Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My Case Against Durian

I can’t stand durian.

For those readers who’ve never been in Southeast Asia, I must explain that durian is a fruit native to that region of the world.  Often called the ‘King of Fruit,’ it’s distinctive for its size, knobby appearance before being peeled, its strong odor, and its distinctive taste. Durian’s odor, when ripe, is noticeable even before the fruit is peeled, and that odor lingers in the air for a long time; it’s for that reason that Bangkok hotels and other public places ban it. During durian season, if you walk through a parking lot, you can easily pick out the cars that have been used to transport the ‘king of fruit,’ even a week later, because of the odor emanating from their closed trunks – yes, the odor even gets out of metal enclosures.

Now, I have to put this scenario into further perspective so you’ll understand the true significance of my dislike. My wife, who is north Asian (Korean in fact) loves durian; strange taste, strong odor and all. When we lived in Cambodia from 2002 to 2005, she would often sit in our garden while I was at work and eat the damn thing. I could always tell, though, because the odor would still be in the air when I got home at five pm.

But, enough about that; this started with why I don’t like durian. Considering my past history – as a soldier, and Special Forces trained at that, I’ve been exposed to all kinds of strange foods and drink, and I’m not usually put off by the taste or odor; at least, not completely. But, durian just got to me the first time I encountered it in 1989. It triggered an aversion response like no other food has done. It took me a while to figure out why. In order to understand my revulsion, you have to go back a few years.

In 1978, I was assistant public affairs officer for the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, NC, which is also home to the 82d Airborne Division, the Special Warfare School, and a host of other deployable units. We were often called upon to assist in natural disasters, such as the blizzard that blanketed northern Ohio earlier that year. In the South American country of Guyana, a place I’d never heard of, a phony prophet from the Midwest, James Jones, had set up a branch of his communistic People’s Temple. Jones had been operating in the San Francisco area, but when the heat of publicity about his activities became too much, he and several members of cult fled to what was known as Jonestown – an area that the Guyanese government had allowed Jones and his people to settle.

There had been reports that members of the People’s Temple were abused and that their assets had been taken away. In Jonestown, some people became disillusioned with Jones’ incessant propaganda and wanted to leave. But, the place was surrounded by miles of jungle and patrolled by armed guards. Jones’ permission was required for people to leave – and he wasn’t granting it.

U.S. Representative Leo Ryan from San Mateo, California; where many Jonestown residents came from; heard of the problems at Jonestown, and decided to take a firsthand look. He took along his senior advisor, an NBC film crew, and some relatives of Peoples Temple members. Ryan’s visit went well until someone passed a note to one of the film crew with names of people who wanted to leave. It became apparent to Ryan that some people were being held forcibly in Jonestown. The next day, November 18, 1978, he announced that he was willing to take with him anyone who wanted to leave. A few people accepted his offer and got on the truck with his group. At the airport, a group of Jones’ gunmen attacked Ryan’s group as they waited to board the plane, killing him and four others.

Jones then ordered everyone in the temple to commit the ‘revolutionary act’ of suicide because the US Government would retaliate violently against them for Ryan’s death. A vat of grape-flavored Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide and Valium was provided, and there were men with guns and crossbows to encourage those who resisted. On that fateful day, 918 people, a third of them children, died, either from the cyanide-laced drink or from gunshot wounds – Jones died from a single gunshot wound to the head.

A few days later, as the news of the tragedy unfolded, units at Ft. Bragg were alerted to go to Guyana to recover the bodies. I was the public affairs officer for the task force. I’ll never forget the radio chatter as the helicopters flew from the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, over the jungle toward Jonestown. First, there were the reports that you could ‘smell the place’ from several miles away. Then, reports from the first people on the ground as they encountered corpses that had lain for three days in the steaming jungle. At that stage of putrefaction, the flesh begins to liquefy. As they began retrieving the bodies, the count, which at first we’d been told was around 200, began to rise as they discovered bodies – often small children – beneath the bodies of adults. The number went from 200 to 400, then 600, no, 700, and finally 900 or more. It’s been more than 30 years, and I still have nightmares about it sometimes.

But, back to durian and why I can’t stand it. The first time a ripe fruit, nearly ten pounds and about the size of a football, was put in front of me and I spooned up some of the flesh, the image of Jonestown popped into my head. That damned fruit wasn’t much smaller than a tiny child, and the combination of smell and texture was more than I could take. I pushed it aside, mumbled some lame apology to my host, and that was that.

It’s not rational, I know. The orange color of durian is nothing like rotting flesh. The smell is close, but not exact, and frankly, overripe mango has a similar texture. Doesn’t matter. My mind made the connection, and it will not be swayed.

Keep your durian, thank you. It might be your ‘king,’ but to me, it’s more like the ‘devil.’

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