Penang Digest (AKA Tumble-Dry Only)

There were some changes for the worse since my last visit; I even, for the first few weeks there, began to wonder whether I was over Penang. But, by the time all had been said and done, I found myself even more down-in-thee-mouth than usual at time of departure. That there island is in my fuckin’ blood, it is…

June 22:

It’s June 22nd and there are no Durians in George Town. I knew the season was going to be running late this year, but this is not good. This is very, very not good. This is very, very, very, very, very, very, very not good.

To ease the pain, there could really be only one righteous course of action; viz., wandering around town to the various safety gear shops and taking pictures of their cone arrangements. Well, what would you do?

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June 23:

The thing about this goddam George Town Helmets project is that when I’m NOT out photographing them, I just end up getting more and more pissed off at the motorcycles — they’re loud, they’re smelly, they’re everywhere, their drivers would gleefully run down their own grandmamas were the latter attempting to cross the street, and cetera. But when I’m out snapping them, I couldn’t possibly love them more.

Have now got over 11,000 pics, but far from being bored by them, I’m still constantly amazed and thrilled when I sit down to review the catch at the end of each day. While I do know that nobody loves the George Town helmetry the way I do, what I don’t know is whether any single other person even likes them at all. Well, either way, here are a few of my faves from the first full day of shooting for this year…

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June 25:

Into the mystic.

Will be spending the next week with a few dozen other fanatics at Bao Sheng — aka Durianist Disneyland — under the tutelage of the one/only Durian Seng (whom, if I have anything to say about it, will be the subject of the next Errol Morris picture). Mouth-numbing Durian; sixty-year old trees; tree-to-table in thirty minutes…you know the drill.

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Am a little uncertain of my ability to pace myself — have never even spent two consecutive days gorging here, let alone seven. But it’s a good problem to have, I should think.

Talk at you on the other side (and, no, before-and-after pics of my belly will not be forthcoming)!

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July 1:

The last day at Bao Sheng Durian Farm is the saddest day in thee universe.

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July 2:

An unforgettable week at the Bao Sheng Durian Festival. I knew I was going to feast myself silly on the world’s best Durian; but what I didn’t rightly figure was how unstoppably awesome each and every one of my fellow festival attendees (not to mention the organizers and volunteers) would be. Highlights other than stuffing oneself silly on the world’s best Durian included…

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~ The farm’s irrepressible owner, Mr. Durian Seng. This is the man who, upon his father’s passing twenty-eight years ago, converted the farm to organic practices and undertook the massive financial risk of cutting down all of its Rambutan trees in order to allow more sunlight in to protect the Durian trees from the worms. The risk paid off, and the farm has remained organic to this day — possibly the only location in all of Malaysia, and one of very, very few in the world entire, in which one can walk in (or wake up, if lodging at the farm), sit down, fork over some cash, and be immediately treated to freshly fallen, organically grown Durian. No matter how many times I hear him recount his family’s and the farm’s Durian journey, it never fails to make my heart zing with emotion.

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~ “The Durian Sessions” — as dubbed by one of the Australian attendees who occasionally participated — during which my utterly brilliant British roomates, Sam and Andreas, regaled long into the night discussing conspiracy theories, ghosts, Khao San Road’s psychic Indian holy men and dark-alley ladyboys, false flag terror attacks, Kubrick, Princess Di, rotating jet-black clouds in the shape of Klingon craft, the media, Thai curries, and so much more as well. Good old Andreas was definitely channeling some kind of energy source these nights — it was at times nigh impossible for either Sam or myself to get a word in edgewise. But all for the better, I hasten to add, as he’s one of the two or three most entertaining raconteurs I ever have met — even at three or four o’clock in the AM.

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~ Some very competitively battled chess matches engaged with fellow attendees — my first time participating in on-farm chess since back in Hawaii. Believe me, people, farm chess is just the frickin’ shizzle.

