Ever thought about the senses you use when you travel? No matter what kind of traveler you are—intellectual, cultural, adrenaline seeker, low-budget backpacker, VIP all the way—it’s your senses that make that experience possible.
At the most basic biological level, our senses are what allow our inner-being “real” self to perceive and interact with that which is not contained within our own skin. To be more scientific about it, the human body has five physiological means of obtaining perceptual input: vision, audition, olfaction, gustation, and tactition. But enough of science. What it boils down to is that our senses are the medium of communication between ourselves and the world around us. Of course a lifetime of collected experiences and acquired knowledge allows us to reflect upon and interpret that sensual information, but it all begins with the body’s five basic means of interacting with the world.
When we are within our comfort zones, our senses kick back, relax, doze off in the Barcalounger, but when we travel and encounter much that is new, our internal communications media necessarily snap to attention and go into overdrive receiving and even overloading on all the new data coming in (which is just one of the reasons travel can be exhausting). And the newer the experience, the more we put those senses through the ringer as they do their darnedest to try and help us understand what is going on around us. Our senses are trying to help us “make sense” of all that is new!
So what senses do we use when traveling? Let’s set aside both common and sixth sense (both vital while on the road) for the moment and concentrate on the basic five. Assuming you have all your senses intact, how would you order your priority levels for sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It would also be interesting to know what takes priority when one or more of those senses are impaired.
Sight probably goes without saying as number one for most of us. How can you go site seeing without sight? But how observant are you? Do you really look? How much to you really see? As in how much gets registered in your brain? Some people are just happy to surround themselves with being in a place; others want to visually memorize it (as a photographer I am very much in this group).
What do we see in a new place? Do you people watch? Do you notice how they look, dress, move, act, and interact? Is the place orderly? Is it beautiful? Modern? Traditional? Nature-filled? Do you see things you’ve never seen before? Things you don’t know how to interpret? Things that make you wonder? Do you stop to examine things? Drink it all in? The list goes on…
Hearing is a big one for me. I am ever attentive to the sounds of a place. Perhaps because my mother is deaf and I could be her ears or because I was aware of what she was missing. But I have often reflected on the way a place sounds. Think of Santiago, for example. Take a walk down Paseo Ahumada (the main pedestrian thoroughfare downtown) and listen as the hawkers call out “Segunda! Segunda!” when the latest edition of the paper comes out. An old man playing the organ for tips, someone singing, someone running. The click-click-click of high heels on cobblestones as women scurry along on their errands; the slap-slap of the shoeshine guy’s rag as he works someone’s boots to a fresh polish; the evangelical preacher, finger pointed in the air, as he paces and reads loudly from the bible to no one in particular; the canon that blasts out the hour at noon; a pair of Mapuches with traditional instruments surrounded by a crowd; teenagers laughing and jostling each other after school, the music that blares onto the streets from the music shops… this is my downtown Santiago.
Smell is another big one for me. There are places I would recognize by their smell alone and certain smells that transport me instantly to another place and time. The smoky smell of roasting chestnuts make my mouth water on the streets of Coimbra, Portugal. Pine needles recall many chilly lakeside mornings in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. The combination of ammonia and salt takes me to the seaweed-filled shores of Chile’s central coast, while wurst (sausages) on the grill lead clearly to the streets of Freiberg or Berlin. A certain exhaust smell to the streets of Arequipa, Peru; a unique earthy-herby scent to the central Chile’s scrubby natural forests; while the cat-pee and menthol-infused smell of eucalyptus drops me along the road between Algarrobo and El Quisco. The smell of fresh cider with roasting pork to a sidrería in País Vasco in January, while the salty mineral smells of jeréz and jamón Serrano can only mean Sevilla. The wafting aromas of smoky chilies and onions being coaxed into a family’s lunch recall the streets of Mérida, and that special combination of incense and wood to an old church somewhere in Spain. Damp earthy grass, grazing sheep, and the smell of family treasures make the hairs on my arms bristle in the house where my husband’s grandfather was born in Galicia. The burnt-sugar smell of candied peanuts in the making are reserved for downtown Santiago, beef on the grill to a friend’s backyard on a Sunday afternoon, stale beer means passing a bar as I walk to work on a Monday morning… the list goes on…
Taste is a curious sense. For some—the foodies among us—it is “lo máximo” perhaps the most important sense of all, while for others it is little more than an indicator of whether or not something is edible. I’ve never understood how anyone could be indifferent to food, but many are. Not me.
One of my greatest pleasures while traveling is exploring new tastes, trying new foods, and whenever possible, that means a trip to the local market, supermarket, fish market, bakery, and butcher shop, wineries, breweries, sidrerías, as well as to local picadas, street stalls, bars, and fine dining establishments. If I can get a local to cook for me, all the better. What do people eat at home? And how does that differ from what they eat when they go out? Think about it. You may eat meatloaf (ah, comfort food) at home, but how often do you order it out? Many Chileans will cite arroz con huevo (rice and eggs) as the supreme comfort food, but I’ve yet to see it on a menu anywhere!
Touch may well be the least considered sense while traveling, but it’s very much a part of our experience on many levels, from our level of physical comfort (bumpy bus ride? (un)comfortable bed?), to the texture of a food on your tongue, to the arid heat of the desert, the tingly salty sensation after a dip in the ocean, to the soggy humidity of the tropics, to shivery cold after being drenched by unexpected rain, to the sting of an insect bite, to the delicious warmth of soaking in a natural hot spring, to a sense of being overcrowded on the subway or seated too close to others in a restaurant.
All this reflection was kicked off this morning by a video I just saw on the Sights & Sounds of Chile, especially prepared by ProChile for the Chile Pavilion in Expo Shanghai. Take a look (click on: Sights & Sounds of Chile), see what you think… would you have made the same choices? Anything missing? And while you’re at it… tell us how you use YOUR senses while traveling!