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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year:Inhale if you dare

Where's That Smell?
Paul Lynch

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single sniff" - not exactly the Lao Tzu quote that made the philosopher famous, but it’s close enough. Point being, do cities or countries possess a unique odour?

Image from Honolulu Bus

Travel should broaden the mind but more often dilates the nostrils, depending on the destination. You don’t have to possess the prominent feature of Cyrano de Bergerac to catch a whiff of the Guinness factory in Dublin, nor do you require a GPS to let you know that you have reached Faridabad, a sprawling industrial city north of New Delhi. The schnoz will let you know you have arrived.

However, in a blindfold test, hooter at the ready, could you sniff the difference between Marrakech and Hong Kong? If you have ever visited these places, the chances are you would instantly recall the aroma. Marrakech with its wood-smoke, spices and aromatic resin combined with the tanneries of the Medina - a pungent mixture that stays with you long after you depart - to the dried fish, over-cooked noodle infused fragrance of Hong Kong.

Cairo has the unfortunate claim of having the highest levels of aromatic hydrocarbons of any similar sized city - a rather flowery scientific term which translated means the air stinks and its polluted, but you know where you are. On the subject of science, the smells we receive come from molecules that evaporate off objects, everything from the cheese of Stilton (which is actually made in Melton Mowbray) to a dead possum in 100 degree heat on the road to Alice Springs (which by all accounts beats a dead skunk any day). All these aromas go to make up the waft of a region.

Some cities are proud of their pungent reputations. Rotorua, New Zealand, for example, is the self-proclaimed, most noxious city on the planet, where the volcanic sulphur fumes can choke a horse at 100 metres. No mistaking where you are here, just watch for the wheezing gelding at the Air New Zealand counter.

Singapore, on the other hand, could lay claim to being the only city (and country) to leave the nostrils empty, unless you are sensitive to the smell of money.

Before being accused of vilifying any of the destinations mentioned so far, bear in mind that not all aromas leave you reaching for a gas mask. A warm summer breeze kicks up the scent of evening primrose in the Jardins de Touleries in Paris or an afternoon stroll though the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen with its magnificent spring flower display. Then again, one wrong boarding pass and you could be ingesting molecules from Jacksonville, Florida - some claim the city to be the foulest smelling place in the western hemisphere, the attractive combination of sewer and swamp gas .

We all have photographs and videos of travels to remind us of places visited, but what about an aroma souvenir? And perhaps one day a scratch and sniff system will allow travellers to pre-sample the air of the city they are about to visit. Some of course will come with a warning "Care should be taken when about to scratch the cover off Vientiane, Laos, as it the home of Cha om, the world’s smelliest vegetable", a staple in its sour curry and just another example of a scent that permeates the air of most far off lands.

So breathe deeply the next time you travel and let those molecules tell you where you are.
© Paul Lynch October 2009

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