The light gradually made its presence known this morning, peaking through the edges of closed curtains. Once it grabbed my attention I released it from the obstructing heavy curtains and let as much of it in as I could. Gazing out the open windows, the buildings in the distance looking as though in a dream, neither here nor there, not quite able to grasp them in my vision as I squint to capture them, shrouded in clouds of smog. The sun to my right, a blazing ball of red, looking angry through the smog, yet perfect in it’s shape, a glimpse I wouldn’t have without the dreaded smog.
We open the apartment’s wooden door, beginning our journey to school only to find a heavy wall of humidity greeting us like a thick, wet blanket and a smell to make us think twice about our decision to leave the general safety of our small space. But we carry on, through the hall, down the elevator and out the building, the smell becoming stronger, but not recognizable. Other scents begin to greet us as we walk; that of the freshly watered plants along the edge of the roadway, the motorcycle exhaust passing close beside, the food carts, beginning their day with many edibles I won’t try anytime soon. But that other smell stays there, in the background, now getting stronger, now fading a little.
We hop in the small, blue, three-wheeled bajai, seemingly waiting just for us. No words spoken about our destination, just a friendly ‘pagi’ (morning) and off we go. Down the road, then carefully creeping our way out onto the main road, waiting for cars and motorcycles to make way for us. Off again with greater speed now, enjoying the cooler temperature of the morning air, blowing the moisture away from our warm faces. At our destination, we continue our walk up the hill to the school building. Friendly security guards greet us and direct our path to a waiting elevator, to the back, back up, pack it in, fill it up, up we go, past 10 or so floors of parking, past the Lower Ground Floor, the Ground Floor, the Upper Ground floor, to the First Floor. Deliver one child to her classroom, hug, kiss, off you go. Up the stairs to Floor Two, deliver second child to his classroom, forgot his water, back downstairs, find some water, back upstairs, hug, kiss, have a great day. Back down to First Floor, into the elevator, fill it up, back up, pack it in, down we go, past all the Ground Floors, past all the parking floors, to the Street Level, out we go, past the students and parents packing themselves into the next elevator.
Out the door and it hits me again, this smell, stronger than many days, making me want to take short breaths and not take it in too deep for fear it might stick and choke. I walk down the sidewalk hill, through the gate, down the narrow laneway with bikes and vehicles passing me like a crowded hallway. Out to the main road, stop, wait, watch the motorcycles and cars go by, wait for my window, there is no window, make my own window, step out, put my hand up, walk slow, but not too slow, now’s my chance, go. Safely across, I continue down the busy street, sometimes on concrete block covered sewers, sometimes down and around onto the street itself, around the street vendor, around the leafy plant, finally around the corner.
Here I find quiet for my ears and eyes, only a few motorbikes or cars pass by. I can walk confidently down the road, look around a little more, enjoy the music playing in my earphones. Turn right at the next corner and hug the side a little more, but not too close or I’ll fall into the open ditch/sewer where I once saw a rat on it’s way to somewhere.
Turn left now and keep as close to the wall as I dare until it opens up again. Down the little hill, past this gate and that gate, past the food vendors, the bajais lined up like little blue ducks all in a row, past the flower vendors, cutting and prepping for the day, admiring the colours and dreaming of my garden at home. Past the strip mall security guards, wave and hello, past the first gate guards, wave and hello, past the second gate guards, wave and hello, to my building, past the welcoming guard and the cleaning staff, wave and hello, up the elevator, through the hall, back inside. Quick change for the gym and sniiiiffffff. My shirt smells like smoke and.… The smell comes back to me, the smell I forgot about on my walk home, the smell that hit me like a slap in the face when I first emerged. Burning garbage, most likely. Clinging to me like the garbage I see in the ditches and waterways, always there, nowhere else to go. Time for a shower.