By R J Furth (April 2010)

“Here, take some mint leaves. You will need them for the smell.”

I’m pretty impervious to bad odors, unlike my wife Sandy who has an ultrasensitive nose, not always a good thing on the road. In this case I accepted the mint along with the warning, and I was glad I did. The Chouwara Tannery is one of the main tourist sites in Fes, Morocco. It is a living, working piece of ancient history. The tannery has been processing sheep, goat, cow and camel hides since the 13th century. Hides are scraped, then soaked for long periods in cow urine and pigeon guano, resulting in extraordinarily soft, pliable pieces of leather. The leather goods that are produced are stunning. So is the odor. Imagine 800 years of dead hides soaking in urine and guano. We visited on a cool, rainy day, and the smell brought tears to my eyes. The guide said it was far worse during the summer. Rather than hold the mint under my nose, in summer I would have crammed a fistful up each nostril. Standing there in Fes, vainly trying to appreciate the history of the stench, I started thinking about smells on the road.

I heard a story on National Public Radio a few years back about research that focused on smell. The research proved that the sense that evoked the strongest, clearest, earliest memories was smell. I think of the thick stench of stale cigar smoke in my Uncle Doc’s apartment; the dense, sweet smell of perfume that clung to my cheek after being kissed by my grandmother’s friends, the smell of baked Toll House cookies and freshly cut lawns and the fishy odor that emanated from Lake Michigan on hot days. For me, those images are sharper than the memory of Uncle Doc’s face or my grandmother’s friends Tessy and Bessy or even what the beach looked like, though I spent many days on it. A smile always appears on my face when I smell fresh blossoms, an odor that immediately triggers memories of a large tree just outside our front door in Malaysia in the early 80s and the jasmine behind our house in Tokyo in the early 90s. And I can’t help but grin when I’m walking through some Southeast Asian market and the first whiff of durian wafts under my nose.

It would be a major omission to write an essay about traveling and smells, and not discuss durian. For those unfamiliar with durian (unlikely if you watch adventure food shows like Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods or Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations) it is a large spiky fruit that is called the King of Fruits in Southeast Asia. The custardy pulp surrounds pits roughly the size of avocado pits. The flavor and smell have been described as similar to eating sweet vanilla custard while sitting in an old, never-been-cleaned outhouse. Durian is one of my favorite fruits, one that creates body heat and a stench that is emitted by all body fluids. (Yes, ALL body fluids.) Durian’s odor is so strong that it is banned from all airlines and hotels in Southeast Asia. As a new teacher in Kuala Lumpur I decided to bring a durian to my Southeast Asian history class, figuring that any student studying the region should be familiar with the most famous (notorious) fruit. I came equipped with a large durian and a meat cleaver, which is required to open the tough outer skin. I had opened the fruit and began to offer tastes when I became aware of the sound of opening and closing doors. Many of them. Sticking my head out into the corridor I was confronted with all the teachers from my wing. They were trying to determine the sources of the overwhelming smell of durian that permeated their rooms. I soon learned that the air-conditioning system in the building circulated the air so that the smells from one room would eventually end up in all rooms. I quickly ditched the durian and never brought another to school. No wonder durian is banned from hotels.

It would be nice if all our olfactory travel memories were lovely ones: blooming flowers in the tropics, spice shops in India, coffee shops in Amsterdam, Parisian bakeries, a warm breeze off the South China Sea. It would also be nice if every travel day was sunny and warm, not too hot, and every evening cool sleeping weather. Keep dreaming. I’d bet that for every memory of the fantastic smells that lingered in your nostrils after a visit to a spice market in Kerala, you have two memories of foul odors. Unless you’re a fish fanatic, visiting Tsukiji market  in Tokyo – the world’s largest fish market – can be overwhelming. They wash the floors every day and the fish is certainly fresh, yet after decades of buying, slicing and selling fish in a warehouse the size of the Super Dome, you can’t avoid the smell of fish.

As previously mentioned, Sandy has a serious issue with odors. Some strong ones, like perfume, can cause migraines. We’ve moved seats in restaurants when a woman at the next table arrived drenched in perfume. (I like a hint of perfume, but could never understand why some glop it on. What are they covering up? Don’t they realize that bathing in perfume robs others of the chance to smell – and therefore taste – their food?) Obviously, traveling holds some perils for Sandy, though she is a first-rate trooper who has followed me through reeking slums in India without a complaint. Because of Sandy’s sensitivity, I often ignore her grimaces when detecting a foul odor. Then there are times when even a severe cold couldn’t save you from the nastiness that fills the air. Two cases stand out for repulsion, one in western India, the other in Bangkok.

