Singapore is not so much a country, as it is a high-end shopping mall with Customs officials. The food is varied, the streets are spotless, and there are rules about everything. This explains the local joke that Singapore is a fine city.
One of those many rules pertains to a fruit. The signs are everywhere on the city’s metro. You cannot eat food, smoke cigarettes, transport flammable goods, or bring aboard the hedgehog shaped fruit called durian. A fruit, banned. The very same government that boldly proclaims on their visa entry forms, in large red type, that drug traffickers will be executed, also keeps their public transit system safe from a fruit. This seemed excessive to me. (They don’t like gum either, but that’s a separate issue.) I’d heard of durian, heard it had something of an unusual flavour, but knew that it was wildly popular across East Asia with over a million tonnes of the fruit being harvest every year. It was called the King of Fruit and yet Singapore felt it necessary to ban the thing from public transit. I had to try it.
Unlike much of South East Asia, Singapore keeps its fresh Durian well hidden. Across China town I found numerous stalls selling durian puffs, durian cookies, and durian cream filled crapes, but never the real thing. Never fresh durian in its hedgehog armor. It wasn’t until after a day wandering the old British fort at Labrador Battery, that in the sort of high-end grocery store that sells fifteen dollar peaches, I spotted a store attendant keeping guard over one particular part of the fruit section. I had found durian.
When un-opened a durian looks like a medieval weapon. It can grow to the size of an American football, and if you get through its formidable defenses has a yellowish, brain like flesh. The flavor, they say, is unique and wonderful, even if the smell is a bit unusual. Unfortunately what I’d found wasn’t a whole durian, but rather a half durian, cleaned and prepped in plastic wrap. I asked the attendant how I could buy the whole fruit, assuming that would be the most flavorful version. No doubt correctly pegging me as a durian virgin, she politely advised against it. It seems the fruit is armored well enough that for the untrained, getting at the interior meat is the quickest way to lose a finger. The half durian would have to do for now. Twenty dollars later I had my half durian, encased in plastic wrap, which was then place in a plastic bag which also contained two French pastries. I headed out into Singapore’s heat. The pastries never had a chance.
Whenever I stopped walking I began to notice a sweet, meaty rot. The first time I figured it must be garbage somewhere nearby, which was unlikely as there’s never garbage nearby in Singapore. It’s against the rules. When I began walking again the smell dissipated and I thought nothing more of it. However after stopping again at a traffic light, the exact same smell returned and after sniffing into the bag I realized it was coming from the durian itself. It was a terrible smell, a foul odor that combined all manner of putrid stenches into one. Surely this smell wasn’t right. My durian must have gone bad in the heat. I tied the top of the plastic bag into a tight knot. The knot had had no effect. The stench returned every time I stopped. Singapore’s air is hot, humid, and had activated the thing like a chemical weapon.
At my hotel I hurried to the elevator—past the sign banning durian within the hotel–and swore quietly as just before the elevator doors slid shut a well-dressed man squeezed in. Poor fool. The durian had taken on a life of its own. I’d brought that chemical weapon into an enclosed space and could do nothing now but hope he was suffering a rare condition that left him without the sense of smell. I pressed 58. He pressed a higher number. He was trapped with me and the durian, in that enclosed space, for 58 floors. As the elevator rose he stared resolutely forward as though it was entirely normal for an elevator to smell as though there were a dead animal rotting in the ductwork. But I could tell. I could tell by the way his brow furrowed that the durian was having an effect. I imagined I could see a bead of sweat on his brow. This would be an elevator ride he would not soon forget. I was grateful once we reached my floor and I hurried quickly out. I’m sure he was as well.
Once in my room I didn’t know what to do, the stench quickly filled the entire place. This was madness. It wasn’t even a whole durian. I’d lost any desire to try the damn thing but couldn’t very well throw it in the garbage can. What would happen tomorrow when the cleaning lady came about? I had to contain the stench, seal it off from the rest of the world. I had to be able to sleep in that room. I thought of the safe. Surely that would work. I removed the two pastries that had been in the bag with the durian, double bagged the fruit, put it in the closet safe, closed both the safe and closet doors, and then opened the sliding door onto my 58th floor balcony. I’m not a fan of heights, but had to do something. The breeze was substantial and the room’s air was rapidly cleared. With the durian finally safety contained I got a drink and fired up Google to find out if my durian had gone off. Wikipedia said, “its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” No. My durian was apparently just fine. I took a bite of my French pastry and spat it out. It was ruined. Perhaps durian is the King of Fruit, but I’m guessing the selection was hereditary.
I woke up in the middle of the night certain I could smell the durian again. Within minutes I had the safe open and the durian went out onto the balcony where it remained the rest of my stay, and may very well still be there today.
In Indonesia durian is admired as an aphrodisiac. “The durians fall and the sarongs come up,” they say. Perhaps it’s due to fainting.