Photo by Michelle Heimerman
Author Maggie Downs shares a memory of traveling to Egypt—and the aroma still associated with it, a decade later.
Scent is inexorably linked to memory. Author Maggie Downs explores what makes aromas so enduring—and how we can sniff out more powerful travel experiences.
The soft, gold-threaded scarf in my hands contains a secret. Whenever I bury my nose in the fabric and breathe deeply, the Red Sea greets me. In an instant, I’m transported to a serene seaside hut along Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Not literally, of course. I’m still standing in my boxy condo in sun-baked Palm Springs. But this scarf whisks me to the place where I was traveling in 2011. Amid the tumult of the Arab Spring, I was having trouble leaving the country. Then I was introduced to a Bedouin man named Abdullah, who drove me to his friend’s camp in Nuweiba. He secured a safe place for me to sleep—a cozy straw hut just steps away from the silky ripples of water—and arranged for his friend to put me on a ferry to Jordan the next morning.
That night, Abdullah and I sat cross-legged on the shore. By then it was dark, the moon ripe and tangerine. Neither of us had eaten, so he produced a makeshift dinner of fruit cocktail, hot dog buns, and foil-wrapped processed cheese cubes. When I confessed I was frightened by the uncertainty of the situation, Abdullah promised I would be safe. Then he taught me an Arabic proverb about the connection that is formed between people who have dined together: Between us, bread and salt. It means we’ve nourished ourselves at the same table; now we have a bond.
When he left, as a departing gift, Abdullah gave me the shemagh that had been coiled around his head.
The fragrance woven into the fabric is musky shampoo, briny sea air, sunshine, sweet grass. But there’s also a comfortable quality about the aroma, like hugging a longtime friend. It smells like trust.
A decade later, the scent can still conjure that moment in time.
Scent tethers us to our experiences of place—whether it’s the warm, brothy smell of a tom yum stall in Bangkok or the sleek, leathery fragrance of a luxurious hotel lobby—making it the ultimate souvenir. After all, smell is free, accessible, and can last longer than a tchotchke.
The reason these memories are so powerful comes down to how our brains are wired. All our sensory data from touch, taste, sight, and hearing travel first through the thalamus, which acts as a relay station, sending the information along to the brain. Smell is the only sense that takes a direct and immediate route to the forebrain, the same region responsible for emotion and memory.
Scent tethers us to our experiences of place.
That’s why odors, though seemingly fleeting, can be more evocative than photographs or videos. It’s physiological for us to have a visceral response to smell, and multiple studies have found that odor-evoked memories are more emotional than memories tied to other senses.
“Those associations are hard-wired in us,” said Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder of the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles, a nonprofit that educates people about scent and supports experimental fragrance projects. “The only thing I can think of that’s equivalent is music, like when you hear a song during a specific moment in your life, and whenever you hear that song again, you feel that feeling [associated with that previous moment in time].”
But smell is even more abstract than music, she continued. “There’s an intangibility with a scent experience that we can’t put into words the way we can with a song,” she said.
This sense is basically the closest thing we have to time travel, moving us through years and across miles with ease.
Scent also informs our experience. Nobody knows that better than Dr. Kate McLean, a designer and researcher in Kent, England, who creates sensory maps of cities based on the olfactory landscape—or smellscape, as she calls it—and leads international “smellwalks” everywhere from Manhattan to Marseille.
On a smellwalk, participants move slowly through a location while McLean guides them through smelling buildings, plants, even garbage cans. This is done in different phases, like smell catching (using a regular breathing cycle and discovering what aromas pass by the nose), smell hunting (deeper, more deliberate sniffs at irregular periods), and free smelling (a combo of both). Afterward, McLean leads the group through an analysis of the smellwalk experience, helping participants visualize the smells, discuss their intensity, and find language to explain odors beyond the literal smell.
Like Abdullah’s scarf, which presents an amalgam of scents, smellwalkers often discover complex odors that combine several elements in one sniff. One smellwalk participant said a musty British municipal building filled with dusty paper smelled like “local government”; another described the miscellany of odors in a Singapore neighborhood as “a hard life”; an underpass in Kyiv evoked “hot dog water.”
Adding complexity: The olfactory world is transient, so a smellscape is never fixed. Locales will smell differently based on the season, weather, time of day, even someone walking by with a meatball sandwich. Also, no two people have the same scent experience.
“You end up with a constantly shifting thing dependent on each individual’s perspective,” McLean said. “Someone with a different genetic makeup or even someone of a different height will come away with a different impression of a place.”
Though the scentscape varies from person to person, the act of gathering smells illuminates what makes a place unique because it helps us interrogate it: How does a city deal with its garbage? What’s produced in the factories? Which foods do people enjoy? What are the native plants and flowers? What are the primary modes of transportation?
This is what reveals a place to us, ultimately building our travel memories. Beyond smelling, we’re lacing the odor with meaning.
“Instead of just describing a thing you smelled—like, I smelled the rubber tire of a bicycle—you have something that’s incredibly rich,” McLean said. “Scents give the place a narrative.”
1. Dedicate about 30 minutes to doing a smellwalk. Remember there’s a difference between breathing and smelling.
“One is a bodily function, the other one is a deliberate act,” said McLean. Either way, you should be able to detect odors, but sniffing ramps up your olfactory epithelium, which is inside the naval cavity and traps odor molecules, since you’re actively taking more air in.
2. Try to make your other senses secondary. Closing your eyes will help remove the visual from the smell.
“It’s very tiring to do it, but with practice it gets easier,” McLean said.
3. When you smell something interesting, ask local people what it is and where it comes from. Also think about your experience with the odor.
McLean suggested asking yourself things like, “If that smell was a color, what color would it be? As an experience, did that smell punch you straight in the nose? Or did it drift in gently? Was it a sharp, spiky smell? Was it a soft, rounded one?”
4. Smell something that strikes you as unpleasant? Roll with it.
“You just gotta ride it. It’s like a wave you’re on. You let it crash over you and move on,” Saskia Wilson-Brown said. “In a weird way, you can embrace it.”
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