From the April 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
My flight lands in Tahiti’s Papeete airport just before daybreak. “We’ll be on the ground for an hour,” the flight attendant tells me. Do I want to get out and stretch my legs?
Of course I do—not because I feel particularly restless but because I’ve never before set foot in the South Pacific. It’s only the airport, but still. This stopover on the way to Sydney is my first chance to experience a place I have always fantasized about.
A cabin crew member opens the door, and I clamber down the steps to the tarmac. At first all that I notice is the amethyst-hued dawn sky, in which the brightest southern stars still sparkle. And then it hits me: a moist breeze that stops me in mid-stride and blows away every other thought and sensation. Immediately I’m beamed to a beach by the ocean. I stand barefoot, garlanded in jasmine and plumeria blossoms, on a mound of juicy coconut flesh.
Perfume ads always try to convince us that their potions are intoxicating. The smell of Tahiti actually is. I began to calculate what the fallout would be if I got “lost” in the Tahiti airport and “missed” my flight.
The smells we encounter on the road probably rate as our most intense—and lingering—travel experiences, though we tend to disregard them. We venture forth and return home with collections of photos and stories, tales of fascinating encounters and new friendships. But ask someone to tell you about their trip to, oh, Tobago, and rarely will they lead with a description of the overpowering smells of the island, fragrances that remind you, at all times, that this is a land wreathed in the smoke of charred sugarcane. How many visitors to Spanish-speaking cities in the Caribbean mention the Agua de Florida cologne that seems to soak the very air inside buses or along crowded streets on a Saturday night? And while people love to describe their experiences eating Thai food, what about the rice, fried pork, shrimp, and lemongrass-lime aroma that is the eau de Thailand? In search of that ever elusive sense of place, we travelers often skip over the one quality that couldn’t be more essential to it.
Smell is the outlier of our five senses, primal and powerful, but evanescent. The pleasant sensation that washes over me when I get a hit of the aroma of crusty bread wafting from a tiny bakery in Paris evaporates so quickly that I often become frustrated and even depressed that I cannot hold on to it.
What smell denies us in the moment of experience, however, it returns a hundredfold in the long run. I may somehow try to retain the aroma of sandalwood and burning butter that fills the temple of Kanyakumari, and fail. But ten years later in New Jersey, when I enter an Indian temple that uses butter and incense for worship, I inhale my way back into my India trip so completely that I hear the chanting of mantras along with the trumpeting and bleats of the elephants. I even feel again the heat of the ceremonial fires. That is the big difference between photographs and smells: One reminds you of where you’ve been, the other returns you there.
And what a return! Wherever I go, I try to find something that contains the smell of a place—a scarf washed in the flowery laundry powder of Laos or a sachet stuffed with the lavender that grows wild on the Mediterranean hillsides of the Croatian island of Hvar. Over the years these talismans, inevitably, lose their strength, yet even a tiny hint of those fragrances can move me through time and space.
My favorite travel writers understand how smell works. They draw attention not just to landscape and culture and history but to the more subtle signs—both pleasant and unpleasant—that let us know where we are. Ian Frazier, in his latest book, Travels in Siberia, describes the peculiarly Russian funk of tea bags, cucumber peels, wet cement, chilly air, and currant jam and concludes with the wonderful exclamation: “The smell of America says, ‘Come in and buy.’ The smell of Russia says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen: Russia!’”
I know just what he means (although I have yet to inhale those soggy-tea-bag and cucumber-peel aromas myself). Traveling years ago in Cuba, then in Hungary just after the fall of the Soviet Union, I noticed the strangest thing: The two places, thousands of miles apart, smelled almost the same, or at least their hotels did. It was the oddest odor, yet unmistakable: institutional, with a hint of old cafeteria food and strong disinfectant. Was this the smell of the Eastern Bloc?
Likewise, when I stayed in cheap motel chains while traveling on a budget in the United States, I noticed that no matter whether I was in Minnesota or Chicago or San Francisco, my room always had a vague petrochemical smell, like a new car. Blindfold me and put me in one of those rooms, and though I wouldn’t be able to tell you which city I was in, I’d know with certainty that my hotel bill wasn’t going to break the bank.
These particular travel smells represent the opposite of a Tahiti: a sense of no specific place, an anodyne landscape we encounter all too often these days. Over time we travelers become blasé about how our olfactory sense colors our travel experience. The travel industry, however, has caught on. Increasingly, the real smells of life get crowded out by the “Come in and buy!” ones. Just-baked cookie aromas are pumped into airport lounges. Tony resorts extend their branding into the air—and our subconscious—by adding “corporate” fragrances to the climate-control systems.
Airlines eliminate scent entirely in their climate- and pressure-controlled cabins—something I appreciate, since I sometimes spend 18 hours shut up in them. This has another happy consequence: When you exit an airplane’s no-smell zone, anything that hits your nostrils right after carries twice the impact.
Really, I was ready to ditch my flight from Tahiti to Sydney. But as I took one breath and then another, the lush opium of the island slowly turned to powder, like old perfume in the crook of an elbow. I knew then that it would stay with me. Just in case, I bought a box of coconut-oil soap and a bottle of plumeria perfume in one of the airport shops. I then reboarded the plane.
The smell of Australia awaited.
Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com.