Life in a pandemic that encouraged us to better appreciate our sense of smell.
T he weather has its way with the city. One morning, my window revealed a billow of dark clouds lowering its mass against the horizon, a blanket of particles enveloping the surrounding area, leaving a trail of longing in the wake of those of us who will miss the dry season. Closer then, the atmosphere transformed into a haze of smoke.
In early June, I started running farther, spending more time outdoors in the grip of an overcast sky. I would steady my pace from the newly installed bicycle lanes along Roxas Boulevard to the gated communities of Rockwell, knowing I was never without a home on the road.
On colder days, I would take a turn to Guerrero Street and enter Paseo Palisoc, an esplanade hidden somewhere in the CCP Complex, to survey Ermita’s skyline, watching the city unfurl itself at the very edge of a thunderstorm. Sea breeze would rise in the air and be tailed by a flash of lightning.
“Goodbye, summer,” an acquaintance wrote on Facebook, captioning a photo of her jumping in midair along a shoreline of a white beach in Boracay, the blue waters in the background glimmering on a bright sunny day. She imparted her desires to an imagined audience, wanting to stretch the remaining days of the dry season.
It was hard to tell if the photo was taken recently, but I knew for certain that it was miles away from the scenery of the waterfront where I stood: the murky waters crashing on to the large rocks, dark clouds looming over the distant city, and an accumulation of solid waste adrift on the bay surface punctuated by a fleet of yachts. Around me, the damp pavement and growth of moss gave off an earthy and musky scent.
This acquaintance would never believe me if I said that there is no such thing as summer in the Philippines. What is often used to describe the period between March and April is merely an act of naming the hottest months in the context of the scorching sun, beach getaways, longer days, and shorter nights. What we have become accustomed to—instead of the cycle of four seasons in Hollywood movies—is two seasons only in our shores: raining and not raining.
Back in July, Bagyong Fabian holed me up at my place as it ravaged Metro Manila, flooding the entirety of Taft Avenue and its adjacent streets. Never mind the fact that I have been in a state of perpetual quarantine for months, with nothing but the view of the changing weather from my window. After all, it has already been more than a year since I knew that my life would be reduced in just two seasons as well: before the pandemic and after the pandemic.
In these self-sequestered days, I started a small collection of 100 ml perfume bottles in my room, spritzing their contents into the air, shuttling me elsewhere to a different place and a different time. A hint of freshly cut grass is a balm of homesickness. A blast of aquatic notes transports me to my raging teenage years. A basket of patchouli leaves and Brazilian oranges is a stroll along a Bohemian market filled with hippies in the 70s, a place I have never been to.
Never did it occur to me that I would resort to such complex scents to temper my feelings about this new world, one where the sense of smell had become a valued commodity and even a proof of life. At the end of a cloudburst, I often found myself sniffing my wrists just to capture the smell of warm star anise and vanilla, which would later transform into a skin scent, and I knew then that I was still symptom-free. Not long after I dipped my toes into scents, the people I would come across started complaining that I smelled like either a tube of minty toothpaste or an orange creamsicle.
T his year’s dry season was particularly cruel. Temperatures reached alarming levels during the month of May so much so that the people spoke about the sun as if it had some kind of personal vendetta against us. The sweltering heat entered my room in the afternoon and no amount of drawn curtains proved enough even as I turned the air-conditioner on full blast. I grabbed a bottle of perfume, amusingly named Sun, and sprayed on my neck, feeling as if a deity of all things citrus and fresh had just embraced me and then disappeared into thin air, never to return again. Our love affair lasted a good thirty seconds, as the airy whiff of freshly squeezed tangerine and mimosa petals, became a faint trace, an ode to the fleeting nature of seasons.
When I think of the dry season in Manila, I think of the corner of Donada and Pablo Ocampo Streets where my go-to laundry shop would churn clothes in its machines, the smell of floral detergent and crisp linen wafting the air on a hot April afternoon. It is the same spot where my favorite talipapa would open during the wee hours of the morning, the cool breeze carrying the scent of calamansi, mango, tanglad,and celery across the street.
It is in this same time that I would usually long for the smell of freshly cut grass and mown lawns, those notes that would bring me back vague memories of the garden of my childhood home. But what is left of the city’s green patches has become wilted and brown in the punishing heat. Even the small greenery that intersperses CCP Complex and Roxas Boulevard—an area defined by water, buildings, roads, and dolomite—has faded into a withering landscape. Yet, it is the seaside that would take centerstage with its salty waves and kelpy surface, evoking the peak of the hottest time of the year. The scent coming from the shore is not exactly aquatic or fresh, but that of a mineral, almost like a shipwreck of washed wood and mossy rocks, portraying my ordeal of looking out onto a murky body of water from a distance.
One day, Mr. Weatherman on television echoed the news that the 4th day of June is officially the start of the wet season in the country, mentioning the passage of Bagyong Dante over Eastern Samar and the relentless rainfall in the coming weeks.
