If there’s one crime that suits my disposition better than others it’s stealing fruit. In England, harvesting fruit without permission is a sport fondly referred to as ‘scrumping’. It’s a right of passage. No stigma attached. Even the prime minister would be forgiven fruit-stealing proclivities so long as he atoned by lowering the tax on apple cider.
Here on the banks of the Mekong, in a country twice removed from the grassy orchards of Somerset, there’s every chance that scrumping is an offence punishable by more than just a slap on the wrists.
The fruit that has got me wondering whether it’s ever right to steal, is none other than the king of fruits, the mighty mighty jackfruit: big as an Ox and knobblier than granny’s crochet blankets. This one’s a beauty: the fruit is roughly wombat-size, irregular, oblong, kissed with black at its extremities, and anchored to the trunk by a stem as thick and sinuous as an umbilical chord. The tree has delivered one hell of a baby!
As I stand on the pavement overlooking the jackfruit tree I try in vain to check my desire to raid and pilfer, snatch and gorge. In all probability, I concede, I’m past the acceptable scrumping age.
I stand for so long that a guard emerges from his booth beside a nearby monument. The jackfruit signals me with its fruity pheremones. The guard looks over curiously. Meanwhile, I’m calculating the time it would take to leap to the foot of the tree, shimmy up, remove my knife from its sheath, slash the stem, catch the fruit (all the while avoiding the sticky white resin), descend the trunk without breaking an ankle, and run helter skelter into the undergrowth to devour it. The guard knows none of this. For all he knows I’m another flutie falang (foreigner) with more money than sense, and a penchant for evening strolls and river views.
It takes a massive exercise of restraint. I walk away.
The promontory has other attractions, other delights: trees so heavily laden with moss that they resemble giant wooly apes; golden wats with winged eaves; cafes where green coconuts lie mounded in wait of thirsty mouths; the ‘putt putt putt’ of slow boats swimming upstream; bamboo bridges where idlers stroll, their thoughts bent on a dinner devoid of stolen jackfruit, or stolen fruit of any kind.
It takes a full half hour for the itchiness in my fingers to subside, and the upwelling of saliva in my mouth to drain away. The jackfruit in question will live to see another day. And my moral fibre will remain intact, hanging on by a thread…
You can’t walk quickly in Luang Prabang. Everything is against you – the heat, the humidity, the trance-like breeze, even the river, which won’t be outdone for laziness.
Onlookers could be forgiven for thinking me drunk, tottering from one side of the road to the other, following the logic of shade. The mango trees are the most generous shade-givers, the tamarinds close runners-up. Only the topmost branches of the tamarinds are still in possession of fruit. The bottommost branches have been stripped, the sticky brown flesh shaken and stirred into jugs of refreshing sour juice, or added to soups to puncture the sweet pillow of coconut milk.
I scan the ground below a fat old tamarind hoping it has been kind enough to drop a ripe pod for a hungry wayfarer. Nothing.
On Xatikhoumann Road I pass a screen of woven rattan where patties of glutinous rice cling for dear life. They’re destined for temples where they’ll join forces with banana leaves and marigolds in an offering of wholesome abundance.
The Buddha’s blessing sit deeply over the wats of Luang Prabang. The monks are serene. Their jackfruit trees well-endowed; 60 or 70kg of fruit hanging in green bunches from a single trunk. It’s months before they’ll reach their full glory. By then it will be wet season; the market will be flooded with delicious giants, neighbours vying to offload their excess fruits onto friends and relations. No reason to steal. Would I were here then!