“The senses are the ministers of the soul.” Leonardo da Vinci.
What you see, smell, touch, taste, and hear, reveals the world around you. For a writer, those same senses convey the world she is inviting the reader to enter. It’s easy for a writer to forget to use the senses. There are so many lessons to be remembered when writing, so many conventions to adhere to, that a writer can lose what should really be common sense. What a character is hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching affects how effectively the reader joins her on her journey.
One of the many ways traveling benefits a writer is by increasing her awareness of the senses. My recent eight-week stay in the sleepy, funky Mexican seaside village of San Pancho (officially known as San Francisco) jolted my senses. I left damp and cold isolated Cape Cod with a turbulent grey ocean one morning to arrive that evening to warm tropical breezes and the sounds of music everywhere.
Sweet San Pancho, as I came to call it, had an abundance to fill my senses. The cobblestone street our second-floor apartment overlooked provided a parade of sensory stimulation. From 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m., battered dusty vehicles would drive up and then back down the narrow road offering a variety of goods for sale. I expected the pick-up trucks filled with avocados, oranges, and mangoes, but was amazed to see mattresses, beds, baked goods, fish, and candy also filling the backs of cars and trucks. The drivers would call out their contents with loud recordings that repeatedly suggested you dash out of your home and bring your pesos with you. All of this was in Spanish, which I struggled to learn. In short time I knew camarones were shrimp and aguacates, avocados. By the time I saw a man carrying a hand-made table for sale on his back with a chair fitted over it, I knew to expect anything.
Then there was the sound of the laughter. Four men began building a house two lots down from us the week we arrived, almost entirely without mechanical noisy equipment. That meant we heard their good-natured banter and the music they sang to all day. Across the street a number of French and Spanish speaking kids lived outdoors, mostly on a covered porch with a sink and a stove. I don’t know what they were cooking before they left for work each day, but the smell was incredible. Their late night laughter after working in restaurants was hard to resent. The young women sounded lyrical as the young men tried to impress.
Dogs barked. Teeny ones that were the size of cats yip-yipped, while the larger ones barked in baritone. The roosters didn’t seem to know enough not to crow until dawn and often set the dogs off. The best sound from the animal world was the clop-clop of the horses going down the street with their owners sitting proudly in a saddle.
This is what I saw and heard and smelled without even leaving my casita or looking out the balcony to the back of the house. Imagine what I encountered when I left the house.
From the rear balcony off the bedroom, I looked out on a lush garden filled with flowering shrubs and gigantic leaves. In the middle of the night when all else was hushed, I could hear the sound of the ocean pounding against the sand. In the morning, the chachalacas (say that word out loud –it sounds like music) birds with their stately long white tails awakened me.
On Tercer Mundo, (which translates as “Third World”) the only main road that runs through San Pancho and leads to an amazing beach, it got better. I could stand outside the shop that specializes in Mexican chocolate for hours and just inhale, but after one taste of chocolate like I had never tasted before, smelling wasn’t enough.
There was more. Restaurants, street vendors, corner coffee shops abounded. I would go from smelling tantalizing tacos to smoked ribs and chicken, to French baguettes and croissants. Of course, the smelling led to tasting and then the washing down with tart margaritas tangy with fresh limes. All the while, music played everywhere.
At the beach, vendors offered colorful blankets for sale so heavy I knew they would make my reentry to Cape Cod less harsh. The mist off huge waves settled on my face while I watched surfers try and out-dance Mother Nature. A dog walked by and stopped. He and I had eye contact. He turned around, licked my hand, and then was on his merry way. Mexican love.
The laughter of Mexican children who had probably never seen a Lego. The heat on my tongue from a pepper sauce I had no business trying. The sound of the dough hitting the hot oil when the old couple makes churros they sell outside their dilapidated car that looks older than them. The dust from the street seeping into my eyes and throat forming a big lump that won’t seem to quit because I will miss what my senses have been treated to in San Pancho.
But I will not forget, with pen in hand.