Smells Like Philippines

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“Dad, you smell like the Philippines.” That was what my son told me the other morning.

It was the weekend and I did not have to go to work, so I was preparing breakfast. But I was  cooking omelet and not a typical Filipino dish, like the tapsilog, so I know that’s not it.

What is the “smell of the Philippines” anyway?

Most of us would associate the smell of the Philippines with the typical Filipino dishes. Like the adobo, or the kare-kare, or the tinola, or the lechon. Not to forget the more “smelly” foods that we Pinoys are known for, like the tuyo, the danggit, the pusit, and the bagoong.

Some of us would definitely remember the Philippines with the sweet scent of sampaguita, or the ilang-ilang, or the calachuchi, or the dama de noche. Or some would like the more exotic fragrance of the durian. That is for certain a pungent scent for not the faint of heart, or more accurately, for not the faint of “sikmura.”


For expats and oversea workers out there, maybe it is the distinctive smell of the palengke (wet market) of the Philippines that you miss. The mixture of odors of fish, fruits, stale water, pig’s blood, and mud. Or maybe it is the smell of Philippine traffic with the smog, the diesel fumes, cigarette smoke and body odor that you miss.

Since I now live in Iowa, a land lot in the midwest of America, where the nearest ocean is about a thousand miles away, I miss the smell of the ocean. Definitely I associate the salty air smell with somewhat fishy accent with my days in the Philippines and its gorgeous beaches.

By the way, do you ever wonder what gives the ocean its distinctive briny smell? Scientists said it is not mainly the salt nor the fish. It is mostly from the phytoplanktons. The what now? Phytoplanktons are marine microscopic organisms. When they die they release dimethyl sulfide or DMS, the chemical that is responsible for that specific ocean scent.

There’s also memories of certain scents that I associate particularly from the Philippines. Like the barber shops, with the whiff of rubbing alcohol, pomade, and Johnson baby powder. The hair salon that I go to here in the US, does not have that certain nostalgic smell that I used to know.

But there are also the smell of the Philippines, that maybe we are not proud of. Like the stench of the clogged canal and esteros, or the sad fate and smell of our slums and squatters, or the reeking pile of the uncollected garbage, and the stinky street corners and walls, even with “Bawal umihi dito!” written all over them.

Back to my son’s comment, I tried to figure out why he said I smell like the Philippines. Do I smell like tuyo? Or the wet market? Or the stinky walls of Manila? But I knew I just took a shower, and just put on clean clothes.

Then when I sniffed my shirt, it dawned on me that the shirt I was wearing was a shirt I have not worn since I came back from the Philippines a few months ago. So it was last washed in Manila, with the undeniable scent of hang-dried in the sun and Philippine laundry soap. It certainly smells like Philippines!

For expats like me, even the laundry, can remind us and make us long for home.

(*photo from the web)


  1. I got similar comment from my sister when I went for a holiday in Manila a few years back. She said I smelled like the Middle East. And I guess, it’s very particular to people who had recently traveled. It’s the same odor (not reek) that my aunt and uncle had when they visited Manila – they’re both from the US. I don’t get that comment though from my colleagues when I get back to work. I guess they’re used to the Philippines’ scent. 😛

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