URS Fragrance (Dan Zhao)
We were checking into a downtown hotel in Hong Kong, when our very warm-hearted Southeast Asian friends arrived at the same time, with a big gift bag. They enthusiastically told us, in whispers, that they had brought us a gift of the most fragrant King of all fruits, the famous durian that was just in season. In a few seconds, the hotel receptionist began to sniff the air, and shouted out loudly, “Gas leak, gas leak, alert security!” We quickly shuttled our dear friends away from the desk and out of the lobby area. I heard that in Sydney, in 2018, a similar incident happened in a hotel and they had to evacuate the hotel, before they discovered the reason. The tastiest fruit in all of South East Asia can cause a lot of problems, when not appreciated!
In Thailand, the fruit is loved and acclaimed. To those who love it, its taste and fragrance are just indescribable, better than mangoes, pineapples and jackfruit combined. However to those uninitiated who detest it, it approximates putrid sulfides, and rather dramatically, nearly all Thai hotels have a clear sign banning this beautiful flavorful fruit, often on the same poster as banning smoking. Tourists just cannot be expected to learn that quickly about local delicacies and fragrances!
And airlines going out of Thailand can be particularly squeamish about the fragrance of durian. Our niece’s husband was implored by his mother to carry this treasure on the flight from Bangkok to Seattle, at the last minute, as a sign of touching affection for his dear wife. The treasure had been sealed and wrapped numerous times in papers to dampen its fragrances, and stuffed deeply in his carry-on luggage, before being placed safely in the overhead bin. Within minutes, a very astute Thai airline hostess picked up the lingering trace of the scent, confronted him embarrassingly, and made him confess. Love has its price. Even fragrant love.
I used to warn my medical mission team members who were going with me into remote areas in the mountains of Asia, that villages often had special smells from farms, animals, and particular public areas. Sometimes public facility odors were so terrible, even nauseating, that it inhibited even normal body functions. I gave the practical advice, that instead of sniffing and trying to block the nose with a handkerchief, that they should practice taking a very deep breath.
In theory, little sniffs just prepare the fragrance receptors in the nose to expect more excitement, and just enhances anticipation, so the smell becomes actually more vivid. But, if they had courage, by taking a very deep breath, the special fragrances should overwhelm the smell sensory receptors, essentially blocking receptors from further similar fragrances which might try to waft in and attach to any eager receptors. I like the theory, it seems to work well, you should try it! Fragrance control.
We have all heard that a person doesn’t know the smells his own body gives out, since he’s “used to it,” possibly just meaning his sensory receptors have all been overwhelmed and blocked by these odors. This might be what happens with a close friend, whose sensory receptors have been well “friended,” and therefore does not notice the odors at all. But, when a person with special smells meets a new friend, whose sensory receptors haven’t been “friended” yet, you can imagine the response. And, similarly with “special breath,” I suppose.
Photo 2. Modern city hotels in China no longer have traditional village “fragrances,” which could be a pity, since you can’t practice my deep breathing trick. O well, keep your noses open, you might still get a chance.
Although I haven’t tried it yet, I suspect that if you took a deep breath the next time you encounter a “new friend” with an unusual smell, it might change your relationship. Or even when you encounter the King of fruits, you might find it even delicious. Let me know if it works.
Fragrances of Memories
When we moved to Seattle, into our new condominium home, we focused on adjusting to our new life in the region, and basically didn’t really notice our lovely surroundings! Only after 2 months or so did I make a simple discovery. My work study room had a wide sliding window door that, after the blinds were fully drawn up, gave a calming view of a hillside of tall Pacific Northwest trees, concealing a pleasantly gurgling brook. I realized, we were living, for the first time in our lives, in a forest. There is a spiritual comment by Jesus about people “seeing but not seeing, hearing but not ; .
hearing.” That seemed like me.
A few more months later, after winter was over, I opened wide that window in the morning, to discover and inhale the cool, slightly wet (Seattle’s best), totally fresh smell that emerged from the trees, mixed with a taint of leaves, flowers or berries, making my nostrils flare up like a puppy! This was a real surprise to me, after “not seeing, not hearing,” now sort of like “smelling but not smelling.” It reminded me vividly of the great times we had in the mountains of northern Thailand, where the morning mountain air, uncontaminated by city odors and smoke, was so refreshingly charming. That’s what the greatest use of our sense of smell must be for, waiting to be activated!!
Growing up in the city and streets of Asia, there were certain exotic smells that are deeply imprinted in my mind. The pungent smell of grilled cuttlefish, for example, could be picked up several blocks away, and my childhood nose would lead me easily to find that greatest vendor. A great tasty chew, for cents.
Similarly, the smell of roasting chestnuts in winter filled the streets, and gave a sense of Christmas coming. It’s quite a surprise to me, that no matter whether it’s South America, Turkey, Europe, or Asia, I discovered that the chestnut roasting vendor uses very similar black roasting sand, and I “swear” that the odors are just as sweetly charming, and roasty, anywhere. Somehow, along with the fragrances, even scenes of Christmas then just appear in my mind.
Indeed, those thousands of receptors and nerves dedicated to working for our smells have a remarkable ability to link up with memories, often even making our memories fragrant. Just thinking about cuttlefish and chestnuts, brings back smells into my mind, and sometimes even makes me salivate! Like the fragrant smells when I think of a bowl of shrimp won ton (is your mouth getting watery?) Your fragrant memories will be very different, but just as interesting.
Fragrances of Life
It is just amazing that molecules carrying smell can travel miles away, and be sensed by expert noses. We all know dogs and many wild creatures that are expert in tracking down even faint traces of smells, of humans and animals. I heard a University research lecture about a tribe of Africans, who were trained from early childhood, to sniff air close to the ground, in order to detect smell of water, especially crucial in desert-like regions. In this scenario, I assume that odors in water, or fragrances from plants or insects living normally near water, would be detected. And, in this case, fragrances are not just pleasant, they lead to life itself.
And what is fragrance without fragrance receptors? If we had no smell receptors, there would be essentially no smells to appreciate, and therefore no taste, since smells and tastes go together. Chinese food or Thai food would be totally tasteless. Not even Indian spices would help. There would be no use for perfume, flowers and wines, which would basically lose their impact, and the world would be a very bland world indeed. I’m so glad the Grand Designer, the original fragrance expert, gave us the gift of smell to fully appreciate all of these. In truly memorable ways.
Poets and authors have loved to write that we all naturally and poetically exude “fragrances” in life from our own lives, which encourage or discourage others. May our fragrances be fragrant indeed, even memorable.