Beyond Sight and Taste: Traveling With All Your Senses

by Matt Blair on May 26, 2009

in Exercises,Places and Contexts,Senses

In the northern hemisphere, the summer travel season is upon us. In addition to thinking about sight-seeing and noshing over the next few months, I want to encourage you to go here-hearing, place-touching and site-smelling.

That may sound a bit glib and silly, not only because of the wordplay and alliteration, but because it isn’t how we typically think of travel.

When people return from a voyage, they talk about the places they went, the people they met and the conversations they had. In terms of making sense memories, they may have lots of photos and videos, and tales of food and drink, from the fantastic to the horrific and everything in between.

Sound, touch and smell are often minor characters in the story. Maybe they took note of the smell of a particular flower, or the roar of a waterfall.

But did they touch anything they couldn’t have touched locally?  Did they hear anything they’d never heard of before? Was there a smell they hadn’t encountered anywhere else?

Like a Small, Insistent Earthquake

About ten years ago, I booked a ferry from Stockholm to Turku, Finland. I was expecting a modest little boat for the overnight journey, and was astonished to arrive at the port and see what was essentially a cruise ship looming a dozen stories above the water.

As we boarded, I noticed many of my fellow passengers with folded-up carts and large empty bags were all rushing in the same direction. Curious, I followed the clamor, careful not to get trampled. So much for Scandinavian reserve.

After several twists and turns, I rounded a corner, and ran into a store teeming with activity: Ah. Booze. Now it made sense.

I remembered reading somewhere that the ferries were popular day-trips or night-trips for those buying duty-free alcohol, because the taxes on both sides of the Baltic were so high.

As I turned to leave, the engines engaged, pushing the ferry away from the dock. The massive ship shuddered at the force required to overcome its inertia, and all the bottles began to clink softly against each other.

I entered the store and tiptoed as quietly as I could through the aisles, listening to the highs and lows of the bottles delicately tinkling amid the din of alcohol purchases. Imagine being in a wine shop or liquor store during a mild but continuous earthquake, with thousands of glass bottles barely touching one another.

It lasted several minutes, and it remains one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.

Nose and Skin

To retrieve scent memories, I have to think a little more deeply. Here are two examples:

  • The aroma of olive oil extraction that fills the countryside in Andalucía, Spain in mid-winter.
  • The incense-infused wood in the Todaiji temple in Nara. I went there at least a dozen times while living in Japan, and every time, in every season, I was captivated as soon as I stepped over the threshold.

I really had to scratch my head to come up with a touch memory — I guess I need to pay closer attention to storing tactile sensations in the future! Here’s one:

I used to climb the hill behind the apartment building where I lived on the edge of the sprawl surrounding Osaka, Japan. The hill faced the west, and much of the trail was in the sun, but there was one little pocket about halfway to the top that didn’t seem to get any sun at any time of day. There was nothing visually distinct about this part of the trail, but the quality of the air was entirely different: fresh and dramatically cooler.

I always looked forward to that spot, especially in the heat of July and August. Better than any air-conditioning!


Before your next trip, get a pocket notebook. Divide it into three sections, however you like: Sound, Smell and Touch.

Even if you don’t have any travel plans, try doing this exercise on walks around your neighborhood or even the clothing aisles of a local mall. Seek remarkable sensations all around you, even in seemingly unremarkable places.

Every time you take a photo, sip a drink or munch a snack, make a point of entering something in each of these sense categories in your notebook.

Try to get in the habit of reaching for this notebook when you smell something or touch something interesting, in the same habitual way you might reach for your camera.

Describe the sensations in anyway you like: just tune in and capture it in some way.

(I’m a big fan of traveling with audio recorders, but for the purposes of this exercise, I want to encourage you to be in the moment, so please listen with your ears, not your microphone!)

And when you return, give your memories of these sensations top billing in the stories you tell: “You won’t believe what I touched this summer…”


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