The torrential rains do not affect me as directly as they affect everyone else, although they always announce their coming with an ominous spirit, bringing with them some kind of emotional weight on me. Mr. Weatherman gives them names. We give them our attention. We dread their arrival.
It was only this year that I started running in the rain. I initially resisted the typically rainy months by heading out and running on the roads of Makati, wearing a windbreaker, convincing myself that I was an impermeable body moving towards the direction of the storm. There is a spot between Ayala Avenue and Salcedo Street which I would go to in order to seek shelter whenever the rain would become torrential. At the foyer of the Ayala North Exchange building, the cold air would rise, first swirling through the intersections and then the passing vehicles and then—rising from the ground—me.
The smell of wet pavement and metallic notes were soft, creating this impression I was in some underground tunnel, or, perhaps, at the bottom of a water tank, with a gang of people wanting to run from a dystopian future, dying to get out. At this point, my legs would tingle as the cold breeze rushed from my toes to my thighs. If this were the pandemic’s apocalyptic visions, perhaps this was what I had imagined at the end of the world: the city being consumed by the rain, the humidity mingling with sharp paint fumes coming from the graffiti walls and the scent of burning metal lingering at the back of Amorsolo with frantic birds flying around.
I could only ever guess the beginning and end of either seasons, which I once described as a period of long uncertain days when the sun would shine brightest in an almost cloudless sky, only to be ensued by a sudden burst of rain an hour later. Before discovering Mr. Weatherman’s talents, I never figured out that exact day when one season would end and the other one would begin. In my mind, the transition from the dry to the rainy season was like a gradient of yellow fading into a palette of blue.B efore the pandemic, I used to spend this period, at the onset of June, in Binondo. I don’t think I could ever think of a better place in Manila to spend the indefinite passage of seasons than in Chinatown, where my sense of smell would become overwhelmed by the wafting of balsamic and medicinal notes, both pleasant and pungent. Every June, I would make my routinary trek to Ongpin Street and stop at the intersection of Yuchengco Street to grab my bag of Chinese goodies from Shoppers’ Mart. Here, the nearby estero would give off this acrid smell, blending with the savory aroma of pork and chicken meat hanging behind the glass windows of Chuan Kee Fast Food.
There is an element of mystery that unfolds in these narrow streets, something hinted by the aromatic incense smoke coming from the altars carved on the walls. Some days, I would just wander through the district’s fruit stalls to enjoy the fresh smell of pineapples and watermelons in the middle of a very hot day. Otherwise, I would simply retreat to my favorite dumpling place along Benavidez Street and finish a bowl of noodle soup and plate of hakaw just before sundown.
In one visit, I failed to bring an umbrella and got caught in a cloudburst, forcing me to seek shelter inside Binondo Church. I was never the type to kneel and pray, but amidst the battering rainfall outside, I wished for some form of control. I wanted out. And somewhere before the grand altar, I was greeted by this strange incense-like scent that reminded me of a burst of sunshine drying the remains of sampaguita flowers on a wooden bed. There was a hint of light and shade, one that rose from the smoky undertones, eventually lingering and enveloping my skin.
I was dazed to inhale such a story. It was in that moment that I felt vulnerable to the elements and all things far greater than ourselves: the changing of the weather, the turning of seasons, the passing of time, the traffic on the way home, the way people think of you, or even the manner you unexpectedly fall in love with someone in the mess of the city.
On cloudier afternoons, I would cross the New Binondo Chinatown Arch then back to Ermita and Malate – a good 60-minute walk – finding my way back to my solitary spot at the esplanade. I was fortunate if, even some time in August, the skies opened wide enough for me to see the faint orange glow of sunset casting down on the skyline and parade of cars along the boulevard, as if the world, with all its grit and grime, was laid out before me.
In Manila, it either rains or it doesn’t. Every now and then, I cling to every memory of wet pavement during the unbearably hot days yet also long for sunshine after a day’s worth of rainfall. Once, while strolling by the bay shore, I overheard a biker lamenting to his partner how the rain had made it difficult for them to traverse on wet roads. Perhaps on another day, he would bemoan the sun for making it insufferable to wear their compression clothing. Either way, I thought they never stood a chance against the weather or any other force beyond our control.
Yet the weather still mystifies us. It changes on a daily basis. The seasons wield a predictable pattern every year. The sun scorches the earth, casts a dry spell over the land, and causes heat stroke on the unsuspecting individual. The rain also brings a deluge to the city, floods our roadways, and drowns all living things. But they nourish and sustain us as well. Nowadays, I simply enjoy watching the weather change from my window. If it rains, I wait for the sun to come out then go down so I could smell imaginary drying grass growing on the asphalt. Only then do I march along the streets or drive on winding roads towards the nearest Rustan’s Department Store where I can sniff luxury perfume bottles I could never afford.