If you’ve ever been to India you’ll know it’s an amazing country carved out of chaos and beauty. It was the first ‘far away’ country I ever visited in cultural terms, and there really are few travel experiences that compare to visiting India. I’ve had many memorable moments there, and today I shared this story with a friend, and now I’m sharing it with you.

Dirty Eyes

I rubbed my eyes and squinted at my laptop screen through a slight blur that was irritating me. Earlier I’d been to the local market down the hill and now, as darkness fell across the Himilayas, I was having to deal with the dust in my eyes kicked up from the soup of people, vehicles, and animals that sway and swirl on the busy narrow roads of that Indian hillside town.

This is a beautiful country for sure. Vivid, noisy, and aromatic, India is a veritable assault on the senses. You can’t be in India in the same way as you can be anywhere else. In India, you have to get comfortable with the fact that this isn’t so much a place you visit, but more like something that happens to you. And it was happening to me; the chaos, the wonder, and the dust in my eyes that was now driving me mad.

I spend a lot of time looking at screens, we all do I suppose. So I thought if it wasn’t a case of my eyes being dirty, maybe they were just tired. Is that even a thing? I heard someone sing about it before, but I suspect that had more to do with love than optometry.

Maybe my eyes were tired because there was so much around me that was new and unfamiliar? There were temples and tea houses, monkeys climbing on walls covered with stains and crumbling paint, a beautiful decay that seemed to sum up so much around me.

There was the snow-capped mountain that spent much of the time with its head in the clouds, a pastime that I was lead to believe was idle, but here it seemed nothing short of majestic. There were colorful signs, memorizing mandalas, and Buddhist prayers going round and round on bronze wheels still shiny from the millions of hands that have spun them through the years. So much for my eyes to see, I could forgive them for getting tired.

I tried resting them, giving them the ocular equivalent of a spa day as I sat on the balcony of our hillside retreat looking out across the misty valley while listening to the muffled sounds of India below. The blanket of green trees before me was surely a massage for my overworked eyes. But a day later the words on my phone still had that slight blur when I looked at it.

It was the dust, of course. Or maybe the incense that burns inside every place I went to eat. My eyes weren’t used to this air that often carries a hint of smoke. I washed them carefully with warm water, widening them with eyebrows raised so I could uncomfortably splash water right into them. But it didn’t make much difference, the slight blur remained.

I felt I needed something specialised to remove this grime. I’d seen something called an ‘eye bath’ on the internet so I decided to try and find one the next time I went to town. Supplies for all kinds of things in the mountains can be limited, but they’re always willing to order something for you to be delivered “tomorrow” which you quickly learn doesn’t actually mean tomorrow, but rather, just not today.

Indian town

In town, the optician I chose was a typical Indian shop, barely set back from the noisy street and populated with people who seemed to be standing around but not necessarily related to the business in any way.

Behind a desk sat a man with dark thin hair and a grey beard. I assumed he was the optician when he looked up at me and said, “Yes sir?”

I explained my problem, sure that this must be a common question in a place where exhaust fumes dance in the air with dust, cigarette smoke, incense, and a whole host of other airborne experiences.

“Do you have anything for cleaning eyes?” I asked.

The optician furrowed his brow and in a questioning tone he asked, “Cleaning eyes?”

“Yes, you know like an eye bath,” I said.

His furrowed brow deepened as he stood up and began to walk from behind his desk.

“An eye bath?” He said, repeating my last words in a tone that made it sound like I was saying something fantastical.

“Yes, an eye bath,” I said while I glanced around the brightly lit store hoping to see an eye bath.

“And why, sir, do you need an eye bath?”

Perhaps he knew what I wanted, perhaps he didn’t. It wasn’t clear. So I explained.

“My eyes are dirty, I need to clean them,” I said.

At this point, the other people in the shop were now all looking at me and my dirty eyes, including two ladies who possibly worked there, though who knows.

“Sir, what do you mean you have dirty eyes?” Asked the optician, still with a look of inquisition, like ‘where is this exchange going?’

Now perhaps you’re already ahead of me in this story and you know where this is going, but for me this was simple, my eyes were dirty from the dust that hangs in the air. Maybe when I am riding my motorbike I don’t notice how dirty my eyes are because I am just trying to avoid people crossing roads without looking, monks, children, buses, trucks, and cows, so many cows just sitting in the roadway chewing, without a care in the world.

I explain that when I look at my phone and laptop, the text is a little blurred – from the dirt. I tell him that my attempts to clean this grime from my eyeballs have thus far been unsuccessful.

The optician began laughing, and I should be clear here, this was no polite chuckle, this was full-on in-my-face laughing.

One of the random people asked in Hindi what was so funny. The optician answered, motioning to his eyes, and now everyone in the shop was laughing; just standing there laughing right at me.

“Oh, sir. Please, sir, you are how old? 45, something like this?” He placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder while still laughing.

“Yes, I’m 45,” I said quietly looking right at him with what I imagine was a confused expression.

Everyone laughed more, saying things in Hindi I didn’t understand.

“Sir, your eyes are not dirty,” said the optician. “You’re just getting old!”

Everyone was having a good laugh. Everyone, that was, but me.

He continued. “You don’t need an eye bath. My friend, you just need glasses!”

He moved me to a machine to give me an eye test, still clearly delighted at the thought of me desperately trying to wash the failing eyesight from my eyes.

I looked through the machine at little dots, numbers, and a picture of a distant house.

The two ladies looked in cupboards and produced different boxes of spectacles while chattering in Hindi to each other and the optician. Then they handed me a piece of paper with some text on it and a pair of glasses to put on.

I looked down through the glass lens and saw the text sharp and clear on the paper. I looked up and smiled back at the optician. My dirty eyes were clean at last.