Monday, December 3, 2012

Durian: the real forbidden fruit, i.e. the measure of freedom - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

A durian, split open with a machete, one of the flesh-beans still intact and a pulp-less seed
What does durian, a tropical fruit, have to do with freedom? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot.
Durian. I tried it for the first time many years ago, when I had just arrived to S.E. Asia. It might have been in Singapore: at Bugis Junction in fact, where I was staying, as soon as the picking season was under way the area filled up with street-stalls selling it. Even though I didn't find it disgusting, like the majority of the other westerners, I was not particularly impressed, but I wouldn't be able to tell why. I was not even stricken by its supposed, terrible stench. And to think that in Singapore, due to their bad smell, durians are forbidden at hotels, subway stations and other public places, even with illustrated prohibition signs. Then again, in Singapore it is even forbidden to import chewing gums, imagine eating stinking fruits indoor. In Asia I have eaten much worse smelling food than durians. Some varieties of chou doufu (stinking tofu) in China and Taiwan forced me to hold my nose when I was still fifty meters away from the source-restaurant. An intensity similar to the one that 20 years ago, in a small Appennino Lucano's town, was rising from a cliff where the carcass of a cow was rotting, and entered through the broken window, saturating the room, keeping my brother and me awake all night, looking for dead rats under the bed and checking our retches, while we couldn't stop laughing incredulously. Durians vaguely smell of kitchen gas, but it's not an unbearable odor.
These days, in the evening, Briksfield fills up with truck-stalls that come to sell these fruits. Asians are generally crazy about them and this is a very good business indeed. You can see people eating them at every corner, a bit like what happens (or used to) in Italy with watermelons.
As I'm walking back to my hotel I spot a truck and I look at it. A minute later I almost stop at another one. I manage to resist: the memory of that first old experience is holding me back. Still I am tempted: over the years I have changed opinion about numerous Asian matters. There is a stall a few meters from my hotel entrance, one of the young boys notices my curiosity and smiles at me. A slightly shy, irresistible smile, a dogcatcher-smile, and tonight I feel a bit like a stray beast. I purchase a small one and I smuggle it into my room (KL is not like Singapore, but you never know). I break the shell with my naked hands, careful of the spikes, using the plastic bag to protect myself, then I get hold of the slimy and mealy flesh that becomes pulpy as soon as it touches my fingers. I squeeze it into my mouth, smearing my lips, chin and beard. Fuck, it's delicious! Sweet, but not too much, sun-like yellow, creamy, velvety...hmmm, what have I missed for almost a decade?! And to think that they offered me three of them at a promotional price...tomorrow I'll get a stock of it!
I throw the bag with the shell and the the seeds in one of the lobby bins. I go back to my room and carefully smell the air. Maybe there still is a faint odor, but it's almost imperceptible. 
The following day, as planned, I buy three of them. As soon as I step into the lift a security guard asks me if I'm carrying durians in that plastic bag. I say that I am and he forbids me to take them to my room, because of the bad smell. I was not expecting this from a hotel in Malaysia - a less regulation-obsessed country than Singapore. The guard also informs me that there is a sign at the entrance, the crossed durian that I saw so often in the city-state. And this is probably the aspect of the matter that disappoints me the most. This damned tendency to forbid, regulate, channel, control, bridle the individuals' instincts more and more firmly the more societies develop. 
Maybe this is the price we have to pay for the economic, technological and social (?) development that countries like this pursue. And perhaps I am the one at fault. Maybe they are right: if everybody were allowed to bring durians in their hotel rooms or in the subway stations the stench would be intolerable. But I am not an anarchist, I simply am against extremes. This durian thing might not have anything to do with it, and yet, if combined with other clues I've collected so far, it fuels my impression that the freedom, lightheartedness, spontaneity gap between Malaysia and Singapore is narrowing down. And unfortunately we're talking about a downward movement. I admit, I am not a great businessman and I don't understand much about life-planning either, but when it comes to freedom I know a couple of things: some people like to trade it in exchange for wealth. Whenever it's possible, I do exactly the opposite. 
Anyhow, we'll see: maybe they will never confiscate your chewing gums at KL International Airport but if in a few years you find the city full of absurd prohibition signs don't get too surprised. As far as I am concerned, you can rest assured, I won't.

Durian prohibition sign in the hotel lift

Durian prohibition sign on the hotel entrance door

Prohibition sign at the LRT (subway) fruit discrimination here 

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