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23.3.12

Every Day Is Equinox

It's kind of cool living here on the equator.  Every day is equinox.  The only seasonal differences have to do with the amount of rainfall and where the Sun rises and sets against the sky.

The monsoon season is drawing to a close now.  Back in October, everyone was preparing for the worst, since conventional wisdom has it that every five years, there's a major flood in Jakarta (this being the fifth since the last biggie).  We seemed to have dodged the bullet.  Sure, there were some heavy rains and high water, but being a native Houstonian, I didn't find them to be exceptional.

Right now, we're enjoying the two weeks in between Wet and Dry seasons, where there's a pleasant breeze as the winds shift to the south, the skies clear and Jakarta is almost pleasant for a moment.

The Sun is shifting from the southern sky to the northern, which is nice since my porch faces the north and my plants can get some badly needed light for the next six months.  If I stand facing the sunset, then to my right is Spring and to my left is Fall.

The other difference is that in the coming six months, the Sun will rise and set a little after 6 o'clock.  During the other half of the year, it's a little before.  Regardless, every day is 12 hours, come hell or high water, which incidently is a pretty good description of the seasons here.

Monsoon season is rather interesting.  Many Westerners think of it as non-stop rain for six months, which is not true.  In fact, the normal cycle is to have moments when the sky gets dark and foreboding.  Then the sky literally splits asunder and water falls so fast it doesn't even bother to form drops.  This normally lasts about 10 or 15 minutes, and usually occurs just before sunrise or just after sunset.

There are some days where it's rainy all day, but it comes in blasts rather than unending rainfall, like Houston. The storms are sometimes accompanied by strong winds and even tornado-like destruction, though no one claims to have ever seen a funnel cloud.  It's almost like the wind gets channeled into a strong tube that levels everything in its path.

If you get out of the city and find some relatively dark skies, you can see Orion and the Magellanic Clouds in the same night, not to mention the Southern Cross and Microscopium, and other southern asterisms.

Right now, the fruit trees are busting with goodies.  My apple tree on the porch is offering up some delicious little pink apples that are about half-way between sweet and sour.  The markets are overflowing with fruit.  My wife just bought a bunch of manggisan (mangosteen) and some pisang raja (king bananas).  Until I came here, I had no idea there were so many kinds of bananas.  I've counted as many as 15, ranging from thumb-sized sweet boogers up to mean green gnarly suckers as long as my arm.

There's rambutan and salak and kelapa and apulkat, and these cool little oranges about the size of a shooter marble, and limes that are so sour they turn your face inside out, but make hellacious margaritas!  My favorite are the buah naga, or dragon fruit.  They are about the size of a football, pink with yellow curly things all over them, and the flesh and taste are kind of like a pear with little black seeds sprinkled throughout.

The most unusual tropical fruit, which is saying a lot since they are all rather strange, is the durien.  This fruit has a near cult following in Southeast Asia.  From Thailand to the Archipelago, people build statues and have laws and even have entire restaurants devoted to this fruit.

It's about the size of a football (again), with a hard shell covered with formidable spines.  Flung hard enough, they would make useful weapons.  When they are ripe, the shell splits, which is about the only way you can get into the suckers.  The smell is, well, rather unique.  I've heard it described as rotten onions tucked inside year-old gym socks, and that's about as accurate as I've found.  Most Westerners won't go near the stuff, which is fine by me.  All the more for us brave ones.

When you open the shell, there are about four fleshy, pale yellow slugs.  They look a lot like stuffed chicken gut sausage, really.  The slugs are the part you eat.  Each one has a massive seed in the center.  Now this is the best part...the texture is like tapioca pudding and the flavor is indescribable.  There is nothing else like on Earth, that I've ever experienced.  It is wholly and completely unique.  And for those not brave enough to try it, there are pastries, cookies and even ice cream made from it.

In Singapore, it's against the law to take durien on the subway, and most hotels won't let you bring it inside, because Westerners find the smell highly offensive.  In Medan, there's a street restaurant only open at night that is famous for serving several varieties of the fruit.  If you find yourself in Medan and would like to try it, just follow your nose.  You can smell the place for about a half-mile around.  In Thailand there are festivals.  In Surabaya, you can find literally piles of it along the coast road.

An interesting note about durien is that as it ripens, the alcohol content rises in the fruit.  If you eat enough of it, you will get a hangover.  In some places, it is unseemly for unmarried couples to be seen eating it together.  It really is a unique phenomenon, and one that every Westerner visiting Southeast Asia should try.  Just hold your nose and be brave.

So today we celebrate the Equinox with a Hindu holiday called Nyepi.  It's basically a day of purification when Hindus (and anyone living in Bali) may not use any technology AT ALL.  Everything shuts down.  No traffic, no pedestrians, no home appliances, no TeeVee, and no one leaves the house.  The Hindus spend outrageous amounts of money on something called ogoh-ogoh.  These are elaborate constructs designed to entice and trap various spirits that 'pollute' the realm of the living throughout the rest of the year.  Folks place them in front of their homes and groups get together and erect huge ones in public areas.

The ogoh-ogoh cost anywhere from $100 to thousands of dollars, and can range anywhere from discrete displays in front of the house, to the size of a house.  And while these clean the spiritual environment, folks clean out their houses, the streets get swept and everything is polished up for the holiday.  Kind of like spring cleaning back home, but taken to the extreme.

Seems that even without seasons, there are seasons.  Many parts of the world have some kind of ritual surrounding this moment in time.  Even astronomers and astrologers calibrate equipment and measurements on the Vernal Equinox.  My ancestors built enormous bonfires and got ripped to the gills to celebrate, which I find a rather attractive way to observe this moment.

However you choose to celebrate your turning, just remember that for half the world, it's the Autumnal Equinox.  There's such a bias in common culture to the Northern and Western Hemispheres.  And us equatorial dwellers are always left out, either way.  Enjoy your Spring/Fall/Dry!

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