Archive | January, 2012

You own a time travel machine. It’s called a nose.

30 Jan

By the time I am rolling my carry on in the arrival hall heading towards immigration, the smell of cheap phenic acid or imitation Dettol commonly used in Egypt to clean surfaces, coupled with the body odors of  sweaty, exhausted personnel, I know I couldn’t be anywhere other than Cairo.

A few weeks ago I walked into the Glasshouse Walkway conservatory at the Kew Gardens in London. I was in the Africa section and the smells created by the native African flora on display and housed in a near perfect replica of their natural ecosystem transported me decades into the past when I was a young boy living in Tanzania. It was that same raw, musky smell of the wild African tropics that first inspired in me a sense of bewilderment, love and a desire to discover one of the most beautiful continents on the planet. My sense of smell had catapulted me from London in 2012 to the Serengeti national park in the mid-1980s. Whether you are aware of it or not, every time you smell something familiar, your entire consciousness is transported elsewhere in a wonderful and profound way.

Our sense of smell is not just a powerful time or teleportation machine, it is also one of our key survival instincts.  On March 18, 1937 a natural gas leak caused an explosion, destroying the London School of New London in Texas. Almost three hundred students and teachers perished in that avoidable disaster. To reduce the potential of future disasters, the Texas Legislature mandated shortly after the explosion that thiols (organic compounds that contain sulfurs) be added to natural gas to give it that familiar, pungent rotten-cabbage smell. The strong odor of many thiols makes leaks quickly detectable. Today, this practice is standard worldwide. The moment any of us smell that tell tale odor our fight or flight instincts kick in and we react accordingly to ensure our survival.

We associate smells in our minds directly with unique places, experiences and people. Take Cairo for example. The moment I land in the Egyptian capital during the crushing hot summer months,  a strong smell of inefficiently consumed diesel and humidity from the outdoor surroundings immediately registers where I am and what lies ahead. By the time I am rolling my carry on in the arrival hall heading towards immigration, the smell of cheap phenic acid or imitation Dettol commonly used in Egypt to clean surfaces, coupled with the body odors of  sweaty, exhausted personnel, I know I couldn’t be anywhere other than Cairo.  On the streets of that incredible city, the smell of familiar, delicious home cooked food floating with generosity from one apartment to the other and seeping outdoors, or the seductive smell of publicly fried falafel, laced with the compounded assault of car exhaust, raw dust, and pure chaos seal the deal. If I ever experience any of those unique smells anywhere else in the world, I am instantly returned to Egypt.

There is no  better place to test your sense of smell and its time travel and teleportation potential than any China town in the world. Take Canal Street in New York for instance. There is always an omnipresent smell of something crispy being fried. Let’s say spring rolls for the purpose of  culinary simplicity. It’s the same sort of smell that you get with varying degrees in any Chinese restaurant in any China town in any part of the world.  It can be delicious and inviting, or greasy and revolting, depending on your state of mind and what really is being fried. But there is also a rich tapestry of olfactory stimulants emanating from the Chinese herbal shops and grocery stores in the vicinity. Complex spices such as star anise and shezuan pepper hit you  from one side, while the medicinal flavors of mysterious dried herbs work on you from a different angle. Before your mind has a chance to process any of that you are consumed by the satisfying aromas of any of the roasted deep-plum meats provocatively displayed in the windows hanging from hooks. Then there is the fresh produce. Every thing may appear exotic and visually new, but still familiar because even if you don’t know it yourself, your nose is certain it has experienced it before.

