by Mo Tejani
Nothing transports you faster to a distant time and place than scents and flavors.
This morning, perched on a wooden chair in my teeming tropical garden in northern Thailand, I am writing about Africa, the continent that still holds a firm grip on me. The sun’s warmth, after the heavy dawn shower, has brought plants and insects to life. Brown centipedes and gray snails are crawling towards sun-drenched places where they can bask undisturbed. The bird-of-paradise flowers are reaching out to the light.
I recall this flower well from childhood games in Uganda—six-year-old African and Asian boys flicking the sticky yellow pollen stems onto each other’s starched white school shirts, knowing that our mothers would give us a verbal or physical thrashing for stains that would take days to wash off. Today, I walk over to the Thai version of this same flower to take a long deep smell to remind me of the African savannah. It is still the same after all these years; the scent beams me across the Bay of Bengal, over the Indian Ocean, and onto the red clay soil of Uganda.
Next to the flower is the tun-tun tree clustered into bunches of tiny, ripe yellow-green balls of fruit that pop into your mouth straight from the tree and explode with a sourness that is as sharp as raw tamarind. . . . On Sunday market days as a young boy, with my tiny hand wrapped around my father’s middle finger, I plead with him to buy me a bagful of this very same fruit for my afternoon snack. . . . Today, I plop a few in my mouth to remember the taste of Kampala and my departed father’s face. The tangy aftertaste takes me back to other long-lost tropical fruits from back home—or at least what was once home. That was until the madman Idi Amin kicked out all 80,000 of us Indians.
I still crave jambura, an inch-long black fruit with a tiny hole at the top and a green seed inside. It remains top of my list of lost fruits, especially since I haven’t tasted it for over thirty years now. I call it by its Swahili name because, having looked for it in vain during my travels through Latin America, Asia, and the English-speaking world, I have yet to find out what it is called in other languages. Like tun-tun, it grows in bunches on a large leafy tree. When ripe and black, it is sweet and juicy. When green or pink and still raw, it tastes sour, astringent, and leaves a purple stain on the tongue that can take days to fade away.
Second on my list of missed fruits is kajoo—the multicolored fruit that the cashew nut comes from. Just below this pear-shaped fruit, perched as though it were a cup-like handle, is the cashew nut, which when roasted serves as a wildly popular snack in many parts of the world. However, the fruit itself—a blend of bright reds, greens, and yellows merging on the outer skin—has chewy yellow flesh inside, and is extremely acidic and tangy with very little juice. The aftertaste leaves the tongue quite dry, almost numb with that same feeling one gets upon leaving the dentist’s office after a few rounds of Novocain. As Ugandan boys, during our summer escapades—weekend picnics to Entebbe or fishing trips to Kazi—we’d bring along bagfuls of this readily available fruit to stuff ourselves with till our tongues were as dry as the Sahara, always discarding the nut as worthless. In Thailand it’s easy to find raw cashew nuts, or roasted ones in vacuum-sealed bags in the supermarkets, but I have yet to come upon the actual fruit itself.
Africa, it seems, is still deep within me, despite thirty years of globetrotting.
Give me the smell of a childhood flower, the taste of a forgotten fruit, and Zap! I am back to the land of my birth, back to the patch of grass we called our soccer field, and the constant drone of cicadas in the banyan trees.
In my humid garden in the village of Mae Rim, I walk back to my laptop to resume writing. My neighbors John and Monika knock at the front door with two other friends, Eric and Ang. They want me to join them for a day trip to the Pong Khaw hot springs, about thirty kilometers into the jungles of Chiang Mai. John, built like Schwarzenegger, is a Puerto Rican ex-Marine who now thinks of Thailand as his new home. Monika is a stocky, black-haired Hungarian gypsy, madly in love with her dogs. Eric, from New Jersey, is a teacher at a Thai secondary school, which is where he met Ang, his gorgeous honey-skinned Chinese-Thai girlfriend from Lanta Island in the south. With me, the Ismaili Muslim writer, we have ourselves a veritable and eclectic group of wanderers off to trek through the Lanna jungles.
Missing Africa always depresses me, so I decide to go along with them to break free of nostalgia’s black hole. Within the hour, all of us pile into John and Monika’s 1950s Land Rover, along with their two dogs, Matzo and Luna.
On the bumpy dirt road, I enjoy speaking with John, Eric, and Ang, each in their own language. I don’t know any Hungarian, but Monika speaks great English in her gypsy accent. The dogs, their heads poking out of the back windows on either side, love the breeze. In the countryside we climb the lime-green terraced paddy fields that are ready for harvest. In the valleys, the clunky Land Rover weaves through scattered Hmong and Burmese villages, as startled bystanders stare at these unannounced strangers of foreign lands.
My yearning for Africa is forgotten, replaced by multilingual chatter and the green scenery rolling by.
Two hours later we arrive at the hot springs, dusty and hungry. The resort has a compound with two large open-air sulfur pools bisected by a small creek. On the hillsides, water buffaloes graze at the edge of a heavy jungle. The place is deserted except for an orchestra of jungle insects and avian sonatas. As soon as we let them out, Matzo and Luna take off to chase the buffaloes.
