because of its utter unexpectedness. I had anticipated new and unusual foods and flowers and soaps, but it never occurred to me that car fumes, the scent of which I'd never noticed before except to distinguish between diesel and gas, could be different.

The only other smell that comes close, in terms of the visceral effect it has on my memory, is the smell of the slums. I do not know if they still do today, but in 1993 Rio's favelas had an almost indescribable odor.  It was a hot, putrid, organic, sweet stench. I have no idea whether slums in other urban centres smell the same, or whether it varies from city to city, country to country. I don't know whether the smell will differ as a result of geography and climate and diet and a thousand other variables, or whether after a certain point the concentration of human beings in a crowded settlement with inadequate sanitation will approach some kind of olfactory absolute, drowning out all the incidental smells. What I do know is that in 1993 the paper money in Brazil, especially the small bills, smelled like the faintest echo of the favelas. The currency at the time was the cruzeiro real, an interim unit of currency that replaced cruzeiros and was followed during my time there by the real. The cruzeiros reais seemed to smell of every hand that had touched them, and it felt as though my own hands would carry a patina of the scent until I washed them again. I had never noticed the smell of money in Canada, and I'd never thought to try to smell it.

This comes to mind because on my return to Peru I realized that the money here has a noticeable smell as well, although it differs from that I remember in Brazil. It smells of wax crayons, and damp, and something a little like pepper (I've just pulled an American $10 out of my wallet for the sake of comparison. It smells like air conditioning).

In any event, I smelled the ethanol in that taxi's exhaust, and I suddenly realized that those moments of fundamental strangeness that come with early travel experiences come less frequently now than they did before. This is mostly the result of my own age and experience, although I think it is also a consequence of global homogenization. However, just because an experience isn't wholly new doesn't mean there isn't newness to it. The first time I ever heard Tracy Chapman sing Fast Car was on a cassette player in a motor home, driving down the eastern seaboard of the United States. I was 13 years old and I soaked up all of the lyrics, imagining that far from my quiet prairie home I was myself in a fast car of sorts, passing through towns of the sort she described, populated by people like the ones in the song, and I felt an awareness of others who were not aware of me in return, like when you're standing in the middle of nowhere, looking up at a commercial jet as it passes overhead, and you know that the passengers are there because you can see the plane, but because of their altitude they could be looking right at you and see only empty country. It produced all at once an awareness of my connection to hitherto unimagined people, and a sense of my complete separation from them.

A few years later, I heard Fast Car again, as if for the first time. I was in Volta Redonda, sitting in a car with a boy, looking over the lights of the little city. We had come from the Hi Fi, the weekly Sunday night dance party at the Clube Dos Funcionários, or the Worker's Club. It was the early 90s and the radio and the club throbbed with perpetual dance music. Someone at the local station must have had their fill of Ace of Base, and Tracy Chapman's guitar came lilting out of the speakers. The young man I was with spoke just enough English to catch the parts about city lights laid out before us, and fast cars, and arms and shoulders, and I'm sure he couldn't believe his luck. It dawned on me, however, that I knew things about what we were hearing that he didn't, that I was experiencing it in a way he wasn't and possibly couldn't, and that he had no idea that this was the case. The feeling was like the one I'd had when I'd first listened to the song, but the context was so different, and the song so familiar now, that I was left feeling disconnected, but as though I'd glimpsed something important.

And maybe that's what's at the heart of travel and living away from home for me. Finding the strange familiar and the familiar oddly strange, and revisiting a taste or a song or a smell or an experience from a different direction, with more life under your belt, and thus getting something more from it.

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