Jaisalmer is an ancient city on the western edge of India in the state of Rajasthan. Sitting in the middle of the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer was once a major stop on the caravan trade route and was a fabulously wealthy city. Seen from afar, Jaisalmer is the stuff of dreams, and that image is only enhanced as you approach the majestic sand-colored walls and enter through enormous  wooden doors that are decorated with brass studs. Sandy and I were in awe as we walked the cobblestone streets to our hotel and our awe only increased when we discovered that our hotel sat right on the outer wall of the city. For anybody who has loved 1001 Arabian Nights and tales of Sinbad, our hotel in Jaisalmer was a dream come true. Throwing open the wooden shutters, we looked out over the city that spread beyond the walls and peered into the Thar Desert. The place was ancient, magical, romantic. Until we had to use the toilet.

The bathroom was made from the same giant blocks of stone that formed the city’s walls, yet the toilet fittings were modern and clean. The problem was only apparent when you lifted the lid of the toilet and looked down to see the outer walls of the city. No plumbing. No pipes. Just air and the wall. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and in India it’s common to ‘gotta go’ often, which Sandy and I did that day. We also spent hours exploring the narrow cobblestone streets of Jaisalmer and dined in the open air restaurant on the roof of our hotel. It was an exotic day and evening in the Thar Desert, in an ancient city, one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been. Then we returned to our room. The room had become stuffy and horribly hot during the day as the sun beat down on the roof and outer walls of the hotel. We opened the wooden shutters and were instantly struck by two things: a swarm of flies and the stench of shit. It was obvious that one – the shit which had splattered and stuck to the walls – had attracted the other. Given the choice between the horrendous smell of our own feces, warmed by the desert sun, and a swarm of flies or a hot, airless room, we chose the latter. Although we were spared the flies, the smell of warm shit still filled our nostrils. After a sleepless night we left Jaisalmer.

The final odiferous incident I will relate regards New Year’s Eve in Bangkok. We were living in Malaysia and my sister came for the holidays with her family. After a rainy week on Ko Samui we checked into the Sheraton Royal Orchid hotel in Bangkok to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The Royal Orchid is a beautiful hotel that sits on the Chao Phraya River which runs through Bangkok. Knowing how fantastic Thai food is, and anticipating that the Sheraton would blow us away with a buffet stacked with the tastiest Thai food, the freshest seafood and fruit, and fabulous dishes of all sorts, we dressed in our best batiks and rushed down to feast and celebrate the New Year. It didn’t take long to realize our dream of a sumptuous, unforgettable feast would not occur as planned. Unforgettable, yes. Feast, no way. Those familiar with Bangkok and the Chao Phraya will have anticipated where this is going. It is fascinating to watch life on the river as boats of all sorts chug past. It is less than fascinating to smell the Chao Phraya, which is thick with all sorts of unmentionable, disgusting things. I couldn’t possibly catalogue the crap (literally and figuratively) that floats on and in the Chao Phraya, but I can tell you that the smells that emanates from the river do not go well with curried prawns or sweet pineapple or pad thai. I gamely piled a plate with the choices bits of food and – if memory serves me well – I even ate some of it. Eventually, my effort to make the best of a smelly situation failed and I left the plate and returned to my room. Needless to say, Sandy was unable to eat a single bite. The music from the band kept us awake until nearly sunrise. It was not a happy New Year.

One final thought. We’ve all taken and/or viewed amazing photos of exotic places. I’ve met some people who have even carried recorders to capture the sounds of temple bells being rung or monks chanting. Imagine how much richer those sounds would be if accompanied by the dense smell burning incense. Imagine how extraordinary your photo of the Parisian bakery would be if you could smell fresh croissant while viewing it. Then again, I don’t think Sandy would be in favor of our 1983 photos of the Taj Mahal being viewed while the smell of the Taj’s well-used toilets wafted under her nose. Perhaps it’s wiser to stick to slide shows with Ravi Shankar playing in the background.

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