New Delhi, India
India is hot in the summer. Hot. So hot that youâ€™re not actually sure your body is experiencing the amount of heat that is bearing down on you from a sky so hazy it looks snow white. And this is in the countryside, where the mammoth heat has room to stretch out, kick its feet up on your sweaty shoulders and take it easy. Thereâ€™s a whole new kind of heat when you reach the cities.
I found this out in New Delhi, my first experience with a truly massive Indian city – streets teeming, swelling, overflowing with people and auto rickshaws – cabs and cars and choking exhaust; pit stained saris and endless shouts; manic gestures and beetle stained spit and sacred cattle. The heat jumps up and bustles about, gaining energy from everyone and everything except you, little pink boy. It pushes you around and drowns your stomach and crotch in salty water, blinds your eyes, dries your mouth, burns your feet and stiffens your joints. Five steps into a leisurely stroll and youâ€™re drenched – all before eight o’clock in the morning!
I discovered Indian heat while in Vietnam. I was traveling after my senior year in college, sprinting from one real world into another equally real, yet cosmically different. I drove with my two best friends from Atlanta to San Francisco, hopped on a plane for Vietnam and one lunar cycle later, skipped west to the subcontinent, the land of the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers, the Deccan Plateau, the Himalayan Mountains, and Indian Ocean beaches.
Coincidentally, while in Vietnam, I read a book by Sarah Macdonald entitled Holy Cow, a chronicle of her time and experiences while living in India. In reference to the oppressive summer heat, she suggested not visiting India between late May and early September. If anyone did, they either had to be completely unaware of what they were getting into, or prodigiously dimwitted for knowing and going on anyway. Keep in mind that June temperatures in Vietnam are also about as comfortable as medieval horsehair camisoles. I hadnâ€™t stopped sweating since I got off the plane three weeks earlier. Ergo, I read that sentence, took a deep breath, exhaled it slowly, and muttered, â€œWell, shitâ€¦â€
Once I got to India, it wasnâ€™t until the second or third day that I really began to crack under the heat. As most people who claim to enjoy traveling can tell you, the first full day in a new country or town is brimming with the excitement of exploring novel surroundings and jumping into fresh experiences. Day one is the time when (and I personally never, ever, admit this) you consider this tourist or backpacking trip an adventure. In Delhi, this included dodging punk youths on motorbikes/scooters, avoiding the dingiest of alleys and deepest of potholes, bargaining animatedly with obstinate street vendors, and, best of all, grinning from ear to ear when you smell stale gutter piss, which causes you to sigh cheekily and murmur, â€œAh, Indiaâ€. For no discernable reason, you believe that you’re breathing in the odor of Indian urine somehow brings you closer to the city and its people. And youâ€™d be right.
By the second day you feel your local tourist virginity is already gone, similar to the way a seventeen-year-
old feels older and wiser after making it to third base. You begin working on a suitable strut which you believe shows off your infantile yet budding knowledge of the area. â€œSee that? Didnâ€™t have to look down that street twice, I just turned right and kept on walkinâ€™ (God Iâ€™m a badass). â€œSorry, kids, Iâ€™m not giving you anymore rupees! None! Psst! Teeniest urchin! One more for you, our secret, ok? Cool.â€ After this lovely combination of eager and intrepid investigating, you hope by day three to have found a new friend or two, an acceptable local bar or restaurant in which to relax, and a hip hostel full of friendly patrons, edgy art and wall dÃ©cor. And if luck shines on you, there could even be a smiling, friendly staff.
Alas, my day three in New Delhi included none of these things. I was staying at a spartan YMCA, and had not noticed a smile on anyone, guest or hotel worker. I hadnâ€™t seen anything that remotely resembled a pub (notwithstanding a very popular and out-of-place T.G.I.Fridayâ€™s). I was alone and lonely. It was then that the accursed heat began a concerted effort to drive me out of the city. What else could have been happening? I was just trying to walk around and get to know a new place as best I could. Yet, if I didnâ€™t do my walking tours before eight in the morning, I was toast – pink-toasted skin.
I would retreat into the nearest store or restaurant that was air-conditioned, which, unfortunately, often meant a Baskin Robbins or a Pizza Hut. Iâ€™d then spend the next few hours (basically the amount of time it would take me to eat six scoops of Rainbow Sherbet) trying to convince myself that if it werenâ€™t for the heat, Iâ€™d be out scouring side streets for homegrown India restaurants and food stuffs, places only offered patronage by locals and firmly entrenched, embittered ex-pats. Instead, I spent hours trying to think of ways in which this particular Baskin Robbins was unique to the one in my hometownâ€¦ none came to mind.
Back to day three. I had just been run out of a Subway for reading the local paper all the way through for the third time, including a half hour convincing myself that if I concentrated hard enough, really buckled down and tried, I could teach myself to read Hindi. This was ineffective. I exited the sweet bliss of air-conditioning, walked two steps outside, and seriously thought I might die. Listen, I grew up in Louisiana, I know heat, and I know humidity. I was a spring-loaded child in temperatures with a heat index of 110 degrees. This shouldnâ€™t have been that big a deal! But it was. I stepped out of that sinfully cool sandwich shop and gasped (â€œPaahh!â€ The type of sound an old, tired man makes when standing up from a long occupied chair) at the heat.
