It was the best of times, it was the worst of smells.

Travel is usually about the sights and tastes of a foreign destination. Increasingly for me it’s about the aromas, pleasant or not.

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” – Rudyard Kipling. The sound of a call to prayer might bring me back to Malaysia, or exotic birds and insects come back to haunt me, taking me to China. A splash of nam pla in my dinner picks me up from London and drops me over in Krabi, whilst examining the architecture of Bath might put me in front of the Colosseum in Rome. But every now and then something wafts up from my surroundings when I’m in London that tears me back to a particular place and time. To me smells are probably more evocative than sights, sounds, or tastes, and of late I’ve been getting these aromatic flashbacks more regularly than ever before. Surprisingly I find that some pretty horrific smells bring back some wonderful and funny times, not just sad times, so I thought I’d share those.

  • Cockroach powder…

    …is something that I will always associate with my 2003 trip to Lisbon. Every hostel or hotel we stayed in was sprinkled with the stuff. For good reason, there were cock-a-roaches everywhere. Including the statutory upside down bathroom one. Its pong is unlike anything I’ve ever smelt before or since and I think it’s pretty damned horrible. It definitely contributed to me really taking a massive dislike to Portugal’s first city. The knowledge that they’re about always gets me itching or on edge. My trouser leg fabric moving too suddenly making me jump badly. All the same that city is for me a wealth of smelly memories that enrich my recollection of it. The smell of weed in the main town squares was obvious and quite pleasant, despite the pusher with one ear who bugged me relentlessly. I do remember one alleyway below the castle excreting the disgusting smell of crack cocaine though, something I’ve only ever detected once before that – in a pub toilet (i.e. I’m not a crack addict).  Thus, detecting a whiff of what might be cockroach powder now sets off a chain reaction in my mind from crap hotel room to weed to crack to my friend Martyn sniffing a Greek girl’s hair when we were in a bar. He told her it smelled lovely. He was pissed. She was confused, but oddly not repulsed. It was hilarious. And that’s my one redeeming memory of Portugal.

  • Sewage…

    …is not something you should enjoy the smell of. Obviously. While I won’t go so far as to say that I like the smell of poo I will say that my befuddled memory finds a lot of pleasurable associations with it… Barcelona’s Ramblas is constructed over an old river that was used as an open sewer in days of yore. Now it’s a covered sewer but you will certainly catch strands of its smell while walking around El Raval. A few times a day large poo-sucking trucks trundle along these lanes and deal with what lies beneath. That’s not a nice thing to smell or see but the fact is that I was having such a brilliant time in the city that I now associate certain miasma with positive thoughts of Barcelona. Recently the London Underground has smelt awful around South Kensington. Almost like nappies, and that holds NO good associations for me. But when my tube home passed through a cloud of more authentic effluent the other day I was teleported to a bar (it’s always a bar with you Chris isn’t it!) on the Ramblas. Shameful? Yes, probably, but I’m not ashamed.

  • Rotting fish…

    …has so many associations that my poor mind has to fight itself to decide which memory will bob to the surface on any given occasion. Thai cooking can be a bit pongy with the different types of fish sauce on offer but it’s usually so well mingled that it isn’t too severe. However, the breakwater around Torrevieja marina in Spain used to reek with the stench of discarded fish guts. Fishermen would spend the day chucking offal into the rocks and manky mangy feral cats would try to grab whatever they could before it slid into an inaccessible crevice, or a wave bore it away before it putrefied. Probably to be cannibalised by other fish. Still, I loved the view from the breakwater. I associate the breakwater itself with pain though. As a child I got sand caught between my toes and the upright of my flip flop so it acted as a saw on my skin, it soon got infected :/

  • Durian fruits…

    …certainly smell bad to most people. Some places in southeast Asia refuse to allow people carrying it in public spaces as it’s so offensive. I’ve never been too bothered by it so maybe this one’s a cheat. Actually it’s definitely a cheat as the place I smell this is in a Chinese supermarket in Croydon. Just walking into this huge shack of wonders I take a deep breath and enjoy going back to the Far East. Yes it does overpower a lot of the other more palatable flavours filling the atmos but I love the power durian fruit has to take me back to a day amongst market grocers or just driving past a plantation.

  • Damp wet-suits…

    …need to be washed immediately after use. The sea around a coral reef is chockablock with bacteria of the unfriendly kind. Hell, you can see all the parrot fish pooing sand right in front of your goggled eyes so why believe it’s clean out there? That’s why if you scrape yourself on coral you have to get it well rinsed with iodine. Plus I’m completely certain that a great many people do just pee in their wet-suits. Sadly a lot of tour boats that let you borrow a wet-suit will not have washed it properly. They just leave them to drip dry and collect colonies of unholy and probably coliform bacteria. Ready for the next poor sap who didn’t want to travel around the world with a wet-suit in their 50l backpack. Nevertheless when I smell the telltale damp of unwashed and unloved clothing in any hostel (or sometimes just on the train commute at home) it reminds me of the exhilaration I felt after doing an introductory PADI dive off Cairns, Australia. The Great Barrier Reef is about as amazing a place as I’m ever likely to visit. It’s awesome in every way so I think I can be forgiven for keeping an association with hanging my used wet-suit on a rack of other used and repulsive wet-suits.

  • Paper mills…

    …smell a lot like cabbage. Huge amounts of boiled cabbage. I like cabbage, it’s lovely with bacon and onion, but who would enjoy sailing in a lake partly filled with run-off from the local paper mill? Well, not me either. I didn’t enjoy the smell at the time mainly because I was worried the water might be so acidic that I dissolve like the chief Nazi’s face from Raiders. That didn’t happen though so instead I’m left associating the smell with the joy of sailing out of this little lake and into the far larger lake just south of Biscarosse, France. That was a beautiful place and learning to sail dinghies there was a pleasure. I’d managed to capsize a few times in that stinky cabbage hole so making it into the breezy main lake was a huge reward. Whenever I smell a paper mill now (e.g. Inverness, Scotland or Ružomberok, Slovakia) I think of the happy days of piracy games and desperation as I try to right an inverted sailboat. Ah, halcyon days indeed!

I was trying to think of a smell that I can’t stand under any circumstances and I think I’ll rest with vehicle pollution. I’ve never been somewhere that was massively polluted and also enjoyable. Shanghai is my least favourite place on earth for this very reason, even though there are a quintillion bicycles. Whereas all these other usually disgusting smells have something about them that’s endeared themselves to me, perversely or not, fossil fuel pollution is entirely memorable for horrible reasons.

I’m sure there are other whiffs that I’ve overlooked but for now I’ll just think of other signs of  tasty fruit, infestation, effluence, negligence, pollution, and death, and smile to myself.

Hmmm, smell that deathy durian fruit... (From Wikipedia)

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