Waiting for my flight/JFK.  Only wandered in because I had time. The Swiss shampoo on special did too–thyme, rosemary, a dirndl of herbs and alpine flowers pristinely depicted in a sleek green bottle way too costly even on sale, even duty-free.

Still, a whiff of Switzerland might be handy, I thought, already pretty sure that India (where I was headed to do research) would not be a bushel of Edelweiss.

To be fair, not all smells were stench–a deeply stabilizing pungency emanated from burning cow patties; the waft of sweet milky tea always uplifted; the rose chutney (that I, at first, confused with betel nut) smelled like love in spring; but there were also quantities of mustard oil (that, when rancid, stinks like sardines), bunched sweat, and, on far too many walls and footpaths, the soak of urine.

I love India, but it is hard without regard to its scents, and, after a while, I became so exhausted by the chaotic jam of bodies and needs, by the frustration of trying to do my work that a few dabs of Swiss shampoo below the old schnoz would no longer make me feel as if order and efficient freshness were actual possibilities in the world.  So (research going nowhere anyway), I escaped to the beach, Goa, the place where the 1960’s took refuge, a tie-dyed coast filled with backpacking Westerners.

All seemed like paradise until I realized that the powder a lot of the Westerners were non-stop rolling into their bidis was actually smack.

And that my relaxing beachside ashram, run by missionaries, housed only a few, like me, who could pay, but was mainly home to those who’d somehow gotten lost along their journeys–

Her name was Shanti–”which means peace,” she smiled–and, when I asked where she was from (I could tell U.S.), said, “the world.”

Shanti, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes, and sunburnt skin, long hair with swathes both stressed and coconut-oiled, body corded as a rope, showed me the showers–rough cubicles made of burlap and green vine–stamped her bare foot repeatedly because, she said, rats sometimes went for the nearby compost, cried “heeyah” to scare them off.

Shuddering, I stepped in, and slowly began pouring water over salty shoulders, trying to unwind as I heard her sing softly just outside, till she smelled my Swiss shampoo, and peeling off skirt and halter, stepped in beside me, kaleidoscope eyes spiraling wider, “what is that smell?”

I squeezed some into her palm and then another palm, and again, as kaleidoscopes closed in the bliss of dancing veda, she lathered repeatedly, even after the water bucket had run out; the moist tropical air, the scents of cumin and rot and mud too beneath our feet, overwhelmed with Alpine flora.

And I, who still had traveler’s checks in my backpack still had, in fact, a backpack and visa and passport and plane ticket, and a home to have plane ticket to, made myself say ‘ here, do you want to keep the whole bottle?”

What else was there to say?

Though I don’t think the words came from generosity exactly, or even a sense of duty to my fellow countrywoman, but from this sudden burning envy for that streaming sudsy bliss, the shine of satisfaction in Shanti’s shut eyes, a courageous trust in the random–this moment, and too, the next–the gift of my Swiss shampoo just a way to barter for a piece of that.


I’m not sure the above can really be called a poem, but I wrote it for dVerse Poets Pub Poetics challenge “Duty Calls,” which I am hosting today.  I urge you all to check out dVerse and the wonderful poets posting there, and try the challenge yourself!

Also, if you have time and inclination, check out my books!  Very fun novel, NOSE DIVE,  book of poetry, GOING ON SOMEWHERE, or children’s counting book 1 MISSISSIPPI. )

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48 Comments on “Duty/Free”

  1. brian miller Says:

    smiles…i can def appreciate the bartering for a piece of that…never been to india but have been in situations where i would certainly have made a similar concession…the under the nose trick, i learned that as well…particularly when we were working wrecks except it was often menthol lip balm we would dab under the nose to cut the smells of death…

  2. […] inspiration~ dVerse: Poetics w/Karin of Manicddaily- obligations Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPinterestLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  3. claudia Says:

    ha nice…what a story…friends of mine have lived in goa for a while and i love listening to their stories… love your poem..and i’m smiling about that swiss shampoo…

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Well, I meant to do this as a poem and got too long. I have a lot of stories, weeded out to keep shorter. I am sure it’s all so different now–this in the 80s. It is very pretty.

