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!
Great mini travel guide for visitors of Chile!
Thanks! And hopefully it will get people thinking about the sensory experience of new places!
This is a great question to ask. For me, my order would be sight, smell, sound, touch, taste. Like you describe, I have a very strong smell-memory link. The Santa Isabel metro station has a distinct smell for me and it brings me back to my study abroad days like nothing else. Although I have to admit, that sound in terms of music is very important to me when I travel. I don’t like to go places without my iPod and certain songs remind me of places as well. I’m not a big fan of noise in general, though I do appreciate it’s value in creating a unique environment. But when you were describing the sounds of Paseo Ahumada, I could already feel myself getting stressed out! Sensory overload! Also, touch. Ever since I was little I’ve always wanted to touch and hold things. I once got yelled at in a museum in NYC because I touched one of the paintings! The textures just looked so great that I wanted to touch them. I often find my hand dragging along the side of a building as I walk down the street too.
Thanks for posting this. Sorry for my long-winded comment!
Great article; when I taught cooking I always mentioned that we eat with many of our senses, taste being the last. First we eat with is our noses, if I came into the house to smell of a pot roast I was instantly back in my mother’s house on an autumn afternoon. Next we eat with our eyes, is it appealing, colorful or just slopped on a plate. Next is feel, what are the textures like? I’ve had duck’s feet at a local Asian restaurant and while they didn’t taste bad, in fact they were very mild; the flavor they brought didn’t offset the displeasure I had with the texture and I’ve never had them again. Once we get through all this we finally taste. Thank you God for ALL my senses! And tyhanks for the post
@Abby- interesting that you put taste last! Also that you associate sound with noise… which of course is a matter of personal perception… (How many times did my father yell for me to “turn that noise down” when my stereo was too loud.) Paseo Ahumada doesn’t stress me visually or audibly, but it DOES cause me tactile/physical stress w/so many people bumping and jostling!
So interesting to compare different impressions!
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@Matt M- foodie extraodinnaire! Can you believe I once had an argument w/ someone who insisted that food did not have texture? (Apparently she associated texture w/ textiles-period… Silly thing) When I teach wine tasting people are often surprised that the sense of touch is important- but think about it… More than taste (4+umami) and flavor (taste+smell) we have texture (viscosity, astringency), heat (alcohol burns), temperature, etc. And then with wine, as in food, the atmosphere (all the other senses) makes such a difference in our experience!
Sound is always first with me.
As a photographer I always say I would rather be blind than deaf. People find this odd. However music is in my opinion the greatest of all the arts and as Billy boy said “If music be the food of love,,,,, play on” and certainly I would rather hear Twelfth night than see it on silent
Funny the comment about textures. I have a friend in NY who lost his sense of smell about 15 years ago, this also means he has no taste. Texture to him in food is everything. He loves hard cheeses and crispy foods. He hates slimy foods e.g chillies, mashed potatoes when over liquidy ( he could never eat the Chilean version where 80% of the ingredients is water)
He loves red wine hates white, loves Guinness hates fizzy beers.
I remember as a kid every summer my family would fly to Nice, we would get of the plane and first we would feel the heat, then as we arrived in Nice we would hear the sounds of the fifth largest town in France. Driving past the huge seafood market we would smell the salt, sea urchins, octopus etc. Finally arriving at our friends home we would have a typical French meal lasting hours where we would chew on the crusty bread, drink thick hot chocolate from bowls try all kinds of weird and very un English foods which we all adored
I hate those three monkeys
@Matt W- very thoughtful comments! Being a photographer, you really surprised me by choosing sound over sight! Let’s hope it never comes to that.
Very interesting that your friend still has such appreciation of food w/out taste or smell–proof of the importance of texture! Come to think of it- think how many people decide what they will or will not eat based on the way it looks alone!
Loved your sensory description of arriving in France!
Didn’t understand the 3 monkeys bit though!
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There was a great series in the UK where Brit chef Jamie Oliver got 15 homeless people and started a restaurant called “15” where he trained them all from scratch to be chefs. In episode one where he chose the 15 he got everyone in the kitchen to sample a mouthful of food and then describe it. The ones that mentioned texture tended to be the ones he (a) chose and (b) did well.
For me texture is vital. One of the reasons I have problems with Chilean food is the lack of texture in many dishes. I need a crunch in my vegetables.
Funny- I just saw that show yesterday for the first time! One woman was willing to work hard,but had a hard time w/ fish… First she rebelled against eating raw fish and then she had a really hard time when she had to touch them in order to prep fillets in the kitchen (got over it though)… Yes texture is SOOO important in food here, and yes, much Chilean food tends to be overcooked and hence mushy. My theory is that it goes back to times when many people had serious problems with their teeth (although that wouldn’t explain the very well-done meat).
This post made me stop and think for a while about which senses lead me the most when I travel. I thought of a place with tons of stimuli – India. Of course, sight is a big one, but I would say sound and smell perhaps are more important to really “feel” a place. As we spend a lot of time in markets, the smell of different spices, fruits, pickled vegetables, vegetables, coffees, teas, etc., combined with the rhythm of the language (vendors with their selling pitches) really tells you so much about the culture and cuisine of a place.
