Friday, January 30, 2009

Smellscapes: A Whiff of Corruption

“Ipoh, the first major stop on the Kuala Lumpur run, has a station hotel, a late-Victorian Gormenghast with long windows covered by somber curtains. The brown drapery hangs in thick folds, keeping out the breeze and preserving the heat, which is paddled around the dining room by ten slow fans. All the tables are set, and the waiter, who might be dead, is propped against the wall at the far side of the room. It is fairly certain there is a suicide upstairs waiting to be discovered, and the flies that soar through the high-ceilinged bar are making for the corpse of this ruined planter or disgraced towkay. It is the sort of hotel that has a skeleton in every closet and a register thick with the pseudonyms of adulterers. I once walked into the station hotel at Ipoh with my little boy, and as soon as we crossed the threshold he began to cry. His innocent nose had smelled what mine couldn’t, and I rushed away with him, relieved, savoring the well-being of deliverance.”

-- Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar, 1975

This passage is from Theroux’s classic book about real travel. It's about a trip he took, by rail, from London to, well, London, by way of the Near East, India, Asia and Russia. “After all,” he says at the end, “the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home.”

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