The Great Aromas of Travel
By Steven Knipp
Photos by the Author
The celebrated novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux once wrote that he found it virtually impossible to vividly describe the feeling of being cold. If a writer of his talents declines to try, far be it from me to make the attempt. But, really, who’d even want to – it’s not like feeling cold is fun.
For me, some of my fondest travel memories are smells. Scientists say there is a very strong association between smell and memory. No one yet understands exactly why the memories of individual smells linger so long, because the actual “receptor” cells in our noses that first “take in” the smell change about every 60 days. Still, the human brain can recognize up to 10,000 different smells.
When I was a young boy, my parents would take me on day trips to New York City, as a birthday treat. So one of the first smells I associated with travel was the compelling odor of gasoline, in this case from city buses – an exotic aroma that did not exist in my home town. The slightly sweet tang I smelled in Manhattan was not the exhaust from the buses, but actually a colorless liquid called benzene, which was used in gasoline. Today’s higher environmental standards have reduced benzene’s use as an additive, but you can still sometimes catch a whiff of the stuff at gas stations. Ah, the nostalgia.
On the way back from those early New York expeditions, my dad’s return route to New Jersey would take us home via the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River. And the moment we emerged from the tunnel’s dimness there would be this lovely scent of freshly brewed coffee. It wafted over the entire town of Hoboken and, in the decades before Starbucks, was the town’s major claim to fame, second only to the fact that Frank Sinatra was Hoboken-born.
The reason for the wonderful scent: Hoboken was also home to an enormous processing plant owned by the Maxwell House Coffee Company, a fact proclaimed by a huge rooftop sign: “Good to the Last Drop!” Unfortunately, Maxwell House closed its Hoboken plant in 1992, and so both of my beloved boyhood olfactory memories – fresh brewed coffee and the beguiling bouquet of benzene – are literally gone with the wind.
Of course, once I began traveling farther afield, my olfactory cells began to collect new and sometimes more exotic smells. Florida, for example, smells as might be expected – like suntan lotion. But if you are in the right place at the right time – early morning in central Florida – the wind is often infused with the very pleasant scent of fresh orange juice.
Many people believe that Ireland smells like a peat fire. But that’s mostly myth. I’ve traveled widely there and have inhaled an authentic peat fire only once. This might well be because peat (a kind of ancient, dried, decayed foliage compressed over millions of years) has become almost too precious to burn. But when the Irish do decide to pack a fireplace with dried bricks of the prized stuff – as in Northern Ireland’s 400-year-old Bushmills Distillery – the warm and sweetly fragrant air flowing up from the large stone fireplace is indeed both romantically aromatic and strangely soothing.
Japan is, without question, the cleanest country on the planet, which means opportunities for new or strange aromas are limited. But if you are lucky enough to stay in a traditional ryokan, you will sleep on a tatami mat, a type of soft and densely woven floor padding made from reeds. If the tatami in your room is new, look closely. You will see a slight green tinge, and it will smell exactly like freshly cut grass. Bedding down for the night on a fresh tatami is an extraordinary experience, like falling asleep on a summer’s evening in a forest clearing.
For many travelers, our most fondly remembered aromas are associated with food. For me, nowhere is this more true than in Hong Kong. When I first moved to the city years ago, I loved strolling the back streets of bustling Kowloon at dinner time. As the sun set, the district’s legendary neon lights would start to come on, and I would turn down any side street and find it virtually choked off with hundreds of hawkers, their ramshackle stalls overflowing with all manner of goods. On both sides of these narrow streets, above the shops and small stores, lived the bulk of Hong Kong’s Cantonese population. And every few seconds I would hear the sudden zzzzzzzzzz! … of hot oil sizzling in a wok. And instantly my nostrils would fill with the mouth-watering aromas of peanut oil, garlic, fresh ginger root, pungent peppercorns and fragrant sesame oil.
While exotic aromas associated with food are usually pleasant, that’s not always the case. Once while traveling to a remote part of the Philippines, I had the opportunity to dine on tropical fruit bat. Unlike their northern cousins, fruit bats, as their name implies, live largely on fresh fruit, mainly mango and banana. Thus they are said to taste quite sweet, and so are often on rural menus is places all across the tropical world. Because of their thick red fur, these large flying creatures are often called “flying foxes.”
So perhaps I should not have been too repelled when my specially prepared supper arrived on my bamboo table, freshly roasted in sweetened coconut milk, its furry aroma instantly recalling the very off-putting boyhood memory of … wet dog á la New Jersey.