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Testing the Senses, and Durian

14 Jun 11
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The first thing you notice as you enter just about any Indonesian city, other than perhaps the traffic, is the smells. You’re not as much assaulted by them as you are beaten over the head by a cricket bat full of all kinds of odors.

Standing recently at a mobile Singkong Keju stand (similar to the stand in the picture), the smell of fried cassava covered with powdered cheese coming from the stand competed with fumes from a sputtering motorcycle roaring by. Under the sidewalk just behind the vendor runs a storm water drain that doubles as a repository for just about any kind of trash, so depending on where you stand you might also be smelling rotted fruit peelings, decaying leaves, or even human waste.

Behind a block-long street lined by our favorite market stalls in Jakarta runs a small concrete-lined canal that on our last visit smelled like an open sewer, forcing us to run past intersecting streets to quickly get away from the odor.

Pollution control laws, if they even exist, are apparently not enforced. Trash is dumped indiscriminately and clearly without much thought, left to rot along the street. And it’s not a poverty issue – it’s not unusual to see a window on a Mercedes or BMW glide silently open only to have a McDonalds bag or an ash tray dumped along the roadside.

Cars and motorcycles spew smelly clouds of exhaust while trucks add dark clouds of particulate matter to the air. And this is one of the worst pollutants of all, as far as I’m concerned. While we live in an area that is removed from much of the pollution, the soot from exhaust goes everywhere – it can travel as much as 30 miles on air currents, and sometimes even farther. The smaller the particle, the lighter it is, which means it can travel long distances on air currents. And the smaller it is, the more damage it can inflict.

The smallest particles are labeled PM2.5, which means they are two and a half microns in width or smaller. For perspective, that’s perhaps 18 times smaller than the width of a human hair. These small particulates released by diesels and other pollution sources can make their way deep into your lungs. Larger particles (PM10) become trapped by mucous and are moved out of the airways by tiny hairs called cilia. But the smaller particles can move deeper into the lungs where they cannot be removed in this fashion. Instead, they are trapped there, where they can help cause lung disease, emphysema and even lung cancer.

Worse yet, these soot particles can link up with other small items in the air column, including toxic organic compounds and heavy metals, helping to transport these items into your lungs. It’s almost impossible to avoid the soot clouds, so every time you’re breathing it in, you’re not only having your senses assaulted, you’re also getting a dose of other stuff you really don’t want in your body.

Cars are not the only source of air pollution. Open burning is quite common, and comes with its own unique smells. Even in more expensive neighborhoods it’s not unusual to see a pile of trash smoldering at curbside. While taking pictures this week along a major road running through a portion of central Bandung, I watched a large cloud of smoke rise from behind a fence. At one point, the smoke threatened to grow so large that it might actually have impeded traffic at one of the city’s busiest intersections. Such sightings are commonplace here.

Burning trash can release many toxic chemicals, especially if plastic is part of the trash mix. And burning plastic simply smells awful.

Perhaps the worst olfactory assault though is a natural scent. It comes from a fruit called Durian. Durian, known here as the king of fruits, has a large following in Southeast Asia. It’s a large oblong fruit, pale green in color and covered with sharply pointed spikes. It’s heavy enough that people who have been unlucky to be under a durian tree when the fruit falls have been seriously injured or killed.

So why the attraction? Durian is considered by many to be the best tasting fruit in the world. The website calls the fruit “nature’s grandest pudding.” Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist I am researching, loved durian, describing its taste in 1856 as “A rich custard highly flavored with almonds.”

Durians are also full of vitamins, containing an ample supply of vitamins B, C and E, along with tryptophan and iron.

There’s just one problem with durian – it smells like a nasty fart. Or stale vomit. Or French Custard passed through a sewer pipe. Or all of those things at once.

According to Adam Leith Gollner, author of “The Fruit Hunters,” the smell of durian has even been described as “a disinterred corpse clutching a wheel of blue cheese.”

The smell comes from sulfur compounds. Durian contains more than 40 different types of sulfur compounds, including those found in skunks. The smell is intended to attract animals which will consume the fruit and spread its seeds across the forest in scat. That’s a good plan in the rainforest, but not so much when brought into the nearest Yomart or Giant Hypermart. Whenever we hit the grocery store, we need to prepare ourselves for a blast of durian.

While beloved by many in the region, durian is actually banned in some public places because of its odiferous nature. In Singapore, passengers on the city’s subway lines face a $500 fine for carrying the fruit with them. And many hotels will not allow visitors to bring in durian.

Eating durian can apparently be dangerous too. Drinking alcohol while eating durian can lead to severe bloating. In his book, “Extreme Cuisine,” Jerry Hopkins mentions a news report of a “fat German tourist who devoured a ripe durian, followed by a bottle of Thai Mekong rice whisky, then took a hot bath and exploded.”

One of my favorite stories from Gollner’s “The Fruit Hunters” involves a durian tasting party he co-hosted in New York City. While he and his friends enjoyed their fruit, the rest of the building was being evacuated because of a suspected gas leak. But it was just the durian.

So why go through all the potentially nauseating effort? There is an old adage about durian – it smells like hell, but tastes like heaven. Alfred Russel Wallace said its taste was “worth a voyage to the East to experience” – strong words at a time when traveling to the east meant surviving a dangerous journey by sea of several months. Wallace added that “as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.”

I can’t say whether durians are worth such an effort – we haven’t tried them yet. But we plan to before we leave, and time is running out. I’ll be sure to post about the experience.

Smells in Indonesia, despite all this, are not all bad. In fact, there is a richness to the smells here that at times can just overwhelm you. The best place for this is anywhere food is being cooked. Southeast Asian cuisine involves many spices, and their liberal use livens up not only the food, but the surrounding air. The list of spices seems almost endless. Chilies, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, curry leaf, ginger, lemongrass – it goes on.

The point I suppose is that unlike in the sanitized west, Indonesia is alive with smells, both good and bad. Staying here is a sensory experience we will not soon forget.

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