Kicking off our glorious Year of the Durian in Indonesia has been perfect. Not in the sense that it is has
been paradisaical, but rather that, like our beloved durian, the
experience has been both rough and sweet. When I walked out of
the Medan airport I missed Kuala Lumpur immediately. Although it is
tropical, the city gives the impression of a desert. Of course it is
hot as hell, but the desert is in the details: a blanket of dust at
the curb, brown and grey buildings, and few signs of life.
what I thought at first, but Medan is definitely alive. It is a
bustling, vibrant city. There are avenues lined with restaurant
carts, sugar cane juicers, and rickshaw drivers who seem sure you need
a ride somewhere. In the
beginning I pointed two fingers down and made the motion of walking
to ward off their enthusiasm. Now I say, jalan jalan, which means
walking. I love speaking the few words of Indonesian I’ve picked up.
Using their language makes my life easier, and it really cracks up
the locals. They turn to their friends and repeat my pronunciation
and laugh as a group. I think it is mostly good natured, so I don’t
mind. I am a funny
sounding foreigner. Plus, I think there is also another aspect of it
with more heart – I think they just enjoy the foreigner, one of the
white guys they see on TV, using their words.
Medan is a mixture
of modernity and… dirty. I don’t much like it, but I don’t want to
insult the city’s honor, either. Lot’s of people call this mess home,
maybe two million. It is an ugly, polluted city for sure. But for
those of you who haven’t visited Southeast Asia and have visions of
two million people living in bungalows without the electric light,
it is not that. In fact the place is hopping with internet cafes,
cell phones, and fancy upscale malls with all the glitz they entail.
It’s just that the walk to the mall is sometimes scented with sewage,
and the walk, for those unaccustomed to lawless traffic can be a close
encounter with death. There are definitely worlds living astride
each other here. Shiny new cars share the road with bicycle taxis. I’m
unsure of how much they mix for individual residents. As a visitor I
cannot tell how much the classes mingle, only that the gap is wide.
reason for being here? The durian scene is excellent. In fact I worry
a little that our durian hunt may have already climaxed. Durian here
is wild. Not to say it is uncultivated; there are durian farms, but
trees are left unsprayed and the orchards are not the monocultures I
am used to seeing elsewhere. The durian is allowed to cross-pollinate
naturally. Indonesians do not hybridize species, or use grafting to
grow clones. The fruit here is al
naturale. And, drum roll, it is here for the feasting 365 days
of the year! What?! Yeah you read that right. North Sumatra has two
primary fruiting seasons, peaking in March and November, but there
are ample trees giving fruit all the time. Enough to supply Medan’s
voracious appetite, and mine.
wow. Writing about the flavor is difficult. Talking about it is hard.
I think English, at least the portion of it I know, lacks appropriate
vocabulary for describing the durian experience. It wraps around my
tongue. It feels thick and smooth. It has weight. The whole spectrum
is represented here, from super sweet to intriguingly bitter. I like
all kinds, but here I have been really digging the sweet yellow
varieties. There is on average a lower ratio of flesh to seed than is
typical of Thai durian, but the flavor, the availability, and the
price, a mere 20,000 rupiah (about $2) a piece, make this a durian
enthusiasts dream. Well, the city is still nightmarish, but I would
brave it again to party at Ucok’s stall. Find a nice hotel and a gym
and you won’t even mind the pollution that is ruining your hair.