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How the Aromas of the World Inspire Me To Continue Traveling—Despite Losing My Sight

A writer finds beauty in relying on an often-neglected sense.

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Hi, I'm Rob!

Rob is a writer and broadcaster based in London, UK who writes about travel, music, pop culture, and disability. He can regularly be heard on the BBC World Service programme "From Our Own Correspondent" and writes for publications including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, and Daily Express in the UK. You can read more of his work at robcrossan.co.uk.

Cities smell their best at dawn. Sometimes they offer something warm and soothing, like the fragrance of a baguette deftly removed from a boulangerie’s shed-sized oven in an otherwise deserted Parisian arrondissement. Other times it’s a deeper aroma, like the septum-grazing bouquet of wood smoke emanating from a township in Cape Town. Or it could be alluring, like the sickly, ambrosial wave of incense coquettishly seeping out of the heavy wooden doors of a temple on Hong Kong Island.

No matter how spectacular a city’s sights, it’s the metropolis’ myriad urban tangs—the ones that catch, inflame, rouse (and occasionally repel) my nostrils—that are easiest for me to recall long after I’ve departed and the contents of my suitcase have been thoroughly washed and dried.

Travel, and what it means to any one person—what it teaches you and, frankly, how much you even enjoy it—is something that is likely to shift and evolve over time. In fact, it usually changes as much as your relationships, your career, and your waistline do. The things that felt unmissable in your twenties (outdoor trance parties, youth hostel bars, any form of minibus tour) become experiences that you’d donate a kidney in order to avoid when you get to the latter end of your forties.

For me, I had little choice as to what became “missable” in my career as a travel writer and broadcaster. Born with the visual disability of albinism and nystagmus, I’ve spent my entire life with extremely limited eyesight and almost complete blindness in my left eye. Now, as I leave the sunlit uplands of my 30s, I’ve had to reconcile myself to the advancement of my nystagmus, and the fact that this means the overwhelming majority of visual feasts—fiestas, flora, fauna, and food trucks—in cities across the planet are retreating away from me.

This leaves my other senses to pick up the slack and give me the dorsal strength to carry on traveling in a halfway functioning manner.

Person wearing gloves pulls a baguette from a tray of other baguettes.
The scent of freshly-baked baguette is one Rob enjoys while traveling.Photo Credit: koldo_studio / Shutterstock

It would be impossibly simplistic of me to claim, for one second, that I don’t rage against the dying of the light (to quote Dylan Thomas) when it comes to dealing with the reliance I’m now forced to impose on my other senses. Yet, in many ways, I feel more than ever that I understand what Proust was getting at in Remembrance of Things Past when he wrote of how he felt when he bit into a madeleine. He wrote of a “sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”

Marcel got all that just from one bite of food. For me, I’m finding that the smells of a city, particularly in the early morning, can provide an almost total (nasal) snapshot of a city’s character, its expectations, its happiness levels, and its capacity to savor (or swerve) the odors and obstacles of shared existence.

Does the noxious yet strangely urgent odor of gasoline I smell on the boulevards of Manhattan speak of a city that is remorseless in its desire to succeed? Do the frying oils and slow-cooked meats whose scents assault me outside dim sum restaurants in Shanghai tell me anything of a nation imbued with a deep-seated belief in the power of food to bring harmony and closeness to family relationships? Do I feel that the fragrances of olive oil, tobacco, and sacks of spices around the souks of Tangier and Algiers tell me something of the ability of Arab nations to remain, for so many centuries, at the apogee of mercantile endeavor?

Spices in a Dubai souk, with a man in the background.
Rob enjoys the scents of the souks.Photo Credit: 22Images Studio / Shutterstock

The answer, in all cases, is self-evident. The smell of a city is the collective sensual tapestry of each individual that inhabits it. In other words, urban aromas cannot fail to offer a narrative imbued with history, belief, habits, customs, lore, love, and sin combined—all the essential, and inevitable, elements of city life.

But what about my aural abilities?, I hear you ask. Well, yes, there’s no doubt that there is something wondrous about the ability of sounds like the crowing of a rooster in Palermo, the sonorous echo of a call to prayer in Muscat, and the frantic ringing of a rickshaw bell in Vientiane to make me feel alive (and, in the latter case, to make me perilously aware of how close I’m standing to the edge of the sidewalk). But, to my surprise, it’s smell, more than any of my other remaining fully functioning senses, that I feel tells me the stories I want to write about and leads me to others I otherwise wouldn’t have found.

As my vision enters an autumnal period of decreasing evanescence, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I’m, now more than ever, addicted to the aromas of a city at first light. It’s in those early hours between the last moments of sleep and the first encounters of the day that I feel the most charged, the most alert, and more than ready to take on a new environment and let its aromas guide me towards my next story.

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