89. Stepping Out of the Spotlight

Stepping Out Of The Spotlight: Traveling alone has required quick adjustment. I miss Amy fiercely. Besides being madly in love, I miss having someone familiar to share these improbable experiences with, someone to commiserate with, someone to help play good cop bad cop with rickshaw drivers and sidewalk jewelry sellers. We’re starting to get really good at that last one.

Alternately, the transition to not negotiating every detail and every activity of every day with someone else was easy to get used to. Going where I want, when I want, without consideration for anyone else is the great joy of solo travel. I can also be a miserable decision-maker, especially when decisions involve a seemingly infinite number of options – nearly all of this trip’s decisions. Without Amy around, I can worry and fidget and walk around for hours looking for my unrealistic vision of the perfect restaurant or guesthouse without annoying anyone but myself. Liberating. And without Amy around, at least in India, I can enjoy a small taste of anonymity in this crush of a billion people.

I feel virtually invisible compared to the foreign-temptress-superstar attention that she attracted here in January. I’m still asked to occasionally pose for pictures with strangers and I can shake upwards of 20 offered hands when I’m out walking the crowded streets, but there’s been very little random shouting, very little prolonged staring, very little creepy following and very little in the way of that maddening persistence from touts, beggars and taxi drivers. And then I met up with Doug Hanson.

Shortly before leaving Calcutta I found out that Doug, a friend of mine who used to live in Portland, was going to be traveling alone across India to ultimately attend the South Indian wedding of a college friend. I met him in Delhi and after two days of running him around and overwhelming him with the scorching hot, busy alleys and monuments of the capitol, it became clear to me that Doug in India has almost as much sex appeal as any Western woman in India – With a few important differences. For starters, he’s a dude, so there’s no lust in the stares of Indian men and no eve teasing in their voices (“eve teasing” being the national euphemism assigned to the more routine kinds of sexual harassment that Indian and foreign women endure). Instead, the reaction Doug gets is more shock and awe, if you will. He’s tall, muscular, athletic in the manner of your high school quarterback, walking with large, purposeful strides and speaking with a forceful American voice that’s laced with an exotic yet subtle Boston accent. He wears popular Ray Bans, sporty shorts, bright yellow Puma t-shirts. He has an MBA and just got a job with a well-known American corporation. He can rock climb. I bring none of these things.

So walking next to Doug in India I am an accessory, assumed to be his sidekick, my function little more than to facilitate communication with locals in a newly acquired, abbreviated and Asian-accented English that gets things done with slightly fewer misunderstandings. Batman and Robin, Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, Ricardo Montalban and Tattoo, we jetted off together to Bombay, that cosmopolitan hub of Indian cinema and pop music where we promptly ran head first into the dramatic foreshocks of the monsoon season. At its most interesting, this meant watching hordes of people line up along the east harbor sea wall to catch the towering splash of huge, muddy waves ejected from a furious sea. In subsequent days’ news reports we would learn that a handful of people had been predictably swept into the waters and bashed against the jagged rip rap.

We found good food and charming old buildings in Bollywood, but downpours and rough seas stymied all major sightseeing. On top of the soggy weather, the tourist district we slept in contained, by far, more hawkers, touts and scam artists than anywhere else in this country. These ranged from the standard “Hello! Friend! Look at my shop!” to the most bizarre scam yet, which I still haven’t completely worked out. I’ll conclude with this story, you tell me what you think.

A guy walks by at night on a quiet side street and nonchalantly says to me, “You have something on your ear.” I reach up and brush my ear, but no, he says, I didn’t get it off. He points again and I brush at my ear a second time. Still didn’t get it off, he says, it’s really on there. Then he starts to move his hand towards my ear when Doug notices that he’s concealing something in his hand, something that looks like it might be sharp or maybe some kind of medical instrument, and Doug swats his arm away. We shout at him and the guy quickly skulks back into the shadows. Since hearing from two other travelers who’ve had an identical near miss in the same part of the city, I’ve come up with two likely explanations – It’s a “magic trick pitch” whereby the guy pretends to pull some bauble out of my ear and then tries to sell it to me OR it’s some wacky variation on the “shoeshine scam,” where he plants something gross on my ear, removes it, shows it to me and then asks for a tip. Neither of these is far-fetched for India. Based on what he saw however, Doug went with a third scenario, in which the guy stabs me in the ear for some nefarious purpose. Voodoo maybe. Collecting “Essence of Foreign Ear.” Or perhaps his brother owns a shop nearby that sells gauze and antibiotic ointments. I don’t know, but I do know that I was glad to have a beefy travel companion nearby to save me. I’m sure Amy would have done the same.


