The Map Of Smells

A single olfactory note can immediately take me back to a market in Kenya or a small tea shop in Thailand. What else can it do?

The heady perfume of burning frankincense immediately places me in the middle of a souk in Arabia, women in black abayas wandering by as their children run underfoot. The scent lingering in the air, perfuming it and everyone passing through it. The sounds of Arabic and Urdu.

I smell the same note carried on a breeze in Turkey and follow my nose into an Old Bazaar.

In Israel it finds me and beckons me into the Arab areas, beckoning me like an old friend into the one of the cultures that raised me, even though it is not one I was born into.

It’s the smell of home, the smell of arriving back in the airport after some time away, the smell of hennaed hands and clinking gold jewelry, of Arabic coffee and shisha pipes and sacks of spices set out in the street. It’s the smell of the old fisherman pulling the dhow ashore on the sand, and the dark, knot skinned Bedouin smiling his one-toothed smile in Al-Buraimi, the desert oasis.

Frankincense permeates everything, and it fills all my memories of living in the Middle East. It’s a comfort, a return I can carry with me wherever I am on the planet.


Sweat, urine, hay, manure, saddle soap, leather, straw.

The smells of my childhood summers: the Polish thoroughbred stud farm where my uncle was an amateur jockey and where I learned to ride a horse that wasn’t a riding school pony. Where I fell off, again and again and again as I learned how to communicate with powerful, skittish animals as I sat on their backs.

Covered in their sweat and mine, with dirt from the ground, bits of spat out feed, I would smile as I climbed back on and tried again. We learned together: the horse not to run, but to jump. Me, not to sit but to guide.

Australian horses smelled the same. Sweat, urine, hay, manure, saddle soap, leather, straw.

Only this time, cattle added to the mix. More sweat, more manure.

More falling off, this time into mud puddles and dirt and cow manure, as I learned to handle cattle and horse together. The smell of dry dust stirred up by cattle hooves and cattle dogs nipping at their heels. The smells of eucalyptus trees and steak sizzling in the pan for breakfast.

Branding, the smell of burnt flesh.  The smell of fear when we loaded cattle onto the market truck.

The smell of wild hog as they rushed our horses out of the brush, lunging at the dogs who barked with excitement at the prospect of a good hunt.

The smell of me at the end of the day. The smell of happiness.

Musty water. 

A background permeating every morsel of food and cup of tea for weeks on end. A background smell I couldn’t quite put my finger on until that fateful trip to the Great Wall and the fish farm. Even the fish tasted of it.

Musty, slightly moldy, never quite enough to put you off your food or stop you drinking something, but omnipresent. Always a question in my mind.

In the markets of Beijing, the dumpling houses of Shanghai, the factories of Chengdu.

Always musty. Was I imagining it? I doubted my own sense of smell. Until that day in the US when my colleague ate his first ever fish outside of China. Eyes wide. “That’s what it’s supposed to taste like!” 

I wasn’t imagining it.

Jet fuel.

That unmistakable smell of high octane burnt air gas. It means so many things.

Home. Away. Movement. Coming together. Becoming apart.

It's been a refrain throughout my life. A riff.

Where have I smelled this? So many places. Kenya. China. Indonesia. Europe. Oman. Thailand, Russia. Iceland…the list goes on and on. It’s the perfume of the third culture.

Hello again. Goodbye. Smiles. Tears. Happiness. Sadness.

Race fuel.

High octane carbon for pushing myself across the tarmac, knee dragging at triple digit speeds, adrenalin pumping, the Colorado skyline dipping and weaving as I lean the motorcycle from one side to the other.

Dry desert heat, sweat, the acrid smell of hot rubber tires mixed with hot oil and baking tarmac. Hot leathers, exhaust fumes from the generators powering the AC in the race vans. Cigarette smoke. Hot dogs and burgers sizzling on the grill and someone has popped a beer already, I can smell that too.

And in the middle of it all that sweet, heady scent of race gas. Addictive. Better than any drug. 

One whiff and I’m back on the racetrack.

The salty ocean.

My childhood. My love. My every vacation. My sometime home. My always refuge.

Salt on my skin, in the air, in my clothes. Scuba diving gear, surfboards, paddle boards, swimsuits, beach towels. It smells so good until it doesn’t. 

Tropical fruity soap to wash off the salt and heal the skin.

Sunscreen. Coconuts.

But always the scent of the ocean. Take a deep breath. Breathe it in. We’re 80% salty water after all.

One breath and the memories come rushing in, each one a full body experience. Reminding us that we have more than just our brain to experience the world with. Western culture tries to convince us that the brain is the most important part of us. That the rest of us is just a squishy bag full of bones that carries the brain from meeting to meeting. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Our senses process far more information per second than our brains do. According to the latest neuroscience research, multiple orders of magnitude more. We ignore this massive processing power at our peril.

So at some point today I invite you to stop thinking and notice what your senses are telling you. What do you smell? How’s the temperature? What do you hear? How bright are the colors around you? What’s the texture of the thing closest to you?

These cues will help you remember the moment far more clearly than what you were thinking will.

More than that, by engaging all the senses you engage all that extra processing power. So that you can see, or rather more accurately sense, the bigger picture. And through that, make better decisions. 

I also like to think of it as time travel - you can instantly come back to this point in time and space, based on that you notice in the moment.

Try it.

You might be surprised by what you can do.

Hanna Steplewska MSc is the Founder and CEO of EVA Strategies, a coaching and consulting firm that delivers success through change. Hanna helps multifaceted humans — engineers, scientists, financiers, writers and creatives — feel confident and thrive during professional challenges and up-levels. Hanna enables exceptional results through private Coaching, group Workshops and virtual and in-person Keynotes.

EVA is a nod to Hanna’s aerospace and oceanography background, a reference to Wall-E’s object of desire and a reminder to *not* keep arms and legs in the vehicle at all times.

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