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~ The hike up to the top of Penang Hill right through another of this year’s innumerable torrential downpours. This one, beginning shortly after we set out and not letting up until we’d nearly reached the summit, brought out the leeches as well — I don’t think any of the sixteen participants managed to escape being bitten once or twice. I cheated and wore an umbrella, I ought to confess — but in my defense, there’s almost nothing in this world I hate more than hiking in the rain; and had I known the storm would carry on as long as it did, there’s absolutely zero chance I’d have joined in. But, sometimes, casting one’s lot to fate turns out to be the wiser of choices…

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~ The positive vibes brought by the Scandinavian contingent — nine Swedes and one Dane, I think was the final count — singing songs before each meal, performing gymnastic feats, meeting and greeting with all people, making a point to always converse in English even among each other, winning all the fitness competitions, smiling from ear to ear, and just generally bubbling their way through the entire festival. If these peeps are even remotely representative of the population at large, I’d go live in Sweden in half a goddam heartbeat.

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~ The Tatami Lodge — a new space since my last visit, comprised of two levels of very basic rooms, and a large, open top level used as a gathering/workout/hangout space. Best of all, the rooms feature a commanding view down onto the steep slopes of the farm, as well as being a perfect location from which to watch the night skies’ hours-long lightning shows, and listen for the thwump of falling Durian. (Also best of all: There’s very little night-time mosquito activity right now, which made it practicable to throw the sliding doors wide, ditch the AC, and breathe deep the Durianic air.)

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~ The wonderfully charming characters serving as tour guides at the nearby Penang Tropical Fruit Farm — home to more than 300 species. The guides with whom we toured during the two visits — Ali and Roy — spoke exquisitely elocuted and accented British English, and were each fountains of knowledge and trivia. One interesting tidbit of which I’d certainly not been expecting to hear: Each evening at 5:00 in the PM, the farm releases the hounds to protect the perimeter against the band of monkeys lurking just beyond. Were it not thus, the monkeys would eat up all of the farm’s fruit in very short order.

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Needless to say, that’s just a scratching of the surface. I feel very humbled to have shared this fleeting moment with these loveliest of people…can’t wait to do it again next year!

July 10:

Fuckin’ BEAST MODE Penang. I et the one on the left, as its aroma was like almost none other. It was very good, though not quite living up to my olfactory expectations. Weighing in at just over four kilos, a Durian this size wouldn’t even elicit so much as a raised eyebrow in Thailand; but here in Penang, it’s most atypical.

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The season began very late — and the fruits are selling for about three times the normal price — on account of some very naughty rains which arrived right as the tress’d all flowered, back in February, and destroyed around 80% of the crop.

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Those that survived have been delicious — but, alas, I can only afford to eat one per day. [Sigh] Welcome to the new, climate-change-driven, normal…

July 10:

Some more recent highlights from thee City Of Helmets… 

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“Durian In Black” — that’s the term used at Bao Sheng’s to describe the blue-black discoloration in the flesh one sees in the specimen pictured here on thee left. It’s a sign of a very old tree; and, what’s more, a clue that a mouth-numbing experience awaits. And this one delivered as promised. Over the years, I’ve eaten a dozen or so numbing Durians at Bao Sheng, but I believe this was only the second I’ve tasted away from the farm.

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A Durian like that could easily be the highlight of one’s gustatory week — but I’m not even sure it was my favourite of the day. For, this unassuming looking fruit on the right here turned out to be of the type I’ve come to term “Outer Space Durians” — those few that deliver a barrage of flavour, texture, and aroma so indescribable, so stupefyingly mind-turning, so avant-garde as to alter one’s consciousness for a good ninety minutes or more: Spinning head, aimless wandering, karma daze, incoherent babbling, existential time-crisis, the whole nine yards.

So (says I), the Penang Durian season has officially hit its stride. Dunno how long its peak will even last — maybe only a couple of weeks. But even in this sorriest of seasons in many a decade, we find that those flowers which did survive February’s killing rains, and live on to complete the propagation ritual, thereafter received maximum TLC from their trees such that the quality seems to be even better this year than usual. Though I can only afford to eat of a couple per day, every last one I’ve tried since returning from the farm has been the picture of magnificence (or very close to).

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I may need to consider upping my budget limit, however: My favourite grower in the city — a husband and wife team whom had initially estimated they would begin selling some time in August — to-day informed me that they will have Durian “very soon”…and also that it will be “very expensive”. I won’t shell out for sub-par Durian — no way, no how. But for Durian from trees whose produce has exploded my gourd many times before now, and in a year in which the quality on the island is already to the utmost…well, who needs money in their account when they’ve got Penang, ain’t it?