Now travel exactly 3465 miles as the crow flies from Canal Street in New York to Gerrard Street in London, the epicenter of Chinese culture in the UK capital, and you will experience the exact same thing, with varying intensities and combinations. And you could really be anywhere –  San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, or New York. But it’s London which itself is a unique cornucopia  of vivid memory-instigating aromas even beyond China town. The London Underground always seems to have that stench  of hundred-year old iron and steel happily cohabiting with the marvels of modern transportation technology. In some of the central stations, the runaway smells of French fries from whatever fast food restaurant that happens to be on the surface is also generically representative of many Western European capitals. And the list goes on – the sickening but enticing stench of caramelized nuts that you always notice but never buy. The evocative implications of freshly brewed coffee.  And of course the smell of alcohol exuding from merry/aggressive human bodies through the skin and oral cavities, with surprising consistency across races, genders and ages.

When it comes to nostalgia and the ability to re-experience sweet (or bitter) memories, our sense of smell has an overwhelming advantage over our other senses, such as touch, sight and indeed stand-alone thoughts. No matter how much you inspect a picture of a former lover or a beloved, deceased family member like a grand parent, or indeed just think about them, nothing will summon their spirit more profoundly like the smell of their perfume or the heart-warming aroma of a meal you shared with them. And if you are a parent, you know all too well about the power of smell and your connection with your child. From the moment they are born, the way they smell at every different stage of their lives will forever be connected in your mind with the love that you have for them the moment they are born.

The reason smell is superior over other senses  like sight is probably very simple. Photographs and home videos are only a facsimile of  a moment in time, interpreted through imperfect technologies. Smell on the other hand is an exact biological replica of an experience you previously had, and hence has a more direct link to your consciousness. The chemical compounds that constitute the smell of a mandarin were essentially the same in Stockholm in 1965, as they were in Melbourne in 1997, and as they will be in Nairobi in 2014 (assuming the Mayans have it all wrong of course).

The next time you experience a new and intoxicating smell, make sure you take the time out to relish and absorb it. It could be the only thing reconnecting you with whatever it is you were doing, wherever you were doing it, and the person you were doing it with.


“I am hungry”

23 Jan

Yin and Yang of world hunger by David Revoy

From Burbank to Bamako, chronic hunger does not discriminate in its ability to humiliate and break the human spirit.

For the last couple of years I have been deeply involved with a ground-breaking United Nations campaign to end global chronic hunger once and for all. As a film maker, I work closely with the Ending Hunger Campaign to create powerful, educational, and emotive visual content that can filter through all the communication noise and inspire youths in wealthy nations to apply pressure on their politicians to make ending hunger a priority. I have educated myself on the complexity of the hunger issue, so that I am not just another alienated “expert” in the mix, but that I am truly aware of what the problem is that we are trying to address, so the solutions we come up with are appropriate and effective.

A while ago it dawned on me that no matter how much I read about hunger, and regardless of how many workshops and focus groups I participated in around the issue, I had no first hand experience of it and therefore could never really fully understand it. And by hunger I am not talking about famine, which most people are familiar with thanks to Bob Geldof and Bono, but the ongoing, persistent state of hunger that kills you slowly. Chronic hunger that affects 1 in every six human beings.

I have never felt consistently hungry and so cannot truly empathize with those whose daily reality is precisely that painful, gnawing lack of sufficient nutrition. Hunger from my personal perspective is an exciting sensation, because the hungrier I feel the more pleasurable I know the experience of eating will eventually be when I get to it. Will it be a wholesome salad with a rich mix of nuts and a side of warm herb-infused bread drenched in olive oil, or hot, comforting soup with crunchy croutons? A fragrant Thai curry, or a rich, silky homous? And the hungrier you are, the more creative you are with a food solution.

It was the abstraction of the hungry that I felt was limiting my understanding of the problem. As involved as I was with the hunger issue, I had never personally met a hungry man, woman or child or had a meaningful conversation with a hungry person about what it really means to be chronically deprived of one of the basic ingredients of life. And I always imagined that if I did come across a hungry person, it would be in an impoverished country somewhere in Africa, Asia or South America.