You mention texture above and that is more important in some areas of the world (e.g., China) than in others. Sometimes taste isn’t even necessary if the texture is right 🙂
Basically-you guys are very sensory-driven travelers! Your comment about texture over taste fits right in with what Matt W said about his friend who can’t smell/taste!
Good question! For me the initial impact of “wow, you’re not in Germany/central Europe anymore!” is via touch and smell. I always first react to the texture of the air (humidity, temperature) and to its smell. Weirdly enough these really have more impact than sight, sound and taste…maybe because television and stuff bring the visual and the sound of the whole world into our homes and having grown up in Berlin I also was surrounded by lots of cuisines. The only thing non-transportable yet is the texture and the smell of the air of another place. At least that’s my explanation.
Good topic. My wife and I were married in Chile in 1984 or so. For our honeymoon we rented a Nissan March car for six weeks. On our way to a remote park we got bogged down in mud up to the floorboards, so deep we had to struggle to open the doors. Remote dirt road, no traffic and no prospect of getting back out to the main paved road. We sat and listened to music for 20 minutes or so pondering our predicament when two genuine cowboys rode out of the rainy, misty gloom towards us. They looked like characters from a spaghetti western-shaggy, wet ponchos, leather brown skin and tobacco scented. Nice guys, they were amused to have found two city slickers on their turf. After a few words they tied lassos to the bumper of the car and they, the horses, and my wife and I managed to pull and push the car out of the mire. Those guys were a wonderful sight. The steamy, hot horses had that great pastoral animal smell. The bread and cheese we shared later had a special taste that day. The sounds of the big beasts pulling and straining against the muck stuck car was a treat. Being so close to such huge animals both gentle and powerful was wonderful. Honeymoon!
So true that TV can bring the sight and sound of a place into your home, but not the taste, smell, or feeling. And as you say, tastes can be duplicated, but not the feel and smell.
Interesting you mention air texture because it is one of the first things we notice as we get off a plane after a long trip–I remember my husband’s shock when he first felt the humid heat of Miami after coming from dry,dry Chile… So many examples along this line!
@John-What a great, vivid image you just painted! More than anxiety (which there must certainly have been, it’s a story rich in sensory detail!) Thanks!
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Chile is dry, dry? Can I come? Because apparently the Southern part of Germany is being Miami minus the heat. Yikes. 😉
@Tale- Sure! Come to Chile! Although I wouldn’t recommend it right now… Winter (southern hemisphere) is cold and rainy, but it’s basically sunny and rain-free from sometime in September thru May! And tho it gets quite hot here in the summer, it’s a dry heat that is far more tolerable than the thick, muggy heat along the Atlantic!
I have travelled rather extensively within the Americas and Europe. My most intense case of “culture shock” was when I had the chance to visit Taiwan for a month. I have always claimed that the intensity of the experience was primarily due to the “sensory assault”. Nothing looked, sounded, tasted, smelled or felt like things I was familiar with. In all my other travels, some of the senses where exposed to something new, but never all five at once. I think we don’t usually think about our senses in this context. You put them in center stage. Well done.
Thanks Omar–I hadn’t thought about the connection between culture shock and sensory overload, but of course they’re related! And the more we have to deal with at once, the more complicated it becomes. Makes a good case for traveling with children so they learn to accept, process, deal with, and appreciate new things from an early age before their senses get to settled in to “the way it’s supposed to be.”
I have been thinking about how to comment. Excellent post, first of all, great food for thought! When traveling, I use vision primarily; I think I am quite observant, though it depends on how much time I have to spend in a place. Ironically, my memory is not at all visual. I love the smells and sounds of new places and my memory is more in tune with sound and even smell. I am somewhat of a foodie, so taste is important in general, but maybe not as much traveling. I do not consider myself picky, but I am not drawn in by bizarre foods and I have certain psychological limits with certain food categories (i.e., meat).
Hi Annje… it does make one stop and think, doesn’t it? I still keep fine-tuning my own answers in my mind…
So are you a vegetarian?
Foodwise, I usually want to try everything, although I do admit to spending enough time “praying to the ceramic shrine” after eating contaminated street food that I AM a bit more cautious about that than I used to be…
Funny that you mention that you are observant, but don’t necessarily remember what you see… I think that plays a big part in why I use my camera… as a means of remembering what I found so fascinating at the time… and that image brings all the other sensations flooding back!
No, not vegetarian, rib-eye brought an end to that. But I don’t eat organs, won’t touch that raw hamburger dish they eat there (can’t recall the name right now) and can’t do some textures (too slimy or excessively-rubbery). I partially overcame my fear of shellfish, but don’t like the idea of raw clams or oysters (like my husband can pound down)… with things like that I am not daring at all, and I feel no shame for it 😉
Ah! ojo de bife- my favorite! That raw hamburger stuff (steak tartare elsewhere) is simply called “crudo” (meaning raw)! I find Chilean clams and even mussels to be very hard on the system… although machas are the best!
So… you going to listen in and participate on the radio show tomorrow? We’d love to Skype you in!
Cachando Chile on The Air Wednesday, June 16, from 6-8PM Chile time (now coincides with Eastern Standard Time (NY; Washington, Miami)…
We’ll continue this topic on the air tomorrow with people telling us their sensorial impressions & memories of Chile! You’re all invited! You can either leave comments on the facebook page (Cachando Chile on the Air) or let me know if you’d like to Skype in and do an on-air interview!