Smells Like Philippines

“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)

Scented Memories

I was jogging in our neighborhood one day when I passed by a house under construction. I caught a waft of  trimmed wood, and the scent suddenly transported me back in time, somewhere in my childhood, when my father gave me a gift of wooden chess set. Isn’t it  interesting that inhaling a certain odor can evoke very specific memories, even though how remote those memories are?

For me smelling a citrusy fragrance will remind me of this girl that I had a crush on in college, as she wore a perfume or cologne that smells like lemon. Or maybe it was just their laundry detergent. Or maybe it was her lemon-scented Eskinol. Whatever it was, it is forever locked in my mind.

Then when I smell formalin, this brings me back to my medical school days with those “aromatic” cadavers at the UST Anatomy hall. The grueling long study periods up to the wee hours of the morning. The difficult exams that made me sweat like rain drops. By the way, the smell of “xerox” paper reminds me also of those days where my classmates and I will hang out in Dapitan photocopying handouts, notes, and leaked out old test questions (patok daw!).

When I sniff pine scent, this brings back happy childhood memories when my family went to Baguio. Where we stayed near the Teacher’s Camp. Strolled down Session Road. Visited Burnham Park. And enjoyed the spectacular view at Mines View Park, while also watching some natives perform the Igorot dance.

Mines View Park, Baguio

The link between smell and memory is not just a whiff of your imagination. There is really a scientific and medical reason for it. The center in our brain for the sense of smell is in the olfactory bulb which is near to a part of our central nervous system called the hippocampus. Hippocampus means the “seahorse” due to its the curled up shape, located deep in our brain. Neuroscientists have learned that the hippocampus is important when it comes to processing new memories. In fact, in people who have damage to this area of the brain can have trouble remembering what happened to them.

Some politicians we know, have problems remembering where they came from and what they promised before they got elected, so it must be a “hippocampus” thing. But then again it may be that something else is wrong with their brain. Sorry, I got sidetracked.

Few days ago, when I called my wife that I was about to come home, she did not answer the phone right away. On my third call, she finally answered and I learned that she was outside the house, near the back door of the garage, cooking “tuyo” (dried fish). You see we try hard not to cook dried fish inside the house as it will surely stink our place. Or if we do cook it inside, we make sure all the windows are open and we have scented candles lighted up to neutralize the smell, or else our non-Filipino visitors will think that we have a dead rat trapped in the ceiling.

Anyway, as soon as I heard my wife said that she was cooking tuyo, I swear I began to smell the peculiar scent of dried fish. And I was in my office still! Did the scent travelled through the phone lines? Could it be that the sound signals were transformed into olfactory signals through the phone towers? Or maybe it was all olfactory hallucination or what is medically termed as phantosmia.

Whatever the reason was, I really thought I was smelling dried fish, even though it was plainly not there. Maybe it was my memories of home, the one in Manila where I grew up, where I spent many fond years with my family, with home-cooking like “ginisang munggo” and the proverbial tuyo, awakened the sensation that I felt I detected that notable “fragrant” scent. Even if it was all in my mind. And for one nostalgic moment, I was home.

Time to go home now. To my present home with my wife and kids here in Iowa, where new sweet-smelling memories are being formed. And I know I will relive these moments again…..someday. I hope my hippocampus stay intact.

It is also time now to really sniff and taste that dried fish that my wife lovingly cooked, even if she has to do it outside our house.

(*image from here)