Friday, September 14, 2007

The King of Fruits

No, I am not talking about Liberace. Or even RuPaul. The topic of today's lesson in Thailand 101 is the durian. I finally summoned the courage to sample the popular fruit, and I can attest that it does indeed taste like rich, sweet custard with an hint of almonds. But the odor, akin to rotten onions, was almost overpowering. what a culinary mixture of beauty and the beast! I made the mistake of leaving some of it in the refrigerator over night and the next morning everything inside smelled bad. Now I know why airplanes and hotels go out of their way to forbid the odiferous fruit on their premises. It also seems to be sold here only from carts like this one. I couldn't find it at Foodland, one of the major supermarkets, no doubt because it would offend customers looking for something more traditional, like the strawberry (imported from Watsonville) and the pineapple (home grown, everywhere).

The British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's rival, had this to say:
The smell of the ripe fruit is certainly at first disagreeable, though less so when it has newly fallen from the tree; for the moment it is ripe it falls of itself, and the only way to eat Durians in perfection is to get them as they fall. It would perhaps not be correct to say that the Durian is the best of all fruits, because it cannot supply the place of subacid juicy fruits such as the orange, grape, mango, and mangosteen, whose refreshing and cooling qualities are so grateful; but as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed. If I had to fix on two only as representing the perfection of the two classes, I should certainly choose the Durian and the Orange as the king and queen of fruits.
According to another source, the durian, an ancient fruit, has been giving off its stench for millions of years. Duri is the Malay name for "spike" and refers to the fruit's hard spikey shell. They are large and can weigh up to ten pounds when ripe; death by durian is not an uncommon event (watch where you walk -- even the benign coconut can also kill). Another danger is from tigers and elephants who love its taste and smell them from far away. A yellow-white hunk of durian (seen above) is expensive, about the cost of a cappuccino at Starbucks. But the Thais love it.

Beggars are everywhere on the sidewalks of Bangkok. This little girl was positioned by the stairs leading up to the Phrom Phong Skytrain station. Her mother and little brother were not far off. She smiled just after I took her photo and I gave her a big contribution, 10 baht. Usually the beggars sit (never stand) right in the line of traffic so they can't be missed. One older woman, with an indeterminable disability, sits not far from the entrance to Nana and she gives me a big smile every time our eyes meet. Of course I contribute. The other night she gave me a high five. Across the street was the tableux pictured below. The plight of some of the children can be heart-breaking. I have also seen them laughing and playing. One common sight is a blind singer with a portable sound system being led down the sidewalk by a friend. Unlike Mexico City, however, I have yet to see beggars on the Skytrain or subway. So I am sure there is a law that is rigorously enforced. I am always amazed at the ingenuity of the poor in third world countries (and developed Thailand is poor at the street and village level). Jerry thinks the lepers are bussed into the city every morning by a syndicate. You usually see them in the same spots every day. There is a misshapen fellow that I have seen on both sides of Sukhumvit and I am puzzled as to how he ever manages to cross the street, a dangerous feat for four-limbed folk. I have also seen a legless man dragging himself along face down on the ground amidst pedestrian traffic. Each evening mahouts bring elephants to the entertainment centers. At Soi Cowboy I saw one set up to give drunken revelers rides down the neon-lit street. I can't imagine the pachyderms being pleased.

