On my third day in Delhi an odd but harmless man “professionally” cleaned my ears despite my best protests.
“Your ears are very dirty, sir,” he began. “Let me have a quick look.” I didn’t doubt his assessment, though in my partial shock from his very specific and direct aural interests I didn’t take him very seriously. Within a split-second he placed a tuft of cotton on a metal q-tip and plunged it into my ear canal.
What is the correct protocol for when a middle-aged man in a foreign country takes a genuine and hands-on interest in your auditory health? My reaction was mostly uncomfortable laughter and a firm grasp on his instrument-wielding wrist.
“It is okay, sir. Just a look.” Yes, just a look into my ear canal. Despite my grip and very awkward laughter, the man managed a quick swipe of ear wax. He was very pleased at the results.
“You see?” he said, parading the soiled cotton ball to me like a prized specimen. “Very dirty. I clean your ears. This, this is my job,” he said with pride.
The retrieved specimen that covered the cotton ball was a slimy, black pebble of a substance I refuse to believe came from anywhere on my body. He resisted my claims of fakery.
“No. Very dirty. Soap build-up in your ears. Very bad. I can clean your ears, no problem. This is my job,” he reminded me.
He then pulled out several worn pocket notebooks with a collection of ear-cleaning testimonies. A homemade Yelp of ear-cleaning, if you will.
“It’s weird, but just do it!” One satisfied customer proclaimed to future uneasy ear-cleaning customers. Another touted the immediate benefits, “I’ve never heard better! Amazing experience!”
Convincing, maybe. But I was still skeptical. I looked him in the face. He seemed genuinely concerned for my ear health.
Another moment passed and he opened his tool kit as another ear cleaner approached to help put me at ease. “We are trained,” the other man said while making a gesture at his ears. “Very quick, easy. No problem.”
This seemed like a problem.
“Maybe not today,” I said with painfully awkward laughter I hoped he would pick up on and leave me alone.
He did not.
A grimace came over his face. “Please, sir, your ears. You cannot leave your ears like this. Very bad.”
My lifelong belief that my ear health was top notch began to fade. Maybe this man was right. My ears were holding me back. Clean ears were the start of a path to a more effective me. A better me.
But, come on. No way, man.
I started moving away, mumbling something about his kindness, and that I needed to go and that I would clean them immediately when I got home since it seemed like this was really worrying him.
He sighed and gently grabbed for my wrist. This was starting to feel like a bad breakup. It’s not you, it’s me. Or my ears specifically, I guess. My ears seemed to be tearing us apart.
I reached in my pocket for loose change hoping my offering would satiate his desire to clean my ears. He took the coins but still looked concerned.
“Very fast, sir. Won’t cost much more than this,” he said while groping the coins.
“I just can’t,” I told him. There it was—my most direct admission that ear-cleaning simply wasn’t for me. He seemed heartbroken, but understood. I reached for my camera and asked if I could take a quick portrait for my memory’s sake. He requested it be taken in front of the large Indian flag gently flying in the scorching hot Delhi breeze.
Click click click.
We both smiled and understood it was now time to go our separate ways, dirty ears and all. I thanked him. He gave me some quick tips on how to do my own home ear cleaning while making it very clear a professional was necessary for a comprehensive ear cleanse. I thanked him again. Goodbye.
This anecdotal story serves as a very absurd but pretty accurate representation of my entire experience in India.
Stay with me.
From my western worldview, many (many) aspects of India were bizarre, different or humorous. Take for example my ear cleaning buddy: He was kind, funny, genuine and presumably hard-working—the ear-cleaning business must be tough after all—but he was also quite strange in a very non-threatening way. The day-to-day life in India feels like a constant invasion of personal space compared to the hyper-individualism of the US. Of course I knew this going in, but to have it manifest itself via a man sticking a metal stick in my ear caught me by surprise.
There were more subtle ways this invasion took place, like the (very) early wake-up calls for tea, where our hosts literally held a tray of hot tea over our faces while nudging us awake. Tea breaks are constant throughout the day and seemingly always necessary despite scheduling constraints. My bladder was under siege from the barrage of hot water, milk and spice. After a while though, this aggressive form of totally friendly and genuine hospitality grew on me. Contrary to western hospitality of supplying items one might need and then leaving it up to the person to take (or not take) the items, in India they will not rest until you have consumed their hospitality. This is sort of the difference between giving a man a q-tip to clean his own ears and forcibly cleaning them for him. In each instance, they are genuinely concerned for their guests, they just manifest those concerns quite differently.
This is all to say that the more I travel the more I truly enjoy it—surprise ear cleanings and all—and feel quite lucky my camera has taken me to these far off destinations.
I was in India for the past two weeks to teach 14 high school students on a Himalayan Photo Expedition for Rustic Pathways. Besides teaching, I also took photos for Rustic Pathways’ marketing department.
India is sensory overload. The crowds, car horns, smells, colors, barking dogs, beautiful scenery and professional ear cleaners all fight for your attention. As a photographer it’s a constant feeling of FOMO—the sensation that a great photo is out there while you think you’re already taking a great photo. Although it was quite fun to navigate these challenges with a great group of students who not only took great photos of their own, but approached the whole experience with flexibility and an open mind.
The trip took us from the steaming hot and boisterous streets of Delhi to the cool, high altitude Himalayas with peaceful monasteries dotting the landscape. While in the mountains we had the opportunity to camp with Changpa nomads tending their herds of goats and yaks. We also did a two-day homestay with a family who was kind and bold enough to host 14 very loud American teenagers.While the trip provided some unforgettable sights and moments—like being 15,000 feet up and sleeping under the stars, or quietly photographing Buddhist monks train for a dance in an upcoming ceremony, or seeing the unmatched Taj Mahal—I’ll prize the life-learning moments of critiquing photos in a room with 14 teens who haven’t been able to shower in 3 days or seeing my students’ faces light up when they take a great photo.
And of course, my ear-cleaning buddy.