Older British gentleman staying at my hotel related to me an ordeal he suffered on the day of his arrival, knocking himself silly when smashing his head upon one of George Town’s notorious too-low archways and opening up a gaping wound. Pretty interesting story, in fact — involving Chinese waitresses, rickshaw drivers, mean doctors, nice doctors, lots of bleeding blood, and cetera.

I was especially chuffed to note his frequent use of the word “poleaxed” to describe the event. It’s a word one doesn’t hear much, if at all, any more — especially in this context. I bid it makes a comeback. And that comeback begins with you, I daresay. Please try to use the word in a sentence whenever applicable; let’s get a goddam groundswell going here…

July 14:

When it’s Durian season in Penang, every morning is like Christmas morning. And that means, of course, that every night is like Christmas Eve: Giddy anticipation / impossible even to doze as time slows to a crawl, wondering-imagining what new gifts will turn up under the tree(s) come morningtime / fever-dreaming oneself into thee paroxysmal lather…

Ho ho ho (as the man did say) — here’s to another sleepless night, Penang style!

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July 15:

Oh snap, a Chinaman at the house next door to my hotel just blew off exactly 9,000 firecrackers (yes, I kept track). Not that Chinamen ever really need an excuse to set off fireworks, but, I sense a festival is in the offing…

July 16:

In Penang Malyasia, helmet uses you!

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July 17:

Am beginning to wonder if I’m being pranked, or something — this is now the third time, over the years, seeing a local person here in Penang wearing a Huskies t-shirt.

The first two were on foot, so I was able to approach them and excitedly explain that that was my alma mater they were proselytizing. But they each looked at me like as though I’d just arrived from Planet Almondinger with a bag full of dried turds. After some further explication, they just kind of shrugged their shoulders and moved on, without even so much as a smile.

That’s weird, right? I think it’s fuckin’ weird.

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July 24:

Just another day on the island. I don’t think these two were actually fixing to get hitched — but in Penang, one can never quite be sure…

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July 25:

Freshly fallen old-tree Ochee (AKA Black Thorn) from my second-favourite orchard in the Cosmos. I think my accountant had a stroke, but…if you have to ask, ain’t it?

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July 26:

Mark it: July 26, ’17. Probably going to end up being my favourite Durian of the year — and from a grower with whom I’ve previously had very little truck, no less. Curiouser and curiouser…

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July 31:

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No matter how many times the very same fate has befallen my dimpled ass, it’s always more than a little shocking the rapidity with which the season grinds to a halt here. Just four days ago I was eating unimpeachably spectacular fruits of both named and Kampung variety, dreaming that the Durian Summer could last forever. And now, here we see — in all its starkness — the chimera that those heady days represented: The last and final numbers from my Carnarvon homie.

Though his trees are not the most consistent on the island, and though there be some whose highs are undoubtedly greater, his orchard takes a back seat to nobody when it comes to producing inconceivably outre flavours and textures. Over the years, I’ve et far more of his Durians than any other grower’s; and, sure, I’ve had to chuck a few of them into the ocean — but, oh, when they hit the mark, your head spins ’round and ’round and then ’round some more.

Your humble narrator couldn’t ever have asked for a better Durian to end the season with than this behemoth D15 on the right here. A full eight hours after the fact, my mouth is still reeling from its effects, and there’s a possibility it may have permanently altered my neural pathways (I suppose I will know more about this come daybreak). Fuckin’-A (as we say in the States), that was a stone-cold, howling-ass wallop; won’t soon be forgotten.

A couple of end-of-season anecdotes, if I may.

First off, was just yesterday sitting and eating some good stuff in the park, when an older gentleman, Penang born and bred, appeared and sat beside me to talk for a while about both Durian and hiking. (Penangites love to talk about Durian…) After some time, he handed his phone to a passerby, instructing him to take a picture of the two of us whilst reasoning, “You don’t see this very often: White man eating Durian.”

“White Man Eating Durian” — I could never dream of a better epitaph than that!!

