The summer before I started college I participated in a month long world arts and cultures study abroad program in Bali, Indonesia. This was my first travel experience away from my friends and family. Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck about going.
Thankfully the program was lead by Prof. Patricia Harter, a UCLA professor who specialized in Asian theatre and had led this program before. One of our class assignments for the duration of the program was to keep a journal throughout our time in Bali to describe and reflect on our experience abroad.
Pat told us that the journal should not only be for her benefit, but also our own. Every once and a while she would give us some direction on themes she wanted us to write about. Our first journal assignment was give to us the day before we left Los Angeles for Bali. Pat requested that we write an entry about our initial observations about Bali; from the moment we landed till the time we went to sleep our first night in Sanur. Then she added, “as soon as you step out of the airport, make sure to take a moment and SMELL Bali.”
Smell Bali? I didn’t really know what she meant. Did the Balinese smell different than Americans? Was I supposed to walk up to someone, lift up their arm and take a whiff?
Up until this point I had never taken a moment to smell my surroundings when I traveled. Since I wasn’t quite sure how of why I was supposed to smell the tiny island nation, and was too shy to ask about it, I decided I would just follow what the other students did as we exited the airport and hope that I figured out what it was that I was supposed to do.
Segway to our arrival at Denpasar airport…
Just as we were about to exit the airport and take our first steps on this new land, I looked around to see if anyone else was following the professors directions. No obvious sniffing was to be seen. So either 1) I wasn’t the only one who was unsure how to smell Bali or 2) I was the only student who paid any attention to our homework.
I am a bit of a brown noser, so wanted to make sure I didn’t disappoint my new professor. So, without any helpful direction from my classmates, I took this smelling task into my own hands, or nose rather. As soon as we stepped outside, I took a big whiff.
The smell of humidity. Clove cigarettes. Rotting garbage. Spices. Car pollution. Incense. And a hint of Jack fruit. All of these, and many other components, wrapped up into one complete smell of Bali. The smell was overwhelming, yet calming. As I let my olfactory sense take over, I was physically and emotionally transported to this new destination. So long California, hello Bali.
Throughout my month in Bali I learned to love the smell of the island. Even with it’s rotting components, every whiff was a constant reminder that I was in a place completely different than my home, and it helped me appreciate the opportunity I had to experience it.
The best part about taking that initial moment to “smell Bali” was that it left a memory imprint in my brain. To this day, I have moments when I am out experiencing life and am stopped in my tracks and realize that I smell Bali. Sometimes it is when I pass by a sewage vent on the street, or when I walk by a store that sells incense. Wherever it occurs, when I smell Bali, I am instantly transported back to my time there, living among the people, learning their history, culture, and arts.
So, as a work of wisdom to anyone who has yet to take a moment to smell their travel experience, do it. Your olfactory memory will be one of the best souvenirs you can bring home for yourself. And it is free of charge.
Want to read more about travel smell memories? Take a look at “Want memories? Follow your nose” in the latest issue of National Geographic Traveler.
Smell ya later.