“The first condition of right thought is right sensation – the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” – T.S. Eliot
Stepping out from the dreary and sleep deprived red-eye flight to Dakar, I inhale. My nostrils are saturated by the sticky odor of fermenting fibrous humidity, a sweaty bittersweet battle of growth and ripening, rot and decay. A few steps later, the cool salty ocean wind wofts a current of stale grains, oversalted fish, and the unmistakable crisp, starchy, freshness of Madar, the leading Senegalese brand of laundry detergent. The natural humidity of Senegal (which rivals that of Bikram yoga) coats, soaps, and permeates this remarkably unique smell into my pores, hair follicles, and eventually, beneath my fingernails. It is more unusual than it is unpleasant. I find it fluctuates with intensity throughout the country, becoming more intense when in hotter more vegetated regions. Cities tend to include sour stabs of spilt Libyan oil, smoldering garbage, baking cement, animal feces, unwashed and flea-ridden dog, moldy months-old stagnant water, gamey grilled goat, and salty boiled beans. As for an “understanding” derived from Eau de Senegal, it’s the equivalent of smelling a steak and having than innate understanding that it’s juicy and delicious. It’s something internalized and inexplicable and only makes sense once you’re here. While my understanding of Senegal is still evolving, after eating the food, drinking the water, washing my clothes, and working in the garden, there is something deeply comforting about the smell of Senegal pulsing through my veins.