These Rajastani cities like their color themes; Jaipur was pink, Jaisalmer is gold, and Jodphur is blue. A powder blue, like the blue of chalk. There may be some sort of historical or spiritual reason for blue, but I suspect that the real reason is simple: blue is cool. Technically winter here, it is summer-hot in this desert city, and each blue wall, window, and doorway that can cool the eye is more than welcome.
Because of the heat, I tend to sit around during the day and get my exercise in the evening. The most obvious way to do this, in the shadow of the massive Mehrangarh Fort, is to hike up the steep hill through the old city to the clifftop fort. The other day, as I trudge up the hill, I pass the same blue-fronted house that I photographed the day before. There are hundreds of blue shots in the Blue City, but I was struck by the doorway's odd cleanliness and the simple contrast between the blue and the bright orange garland strung across its doorway.
Now I see an older man sitting on the steps. White-haired and tall, wearing a clean white shirt, he asks me where I'm from. Although I get this question dozens--if not hundreds!--of times a day here in India, I try to be cheerful: "USA."
"America!" he replies.
He gestures towards my beat-up metal water bottle. "America bottle," he observes, likely noting the thick metal and the fancy spout.
Then he waves his arm up at the Fort and tells me that it is now closed for the day.
"I know," I say. "I walk for exercise," slapping my thighs to illustrate my point.
"My wife same," he says, gesturing to the heavyset woman who came out of the house while we were talking and now starts up the hill in her sneakers and sari.
"I am Dia Bettit," she says.
"I am Amanda."
"Diabettit," she repeats.
Another thing that happens dozens - if not hundreds! - of times a day here in India: I realize that I am clueless. "Oh! Diabetic!" I shout.
Her husband points to her and then back to his own knee. "Bad," he says as his wife grimly creeps up the hill.
Then he gets up and goes inside for a photo album. "My son," he says as he opens the album, "Collects." I see currency from various countries displayed in the album's plastic pockets. Wishing I had a dollar to add, I tell him this.
As I turn to continue up the hill, he stops me. "Eck minute," he says and ducks behind a side curtain. I take a deep breath and remind myself to be patient, that these small interactions are the true charm of India. I expect him to bring photos of the son and the son's children. Instead, he reveals a hand full of American coins. "He no need coins." The man's puzzled look indicates that he doesn't know the coins' value, so I begin to count the coins for him.
Let me note that I have a coin-counting nature. As a girl, one of my favorite pastimes was to dump the change from my bear bank out onto my parents' bedspread so I could stack and restack the coins. More recently, when one of the women from our ashram had come back from the city with provisions for the rest of us to share, I happily jump on the task of calculating exactly who owes what for the precious precious chocolate, peanut butter, and instant coffee (the only coffee there is to be had. Nescafe never tasted so good!)
"This one is a quarter," I say, tapping on the coin in his hand. "Four of them make one dollar." I see that he has $1.75 in quarters, so I pick up two dimes and a nickel and push them along his hand so they rest next to the three quarters. "These little ones make a quarter. Now you have two dollars." But I am going too fast for this to be a lesson, moving coins around as if I were dealing playing cards, because now I am curious as to the total. "Two twenty-five," I proclaim.
"How much rupees?" he asks.
After a moment of quick mental math, figuring sixty-five rupees to the dollar, which is 130 plus about 20 rupees for the change, I say, "150."
Then he gets to the point. He asks me if I could give him the amount of rupees for this handful of change. "Wife medicine needing," he says.
I am taken aback by the genuineness of this request. Some days, I feel as if everyone is trying to get rupees out of my pocket, which, along with my coin-counting nature, keeps me protective of my money. Reflexively, I redo the math in my head to make sure I'm not screwing myself out of some rupees. But no, 150 is fair.
As I pull the money from my wallet, the husband begins proclaiming, "Good life, long life, you! Good life, long life!"
"No problem," I say, a bit embarrassed for him to have such gratitude over what amounts to a handful of American coins that now sit in my wallet. I put my hands in namaste and set off, soon passing his diabetic wife slowly working her way up the tough slope.
I am humbled by the encounter, and it takes me a few minutes of uphill climbing to realize that I should have given them more rupees for this sincere request. But I also realize that he structured the conversation in such a way that I couldn't give him extra. He didn't want charity, only a fair exchange.
The next morning, I awake on the thin mattress of my 250-rupee a night budget room. Listening to the street noises below me, I consider what happened with the man and suddenly I am compelled to look again at the coins. As fate would have it, the first quarter I handle has George Washington's head on one side and an image of two birds in a wetland on the other. The top of the coin reads "Bombay Hook."
Bombay Hook! What the fuck!? Suddenly it occurs to me - me of the coin-counting nature and overactive imagination - that the old man gave me a confederate coin, a fake, a bit of metal especially designed for this scam. There is tiny writing on the circle edging the coin, which looks like Hindi to my newly-opened eyes. I got the Bombay Hook!
Immediately I examine the other coins, starting with the valuable quarters. All appear normal, but my eye is drawn to another quarter because its design is strikingly similar to the Bombay Hook. Like Bombay Hook, this coin also depicts two birds in a wetland, with one large bird on the right side, a smaller bird in the center of the left side, and water plants in both the foreground and background. However, instead of "Bombay Hook," along the top of this coin I see the word: "Everglades." It's the Florida quarter. (For any readers unfamiliar with American currency: every US state has its own quarter with a design depicting something about that state, such as Florida's vast swamplands called "The Everglades.")
I put Everglades next to Bombay Hook and check their width. It is the same, indicating the same amount of metal is in both. Then, with my eyes more open to the day, I reread the writing on the Bombay Hook's edge. It is not, in fact, Hindi. Instead I read the English word for Delaware*. And then the Latin inscription: E Pluribus Unum, which means: from many, one. Oddly, this is not only the American motto for our 50 states coming together into a united union, but also a pretty good description of Hindu philosophy: that what appears separate is actually all the same.
*For foreign readers (and some Americans): Delaware is one of the 50 United States. However, it is so forgettable that I have never heard of its most famous attribute, which I assume is some sort of wetland called "Bombay Hook." I don't know for sure; I was too lazy to Google it.