OH MY OLFACTORY NERVE!

By on May 1, 2010 in Travel

Link to Memory

The sweet smell of jasmine wafting from garlands in a Ho Chi Minh flower market… The flesh of a dead, rotting camel caught in the breeze of the Kalahari Desert… The aroma of deep-fried, sugary jalebis emanating from a Mumbai sweet shop…

Humans are gifted with the powerful sense of smell. And we also have another incredible tool known as memory. Our memory allows us to retain the joys and wonders of our travels, in our heads. It also allows us to remember any unpleasantness so we can make sure to avoid them on the next go-around.

It has been proven that smell connects more powerfully to our memory than any other sense. Think about your favorite smell and there’s a good chance you can link it to a particular locale. Anyone who has been to Belgium knows the unforgettable aroma of high quality chocolate.  A particularly stellar cup of coffee might remind you of your last trip to Brazil. The link between smells and destinations is truly endless in our minds.

Whether we realize it on a conscious level or not, smell is one of the things that make traveling such a joy. And for those of us who have been around, we know with certainty that the world is a very smelly place.

Whiff of the City

Your olfactory nerve is located in the olfactory mucosa of the upper part of your nasal cavity. Your sense of smell arises from the stimulation of that nerve. There are some places in the world you can go, where you know for sure that stimulation is going to be at an all time high.

When you walk through the great city of Manhattan, it’s almost as if it’s your nostrils that are guiding you more than your sense of direction.   The waft of stale, spilled beer pouring out from the bars of NoLita can be gag worthy. But the fragrant smell of cumin and caraway, emanating from the Middle Eastern restaurants in and around the Flatiron District, are enough to make you take a load off and chow down. The garbage bins associated with the hair and nail salons of Mid-town offer a particularly vile and unforgiving scent, almost entirely due to chemical residue from treatments. But there’s hardly a traveler, save for a few vegans, who can resist the tempting, charred smell drifting from coal oven pizzerias in Greenwich and East Village.

When it comes to identifying the world’s most memorable odors, both good and bad, there’s something to be said for the heat. Bangkok’s sizzling temperatures, exotic street food and bustling nature make it the ideal candidate for producing big time smell – the kind that will assault your nose and either leave you begging for more, or running for the hills. First and foremost, Bangkok smells of pollution. The air is thick with fuel residue and hardly a moment goes by where you don’t see a bus or truck spewing black smoke into the air. Then you have the aroma of the city’s famous street food, which is all-encompassing and overwhelming. Salted seafood roasts over hot coals and spiced soups boil in clay pots, filling the air with unforgettable pungency. Add open drainage pipes and piles of elephant dung to the mix and your nose is now well on its way to being initiated to the Bangkok experience.

While a stroll through most big cities can offer you dozens of different smells, both enticing and revolting, in the span of a few blocks, there’s one smell that you know for sure you never want to experience.

B.O. Gone Bad

From riding in planes, trains and automobiles, to sitting in airport coffee shops and restaurants, there’s one thing you can’t get away from; people. And there’s nothing that makes people more intolerable than when they have bad hygiene.

It’s one of the harsh facts of traveling and due to the nature of the circumstances, it’s often unfair to place any blame. But people have a tendency to stink. There’s nothing worse than boarding a flight at your hometown airport, in Chicago for example, only to find that you are sitting next to a guy who originated his travels in Eastern Europe, has made three connecting flights just to get here and hasn’t showered for 30 hours. To add insult to injury, maybe he decides to kick his off his shoes and socks, allowing the stench from his feet to waft up in your face as you eat that Subway sandwich you packed. We won’t mention the aftereffects of the beans he had at the Mexican restaurant in the fast food court.

Sometimes even worse than just a good old smelly traveler is one who attempts to cover up their body odor. Here’s a tip: colognes and B.O. do not make a nice smell. And when body odor is that bad, there is no product on the market that can truly cover it up. Best to mix in a shower.

Brace Yourself

Tusker Trail’s own Eddie Frank has been traveling the world for decades and he knows a thing or two about smells. There are plenty of them he could name that have stuck with him and on him, and some that he absolutely won’t. But there is one in particular, for which he always has to brace himself: sheep fat. As Eddie puts it, “This is one of life’s great contradictions.” He goes on, “To us westerners, sheep fat is one of the foulest smells in the world, yet it brings back great memories of a fantastic people in a magical land – Mongolia.” Lucky for Eddie, Mongolians live almost exclusively on livestock and dairy, so sheep fat is used on a daily basis in just about everything. Long live those fond memories.

The world is filled with a plethora of smells and your travels will bring your olfactory nerve into direct contact with the best and worst of them. Inhale the aromas of flowers, foods and all scents that bring you pleasures. Brace yourself for sewage, body odors and any other smells that will bring you pain.

Rest assured that even when your other senses start failing to help you retain the memory of your greatest travel moments, your sense of smell will be there to remind you of adventurous aromatic times.

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