Been There, Smelled That explores the aromas of places around the world. Travel writer Maggie Downs investigates some of the world’s most potent smells, looks at how odor cultivates a connection to place, and presents how humans engage with smells, from scents that have endured generations to the latest innovations in aroma-making.
Town Hall, Orange Walk, Belize.
My introduction to Orange Walk is through my nose.
I drive into town on a pockmarked, humpy two-lane road, past lanky palm trees and wooden Coca-Cola signs. With a population of 13,000, this is Belize’s fourth-largest town, and the land here is lush and slightly swampy. The windshield of my rental Jeep is splotched with all the bugs I’ve killed along the way. And the smell coming through the air vents is decidedly ashy, a bit like a burning cigar.
I’m here on a personal mission to smell places around the world. It’s actually more of an obsession. See, my career is in travel journalism, but while writing stories about destinations, food culture, and experiences, I became engrossed by the unique aromas of locations—the fact that an Egyptian market doesn’t smell like a Thai market and why that’s so. How the indigenous plants make a hike in, say, Maui smell distinct from the hills of Munnar, India. The way a street in Rome has a vastly different aroma than one in Paris.
So that’s what brought me from my home in California to Belize. Someone told me that Orange Walk, where sugarcane is the driving force of the economy, is better known as “Sugar City,” thanks to the persistent odor of sugar in the air. Before I hopped on a plane, I imagined a confectionary version of the perfume cloud that follows old ladies around: A euphoric, cotton candy-like fog, clinging to the town like a Willy Wonka wonderland. My mind conjured up sticky bus stops and lollipop trees, the air like candy.
But the day I arrive, the town smells molten. It’s an acrid smoke, the kind of scent that crawls up your nostrils and sticks to the back of your throat. But it’s also herbaceous, more on the wildfire side of the spectrum, not like a chemical plant that caught fire.
The longer I spend with the smell, the more I can discern the underlying tinge of sweetness. Imagine a crème brûlée, but blackened. Sugar crispy rather than caramelized.
This right here is what I find so compelling about the scent of the physical environment. It connects me to a location by helping me engage with it, offering a sensory experience that shows rather than tells. It ignites my curiosity and begs me to ask questions like, “Why does Sugar City smell like it’s burning down?”
Scent, of course, is always evocative. That’s because smell is the only human sensory system that directly connects to the forebrain, where emotions and memories are held. It’s why one whiff of something can immediately whisk you to another time or space, like when the warm aroma of fresh-baked cookies recalls grandma’s kitchen. (I mean, my grandma didn’t bake, but you get the idea.)
What’s particularly interesting to me as a traveler is how scent reveals a place, peeling away layers in a way that other senses cannot, divulging more than what you see or hear. It’s like a whisper, sharing what people eat and what they use for transportation. It elucidates the local industries, businesses, habits, plants, and animals, basically everything that’s important to the people who call the land home.
It’s also a powerful way to cultivate your own memories. Everywhere I go, I consciously hitch my travel memories to odors, so when I catch a random whiff—even years later—it’s like time travel, taking me on another voyage.
Consider it the ultimate souvenir. Because, while the visuals and sounds have faded somewhat over time, the scent of frying oil takes me right back to Chiang Mai and its night markets, steamy with food odors: salted fish on a charcoal grill, pork noodle soups, and my favorite, kanom krok, custardy coconut pancakes, each about the size of a half dollar. Meanwhile, give me a mulchy smell, and I’m right back on the road to Hana, where the odor of wet, rich soil is punctuated by bright bursts of frangipani and warm leaves in the sunshine. And even the vaguest trace of sulfur sweeps me off to Iceland, abundant in geothermal activity, a dankness within the earth burbling to the surface.
That’s not to say that every smell is good or something to be cherished. I can hardly stomach the scent of wet dog food ever since I lived in Zanesville, Ohio, where a dog food factory made the air moist and meaty, like breathing beef broth. I remember driving my tired Honda Civic across the Y Bridge, the soupy scent wafting in the windows, invasive and unwanted. I used to have these vivid daydreams of the bridge crumbling, the muddy Muskingum River devouring me. Some days it seemed like my only way out, a welcome respite from the small town where folks never hesitated to tell me I didn’t belong. So that’s an olfactory memory I tend to avoid, not just because moist and meaty air isn’t pleasant, but because it takes me to the half-alive place where I wanted to be swallowed whole.
And now, here I am in Orange Walk, where the scent I received wasn’t the scent I anticipated. That’s the way it goes with travel. You begin the trip with one destination in mind. Then something shifts—our ignorance is revealed, knowledge is gained, nothing goes as planned—and the journey becomes something else.
What I learn is that Orange Walk does live up to its nickname of Sugar City, but only during part of the year. My visit, however, coincides with harvest, when the fields are burned to streamline the process of retrieving the canes. This is done to rid the stalks of the dry leaves that accumulate around the base; without doing so, more material would have to be hauled to the processing plant, which is more expensive and laborious.
There’s also the issue of snakes. Belize has eight venomous species.
“The fields have more snakes than sugar,” laughs the front desk clerk at my hotel. “So our weapon is fire.”
A few days later, I travel the wide, tranquil river by boat. The gray cloud of smoke that lingered over the district has lifted. It’s a mostly quiet day. Spider monkeys shake the trees, and half-submerged crocodiles float like ancient logs. The occasional fisherman slides by in a dugout canoe. Tangles of vines curl over the banks, and at first glance, they look slithery, snake-like.
Another boat comes chugging along. It’s a barge, transporting tons of unrefined sugar from Orange Walk to larger vessels elsewhere. I wouldn’t say the boat is remarkable. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have even grabbed my attention if I hadn’t first learned about the region’s sugarcane heritage.
As one boat passes another, I lift my nose into the air and inhale. I can’t be sure if it actually smells like sugar, or if I just want that sweetness to be there.