I lean the bike around a bend on a relatively quiet Bali evening, expertly adjusting my line to avoid the many potholes, ridges and other obstacles. As ever, the night is redolent with the usual mixed aromas of musty drains, incense, tropical flowers, spicy foods and raw sewage.
But suddenly, the air is thick with a new scent that defies description, a smell that shocks my olfactory system to such an extent that it throws the rational, thinking part of my brain completely out of circuit and induces a zombie-like state. At the same time, I hear my name yelled, and see a friend waving madly from a temporary roadside stall on the other side of the road. This total sensory overload causes me to ride straight into the deepest pothole available and be thrown across into oncoming traffic. Ignoring common sense, I broadside into a barely-controlled U-turn and come to a stop next to my friend.
I don’t normally ride like that, but then again, it is not every day that I ride into a noxious cloud of durian vapours that not only shut down your brain, but would probably liquefy your eyeballs if you didn’t reflexively protect them behind slitted eyelids. These emanations are gases from a fruit that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention – but Indonesians seem to love them. I find myself stopped next to a beaten-up pick-up truck loaded with a pile of spiky green durians. The smell has intensified to the point where I am ready to faint, but the scene around the truck is so riveting that, against my better judgement, I decide to stay conscious.
As well as my crazy friend, who actually seems to enjoy breathing this miasma, there are perhaps ten others engaged in what seems to be an arcane ritual. “What are they doing?” I croak, my throat constricting. “Buying durian, of course!” is the reply. It’s not like any purchase of fruit that I have ever seen before. I mean, when I buy produce, I glance at my potential purchase, pick it up and perhaps give it a squeeze, then take it home to do whatever one does with fruit and vegetables. That’s the extent of my relationship with stuff that isn’t meat – but then again, I am not noted for being good at relationships.
But what is happening here is totally different. I watch the buyers stand around and just … stare at the heaps of durian with what looks like reverence. They seem to be evaluating size and shape, colour and texture, as if they were choosing diamonds. Durians don’t even look like anything edible – think green grenades, or miniature sea mines – and there is no way that they smell even faintly edible. They are banned from buses, aircraft and many hotels, apparently to prevent episodes of projectile vomiting by those who are not aficionados.
Food writer Richard Sterling is reputed to have said, ”Its odour is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”. I agree, but would add that the gym socks in question have obviously been worn for at least a month without being washed. And as for the taste, Anthony Burgess, an English literary luminary, compared it (unfavourably) to eating vanilla custard in a latrine. Obviously, millions of Indonesians, Malays and Thais would not agree.
Once the careful examination phase is over, the rapt purchasers start picking up their selected fruits and, well, fondling them. They caress the spines softly, sensuously cupping them in their palms and gently moving them up and down as if weighing them. The little stalk on each durian gets almost erotic attention, getting slowly bent and twisted, and even finger-flicked from side to side. A sniffing rite follows, during which each durian is lifted and its various parts carefully inhaled, while eyes are closed in rapture. I get a sudden image of small green echidnas having their nappies (that’s ‘diapers’ for you Americans) checked for intestinal accidents by their doting parents. I dismiss this thought as a hallucination brought on by the odour.
“How can they stand the smell?”, I think to myself. Then I realise with a shock that after ten minutes’ exposure to these fumes, they no longer seem so bad. They’re still unbelievably strange, but the pungent and sulphurously toxic kick seems to have dissipated. A distant memory surfaces – a chemistry teacher from an aeons-past school warning us that if the horrible smell of hydrogen sulphide (rotten-egg gas) starts to become sweet and pleasant, it means that we have inhaled a toxic dose and need to get fresh air immediately. I look around, hoping to find an oxygen bottle, because there is definitely no fresh air anywhere.
The durian acolytes continue their ceremony, tapping the fruit with the flats of handy machetes, or banging it gently against their bike helmets. The final act in their performance is to shake it close to their ears, listening to the noises it makes as if it is music from heaven itself. Having chosen their prizes, they pay the vendor, who wraps a sisal rope around three or four fruit in a deceptively simple but secure carrying cradle ready to hang on a bike. It makes sense; no mere plastic bag could contain those spiked monsters without tearing . The whole process of selection takes about twenty minutes, and is one of the most complex rituals I have yet seen in Bali.
Later, still amazed and intrigued, I talk to a well-travelled Indonesian friend about the intricacy and skill of what I have just witnessed. He is sceptical. “Ah, rubbish, you don’t do all that when you buy a durian”, he scoffs. “You just go in, check it out and buy it. No time at all!”
Oh damn, I think – I’ve just been given a special ‘gullible bule’ performance in the street. Must be that Bali humour again. But I persist. “So what sort of things do you check when you buy one?”, I ask him.
“Oh, you know,” he says, ” I just look at for a while to check for worm-holes. Then I just squeeze it a bit to see if it’s soft or hard, and to see if the thorns are sharp or blunt. Then I tap it to see if the sound is OK. Oh, and the smell has to be just right too. Then I shake it a little to make sure it has the right sloshing sound … anyway, it’s easy. Been doing it since I was a kid.”
“So, how long does it take you to do all this?” I ask him innocently.
He thinks for a bit and then smiles sheepishly.
“Umm, about twenty minutes …”