They say you don’t really know a place until you smell it. I had completely forgotten about this idea until I met a German woman.
Blonde, similar in age, well-travelled and a good conversationalist, we got talking about her travels and we shared stories. One caught my attention. She mentioned she was to meet an Aussie bloke whom she had met through a friend and had only chatted with online. That all seemed well and good until she opened her mouth again and said one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. I asked about her thoughts on meeting her love muffin she responded, “I won’t know until I smell him.”
Taken aback by her statement I had her explain. She informed me that in Germany there is a saying that you’ll get along with someone if you can smell them. That’s right, when you go in for a hug, get right in there and give their neck a good ol’ snort. This, I’m told, tells you everything about your relationship. She wasn’t the only one to say this either, two American ladies would confirm this statement later that evening.
The next day, while getting over the absurdness of her statement (and the alcohol), it dawned on me that what she had said was true. She wasn’t full of shit. She wasn’t some crazy neo-hippie. No, what she spoke was truth. I know this because you don’t know you’ve been in someplace until you’ve smelled it. The first thing that hit me when I went out for a walk in the small village of Sanur in Bali, Indonesia was the smell. Immediately I knew I was back in southeast Asia.
Burning incense wafts across the street as the morning and evening offerings are laid out for the household gods. Incense sticks burn amongst flowers and rice, offerings, called “canang sari” in Balinese (though I’ve also heard them called “sasajen”), to the household god. Families spend roughly 10,000 Rupiah per day on these offerings, and on special days they may pay more. Twice a day you’ll see the people who work at your hotel make their rounds, placing the offerings at the door step and at the feet of the statues of the manifestations of the Creator.
Sewage. Ah, the beautiful smell of sewage, the sweet smell of a city, and a country, in the midst of reform. Construction is booming, ripping out the beautiful and once tranquil scenery and replacing it, instead, with large, mid-range and up hotel complexes. Though their sidewalks are porous allowing the waft of rotten food, diapers, and other garbage to hit the olfactory senses as one walks by. Poor sanitation is just one whiff of a city of limitless opportunity. I read a book once and it said the cities that’ll change the world aren’t those in the west. Nay nay, my friends, it’s those slum cities in Asia and South America that will be the thriving metropolises in the coming decades. Sewage problems will be one thing that needs to be dealt with.
Cooked meat or fish. There’s nothing like the sugary sweet smell of barbequed meat. What we know as barbeque in Canada and Australia has a certain smell in Asia. It may be that the meat is old or maybe that the BBQ hasn’t been cleaned in ages, but the smell is unique and differs from the BBQ smell of the west.
The whiff of a cigarette smells much sweeter when abroad. Maybe you smokers can tell me if the tobacco is different but to me the smell of cigarette smoke smells different here in Indonesia than in Canada. Even European smoke seems different. You don’t have to smoke to find this out as it seems everybody smokes in Asia. Or maybe I have a misplaced sense of freedom by way of smoking a cigar or two while travelling.
Diesel exhaust and its difference from north American gas. Separate from my learning experience in Dauphin, Canada about the difference of smell between gas and diesel, while travelling you can notice the difference between cars that run on diesel and those that run on gas. A new smell, of course, is the hybrid and natural gas that is now sweeping through the transport industry.
Added on top of the burning of garbage and what you have is an irresistible combination of incense, sewage, barbeque and fire that sticks to the back of your throat.
So, the next time you go in for a hug, or visit a country, take note of the smell. It’s important, often it’ll tell you exactly how you’ll get along with the person or the place. And now I want you to do something for me. Lean in close to your screen and take a good sniff of my blog. What does it smell like?