But a few days ago I finally met my first hungry person  in an affluent commercial district in the city of Burbank in the greater Los Angeles area. I had just parked my car and was walking to Book Castle’s-Movie World shop on the San Fernando Boulevard in Burbank – a haven for film and publishing memorabilia that is just as crazy and random as the wide selection of things you can buy there for dirt cheap. Right before I crossed the street I brushed against a gaunt looking man in his 50’s wearing a light grey faded jacket, a black back pack, and thick glasses. He mumbled something to me which I automatically assumed was some sort of solicitation or request for money, and so paid little attention to him save for the polite shake of my head. I passed him and walked for a few yards before what he really said had registered in my brain.

“I am hungry”. He had said it just once. For a few seconds his words pierced my heart, not merely because of the vulnerability of the admission, but because I was confronted for the first time with a physical embodiment of the scourge that I have decided I would dedicate my life to help eradicate. And what struck me most was that never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined that the first hungry person I would meet would be in the most powerful nation on earth. It’s not that I was oblivious that hunger was also pervasive in affluent societies, but in my mind,  the image of hunger was burned by precisely the type of misleading visual communication that stereotyped and tied hunger in our minds to certain ethnic groups that I as a film maker was working tirelessly to change.

So I backtracked and faced him and asked “what did you just say?” to make sure I had heard correctly.

He looked down at  his worn out shoes almost ashamed to repeat the words again. “Did you say you were hungry?” I asked.

“I am beyond hungry,” he said, relieved that someone had heard him. He pointed to a sandwich shop across the street, right next to the Movie World shop I was heading to, and asked me to buy him anything to eat. “Whatever you can spare.”

I thought about that as well. How many times was his request for money to buy food shunned or belittled by passers-by who assumed that he was lying and would instead use the money to buy crack or beer, to the extent that he had now settled for just asking his potential benefactors to buy him the food themselves? The act of begging because you are hungry is already a humiliating experience. But just imagine how more degrading it is that you have to battle with cynicism against your plight and to delegate the process of acquiring your food to someone else. So I choose to give him money instead and asked him to buy whatever he wanted. I have the luxury of choosing what I want to eat, how I want to eat it and where, so why should I expect any less for him?

I crossed the street but remained intrigued by the encounter, and, I will admit it, a little skeptical. I kept an eye on him from across the street. Another woman had stopped to talk to him and also appeared to have giving him some cash. And sure enough he crossed to the sandwich shop as he said he would. I followed him there and peered inside the shop. I saw him walk up to the counter and place an order for food. He didn’t walk to a liquor store as conventional wisdom would have us believe, and he certainly did not pocket the money he made from me and the other woman while he continued to “work” his spot. He was hungry, and once given resources to acquire food, he fed himself. The look of security and happiness in his eyes as I spied on him from outside the sandwich shop is one that I am not going to forget any time soon.

To belittle the extent of hunger in America or the Western world is perhaps just as counterproductive as comparing it to the chronic hunger that affects the vast majority of the 1 billion hungry people who live in impoverished countries. Not only is it an unfair comparison, but it serves no benefit to solving the problem of hunger anywhere. Skeptics of first world hunger claim that a hungry man or woman in a country like America can make themselves visible in affluent areas and directly solicit the sympathy of their fellow citizens who, as my own experience would suggest, will react with generosity. On the other hand, third world hunger opponents argue that before wealthy countries like America can think of helping the poor and hungry in far away lands, that the problem of hunger at home should be addressed first.

But the reality for anyone involved with any degree of seriousness in the fight against hunger is that both these arguments are irrelevant. A hungry person is a hungry person, regardless of whether they happen to live in a rich or poor country. The fight to eradicate hunger is not about succeeding in one geographic locale over the other, but rather about eradicating hunger from the human lexicon and experience once and for all. Efforts to combat hunger are interconnected and complimentary. The national organizations fighting hunger in a country like America are not at odds or in competition with the intergovernmental organizations that focus more on impoverished countries.

And indeed listening to a hungry man confess his need and asking for your help will melt your heart, if you have one, just as potently if that man was in Burbank or Bamako.

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