Last night I continued my study of Buddhism by attending a lecture at the Siam Society. Dr. Andrey Terentyev, who translated for the Dalai Lama during his visit to Russia several years ago, tried to cram an overview of his life's study into an hour, admitting that "the ocean of Tibetan Buddhism cannot be crossed in such a short time." His talk, and the slides that accompanied it (Terentyev is an expert in Tibetan Buddhist iconography), wetted my appetite for more. I was surprised to hear that Vajrayana does not encompass the whole of Tibetan Buddhism as I thought. Apparently it is only one strand. Terentyev also distinguished wisdom teachings (identified with Nagarjuna) from methods (the forte of Asanga). Renunciation, according to the speaker, was not specifically taught by the Buddha, but was a development from within Buddhism by teachers like Atisha. I found most interesting his discussion of the Bodhisattva ideal which is not emphasized by Theravadan Buddhism as found in Thailand. The popular notion is that the Bodhisattva refused to enter nirvana until all beings could join him. This is a misconception, Terentyev told his audience. The Bodhisattva did not refuse to become a Buddha, but rather was filled with compassion for those not yet enlightened. Apparently the emphasis in the general understanding of the story is misguided. I still like the idea of a Buddha who sacrifices his own needs for others. It brings him closer to the image of the suffering Jesus.

The audience of about 100 at the Siam Society headquarters on Asoke appeared to be mostly well-heeled westerners. I heard French spoken and I talked with a banker from Canada who arrived in Thailand at the same time as I, and who takes lessons in Thai every morning. The lady sitting next to me who took notes as I did was British. The Society was found in 1904 by Thai and foreign scholars. It publishes books and journals and its property includes a large library and a full-scale example of a traditional northern Thai teakwood house from the 19th century. Membership is expensive, however, and non-members pay 200 baht (twice the cost of a movie) for attending lectures. The Society also organizes trips to historical sites in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia, as well as trekking in Nepal. Costs are high and clearly are aimed at affluent foreign expats, like the Canadian banker. While those with cars and drivers left the front parking area, I walked across the street to Soi Cowboy to have a beer and sample indigenous methods of entertainment.

I really feel like a resident now. Yesterday I got a haircut from Nong at her salon not far up the soi from Siam Court. I have to say it's one of the better cuts I've received and it cost, with tip, about $5. Today I'm going to the Dental Clinic on Sukhumvit Soi 49 to get my teeth cleaned. It's been three months and I know Lynn, my favorite dental hygienist back in Santa Cruz, would not want me to slight my teeth while on safari. You can tell by its name that the Dental Hospital is aimed at the market of medical tourists who come to Thailand for dentures and more. All I want today is a cleaning, but I will explore options for my mouth which, due to the absence of teeth on the right side at present, is operating at 50 per cent efficiency. I've never much cared for spending money on teeth however (which is probably why I have so few now). Given the choice between having false teeth screwed into my jaw and a trip to Tibet, I'd probably choose the latter. I remember our neighbor in Brookdale who had all her teeth pulled and implants put in for $50,000. If God had meant our teeth to last, he would have come up with a better solution than the gum-and-enamel chewing machine that breaks down so easily.

I have to say that my health seems better here than it was in California. My sinuses are clear, despite the abundance of air pollution (which the rain nicely washes away for a little while each day). My knee feels pretty good and now I'm blaming the pain I had on my poor dear Chacos which are almost worn out. The leather slip-ons I bought, and even my New Balance tennies, do not seem to aggravate the arthritis in my knee. I'd like to report that I'm losing weight, but ice cream and chocolate, and a cornucopia of cookies, is easily available here. The main problem I'm having is swollen ankles and feet. Lying in bed with my feet up seems to ease the swelling. I suspect that spending too much time sitting down at the computer is at least one cause, and so now I put my feet up on a chair, or lie in bed with the laptop. Necessity is the mother of a thousand...oh well, you get the picture.

And here's a photo of me and my friend Marcus before the lecture at Baan Aree last Tuesday. Marcus writes a great blog, so take a look. Unfortunately, he's leaving Thailand in a few weeks for a new job teaching English in Korea where the pay is better and he can afford to live. The photo was taken by Panida, whom I met online through her sister, Jasmine. Panida is a chef for a new hotel which will open shortly and here is a picture of her testing food in the still-incomplete kitchen. She is a serious Buddhist and has given me a wealth of advice. Now she's attending the lectures in English to improve her use of the language and perhaps to hear some insights from the British monk.

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