This blog is first in a five-part series on exploring India. Former National Geographic staffer and guest blogger Anna Switzer shares her adventures with us from the field. Follow along with her as she journeys around and acclimates to new people and customs through her five senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and feeling.
In wilderness medicine, there is a concept for measuring a person’s consciousness or alertness. A fully conscious and alert person is called “A and O times 4.” This means that they are Alert and Oriented to time, place, persons and events. This concept has been on my mind recently because I’ve been thinking about the personal tools we use to become “oriented” to a new place. My travels to India have helped me realize how important our senses are in this process.
The easiest orientation to describe is that of being oriented to time. Most of us know which day it is by using calendars, and what time it is by using clocks, cell phones or watches. For example, have you ever woken up in the morning or from a nap, and not been sure what day or time it is? To answer that question, one of the first things you might do is to reorient yourself using a clock, cell phone or watch. The jet-lag I experienced on arriving in India is quite similar to the disorientation you might have experienced, because what I saw on my watch and what my body felt like were 9 hours apart from one another.
In terms of place, I think that our five basic senses are the tools we use to orient ourselves. The information we gain through our eyes, ears, nose, etc. is what tells us where we are in the world, similar to how watches, cell phones and clocks orient us to time. When we smell salt in the air, we know we are near the ocean. When we hear horns honking and sirens blaring, we know we are in an urban setting. When we see a certain national flag blowing in the wind, we know what country we are in. Combined, this stimuli helps us hone in on our exact location in the world. Remove one or two kinds of sensory input and it is more difficult to know where we are.
When I go to a new place, I am aware of experiencing it through my senses. New sights, smells, sounds, tastes—these all tell the story of a place. My senses help me gain my bearings in the new surroundings and internalize the specifics of its geography. I’m looking forward to what I will learn by experiencing the “Senses of India.”
Written by Anna Switzer