The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

THE DISPLACED Q: What’s the most intoxicating scent you’ve encountered on your travels?

It’s Friday here at the Displaced Nation — La Dolce Vita time!

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a series of posts in aid of living the sweet life — even if you’re feeling displaced! The key, of course, lies in cultivating an approach to travel involving the five senses.

We began with the eyes and the ears, and we’re now moving on to the nose. Have you ever had the experience of catching a whiff of something and instantly being transported back to a specific moment in time — to a memory so sharp and clear you can picture it exactly? And then it’s gone, almost as quickly, as the smell wafts away and your other senses take over again, feeding the real world back into the loop…

Smell is the oldest sense, it touches the most emotional part of the brain.

– Roja Dove, the world’s sole Professeur de Parfums

Smell, like taste, is tied very closely to memory. Actually smell and taste are almost the same sense, but we won’t get into that right now — largely because we’d be talking about how in order to smell something, you have to get tiny particles of it up your nose. And that particular conversation rarely ends well…

Because smells create such strong associations with individual memories, your ideas and my ideas of an intoxicating smell are probably rather different.

Ah, the smell of…Thai petrol?!

For example, everyone loves the smell of freshly mown grass; but how many of you like the smell of petrol (gasoline, for those of you across the pond)?

I love it. I associate it with long, busy days in Thailand, running errands for the animal clinic where I was volunteering, driving around looking for stray dogs in need of vaccinating — on my tiny little Yamaha motor scooter.

I could always smell the petrol when filling up the scooter tank — because most of the gas stations had only one barrel of the stuff, with a hand-pump and a rubber hose just long enough to reach your tank.

So that smell always brings back happy memories…even though it’s not widely considered a delicate fragrance!

The most noxious of odors — bread?!

Here’s another odd one. I’ll say it slow, in case anyone is likely to faint from pure, unadulterated, lust: Freshly. Baked. Bread.

Mmmmmm! Right?

Wrong. For me, anyway! To afford my trip to Thailand (and Fiji), I had a job working shifts in a bread factory in Australia, where that gorgeous smell permeated the whole building 24 hours a day. Perhaps because I was the only guy, and therefore resilient (or expendable?), I got to be in charge of the enormous, stainless-steel walk-in ovens. I put the bread trolleys in and, twenty minutes later, took them out again. It’s a process that has to be done quickly, or else the oven loses too much heat — but the trolleys themselves get rather warm in the process, and of the four of them, two had broken wheels.

You know how hard it is to steer a supermarket shopping trolley with a jammed wheel, right? Now imagine trying to do it fast — very fast — with a trolley approaching 200 degrees Celsius…and for 12 hours straight. Even my burns had burns.

I survived a whole two weeks in that job, and then as soon as my paycheck hit the bank, I fled straight to Bali to spend it!

To this day I can’t smell baking bread without thinking that pain — the kind that accompanies searing, scorching flesh — is about to follow…

Another smell to avoid: live jaguar!

Now I’ll tell you something you don’t ever want to smell: anywhere a jaguar is living! When a jaguar is confined in, say, a remote mountain-top rescue centre in Ecuador (such as the one I worked in and on which my book is based), you have to clean the enclosure out pretty regularly. Now what goes into a jaguar — especially when you’re doing this on behalf of a nonprofit that’s operating on a shoe-string budget — isn’t particularly wholesome.

To begin with, the jaguar’s body odor isn’t noted for its appeal, unless perhaps you’re another jaguar. And of course they scent-mark everything.

But what comes out of them? Bearing in mind they are pure carnivores, living exclusively (in captivity) on carrion. It’s not…I mean, it’s just…. Look. Just don’t ever go there. Trust me on this!

And now for some winners!

Okay, back to the good. Toward the top of my list of intoxicating smells is that of the traditional Australian Sausage Sizzle. Usually held as a fund-raiser for some charity or other, they never fail to rake in the dough because the smell — of frying meat and frying onions — is utterly delicious, utterly irresistible, and carries for miles.

Now that I’m living as an expat in Perth, I get to experience this smell on a regular basis, as there’s a Sausage Sizzle held directly opposite the entrance to my gym every Saturday morning.