I took a couple steps, afraid I might fall over, and decided I would make the block, then go back to my room to sleep in my own sweat pool until the sun went down, when it was safe to return outside once more. I lumbered along, head down, shoulders slumped, concentrating on each and every step I was forcing my feet to take. Not surprisingly, I didnâ€™t notice the stocky man sneaking up behind me. While I didnâ€™t see what happened before he got to me, I can imagine it now.
He saw me step out of the cool delight of the store, literally lurch backward, and the deep breath that signified I was going to at least walk around a little more. Itâ€™s hard to cause too much trouble in Connaught Circle, a popular business and tourist district in New Delhi, but having spotted such easy prey, I canâ€™t blame the guy. He seized the day, and his opportunity for some easy cash. I picture him darting quick looks to his left and his right, making sure the coast was clear of cops, and then stealthily padding his way to me, reaching his hand out to my limp form.
â€œHello, my friend!â€ he intoned, completely throwing me off guard. â€œWant me to clean out your ears for you? I can clean them very nice for you, good price, good price!â€ I managed to wipe the pouring sweat from my brow and get a good look at the man. More than middle aged, around 40, maybe 50, hard to say, with white hair calmly poking out of a small, compact turban. There were also a couple long metal rods protruding from his turban, which helped me recognize who this man was from descriptions Iâ€™d read in my guidebooks. A fairly common street tout in Delhi, these men claim to be ear specialists, some even producing grubby, homemade “certificates”, insistently promising that you desperately need their services.
â€œPlease, sir, just let me see in your ear,â€ they croon, peering intently into your ear while only inches away from your face, and just like that youâ€™re hooked – literally. After guiding me to a quiet, undisturbed alcove of a building, he pushed me onto a seat, and poked one of those tarnished silver chopsticks directly into my ear. It produced a terrifying, eerie sensation that felt and sounded like heâ€™d speared a Styrofoam packaging peanut in my ear cavity. â€œWhoa, whoa! What the ___!â€, I started, wanting to leap up and shove this man away from me. However, when a man is holding an inch of steel only a half inch away from your tender, frightened, easily ruptured eardrum, youâ€™re more or less at his mercy. So I waited, bug eyed and petrified, while I felt the ear cleaner extracting something sticky and bulky from my ear.
â€œOh my god,” he whispered, as he held up what I took to be a colossal chunk of my very own earwax. It was easily the most repulsive and fascinating thing I had, and perhaps, will ever see. He held it up in the light, rotating it before my disgusted, entranced face, laughing with joy at the look his work had etched on my features. The subject at hand was the size of a small walnut and was virulent orange, reminding me of a fuzzy cheese puff. Best of all, though, is that I have since learned that this was not my earwax alone. It was probably a compilation of the earwax of hundreds of suckers rolled into one putrefying ball of filth, deftly shoved halfway into my ear, and then pulled out to impress and freak out an unsuspecting, sweltering, heat-dazed American. It worked. I fell for this manâ€™s ploy, just like the untold numbers of people before me – people who contributed to the great ball of wax that was plunged down my ear. Wharf.
I did not know all of this at the time. Having fallen so completely for his scam, he didnâ€™t even have to ask me if he could keep cleaning. I suspect he must have actually gotten some earwax out during this part, or he was just dragging his dull scalpel along the inner edges of my ear to appease some sick sense of masochistic humor. He alternated, gently scraping with hard strokes. The procedure only got better when he pulled out an eyedropper of “special formula” that he astutely explained would loosen up the remaining ear wax.
Heâ€™d been wiping off impossible amounts of the mustard stuff onto his forearm every now and then, holding it up for me to see, so that I might continue to freak out that I was full of so much filth, as well as silently urge him on to keep purging my dirty listening system. I did a lot of simple, emphatic nodding, wide eyed, and entranced. At one point, disappointed with my earsâ€™ apparent unwillingness to yield further wax, he tilted my head to the side so the aforementioned special liquid wouldnâ€™t fall out, squeezed two drops into my right ear, and then placed a hand over each of my ears.
With my head gently but firmly cradled in his arms, he began to buff the right ear so roughly, tears sprang to my eyes. A peel of pained laughter burst out of my lungs. I was beginning to realize what was truly happening. For the past ten minutes, an absolute stranger in a country I arrived in only three days prior had been treating my head like a cat burglar would treat a household safe. He was desperately trying to break into; inserting pointed metal sticks into my ears, twirling them around as if to pick the lock, shaking the blasted safe up and down when the damn thing wouldnâ€™t surrender its contents, and moaning, â€œOh my godâ€ each time he pulled out the tiny pieces of gold that he so eagerly sought.
When he finished doing whatever heâ€™d been doing to my ears, they did feel cleaner than I could ever remember. He charged me a fairly ridiculous price for services rendered, and I handed over the demanded rupees, chuckling in the same way I had laughed earlier, at how anyone who wasnâ€™t there would call what I had done absolutely mental, stupid, moronic. Iâ€™m not necessarily saying that it wasnâ€™t dumb, of course. Such criticisms would be perfectly fair and mostly, if not completely, true. Yet, as I stepped out of the shade, back into the sweltering humidity and sun, I knew I had a perfectly reasonable defense. Next to that sultry weather, nothing is required to make sense. The heat doesnâ€™t.