Why haven’t we got a word for this in English? Memories, feelings, strong emotions are washing in so quickly it’s overwhelming. I could almost be knocked over by the intensity. This one little kaffir lime leaf that fell off as I was planting up the tree looks like any other leaf. I would expect it to smell green, like a green leaf. But it doesn’t. It smells of putrid but delicious durian and sweating at 7am over a noodle soup breakfast from a one-table stall. It smells of trying hard to get the tones right so I can get salt in my lime juice rather than plain and sickly sweet like they serve to farangs. Here in my head I am eating kaeng kiao wan kung and realising that I’m looking at a cooked grasshopper that was unfortunate enough to sit on the wrong sprig of holy basil, and then suddenly not feeling hungry anymore.
Another sniff. A conversation about how to avoid deadly centipedes and snakes on an island with no electricity. I smell salty air that suddenly sparkles as an entire school of silver wrigglers lands in our little boat on the confluence of the Mae Nam Chan and the Andaman. The small size of this fisherman’s craft suddenly seems woefully inadequate for this journey. Nervousness. A bus hurtling down a potholed road, skidding past another bus smashed and smoking. I no longer feel the heat in these situations as I’m focusing on being alive in the place we are headed to. Making life-preserving plans for dinner.
I fold the leaf until it cracks and inhale. Yet another Thai woman is asking me, “Eeeeeeeeeeg, Oh-kaaaaaaaay?” when I order the vegetarian option. They use the same phrase all over the country to make sure you are not vegan. I love the care in their voices and the lesson that your choice wasn’t available if it doesn’t show up at your table after half an hour. They just didn’t want to say, “No” to you because it’s offensive. Next time I’ll know.
Citrus, lemon, lime, green, intoxicating. This scent taught me that smiling when you are angry can get you very much further than showing your dismay. That I should never “break the egg” inappropriately and let the first trade of the day be an honest one so nobody loses face. Try not to stare as the stall is beautifully blessed by touching it with the money. The scent of this leaf almost makes me want to cry when it reminds me of this. I always suspected green things could cause emotion. This must be how.
I’ve planted this tree so I can remember the place that has formed so much of my being. All the years of to-ing and fro-ing through Thailand and all the lessons I’ve learnt. Much of that was in my 20s, when you think you know who you are and later you find out how utterly and tragically clueless you were. And later, speaking with major mistakes, laughing with the other khanom jin customers as we share from the giant basket of herbs, building houses in the countryside and learning by walking in markets and smelling things like shrimp paste and lime leaves. I owe a great deal to Thailand.
Thailand doesn’t know this, of course. Thailand is just a country. How can a country know how it has affected someone? How can a country know that when someone far away on an island in the Pacific catches the scent of a kaffir lime leaf it will cause them to rehash experiences and analyse what they mean? It doesn’t matter really. Only to me. So, I’m planting this tree that has leaves full of Thailand.