The visual chaos of jumbled signs plastered everywhere in sight, at all heights, in all colors; the air that clings to your skin, and the tactile sensation of walking in flip flops over uneven concrete surfaces; the sambal chili paste that seared my mouth and then my stomach; the constant din of motorbikes zipping, the blaring call to prayer five times daily, the roosters that wake at 4:15am and don’t sleep until sundown, the whistles and honking directing traffic flow. This island, the most populated on the planet, is relentlessly corporeal. But more than any of the other senses, Java assaults the nose.
Outside, smells are constant and overlapping. Sweet but maybe toxic cooking gas, fish oil, palm oil, moth balls. Several varieties of cigarettes, some spicy and enjoyable; others, revolting. On urban road medians, there are sometimes burning piles of banana leaves, used as food wrappers, that smell like a cozy tropical campfire. But occasionally, the piles contain plastic and I try not to breath in too deeply. Damp grass and wet pavement, overlaid with the gasoline sold at small roadside stands, is especially palpable with the nose this wet season. In the evening, kitchens unfurl on the sidewalks. Charcoal barbecues for skewered chicken; steaming vats of bakso, a meatball soup; deep fryers for martabak, a pastry-wrapped egg and onion cake. There are stalls and wheeled carts offering up aromas of roti bakar, buttered white bread sweetened with condensed milk and fried; of fermented shrimp paste and of hot ginger drink with Javanese brown sugar. Also of fried tempe and grilled fish, and a dozen types of nasi goreng—fried rice—the national staple. It all offends, stimulates, satiates.
But very often, the insides are sanitized. While I waited for the technician to fix my flash drive modem in a bright and chilly Telkomsel store, the Indonesian version of AT&T, I watched a gray box attached to the wall near the ceiling. Every five minutes, it shot out a white mist. Time-release “clean” scent. My clothes too reek of “clean” scent, sprayed with parfum and wrapped in plastic after being laundered and pressed. Lavender or white flower or citrus air fresheners hang in every toilet stall, in every taxicab, in every elevator, in every ATM booth, off every air conditioning unit. These are the scents of order, and of progress.
On the busiest road leaving the campus of Jogjakarta’s Universitas Gajah Mada, where I had a few meetings this week, motorbikes and mini-trucks spew opaque exhaust that would send the California smog detector machines spiraling. But there is a spot on the north side of this road where fruit sellers operate tailgate-style, and as you cruise along, it hits you. For just a few breaths, motor exhaust is overcome by something mercurial. It’s durian season.
Infamously noxious and delicious, durian is a fruit of derision and affection indigenous to Borneo. Alfred Russell Wallace’s description from 1855 is as apropos of its smell as its taste. “A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp with nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid, nor sweet, not juicy, yet one feels the want of none of these qualities, for it is perfect as it is.” Signs posted in trains here read “no smoking, no durian.” Over morning coffee last weekend, a friend with a lifetime’s worth of Southeast Asian botanical knowledge told me that on Borneo the durian trees are still considered sacred. One must never cut the fruit from the tree. They used to rely on the already extinct Bornean rhinoceros to knock it down; now, they go out at night with lanterns and wait. And everyone stampedes at the sound of a thud. There’s also a lot of hanky-panky going on in the forest, she nodded tellingly.
I wanted just a taste, but they shook their heads. It was like stopping in Parma, Italy, to sample the Parma di Prosciutto and being told that for a few thin slices, you'd have to be saddled with the whole ham leg. So I bought one the size of a football for about $2, likely severed from a tree on a Javanese plantation. The seller cracked the top open with a machete, tied a blue string around it, and hung it from the front of my motorbike. Once home, it was already attracting insects. Its spikes were too foreboding to leave it lying around where I might stab myself (again). Not knowing where else to put it, I left the thing on a hanger in my closet, dangling by its thread between a blazer and a dress. Durian scent is wafting throughout my room now, but I think it’s better than the fried fish I could smell in here last night at 11pm, or the cigarette smoke I woke up to this morning. Durian prevails.
Visiting friends in a small village just south of the city the other night, we lingered over a dinner of homemade gudeg, the pungent Jogjakarta stew of jackfruit, coconut milk, palm sugar, spices, teak leaves, and hard-boiled egg. An incense coil burned at the entrance of their dimly lit, one room joglo, a traditional Javanese wood-framed house that they had moved here from afar and restored. Leftover rain dripped off the eaves of the roof. Their doors and windows all flung open towards rice paddies. Conversation drifted from English into Indonesian as my friend sliced open a red dragonfruit, picked from the yard. Its flesh more magenta than a beet, I realized it didn’t have much of a scent. Or if it did, it was drowned out by the wisps of incense and curls of clove cigarette smoke drifting in from the porch.
As I got into a car to leave a little while later, I inhaled deeply, smelling nothing in particular. Sangat segar di sini, I said to the driver as we slammed our doors: it’s really fresh here. Ya, he chuckled, udaranya enak. Their air is enak. It’s one of my favorite Indonesian words. Usually used to describe food as tasty or delicious, enak can also mean feeling comfortable or really good, in reference to one’s physical body. Or, as I found out, the air can smell—and feel—enak. Delicious and fresh and comfortable, if only in the absence of anything else.