New trials, new tastes
Two weeks and a country away from the Mekong, Dave and I were acquainting ourselves with another muddy river: the Chao Phraya of Bangkok. The Thai capital's main attractions, from golden-domed temples to grandiose palaces embellished with exotic depictions of animals and people, are all located in an old section of the vast city that is not accessible via the city’s metro systems. A river ferry provides the most efficient means of transport between the old city and the Sky Train stop that we would take back to our hotel.
After a full day of examining giant Buddhas, losing ourselves in Bangkok’s befuddling alley system, and sweating through our shirts, we were ready to freshen up in the cool comfort of our hotel. We made our way back to the closest ferry station, where a cluster of vendors were hawking their wares. One venerable fruit merchant, a shaggy-haired man who would not have looked out of place at a San Francisco co-op, persuaded Dave to buy a neon-hued king orange beverage. The juice was delicious: sweet, sour, and salty in equal measures. I noticed that he also stocked plump sections of pale yellow fruit seated on Styrofoam trays and sheathed in plastic wrap. These pods were fatter and paler than those we’d seen in Vietnam, but they were definitely durian.
I bought a tray. The fruit, I reasoned, deserved another chance. Perhaps our Mekong durian had been subpar.
I unwrapped my treat while we waited for the ferry. This time, the flesh didn’t collapse when I bit into the pod; instead it remained firm but lush and creamy. The flavor was milder and somehow more savory than the previous durian's.
“Dave — I think I like it!” I said as the ferry approached.
“I can smell it,” he said. He wouldn't try a single bite.
We climbed aboard the boat. More of a tourist vehicle during off-peak hours, in early evening the ferry was as crowded as a rush hour New York subway car. Teenagers in baggy school uniforms jostled for space with well-dressed professionals and grungy tourists, while monks in saffron robes stood aloof looking out at the choppy waters.
“Really?” I said as the ferry pulled away. “I can’t smell it. Is it bad?”
“It smells like garbage.”
“Oh. Sorry, I guess,” I said. I kept nibbling at the durian nonetheless. Filling my mouth with its flavor probably prevented the odor from offending my nose. The more I ate, the less disturbing I found the onion taste and the more I enjoyed the fruit’s intense sweetness and pudding-like consistency. I moved closer to Dave as more ferry passengers crushed in around us. He backed away.
“Seriously, you don’t smell that?” The boat was ripping down the Chao Phraya. Dave stood downwind of me.
“No!” I said.
“It’s really strong. Like something is rotting.”
“Well I’ll throw it away when we get off.”
Soon the ferry was pulling into a dock. The boats only stop for a matter of seconds, so we rushed to the exit while I pulled out a map to make sure we had actually reached our destination.
“No,” I cried. “This isn’t it — we have three more stops!”
But it was too late. Dave had already jumped out to the dock, and the ferrymen were now pushing the boat back onto the river. I was still on the boat. It was gaining speed.
“WAIT!” I screamed, pointing at Dave. The ferrymen laughed at my distress. I balked. Then all at once I started laughing too. “I’ll meet you at the next stop!” I called. I couldn’t tell if Dave heard me over the roar of the engine and slapping of waves.
At the next station I dutifully disembarked, durian still in hand. I ate a few more bites before tossing what was left into a nearby trash can — a luxury after two weeks in Vietnam, where the government apparently didn’t consider such receptacles a public necessity.
In Vietnam. If this had happened in Vietnam, I would have been terrified. The dock where I waited was much quieter than others on the Chao Phraya. I was totally alone looking out at the broad muddy waters floating occasional bunches of detached water plants that rose and fell on the waves. It looked just like the Mekong, if you replaced the skyscrapers with palm trees and the grand gilded temples with rusty tin shacks. I had changed since we chugged down that river just twelve days earlier. Then, even a minor inconvenience like this would have initiated a nervous fit: heart pounding, palms sweating, mind churning with worst-case scenarios.
Now I was calm, even amused. A place is a place is a place. With a head on your shoulders and a few coins in your pocket, it’s usually possible to adjust your course and plan your next move. This is how you travel, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance.
The next ferry pulled up, and there was Dave waving at the back near the entrance. His smile said Yes, we’re ridiculous – but that’s no reason to abandon our dignity. I hopped on and pulled him in for a hug.
“Hello,” he said. “You smell like durian.”