Monday, April 18, 2011

The Smell of Nicaragua

Volunteers in Mission Clinic

I don’t know whether words can really describe the smell of burning garbage. It’s a strangely intoxicating mixture of wood, ash, burning rubber, dirt, and chemicals. It’s the smell I most associate with Nicaragua, and one that immediately transports me there on the now rare occasions when my nostrils are assaulted with that scent.
The smell of burning rubbish permeated the air everywhere I went in Nicaragua. As we barreled down the roads in a dilapidated bus, I let the balmy breeze of the tropical setting carry that distinctive smell through our open windows. The chemical complexity of the smell made sense as we drove through the littered streets of Managua, but it didn’t dissipate as we traveled into the countryside. Even with the overgrown greenery of tropical rainforest, I could smell garbage burning. It was everywhere.
I grew to like it. My nose surveyed the air as we rode into the country where our mission group was building a clinic. I watched mothers and children poke small roadside fires with a stick, turning over the small bits of refuse that they couldn’t re-use. There was little waste in Nicaragua; objects were used again and again until they were worn out entirely. Then they were burned. There were no mountainous dumps full of discards, just small odorous piles in juxtaposition to the fragrant vegetation.
But the pervasive garbage burning had its price. The burn ward at the hospital was full of children who’d played too closely to fire. It was the only air-conditioned area of the hospital in Managua. And one of the few where patients weren’t discharged the same day they entered.
We spent a day in the hospital, delivering medical supplies, visiting sick children, and learning firsthand why building a clinic in a remote countryside hours away was so critical. We didn’t really need the lesson, and certainly didn’t need the heartache. How horrible to need burn treatment in a country ill-equipped to help. I tried not to imagine the smell of flesh mixed in with the fiery vapors along the road. I didn’t want to think about the damage the fires could do just as I was growing addicted to the scent.
My nose rarely encounters the aroma of smoldering refuse anymore. But every now and then I travel to a part of the world where people still burn their garbage. Then the malodorous scent attacks my synapses and I wonder whether it isn’t actually a perfume that carries me back to the fragrant landscape that was Nicaragua.


  1. Juliann, what a lovely post. I mean, the poor burned children weren't "lovely" per se, but the way you worked in this whole journey focused on/through smells was really great. I felt like I was there with you, and I feel like I've learned something about the country that I didn't know before.

    I also love the idea that they use everything down to its nub. Such a contrast to our wasteful culture.

  2. Thanks, Kristan. It is a very different culture; so beautiful, yet harrowing. I wanted to try to capture the smell, but that's impossible. On the rare occasions when I do smell garbage burning, I am immediately transported to Nicaragua. But I guess I already said that, huh? :)

  3. Hi kristan don't you think that the sweet smell of these burning children is just so cool??