In which our heroine almost dies in India and has some deep thoughts. Sort of.
Once, because I’m a sloppy packer, I almost poisoned myself to death by inserting a tampon covered in DEET insect repellant. It brought me the closest I have ever felt to death, and in those brief moments I believed I was entirely alone and dying in the most humiliating way a human had ever died.
I was studying religious archeology in India on a college study abroad program, and every day we woke up before sunrise at our university guest house, showered, and consumed a breakfast heavy in vegetables and clarified butter before we were bused to a temple. On the field trips we were completely unable to hear our low-talking Brahmin professor explain the iconography and distant gods that we were supposed to be memorizing for an upcoming test.
One day at a temple, students crowded close to our professor like a pack of puppies trying to suckle at his teats of knowledge. After a morning lecture that sounded a little like “Krishna, and…just look…detail…again just look…conch…” I started to find myself exchanging “What the fuck?” glances with other back-of-the-pack students who I got along with. Then, in the afternoon, the back-of-the-packers and I gave up entirely and just retired to the shade of the temple with a couple of straws and some green coconuts. We talked about how fat and in-the-way-of-our-view the heads of the ‘A’-grubbing students were. We had been traveling a long time and had grown jaded.
Something beautiful and completely memorable happened that afternoon though. The temple was suddenly flooded with about 100 elementary school students in their most colorful rayon outfits. The old temple took on their colors and their spazzy, chatty, bangled, and barefooted energy. They didn’t have cameras or note pads or, apparently, any upcoming tests. Instead, some boys dressed in slacks and button-up shirts hardly paused to look at the temple before mounting an ancient column.
Later in the day I happened upon two girls with gardenias tucked into the base of their looped black braids running their hands along a depiction of the Kama Sutra carved around the bottom of the temple. The girls looked kind of blasé as they fingered the soapstone bums of ladies taking it from behind and at a series of other angles. The girls looked right at me and laughed, but I suspected it had nothing to do with the stone depictions of sex. I’m pretty sure they were laughing at just how out of place I was.
So at the end of the day we bused it back to our university guest house, me without any notes nor anything articulate to regurgitate in an essay test. I didn’t know what it meant for little girls dressed in pink and gold to laugh at me while they leaned on a relief of a sixty-nining couple. I certainly didn’t know how to write about it for an ‘A.’ At dusk I took a quick cold shower and stepped into my room, which was painted a shade of aqua that had nothing to do with an ocean but everything to do with an institution. I dug into my bag.
About a month before a bottle of DEET insect repellant had exploded in my backpack. I chucked the DEET and the plastic bag it was in, and in an uncharacteristically fastidious move I really cleaned out the backpack because I knew DEET was not to be messed with. The back of the bottle used to say it was a dangerous liquid before the DEET had eaten the writing off the plastic.
Now I dug into my backpack and found a plastic bag with my stash of tampons. I took one out and pulled the thin plastic wrapper off the lump of white bleached cotton. The wrapper made its pleasing candy wrapper-like crinkle, and in a habitual motion I pulled the string out, pushed my middle finger into the divot at the base of the bullet shape, and inserted it.
Instantly, I felt the most horrific burning, piercing pain surge through me. I screamed, and tears welled in my eyes. I fell to the guest house bed, but somehow I managed to yank the poison bullet out of me.
I rolled over naked and watched the blur of the fan spin against the institutional aqua. The DEET emanated a warmth that convinced me I was absolutely experiencing my own death. I pictured the guest house security guards and the ‘A’-grubbing students coming upon my splayed and hideous body, and I was scared. So scared.And yet, for some reason, it seemed an entirely unsurprising death. I was naked and teary-eyed in a foreign land, enduring one of the most unimaginable and unbecoming ends to life, and yet some part of me thought yes, this is how it would end, and to my surprise I smiled a little even before the pain began to subside. •
When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Emily's World appears here weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.