One morning, I woke up in Jaisalmer, India with one thought on my mind: I must get my nose pierced. I do not recall making the decision. In fact, I’m fairly certain I never debated myself regarding the pros and cons of it. The idea was just there, materializing spontaneously in my consciousness after several weeks of traveling through the subcontinent. And when my mind seizes upon something, it is impossible to let it go. So, after breakfast, I headed out to explore the city, determined not to return to my guesthouse until I had achieved my objective.
Having not the least idea where to go, or how I could possibly convey my desire, since I spoke only English, I just walked — aimlessly. As I meandered through the dirty, crowd-filled streets, dodging tuk-tuks and bicycle-pulled rickshaws, I looked for the stores most likely to sell jewelry. My inability to decipher the local alphabet gravely hampered my quest. How could I know what a store sold, if I couldn’t read the sign hung above the doorway?
As I turned corners, the smell of spices wafted through open doorways and drifted through the air, mingling with the stench of unwashed bodies and stale urine. Sweat beaded up on my forehead and dripped into my eyes. The suffocating heat baked my skin and exacerbated the nasty odor swirling around me. It had recently rained, and my sandaled feet kicked up clumps of mud. A few times, drawn by a display of jewelry in a window, I popped into a small shop, made eye contact with a seller behind the counter, and jabbed my nose with my finger, mimicking the action of piercing. Men, one after another, shook their heads, either not understanding my desire, or unwilling to do business with a foreigner.
Finally, as hunger began rattling around in my stomach, and I drained the last of the water in my bottle, I stumbled into one last store. This time, when I pointed to my nose, a scrawny, middle-aged Indian man, dressed in black pants and a faded magenta shirt with the cuffs rolled up to his elbows, motioned to me to take a seat on a rough wooden bench. I obeyed. He made a phone call. Lifting the receiver off its cradle, he dialed a number, waited a few moments, and then mumbled a few words I could not comprehend.
Impatiently, I waited, hands folded in my lap, eyes roaming around the room. Except for me and the man, it was empty. Pale, yellow paint peeled from the walls, and I wondered if more jewelry was stored in a safe somewhere, beyond the gaze of prying eyes. The single display counter had a series of silver bangles, some ornate with intricate designs, others simple, yet elegant. Earrings, nose rings, and a few necklaces were also tagged with prices — all cheap, all affordable.
After a few minutes, I watched through the window as a pudgy man, dressed in an ankle-length, white tunic and wearing a taqiyah, drove a moped up to the entrance. He kicked his leg over the side of the vehicle and sauntered inside. Scrawny silently bobbed his head in my direction. Without a word of introduction, Pudgy reached out, pinched my nose between two fingers —layers of dirt trapped beneath his nails — and lifted me onto my feet. Before I could object or cry out, he dipped his hand into a pocket, extracted a needle, and thrust it through the cartilage of my nose. I yelped, expecting blood. None flowed.
While the sharp pain subsided to a dull throb, I selected a nose stud. From having had my ears pierced as a child, I knew sterling silver was best, but I had no way to inquire what material had been used to make the studs. I chose a simple, silver-colored one with a tiny knob at the end, which Pudgy picked up and forced through the new hole. I winced again from a second surge of pain, and Scrawny scribbled a number down on a scrap of paper. The total sum of my experience equaled less than two dollars.
I paid him in rupees, and he gave me a torn sheet of paper with the words, “Wash with Dettol,” printed on it. I had no idea what Dettol was, but I assumed it was an antiseptic. A trip to the market proved me correct.
Following the directions, I applied Dettol often, but still my nose began to fester. Puss oozed from the hole until the flesh surrounding it turned a crusty brown. Pain intensified, until it kept me up at night. For several days, I feared my nose might need to be amputated. What would my family say if I returned home, noseless? But then I met a kind British woman who nursed me back to health. For three days, as we journeyed through the desert on camels, she slathered my nose with some ointment she had brought with her from home. By the time we parted, the ugly brown had faded to a dull yellow, and the pain had finally begun to subside.
To see my nose now, you’d never know the stupidity of my youth. Who in their right mind would allow a man with dirty hands, holding a needle that hadn’t been sanitized, to puncture their skin? But, over the years, the piercing has become a treasured souvenir, brought back from a time when the only lingering consequence of a rash decision was a nostalgic tale to share.
Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in The Conclusion Magazine, Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, New Ink Review, Ovunque Siamo, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, and Italian Americana. She has published book reviews in TLR Online. When not writing, Jaeger enjoy sword fighting with her son and taking him on road trips.