  1. erika says:

    Hey, Sloan, here’s what happened to a guy who followed through with the ear scam (found on http://www.globalrecon.org/archives/2005/11/index.htm). I still don’t really get it, but:

    “a man walking toward me looked like he’d altered his course slightly to intercept me but he wasn’t carrying any of the telltale items, so i didn’t think much of it. as he passed me casually he did a doubletake in my direction.

    ‘sir, you have something on your ear.’

    i immediately reached up to see what it was but felt nothing. my only thought was that a bird had bombed me (incidentally, if a bird _had_ bombed me, it would have been the third such incident of my travels.).

    ‘no, it’s just some wax… hang on one second.’

    wax? hanging out of my ear? had i missed something in the mirror this morning?

    he reached over and _into_ my ear; only after he’d scraped a waxy substance onto his hand (disturbing) did i realize that he’d employed a small metal instrument that i can only describe as a ‘scooper’ to remove the wax from my ear. at the moment i was far more concerned that he’d pulled out such a large quantity of wax than that a complete stranger had just shoved a small metal object into my ear.

    ‘wait… there’s more,’ he said.

    and again he scraped, pulled out more wax, and rubbed it off on his hand (still disturbing). all of this had transpired in about 30 seconds while i’d stood there in a stupid daze, still trying to process what was happening. it was at this point that i took a closer look at the wax. something wasn’t right here. i clean my ears frequently with q-tips and the wax that this man had removed from my ear didn’t look like any earwax i’d ever seen. this entire situation didn’t seem right. i was instantly out of the daze and on full alert.

    the man took a small black case from his pocket and removed a small piece of cotton from it… ‘just some cotton.’ …at the same time he showed me the interior of the case. it contained some other bits of cottom and a few other small metal instruments. a small piece of paper, the size of a business card, was taped sloppily to one interior side of the case. it read:

    ‘this is to certify that [whatever the hell this man's name was] is a professional ear cleaner… [i stopped reading as a burning sensation rushed over my skin and he repeated himself...]‘

    ‘see? just some cotton.’

    HOLY. FUCK! i stepped back quickly as he went to stick the cotton in my ear. i screamed ‘NO!’ at him so loudly that everyone around us instantly turned their heads. my response did not phase him in the least and he stepped toward me.

    ‘just some cotton.’

    i couldn’t fucking believe it. i screamed at him again.

    ‘STOP! NOW!’

    again… no reaction. the expression on his face had not changed at all despite the fact that i’d just screamed at him. i turned around and walked away in absolute disgust… sickened by what had just occurred… mostly upset that i’d _allowed_ it to occur. he followed me.

    ‘sir… sir… ‘

    my hand formed a fist as i continued to walk and shout ‘NO… NO…’ i tried to process how i’d been duped by this man. had the instrument been rigged to push out the waxy substance when he’d had it in my ear? my mind was surging.

    ‘sir… sir… ‘

    he was a few steps behind me and i turned around and closed the gap like an exploding animal. i escalated my voice to maximum volume and screamed, yet again, ‘LEAVE ME ALONE. NOW. LEAVE ME ALONE.’ no reaction… but this time when i turned around, he didn’t follow.”

  2. S says:

    Excellent sleuthing, Boggs. It really is just a creepy variation on the shoeshine scam. I’ve read that there is such a thing as a legitimate “professional ear cleaner” in this country, but I doubt they roam the dark lanes of tourist districts to dupe Westerners. I didn’t get pulled into it, but the whole thing still makes my skin crawl because I can imagine how easy it would be to let it go too far. The start of the encounter is so casual and has none of the usual huckster cues I’m used to. It’s dark and impossible to see anything in the guy’s hand. And there’s no footnote in any guidebook to warn about this one. Let’s write some angry letters to Lonely Planet!