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Published: March 6th 2017
Today I was walking down the streets of Macau when suddenly I got stopped by someting so unseemingly familiar. Just a faint smell, hitting my nostrils and catapulting me back in time. I literally stopped on a pedestrian walk and tried to figure out what just happened. Fried onion I thought. Nothing special, I fry onion all the time. But on that pedestrian walk, on this sunny afternoon the faint smell of fried onion triggered something in my brain. Something that reminded me on my elementary school days. Something that reminded me of my grandmother. Me, barely 6-7 years old, helping my grandma to flatten out dough to make her special potato gnocchi. Of course I was of no help at all, but I am sure my grandma loved to see me try at least. I am pretty certain now that my grandmother used to put fried onion on her tomato sauce, a tomato sauce that was mandatory for my favorite gnocchi at her lunch table.
How is it possible that I have friend hundreds of onions in my life, visited dozens of countries and kitchens, but today on that pedestrian walk a faint smell of fried onions threw me
back to days of my long gone childhood. Thinking of it, these occasional mysteries of our mind do happen from time to time. I am sure you can identify with this and similar stories. Smells, a distant sound of a voice, the humming of a familiar machinery, a faint melody... when experienced at the right place at the right time, these little sense triggers can do miracles. It is only natural that traveling, which if done right should involve all of our senses, is deeply connected to sensual memories of all sorts. Fried onion aside, I often associate smells with certain places I have visited, certain places with certain people I have met, certain people with certain emotions I have felt, and certain emotions just with what makes life worth living and traveling the very core of it.
There is just someting about smells that so intimately connects them to travel experiences, something that makes them a lingering memory in the back of your mind waiting for you to dig them out. If someone should ask me about my first and most striking memory of Yangon, the most thriving city of the Union of Myanmar, a smell would come
to my mind. To be precise, this smell is not primarily associated with Myanmar but brings me back to much earlier times - my first landing in Kolkata/India more than half a decade ago. I remember vividly the excitement of landing in India, a country I had heard so much about and was so curious to visit. I remember descending the airplane on the metal stairways unto the heat of a Bengali afternoon and being hit by something unusual in the air. Asking me to describe a smell is like asking me to describe a colour to a blind person. These are the limits our languages are facing, but I will try to approximate it within my possibilities.
Possibly a hint of Indian incense from the countless Hindu shrines. Then there is the smoky, polluted humidity. Not just a smell but rather a thick, almost steamlike substance filling your lungs. Spices. Many, maybe too many to identify them. Too many but still combined they blend into one, into one distinct note piercing through the air. A hint of sweetness. Not the comforting sweetness of bakeries and pastries. Something that almost feels sinister, like a warning signal. Maybe a hint
of decay. Organic matter slowly disintegrating in the heat. Trash possibly, hopefully. Unfamiliar, captivating, uncanny, mesmerizing.
My first moments in Yangon entering the crumbling, narrow alleyways of the old British Quarter were marked by this very same smell. Crumbling facades lingering in the twilight of an early, tropical sunset. The distant noise of vehicles seems unexplicably close. Air so thick that every breath fills your lungs with a sticky, velvety matter. Sewers that are only partially covered by big, heavy concrete blocks - so reminiscent of my first walk in Melaka/Malaysia many years ago and many other South East Asian countries I have visited since. The occassional passer by does not seem to mind me much. Women cover their faces with a white paste made of ground bark. Both genders were long, skirtlike dresses reaching down to their ankles. Some faces look Oriental, some South East Asian, some South Asian. The familiar smell perpetrates the whole scenario and lingers in my nose.
A market is nearby. I can hear the noise. Big, woven baskets on the streetside showcase fat looking worms, maggots. They are for food I suppose. Skewers, curries, little chairs. Now I get some more stares,
not many Westerners seem to pass the little market at night. From the corner of my eyes I look for Mohinga, Myanmar's signature dish and pretty much the only thing I know about the country. I do not want to stop and look. Experience tells that this would signal my interest and I had a long day. Too long for debating and bargaigning. Some stalls I pass seem to aument the lingering smell and I hesitantly try to look at where it comes from, without success. Cockroaches escape from my approaching flip flops into the semi open sewers. I feel overwhelmed, tired, curious. I decide to call it a day and head back to the comfort of my run down guestroom. The smell persists and I close my eyes. A short night in an unfamiliar place is coming - and tomorrow is a new day to discover another piece of this mad world.
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