Traveling With All 5 Senses: Notes On Awakening In A Foreign Place

waking up

Photo courtesy of whatmegsaid

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. — Freya Stark

The above is one of my favorite travel quotes, as it reminds me of how travel leads people to use their five senses in a way they don’t at home. Picture yourself waking up in your bed at home: rolling over to curse at the alarm, brushing your teeth with your eyes half closed, running out the door with your buttons undone because you’re late for work. What smells were in the air? What sounds did you hear? Unless it was a garbage truck that woke you up or someone in your house was making something particularly delicious for breakfast, you probably didn’t notice.

Now think about yourself on the road. It’s like your senses become reborn, and every smell, sight, taste, touch and sound registers in your brain as something journal-worthy. Even the odor of decaying fish or street sewage becomes an aroma, as it helps reveal the personality of your destination.

I remember many different mornings, awakening in Ghana to the strangest sights and sounds. One morning was particularly unusual, as at 3am I was startled out of pleasant dreams by the sounds of a church choir. As the nearest place of worship was a mile down the road from my homestay, I knew something was up. In my Batman t-shirt and red Sofie shorts, I made my way out of the room and into the small hallway to investigate, the smell of dirt and goats filling my nostrils, as the bahhing animals added to the already-present music.

Sitting in the living room were eight women completely lost in focus as they praised the lord through their voices…before dawn. I soon came to realize this was something my house-mom did every Monday night (or Tuesday morning, depending if you went to bed or not). While at home in NYC it infuriated me to be woken up before the sun rose, in Ghana I laid in my bed relishing the sounds and chalking it up to a cultural experience.

There are also times when a destination is particularly serene, and you may encounter no sounds at all. This happened to me on a recent trip to Italy, staying at Castello di Gabbiano in the Tuscan countryside. In contrast with the bass-excessive rap music, never-ending sirens and room-rattling above-ground subways I hear 24/7 in Brooklyn, I never heard a peep when resting my wine-heavy eyelids. That being said, Tuscany is a delicious treat for both the mouth and eyes, as you awake to the sight of rolling hills dotted with olive trees and Sangiovese vines while eating a breakfast of Pecorino cheeses, cured meats and fresh yogurt.

There’s nothing quite like waking up in an unfamiliar town, your senses immediately engaged as your everyday stress-ladden routine becomes replaced with curiosity and discovery, and the sounds of chipper roosters, the salty smell of the ocean or the sight of markets setting up their wares on a dusty road become your alarm clock, at least for the time being.

What is your favorite memory of waking up in an unfamiliar town? Please share in the comments below.


  1. I woke up just as the sun was beginning to rise the first day of my holiday in Sri Lanka, to the smell of erotic countryside after rain, the sound of waves in the distance, perfect still and calm. I walked along the beach alone as the sun rose, the wet sand between my toes… I cant think of another time that all the senses have been soo pleasant and tranquil.

    Waking up to a fresh day in a new place, is truly wonderful!

  2. After working on a farm in England for a few months while the aussie dollar plummeted in the late nineties, it finally got too cold and bleak for us. We headed to the bucket shops in Earls Court and asked for the cheapest ticket out. Istanbul, Morocco or Egypt were our choices. We chose Luxor. We arrived at night and headed to bed. Waking up to the call to prayer the morning, with the sounds and smells of the market wafting up was one of the most spiritual awakenings I’ve had. A peek out of the window revealed all the activity that goes with an Egyptian city rising early. Gone was the normal and in was the exotic. We threw away the return ticket and so began our Middle Eastern adventure up through Jordan, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

    1. @Sharyn: What a beautiful story! So glad you were inspired to ditch the return ticket and continue your journey. I often feel that first thing in the morning as out bodies wake up so do our senses, allowing us to experience what’s around us more powerfully. It can be quite moving, as you experienced in Luxor.

    1. @Alex: Silence is nice, although after living in NYC and getting used to all the noise it’s often hard for me to sleep when it’s really quiet oddly enough!

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