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We’re Going Underground

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry - My Big Adventure

WORLDWIDE | Thursday, 10 March 2011 | Views [198] | Scholarship Entry

You know as soon as you enter the site: It smells like exploring. For buildings, it’s the smell of age and disuse, dirt rubbed into carpets and left to ferment. Sad clothing that’s lost the smell of its owner long ago. Wet newspapers. Piles of ancient books, covers degrading, attempting to become part of the earth again. Rot. Dust. Mold. It’s the smell of something that’s been forgotten. Sometimes, there’s a hint of plaster, especially in the theatres. When there are vagrants, there’s also the smell of urine—old urine soaked into old blankets, thick and musky—and the pungent stench of unwashed humanity. In churches, there’s the smell of wood mixed in, a smell I now associate with discarded hopefulness.

For drains and the underground, the smell is different. There’s water, clearly, but it’s not the smell of rain or a river. In the underground, the water takes on a dankness the way your grandparents’ basement would if it flooded and they left it to brew for weeks. It’s the smell of soaking stones and still water, water that only gets moved when our bodies wade through it. Like water in a cave, only less natural. In the mines, it’s the same, but there’s also the smell of damp sand, even if there happens to be no sand, and sometimes the smell of machinery and clumping oil.

These are the smells of exploring, and when I haven’t been in an abandoned building or underground for a while, the smell punches me as soon as I crawl in, and I am intoxicated, in love. “Smells like exploring,” I say with a smile and a deep inhalation, and I don’t need to elaborate for my companion, who just nods his agreement.

* * * * *

Not everyone will embrace this “hobby” of yours. Even most of your loved ones just won’t understand. From those you opt to tell, you can anticipate one of four reactions:
1. You do what?
2. Why?
3. Isn’t that illegal?
4. Awesome. Can I come?
Usually the first three comprise one response: “You do what? Why? [pause] Isn’t that illegal?”

The fours are typically of the Goonies generation. They remember watching with eyes wide and breath held as the band of adolescents disappeared underground on a quest for forgotten pirate treasure. They imagine exploring means being part of a gang of social misfits that makes it much further than Chester Copperpot ever did, and like in Hollywood, no one gets hurt, though there may be close calls. They imagine an underground community living by their own rules where no one else can see.
This isn’t so far off. We are the life of the underground that pulsates while most of the city sleeps or drinks itself silly. It doesn’t hear us, doesn’t ever think about what goes on beneath its feet. We can even blast music, and it all becomes part of the city’s nightly rumble and groan. And, for some, it is a way of life. We are explorers.

Tags: #2011Writing, Travel Writing Scholarship 2011

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