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.

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