Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What the Lonely Planet leaves out in its descriptions of tourist destinations

Asia smells. Sometimes it smells wonderful, often it smells terrible, but it very seldom spells neutral. The whole continent is something of an olfactory adventure, and just trying to pick apart the smells and discover what's underneath can be a fun game. Just imagine the following combinations hitting you as you walk down the street...

- Durian, Anywhere: Rotting flesh, onions, roadkill skunk, and an athlete's foot-afflicted foot after one week in a hiking boot in a tropical climate. If you don't know, durian is a (supposedly delicious) tropical fruit that looks like a pineapple on steroids/medieval weapon, filled with pulpy butterscotch pudding. I could smell this from a block away. Someday, I will muster up the courage (and intestinal fortitude) to hold my nose (literally) and try it. My time in Malaysia was not that day.

- Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
: Dried fish skin, sun-baked fresh-kill seafood, saltwater and vinegar, dried herbs, and shirtless day laborer sweat. This is also one of the more visually impressive streets in the so-called Chinatown area of Hong Kong, with its enormous jars of dried mussels and shrimp, and tremendous dried shark fins (which, presumably, were once attached to tremendous sharks). There's a reason why this stretch of road is commonly known as Dried Seafood Street (an adjacent area is called Bird's Nest and Ginseng Street).

- Outside Any Major Bakery, Hong Kong: Steamed dough, fresh-baked flaky crust, fragrant pork with barbecue sauce, and slightly overused cooking oil. Overall very pleasant...and exciting, because it means the possibility of steamed pork buns.

- Puduraya Bus Station, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Pepper, smoke, and disinfectant, carried on a breeze of aerosol paint.

- Golden Triangle, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Spilled oil, gasoline, rotten sulfurous eggs, generic but mutant high-strength sewage, and urine. You can generally find some variation on this near any sewer grate or subway vent in Hong Kong.

- India Market, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Curry powder, coriander, saffron, and fresh-cut starfruit. Fantastic.

- Shangri-La Hotel Lobby, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Too-conspicuous floral perfume, combined with slightly musky cologne for a "19th century French brothel" effect. And apparently, every Shangri-La Hotel lobby has this same smell, so that it "feels like coming home" wherever you are in the world. Uhh...great? Marie's take (via her by-invitation-only blog, so I quote): "Well, it did smell like coming home every evening... home to a brothel. The lobby smelled like your grandma, if your grandma were a two-bit whore. Incredibly strong overly floral sneeze-inducing insecticidal fog about sums it up."

- Back Seat of a Certain Cab, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: At least one showerless week in a subtropical climate.

- Central District, Hong Kong: Rather than theorizing about what could be creating the thick, sludgy feel to Hong Kong air, I have consulted Hong Kong's official Air Pollution Index online. I can now tell you that the smell is a unique combination of nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon, lead, bromide, and hydrocarbons (from cars); silicon, aluminum, calcium, manganese, and iron (from construction activities); vanadium and nickel (from oil-fired combustion); cadmium and hydrocarbons (from incineration); sodium, chloride, magnesium, and potassium (from marine aerosols); and nitrate, sulphate, and ammonium (from secondary pollutant formation). It's like a heavy metal salad bar out here. Delish.

No comments: