It was over a decade ago and I was wandering the streets of Hong Kong for the first time. This was my first time out of my home country and I was under-researched (rookie mistake) but overly eager.
I was desperately trying to force myself out of my comfort zone by doing things that now seem normal. I ate octopus for the first time — something that I do regularly now, even here in Nashville (Southside Grill has some of my favorite). There was one thing that I wasn’t completely ready for, though.
I was not ready for the smells of Asia. As I wandered through Hong Kong, I noticed I’d get a different smell every few feet. Some of them are delightful — the smells of fresh food and hot broths. Some of them are, well, the exact opposite. They turned my stomach instantly. That’s exactly what happened my second day in HK when we wandered into a small restaurant for lunch.
I was hopeful that I’d get a hot bowl of noodles when we walked into the tiny space with Chinese menus adorning the walls. Unfortunately, the overwhelming smell of feet took my nose (and stomach) by surprise. I immediately lost my appetite and instead watched my dad use the “pointing method” to order noodles with unknown meat. The pungent smell was too strong for me to enjoy anything other than a lukewarm bottle of water.
I learned very quickly through my next few days in Hong Kong and several days in Bangkok that this is just part of traveling in Asia. The smells are distinct and, sometimes, they’re overpowering. There are scents that I can’t resist (think fresh lemongrass and chilis) and there are those that I don’t want to identify. It’s a very unique balance.
Those smells (even the durian ones) didn’t keep me from Asia. Now, 11 years later, I’ve traveled to several more Asian countries and I spent two years living full-time in BKK. Now, those smells are something I miss every day. They’re something that I love taking in while I wander the streets of my old city.
My point is you should never judge a city by its smell. Seriously. Take it in — the disgusting, the unknown and the delightful. It’s all part of the experience and, you never know, you may end up missing it.