Visiting an Optometrist in Bangalore

There are a lot of things I did, in my nearly decade-old trip to India to teach Shakespeare at the University of Hyderabad, that I now consider embarrassing.

Within a week of landing in Hyderabad, I had a full set of custom-tailored salwar kameez that I wore nearly exclusively, except on fancy occasions when I wore saris. I avoided bindis, less out of a desire to avoid appropriating culture than a resistance to wear religious symbols with which I did not identify. (There is a Facebook photo of me wearing a bindi, because on the night when my students performed The Tempest, I was told I needed one to make my pink sari outfit look complete.)

I also, as I mentioned in an earlier Billfold post, imposed upon a friend and his family for an entire week because I wanted to save money on hostels. And then I gave weird host gifts, including a copy of Sting’s Songs From the Labyrinth. (I brought gifts for a lot of people on that trip, but at that point in time my thoughts on host gifts were still “here is this thing I love, maybe you will love it too.” I had not yet figured out that a good gift should be “here is this thing I know you love.”)

But here is the most embarrassing part of the trip. My friend’s wife, whom at that point in time I had not yet met, was an optometrist.

(You can already see where this is going. I hope you are cringing in advance.)

So when my friend and his wife asked me what I would most like to do while I stayed with them, I said I would like to make an appointment to get my eyes checked, since at that time I had not been able to afford an eye exam for years.

I did not specifically mean “I would like you, person I have not met until today, to rearrange your schedule to fit me in.” I was thinking they would show me how to make an appointment in the usual way, but instead I was first on the list for an eye exam, leaving with dilated eyes and a second follow-up appointment for the following morning, so my friend’s wife could double-check that the prescription she wrote me was still the best one.

How much did I end up paying for this? I have a record, because I published an online travelogue of my adventures (which is only, like, the fifth most embarrassing part of this trip). For two eye appointments including dilation, I paid 200 rupees or $4.75.

I ended up buying a pair of basic gold-framed glasses in Mysore — these were the “basic pair of glasses I bought in grad school” I mentioned in a recent chat with Ester — and wore them for the next two years. Sadly, my travelogue does not include how much I paid for them.

It does, however, include a photo, so here you go:

And here is one more embarrassing fact: that outfit is pajamas. I bought Indian pajamas because I did not want to wear American ones, took a picture of myself wearing them, and then put that photo on the internet.

I feel pretty badly about a lot of what I did on that trip, in retrospect — asking for an eye exam was beyond presumptuous, and even wearing the salwars was presumptuous in its own way. At that time nearly every woman at the university was wearing salwar kameez, and so I jumped in enthusiastically, but it would have been more thoughtful of me to just wear my own clothing while keeping a similar silhouette (essentially, long blouses over jeans) unless I was specifically asked/advised to wear salwar.

I understand both myself and the world better now, and I would not do any of this stuff today.

Since I’ve shared, now it’s your turn: what is the most embarrassing thing you’ve done while traveling? Did you commit some horrific breach of guest etiquette, such as thinking a Sting CD would make a perfect host gift? Did you blur the line between experiencing and appropriating another culture? Did you ask someone to perform professional duties on your behalf?

This story is part of our Travel Month series.