The jungle had cooled slightly by late afternoon and my guide, a 21 year-old Wapishana Indian named Kevin thought we might spot some birds or monkeys if we went for a walk before sunset. A flat path covered in limp brown and black leaves lead from behind Maipaima Lodge, our rotting wood longhouse at the base of Guyana’s remote Kanuku Mountains in the Amazon jungle.
Sapling-sized trees filled the forest and the under-brush was sparse, allowing visible rays to shine onto the glossy green leaves. The few taller trees provided a halo of shade and their giant, buttressed roots sometimes extended onto the trail like giant grey arms. Cicadas chimed, bird calls came from above and I took in a deep breath of the thick, humid air. I was hoping for a steamy, jolt of clean through my nasal passages but instead, could it really be? . . . I smelled the distinct scent of baking garlic bread. I stopped walking without thinking, almost in annoyance. But it did smell really good.
“Is that dinner I smell?” I asked Kevin.
“No,” he said solemnly. We were far from the lodge so it was a stupid question, but he wasn’t one to laugh or tease me.
“We call it wild garlic,” he said. “Here smell it.”
He broke a leaf off a non-descript, low growing branchy shrub and gave it to me. It smelled just like a very good Italian restaurant’s kitchen.
“We use it to treat flu,” he said as a blue-violet morpho butterfly waved past unnoticed. “You brew it like tea.”
We kept walking silently on the path of leaves and soon the delicious scent vanished. Now instead there was an acrid, acid, slightly metallic smell. I crinkled my nose.
“Bullet ants,” said Kevin.
Sure enough we were soon upon a nest of large black ants on the side of the trail. Bullet ant bites are known to be highly toxic and incredibly painful. Knowing how to smell them before you see them could be very helpful indeed. I made a mental note to remember this distinct odor.
As we walked, the bullet ant smell faded away and I found myself actively sniffing for what was going to come next. Now there was a more ordinary jungle smell, a sort of faint dusty and moldy scent.
“So what’s this smell?” I asked Kevin.
“Termites,” he said without having to think about it.
I looked out into the jungle and there was a massive termite nest on a tree trunk like a sloppy ball of mud.
To me, this was amazing. I had always used my eyes and my ears in the forest but it seemed the nose was just as keen for figuring out what was going on around us. Of course many animals use scent for from hunting to marking territory, but out here even the wimpy human nose was proving extremely useful.
“How did you learn all these smells?” I asked.
“My grandfather taught me and I also just learned from being in the forest so much,” said Kevin.
Earlier he had explained to me that he came from a remote Wapishana settlement near the Guyana-Brazilian border that was home to the most traditional of the country’s tribes – so this made sense. He had left his village in hopes of becoming a computer programmer but was never able to find a computer to use on regular basis so he had resigned himself, unhappily, to be a nature guide.
Just then he stopped and looked out into the underbrush holding out his hand for me to stop.
“Smell that fish smell?” he asked. “That’s a snake, probably a bushmaster.”
We looked out into the bushes for a minute or two but the Earth-toned leaf litter on the ground was still. A giant fly buzzed around in a ray of sunlight and I sniffed, taking in a very faint smell of old fish.
“Well, he must know we’re here so doesn’t want to move,” said Kevin in a whisper.
By this time we had been walking a good half hour and hadn’t seen a single monkey or interesting bird, but I had completely forgotten that that’s what we were looking for. And just then, I took in a sweet smell like blossomy cotton candy.
“Purple heart tree flowers,” said Kevin before I had the chance to ask.
I wished I could bottle it. The odor was lovely and almost intoxicating.
“What about animals?” I asked him. “Do they have smells?”
“Monkeys smell a bit like people and jaguars smell like catfish and dust,” replied Kevin in his ever blank, matter of fact way.
“How can you tell the difference between a jaguar and a snake on a termite mound or a person and a monkey?”
“You just do.”
With this answer we had reached the end of my lesson. If I was going to learn more I’d have to smell all this stuff on a regular basis and have my senses know them rather than ponder everything in my intellectual brain. To Kevin, his knowledge of scent was as basic as knowing if something tasted like a piece of chicken or a banana. He would have been much happier knowing how to create cascading style sheets in HTML. We walked back to the lodge.
As for me, my world had taken on another dimension. I’ll never be as good as Kevin but now that I’ve taken notice I’m trying to use this olfactory skill everywhere I go. At home in the Pacific Northwest I can tell if certain kinds of mushrooms are growing around me in a forest and I try to detect the subtleties of different types or trees - but (perhaps fortunately) I usually see or hear joggers before I can smell them. Scents of travel have always been important to me, especially in remembering a place, but actively using this sense to analyze my surroundings adds an aspect that’s wonderfully personal. We can’t Instagram or Tweet a smell, it’s just there, strongly defining a place in beautiful simplicity.