Secondly, there’s this Palestinian guy who sells “Palestine Pudding” out of a styrofoam cooler up at the Esplanade every evening. As often as not, he stops to chat with me for a while, as I sit watching the sun set over the sea eating a Watermelon or drinking some Coconuts. After nearly a month’s doing, he finally just the other day up and asked me, “What exactly are you doing here, anyway?” I explained to him about the sorrows of Durian addiction and blah blah, and he asked me to bring him some, as he’d not ever indulged.

Which, I did tonight honour his request. Appreciative though he was, he determined that it was not for him. So, I instead took the remainder of the small fruit over to a couple of guys — one older, one younger — who’d earlier taken a break from their lazing under a tree to give me a bit of a good-natured razz, trying to get me to give my Coconut to them. They were none too put off when I demurred, but nevertheless eagerly accepted my Durianic offering, the older gent announcing that in all his live-long days, he’d never been gifted a Durian before.

“In America,” he then continued, “thirty-seven thousand people die every year…because of a fart,” while making a, like, emanation motion from his bunghole. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

After thinking about it for some moments, I responded, “I believe you!” Which response generated a much bigger laugh than I’d expected. He said he couldn’t prove it, because he didn’t any longer have the evidence to hand; but that he’d read it in the paper years before. And with that, the 2017 Penang Durian season is a wrap.

Except…we can’t end it just yet, as my friend Lindsay Gasik is throwing, in just a few days’ time, a old-fashioned eat-‘n’-greet paparazzi party to celebrate the release of her spanking-new book-length love poem to the Penang Durian. I, myself, shall expect to read it cover to cover that very same night. Only then can we put this season officially to bed. It was a very expensive one — but also a very great one.

Oh, Penang, but where does thee time go?

August 2:

White man STILL eating Durian! After two or three days’ absence, I figured they were done for the year; but lo, there were a few more Kim Hu (Goldfish) winners on Mr. Tan’s table this very same AM.

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While this one didn’t quite poleaxe my dimpled ass the way its cousins were doing last week (or the way that D15 did day-before-yester), it nevertheless served as a potent reminder that Penang Durianism IS still possible in the month of August — three years ago, I’m now recalling, I et a great one as late as August the 10th. Well, I’ve still a few more days in town; let’s see if I can end up melting down my debit card once and for all.

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And for those who may find themselves wondering what is thee next measure after consuming five kilos’ worth of Penang-quality Durian, well, I’ll tell you: Thee next measure is lying down on one’s backside, gawking the trees and the clouds for minutes or months or millennia, and trying to unlock the Durians’ teachings. Who can accomplish *that* will, in all likelihood, be crowned the next Buddha…

August 3:

WE decide which is right…and which IS an illusion.

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August 5:

“Before They Pass Away” — photographer Jimmy Nelson’s completely beguiling survey of worldwide tribal cultures, on display here during George Town Festival’s monthlong run — is quite simply the most stunning series of images upon which I have ever set my eyes.

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The otherwordly nature of the subjects combined with the ultra-large-formats of the prints (some measuring in at a good six feet by three feet) have on two separate visits left me well and truly agog. My snaps here can give a bit of a flavour, but these photos MUST be seen in person to be believed. (Factually, even *then* you won’t believe them.)

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I wouldn’t say that I’d recommend it more highly than a screening of Ran or Lawrence Of Arabia; but it’s otherwise difficult to think of anything I’d be more eager to encourage a human person to take his/her dimpled ass out to go and see. Should this installation set up shop in your town: Run, don’t walk.

Oh, and before you ask — yes, I WILL be making myself one of them moss dunce caps. Maybe not to-day; maybe not tomorrow; but, believe me, it’s gonna happen…

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August 8:

Any questions? The young youth seen here flopping about like a hepped-up wriggly worm and pounding his or her (I could never figure out whether he or she was a he or a she) tambourine into the sidewalk like as if it were John Henry’s big sledge hammer was also yelping and howling just like at a goddam revivalist meetup. Well, born a hippie will always be, I suppose.

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August 14:

Lest one thought it was only thee motorcyclists, serves as proof that George Town’s bicyclists are exceptionally fashionable as well.

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