At the reception area we find Tong, the Thai concierge. She laments that since we didn’t call ahead of our arrival, and because guests are few and far between during rainy season, she doesn’t have any Thai food prepared for us. We settle for fried noodles with eggs and some pre- packaged soup to tide us over.
For the next few hours we refresh ourselves in the hot sulfur pools and the cool creek, taking turns to teach Luna and Matzo how to swim in the shallow water. It’s their very first time bathing au natural in the outdoors. A hide-and-seek dance between Eric and Matzo, around a large mushroom shaped stone umbrella with four rocks for seats, has us all in stitches. Luna tries to pull off Ang’s sarong, bringing guffaws from us males that generate sneers from Monika and Ang. By the afternoon, we are ravenous again after all the swimming and running around. Tong scurries off to find fruit and fifteen minutes later returns with a bowlful of the usual seasonal offerings— lychees, mangosteens, and guavas. We wolf it all down in minutes until there is only one pear-like green and yellow fruit left at the bottom of the bowl that none of the others have ever seen before. But the shape jogs my memory.
“What fruit is this?” I ask Tong.
“Himalayan mango. Very sour,” she says.
I don’t recognize the Thai name but ask her to cut it up for me anyway. As soon as I see the yellow flesh inside, my heart skips a beat. I realize this is a yet-to-ripen kajoo. I devour half of it, letting the juice drip down my lips as if I was on a boys’ picnic back at Ripon Falls, the source of the river Nile. I am in heaven. Forgetting my manners, I pass it to Monika to taste. But she finds it way too tangy for her liking. I quickly polish off the rest.
My nostalgia for Africa is back, stronger than before. So I take to discussing Thai jungle fruits with Tong. She explains that kajoo season in the jungle ended just days ago, which is why she was only able to find an unripe one. For the umpteenth time in my life, I describe the jambura fruit to her, hoping against hope. Tong has no clue what fruit I am talking about. She says something in northern Thai to her assistant, who disappears into the jungle. I go over to Ang, whose English is very good, give her a vivid description of jambura, and ask her to translate verbatim.
Tong keeps shaking her head, still unable to identify the fruit. Eventually, a few minutes later, I give up on ever finding my beloved jambura.
Come closing time as we’re about to take off in the Land Rover, Tong’s assistant, gasping for breath, stops our departure, gesturing to a bowl in his hand.
Haa luuk wah, re plaw khap? he asks. “Is luuk wah the fruit you’re looking for?”
My eyes light up. My mouth is agape. Inside the bowl are a handful of jambura! For once I am speechless. Ecstatic, I leap out of the car and choose a few ripe ones. I feel the texture, smell the odor, peel off the top, and ever so slowly savor that old, old sensation of the juice slowly slithering down as if all of Africa is now in my throat.
The assistant passes the bowl to my friends who, again, find the taste not to their liking. I couldn’t care less. I am back in Uganda, on a dirt road across from my house, playing games with my childhood friends in a jambura tree. We are playing “tree-tag” among the high branches. One of us lets go a loud, squishy fart, causing everyone to double up in hysterics. I have a wide grin on my face.
John says it’s time to go. I hug Tong’s assistant, who was kind enough to climb the luuk wah tree in the jungle just to quench a thirst I have been carrying for thirty years. Putting the six remaining jambura in a plastic bag for me to eat on the road back, he wais to me.
“Stop at the temple in Mae Taeng on your way. There is a luuk wah tree there,” he yells as we take off.
I convince John to look for the temple, which we eventually find after asking directions from locals three times. A solitary young monk in his saffron robe is sitting on the steps of the old, golden-spired temple. I ask him in Thai to please take me to the luuk wah tree so I can remember what the African tree looked like. Unfazed by this total stranger with a most unusual request, he motions me to follow him.
I don’t know if he has understood me, but he leads me down to a water tank shrouded in trees. I follow him as he climbs onto a metal ladder leading to the flat top. Leaning over the tank is a huge branch covered in clusters of jambura. Most of them are pink and green, not yet fully ripe. He motions to me to take as many as I want. I break off a few ripe ones and share them with him as we sit on the concrete tank. I recount the childhood games I used to play in this same tree in Africa. He smiles and, talking for the first time, tells me that the English word for luuk wah is “mulberry.” I am astonished. I begin to tell him more about Uganda, but I hear John honking his horn at the temple entrance.
As we part, the monk tells me in a soft tone, “Right behind the Mae Rim Temple, there is a big luuk wah tree that has many more ripe ones.”
I wai him my thanks and get back in the Land Rover for the drive home.
The seeds of my African childhood are quietly bearing fruit in the jungles of Thailand.
Mo Tejani is a global Muslim gypsy who has been roaming the world for over four decades now. Exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror in the 1970s, he was suddenly left homeless, with little sense of his own cultural identity. He spent the next forty years traveling through all five continents, working with the poor. He has taught world literature in Uganda, Canada, the United States, Thailand, Guatemala, and Ecuador. The first of his three-volume travel memoirs, A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee, was a 2007 New York P.E.N. Book Award finalist. The India edition, re-titled Thank you, Idi Amin, is being published in 2010. Tejani has been called a “cross-cultural Kerouac,” and Tim Cahill says that reading his stories “is like eating popcorn: you can’t stop devouring them.” Visit his website at www.motejani.com. “Fruits of Childhood” won the Travel and Food Gold Award in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.