Friday, February 27, 2009

Durian February 2009

Earlier this month Jee and I were in Singapore and Malaysia to celebrate Chinese New Year. This was the first time we had been back for the holiday since our marriage in 1972. While we’ve always celebrated Chinese New Year wherever we happened to be, being distant from Jee’s extended family of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, our reunion dinners have been tasty but fairly quiet affairs. So it was wonderful to be together again with so many of our relatives during this special family-centered holiday.

Coming in late January—early February, Chinese New Year coincides with one of the year’s two durian seasons. While the “King of Fruits” is not as plentiful during Chinese New Year as it is during the major season six months later, we were able to enjoy this wonderful and unique fruit throughout our travels from Alor Star near Malaysia’s border with Thailand all the way down to Singapore.

Durian originated in Malaysia and remains a fruit unique to the region. Efforts to transplant durian to other tropical areas have not been successful. And while you can find durian in Thailand and some other Southeast Asian countries, most agree that durian from Malaysia tastes the best.

About the size of a pineapple, a single durian can weigh from two to five pounds. Most of this weight comes from durian’s thick shell which is covered with sharp pointy projections that give the fruit its name: in Malay, durian mean thorny fruit. Once opened, there are five fleshy segments of fruit within the durian. The pulp inside a durian varies in color from ivory to yellow-orange. The texture of this flesh is soft. Eaten by hand, durian sticks to your fingers like a custard.

Much has been written about the offensive smell of durians. The fruit is not allowed in hotels because the smell will travel through the airconditioning and permeate the building. When most visitors to Malaysia are introduced to durian they are repelled by its rank odor. Some compare the fruit’s pungent aroma to rotting garbage and worse.

Durian’s fragrance is both powerful and penetrating. During the season, the smell of durian hangs in the air. Coming to Malaysia as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1970, nobody had told me about durian. When we landed in Penang I thought the horrible odor I smelled was coming from roadside drains that I imagined must be open sewers. It was not until the next day that piles of durian being sold in the market were pointed out to me as the source of the stench. I couldn’t believe that anyone would want to eat something that smelled so bad. Yet, I was told, durian was the most highly prized fruit in the country. People eagerly awaited the season and would spend large sums for the best durian. I chalked this up as being another cultural mystery I would probably never understand.

Six months later when I had been assigned to an agricultural program in the state of Pahang, I was visiting the home of a Malay colleague. Being an honored guest, I was presented with a whole durian to enjoy. As my host would have lost face had I refused his generosity, I tried to ignore the overpowering odor and managed to eat a few pieces before quickly passing the durian to others gathered around the table. They happily finished the fruit.

I had survived my first taste of durian. And while I found the flavor interesting if difficult to describe, I still didn’t understand why Malaysians talked about durian as if it were ambrosia fit for the gods. I just couldn’t stomach the smell. I’d rather have a good mango any day.

But the strangest thing happened to me when durian season came around again. Once more, the odor of durian was in the air wherever I went. However, instead of finding the smell offensive, it now seemed fragrant—as if the air were perfumed with wonderfully sweet aromas. I couldn’t account for the change in my perception but was now sensing a complexity in durian’s scent that I had not previously imagined. Unlike anything else, the scent of durian could be perceived as foul or fragrant or one that shifted intriguingly from rank to wonderful as I inhaled. Now when I ate durian, I understood the mystery of the fruit’s attraction. Eating durian is like tasting truffles or a ripe camembert. You are either attracted or repelled by an indescribable earthiness woven into durian’s complex sweet flavors. Thank God that most who encounter durian never get past its aroma. The tourists are happy to eat mangoes instead and willingly leave durian to the aficionados. As for me, enjoying durian has become one of life’s great pleasures.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Leaving for Malaysia Summer 1970

In the summer of 1970, together with my Peace Corps Volunteer group, I left the United States and headed to Malaysia. I didn’t really know what I was getting into but was enthusiastic to begin the adventure.

Even though we traveled by jet, flights in those days took a bit longer than they do today. The first leg of our journey was aboard a brand new PanAm 747. While jumbo jets are common today, this was one of the first Boeing 747s put into service. None of us had ever seen a plane this size; it dwarfed all other aircraft around the terminal. It was a thrill just walking on board and marveling at the space in the passenger cabin.

PanAm took us from San Francisco to Tokyo by way of Alaska. I remember getting off the plane in Anchorage and being surprised that even in July Alaska was cold and grey. The mountains that ringed the city were still covered in snow. In the days before tight airport security, while the plane was being serviced we were free to get off and walk around the terminal and even onto the tarmac. Our brief refueling stop in Alaska was to be our last view of a familiar world.

From Alaska we traveled to Tokyo. As we got off the plane at the Haneda airport that evening, I remember how warm and moist the air seemed. While not in the tropics, Tokyo in summer had a very tropical feel. Our group stayed overnight at the Haneda airport hotel. A few of the volunteers decided to take a cab into downtown Tokyo. Most of our group, however, quietly went to our rooms and got some rest before continuing our flight early the next morning to Malaysia.

Our night at the Haneda airport hotel gave me my first sense of being in a foreign land. Unable to understand Japanese, it was the first time I felt isolated from everyone around me other than the group I came with. Even much of the food offered the next morning at the breakfast buffet seemed strange. I stuck with eggs and toast.

From Tokyo we boarded a Boeing 707 for Hong Kong, landing just ahead of a tropical storm. As we approached the British colony, the flying was anything but smooth. Our plane was clearly struggling against strong winds, shaking violently and bouncing the passengers around like we were on a thrill ride. As the plane's flaps lowered and I heard the landing gear doors open, I could look out the windows and see Hong Kong harbor and the city that climbed the surrounding hills. Our plane dropped lower and lower until the Chinese junks in the harbor were seemingly at eye level. It appeared as if our plane was about to ditch into the ocean. When I suddenly felt the plane touchdown on solid ground I realized with relief that the runway extended far out into the water.

The final leg of our flight took us to Penang. By the time we landed, gathered all our luggage, cleared immigration and customs, and then boarded the bus waiting for us, the sun was setting. If Tokyo and Hong Kong had given me a hint of the Asian tropics, in Penang I finally experienced the heat and high humidity of the true tropics. Without the ubiquitous airconditioning available today, my clothes were soon soaked with sweat. I felt enervated and somewhat disoriented. It wasn’t just the tropical heat, however, that I found disconcerting. There were also unaccustomed pungent smells in the air. As we were driven from the airport to our temporary housing for the weekend, I could see concrete drains on either side of the road. From the rank odor, I imagined these must be open sewers. I began to wonder what type of country I had committed myself to. In the growing darkness, as we headed towards town, Malaysia remained very much a place unknown.

We soon arrived at the quarters rented for us near the university. There was a welcoming party ready and plenty of cold beer to beat the heat. After two days of travel I was finally in a country that was to become my home for the next three years. As I wondered in those first hours whether I would be able to cope with the climate and the culture, I could never imagine how my Peace Corps experience in Malaysia would profoundly change my life. Although in the years since completing my Peace Corps service I've lived in a number of countries and have traveled to many more, Malaysia is a place I’ve never really left.