The moment I finish my hard-core workout, I come outside and walk full-tilt into that heavenly smell…at just the point when my body is starting to crave sustenance.

It’s almost as though those cooks are waging a personal crusade against my willpower. And my waistline.

And you know what? They win every bloomin’ time.

But my absolute favorite? I’ve got to tell you mine, right? Then you can tell me yours… It’s food again (of course!): the aroma of fresh donuts!

This dense, cakey scent takes me right back to one small stand in Morecambe Bay, in the north of England, where I went on holiday as a child. Yes, to one of my very earliest trips with my parents. I loved that I could get three donuts for £1! And, if I ate them quickly enough, I could pretend as thought I’d never had them, and convince my parents to give me another pound to buy three more! Ah, happy days indeed.

So there you have it. Now it’s your turn to describe the most delicious smells you’ve encountered on your travels — meadows, Himalayan incense, sunlight on rainbows…? Tell us in the comments! And if you happen to have a photo to illustrate this intoxicating scent, send it to me at tony@thedisplacednation.com. Yes, I may make that “la dolce vita” slideshow I’ve been promising before too long…

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when expat Anthony Windram recalls some chance encounters with “locals” that have enhanced his sense of the bittersweetness of life in his adopted home.

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Images: photos of the gas pump and the jaguar are from Tony James Slater’s personal collection.

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5 responses to “THE DISPLACED Q: What’s the most intoxicating scent you’ve encountered on your travels?

  1. ML Awanohara May 18, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    @TJS
    You are so right about smell being connected with memory — much more so than sound, I find.

    You are also right about it being highly individualistic. Once more, I fear I’ll be the oddball in this discussion, but I found the smell of freshly poured cement in Tokyo, where I used to live, intoxicating. I would sometimes sniff it when going down the stairs into the subway, and it would give me a kind of high. To this day, I wonder: was I responding to the toxic fumes? In any case, I loved it!

    By contrast — and here’s my version of your freshly baked bread story — I loathe the smell of freshly mowed grass, which so many others would say is intoxicating. Again, it’s associated with my travels — but this time to the UK. The entire time I was living in England, I suffered from terrible hay fever (it went away when I arrived in Tokyo’s concrete jungle — hmmm, it that why I like concrete so much?).

  2. Tony James Slater May 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Ha ha! I love it! Hates: freshly mown grass! Also, rainbows and unicorns, presumably. Loves: Concrete Fumes and Other Noxious Vapours… Greenpeace probably have you down as Public Enemy no.1!!
    So true though, how different something like this can be – because smells lodge so deep in our memories and create such strong associations. I find it takes me over completely for a second, when a scent-triggered memory rises unexpectedly; one minute I’m walking along, the suddenly I’m just stood there with a funny look on my face, daydreaming, groping to try to keep hold of the memory… ah, I love it when that happens. It’s one of those peculiar, deja vu-esque sensations. The mind is a weird, weird thing!

  3. ML Awanohara May 22, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    FYI: You’ve gotten a couple of people answering this Q on Twitter. Karl Donaldson (@dwnndrtytrvlr) said that the small of freshly baking bread got him through early morning patrols in Gjilane, Kosovo — and made him feel more at peace. But then I pointed out that you were not the right person to mention that to — which got him LOLing. And Anita McKay (@finallywoken), who was actually our first Random Nomad(!), said that if you live in a heavily polluted city like Jakarta (as she does), FRESH AIR actually smells like heaven!!! :)

    • Tony James Slater May 23, 2012 at 8:53 am

      That’s awesome! I got in on a conversation about the bread, but I love the idea of fresh air – it’s about contrasts, eh! I bet people who work at donut stands are considerably less enamoured of the smell than I am!

  4. Barb Hautanen May 27, 2012 at 8:23 am

    I love the smell of fires (not forest fires or houses burning ;-), but those fires that are part of everyday life in third world countries. The fires which are used to cook meals, keep people warm & serve as meeting places for friends & family. When I’m back in the U.S. & smell a campfire, I am instantly transported back to Asia, Africa & South America.

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