The Smell Test…Passed!

 The Smell Test...Passed!Smell. Did you know that if your proboscis is normal and functioning well you can distinguish over 4,000 different smells? And, if you are a world class sniffer, the number can exceed 10,000? Did you know that a mere 8 molecules of a substance is enough to trigger a smell response? Did you know that the perfume industry, who’s sole raison d’etre is to make us sniff, associate and buy again and again, has annual sales in the neighborhood of $30 billion dollars a year? Did you know that smell, among all our senses, is most directly tied to memory and can evoke the most intense emotional response—decades after the event that was first associated with the scent?

Metaphors for smell abound. If we don’t like something, we say it stinks. If we are suspicious of something, we say it smells fishy. If we have doubts, we say it doesn’t pass the smell test.

I’ve been looking into smells lately. Things that create odors. Things that get rid of odors.

About 4 months ago we laid the concrete foundation for a small cabin here on the farm. We let it dry…cure…for two months. While it was curing (and we were building out the rest of the cabin), we took all the old style hand built terra cotta tiles that were going to be laid on top, cleaned them and let them dry as well. When the time came and all was dry, the tiles were laid and cemented in place. (We had followed this exact same procedure in another location 6 months earlier with complete satisfaction). So far so good. A few weeks went by. It was time to finish the floor by sealing the tiles, which are very porous, to keep dust down as they wear. We used an acrylic matte finish sealer of good quality. The tiles looked beautiful. All was well.


A few days later, I noticed a peculiar, sourish smell in the cabin. I could not find the source, opened all the windows to air it out and left. The next day it was worse. Much worse. Sour. Rank. Rancid. It stank. Frantic rounds of consultation ensued. Internet inquiries yielded all manner of suggestions, from using hydrogen peroxide to kill the odor to dire predictions that water was seeping under the foundation and the whole thing would have to be torn up. Shudder. Try not to panic, dear.

First thing, we sanded off the sealer. Lots and lots of red dust everywhere—the stink diminished a bit, but did not go away. We mopped with a combination of hydrogen peroxide, boric acid and vinegar. The smell diminished some, but was still there. I racked my brain. It had to be some sort of reaction between the sealer we had used and either the tiles themselves or the concrete mortar. I consulted with a chemical engineer and he agreed, hypothesizing that it was the concrete mortar, not the tiles. He recommended a thorough saturation of soda ash to neutralize the acidity we were smelling, twice applied, followed by pinesol.

This whole process of using more and more chemicals to get rid of the obnoxious odor was making me very nervous. Finca Luz is, after all, an organic and mostly chemical free farm. But, I had to do something. I researched soda ash. Seemed to be ok—a neutralizer, one molecule away from bicarbonate soda, non-caustic. We saturated the floor with a strong solution and it helped, some. We turned on the dehumidifiers, the fans, opened all the windows and let it dry out for three days. Better, but still not good enough. I was stumped, frustrated, and really at my wit’s end. This cabin was for guests, PAYING guests and it smelled like sour, nasty, dank…something.

Enter the old woman down the road who heard about my plight from Alexis, who is my right hand man on the farm and without whose dedicated assistance and guidance very little would get done.

Let me say, for those who don’t know, I live in Panama in the highland mountains of Boquete, on a small coffee, citrus and medicinal plant farm. It is very rural. My Panamanian neighbors are wonderful folks and it is a very tight knit community here on Jaramillo Mountain. Everyone knows everyone…and knows their business as well. It has taken me years to be accepted. They respect that I work really hard on the farm. It helps that I speak reasonable, if imperfect, Spanish. They think I am odd—a woman living alone on a farm—but harmless.

The old woman shook her head. “Pan,” she said. “Y cafe. Dos libros de pan y un libro de cafe. Eliminan todo olor malo. Dos dias.” Translated, she told me to put two pounds of fresh French bread and a pound of ground coffee in the cabin for two days to eliminate all the bad smell.


On the other hand, what could it hurt?

I love many, many things about Panama, but culinary achievements are not the national strengths (those would be banking, the Canal and bad driving). The French bread here would make a Frenchman weep and tear his hair. The coffee produced here , though, is some of the best in the world. However, since I wasn’t going to eat or drink any of this, quality really didn’t matter. Off I went to the supermarket.

For three days now the interior of the cabin has been littered with dozens of ripped apart hunks of soft white pseudo-french bread and saucers of dark roasted coffee grounds. And, miracle of miracles, the smell—that nasty, rank, sour, god-only-knows what stink is…gone. Gone. Who knew?

I went to the old woman. I expressed my thanks and reported the success. “Ahorita la cabaña huele muy bien!” Now the cabin smells very good. She nodded. “Por supuesto.” Of course. She asked me how I was. “Corre corre,” I replied. Running, running, doing things. She nodded sagely. “En la casa las cosas nunca terminada.” In the house, things are never done. I agreed. “Mi abuelita me dijo lo mismo.” My grandmother told me the same thing. She patted my hand and smiled. That pat on the hand was like a blessing. It touched me.

Now when I go into the charming, cozy Cabaña Mariposa Azul, I sniff and am transported to a small, back alley cafe I visited in Normandy, France, some 30 years ago, where the bread was crusty, the coffee strong and the woman dressed all in black behind the counter looked like Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities. I remember that I savored a chocolate gateau stuffed with white grapes soaked in champagne and stared wistfully out the window, through the slanting rain, and marveled at the silvery quality of the light that reflected off the cobblestones in the street. Ah…to live in France…

(For more information about Cabaña Mariposa Azul or the Finca Luz and Cloud Forest Botanicals story, please visit


6 thoughts on “The Smell Test…Passed!

  1. Elizabeth, this is a wonderful, simple, and evocative solution to the ongoing olfactory challenge! My next best guess was going to be citrus juice … but imagine the molecular sponges that you put to work absorbing the malodorous strings!

    This reminds me of the thoughts I posted on *ning about the local folks recommending the best time of the moon cycle for harvesting bamboo. Have you heard that lore? It seems so … sensible!

    There is much that I miss about the living within those green, green hills and vales….



    1. I have heard about the correct time to haravest bamboo–Alexis, my farm manager, insists on following the moon cycles for most everything on the farm..,planting, pruning, harvesting. In the mountains of NC where I came from, it was practically a religion! Thanks for following my Ramblings!

  2. This is kinda like my story about my gout. I woke up with what I can only presume to be gout in my big toe. I suffered for weeks. I really didn’t want to take a strong prescriptive medicine. Finally, my friend Jennifer, the alternative doc, told me to paint it with turpentine several times a day. What did I have to lose? I use turpentine in my painting projects anyway. Well, 3 days of the turpentine treatment and I’m 90% better.
    Would it have gotten better on its own during those 3 days? I’ll never know.
    Has that converted me into a believer of alternative cures? Well, maybe a little.

    1. Interesting, Penny. You are the second person recently who has told me they used for turpentine–the other was for his arthritic knees. Said he felt relief and greater mobility within minutes. Who knew? Now a question for you–where do you get pure unadulterated turpentine here? Thanks for the comment.

  3. Lovely and funny storytelling. I love the ending. I guess we all need a wise old woman in our life. DianeI

    1. Yes…wise old women are gems. So much knowledge, if we only ask and listen. Thanks for stopping by.

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