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The henna on my hand, before I washed it off

After four days in India, jet lag had begun to fade and I thought it about time to see some sights. That morning, Jon, who had been involved in social and mission work in Bombay for a few years, stopped by to let us know what was happening that weekend.

“A nearby district is hosting a carnival to raise funds to beautify their neighborhoods. Would any of you like to help?” He asked the about-half-a-dozen-of-us young people who had recently arrived in India. Most declined.

“I’m game,” I volunteered.

“I’ll go too,” said JD.

Late that afternoon, we painted our faces as clowns and donned colorful costumes. Our role at the carnival?—creating balloon sculptures for the many children running around, emphasis on many.

By the time we arrived it was early evening and the sun was setting, giving us a break from the extreme heat of that season. I don’t know what was more unique for the district, having a couple “foreigners” helping at their carnival, or seeing the many characters and shapes we designed with balloons. In any case, we were busy the whole time, creating all sorts of excitement for the kids and teens and even a few adults. I found that the same rules as the road seemed to apply here too: press as close as possible, and do everything you can to get in front. “Get in line,” and “That little girl was first” seemed incomprehensible, no matter how many times I uttered it.

Finally, the throng began to dissipate and we could finally see beyond the crowd of children pressing in on every side. It was close to 10 pm. A few people were still hanging around, who we realized were the organizers of the event. They invited us to check out the rest of the carnival. There were a few rides for the kids, and, of course, snack stalls.

“Try the chocolate! My mom made it at home!” It looked good, and tasted very unique. I considered asking what it was again, because it definitely didn’t taste like any chocolate I had before, but the eager face of the girl who was talking to me made me change my mind.

“It’s great! Your mom must enjoy baking.” The girl looked like she was on top of the world.

Another young face took over. “Try this!” he offered, handing me a plate. Looking down at it, I couldn’t quite decipher what it was. Some potato pieces, different colors of sauce, crunchy bits of something on top.

“Chaat!” Jon came up behind me.

“Is it safe?” I whispered to him.

“Well, sometimes depends on where you get it from, but chaat is probably one of the tastiest snack dishes that exist. If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”

I ventured a taste. It was spicy, but tasted great—an explosion of flavor—salty, spicy, even a bit sweet. I polished off most of it while observing the goings on.

The girl returned. “Come, I want to show you something!” She eagerly led me to one last stall, where a woman was leaning over another woman, doing some kind of painting on her hand.

“It’s henna, mehndi,” the girl enlightened me. You have it painted on for special things, like before a marriage. Do you want to get it?”

I wasn’t so sure, but Jon and JD said they’d wait around a little longer, until the woman could get around to me. They went back to the chaat stall.

“Hold out your hand,” the woman said. She began her work of art. The brown cream was cool on my hand, and it didn’t smell so great, but it looked pretty cool. “Leave it on for a few hours, or once it is dry and then wash it off. The design will stay for weeks.”

I thanked the woman and bid farewell to the others, who all waved and smiled as if I was one of their closest friends. I felt special.

At home, I tossed and turned all night, and it wasn’t just because the power cut killed the fans. I rose with the sun, feeling very queasy. I headed downstairs to get something to drink. I sat there for a few minutes before realizing I better get to a bathroom, and fast. I ran back upstairs, but one of the girls had just locked the door. “In the shower,” she called when I knocked.

I ran to the boys’ room and burst in. “Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?” was the surprised response. I couldn’t answer and ran straight into the bathroom which was thankfully empty. As I heaved, I could hear the voices outside: “What’s wrong with her?” “I think she’s sick.” “Musta been something she ate.”

After losing everything I had eaten, I tried to look as dignified as possible while exiting the bathroom. “Sorry about that.”

“No problem. Hope you feel better soon.”

It took a couple days to feel better, but at least the henna design lasted longer than the upset tummy. And, perhaps surprisingly, chaat remains one of my favorite ethnic snacks.

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