  4. Ruth Says:

    ah Karin this is just gorgeous – well, not so much the smells except “rose chutney… smelled like love in spring” and a few others, the shampoo for instance… and I especially love the ending – a bottle of shampoo seems a small price to pay for hmm… bliss and whatever else she had – could use some of that “courageous trust in the random” myself right about now 😀

  5. aprille Says:

    Duty calls for us and….
    duty free for yourself.
    That seems fair 🙂

  6. Mary Says:

    This was a ‘scent-sational’ piece of writing and gave a vivid picture, which I appreciated…. I suppose people get used to the scents and keep thinking that probably when people come from other places they might find our scents difficult to handle as well.

  7. Aww… Gosh I don’t think I could be in India, the hustle and bustle of non stop life would do me in. You shared such a wonderful and very visual time. I could picture it all as you’d written it. Fabulous! I expect it was so worth giving that bottle to Shanti to see the smile in her eyes. 🙂

  8. hedgewitch Says:

    This is a gorgeous soak in the senses, more like a postcard from the memory banks than a formal ‘for effect’ organized and sorted out poem, but it has the same sort of mental rinse to it, if you’ll pardon me drawing from your work for the simile–it bathes the mind in sensation and image and activates all the senses, as well as makes a moment from the past live. And the little bit of duty–nice play on the word–here is more grace than obligation. Lovely, Karin.

  9. Laurie Kolp Says:

    I think this is a sign of not only duty but of a kind heart. Love this story. Is it true?

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Yes – well, I don’t think the shampoo was swiss, and wasn’t from a duty-free shop. I also had a terrible UTI, which I left out (!) and actually a bunch of stories. I traveled in India for close to a year, and Goa, though very weird for lots of reasons, was a welcome relief at a certain point.

  10. Mama Zen Says:

    Gorgeous work! I really relate to this.

  11. tashtoo Says:

    Complete immersion in the time/space of the piece. A roving delight for the senses…Loved it!

  12. What is it with you and noses?? I wonder if maybe you have this extra sensory perception as to smell. Is YOUR nose big? So many questions.
    Other than those obvious mind-wanderings, I thought this was terrific! ah’ight den? Cheers!

  13. […] by ManicDDaily, was to write a poem about duty or […]

  14. zongrik Says:

    smells are the most powerful way to remember things

    duty to challenge

  15. Shawna Says:

    I’ve only read to this point, and it’s already gripping. 😉

    “Swiss shampoo on special did too–thyme, rosemary, a dirndl of herbs and alpine flowers” … love rosemary mint shampoo. As you may have noticed, it’s the name of my blog.

    “would not be a bushel of Edelweiss” … Ha!

    Have you used the Aveda lotion that smells like peppermint? It comes in a tiny bottle. If you have a headache, you can dab a touch behind your ears, and you will be cured. It will also clear out your sinuses. LOVE it. You sure sound like an Aveda girl. 🙂

    “when I asked where she was from (I could tell U.S.), said, “the world.”” … Oh, I love her. Now I have to watch Eat, Pray, Love again.

    I have a “kaleidoscope eyes” poem. 🙂

    “a girl with kaleidoscope eyes, and sunburnt skin, long hair with swathes both stressed and coconut-oiled, body corded as a rope” … Gorgeous!

    “here, do you want to keep the whole bottle?” What else was there to say?” … Perfect!!!

    “but from this sudden burning envy for that streaming sudsy bliss … the gift of my Swiss shampoo just a way to barter for a piece of that” … Love this ending.

    You are an incredible write; I thoroughly enjoyed this piece.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks so much, Shawna. It was long and I really appreciate your taking the time both to read and comment. I don’t use much lotion of any kind – which, I’m afraid, shows in my skin, but the Aveda sounds nice. And, frankly, I thought a lot about you with the shampoo! (Ha!) (People really do have affection for those scents.) Take care, and thanks. You have tremendous energy and breadth of appreciation. It is wonderful. K.

  16. How lovely… something as simple as giving… it was a pleasure to read and so well written…Excellent!

  17. Chazinator Says:

    This is a great story. I love the way you “break it down” at the end, putting an emotional perspective on the story that brings it closer to us, makes you more human and gives us entrance to a place where we can see a bit of ourselves there too. The story is wonderfully told, great detail, narrative tone and rhythm keep it interesting and moving. Really excellent.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks so much, Charles. I really should have done a true poem but I got caught up in the duty free thing, and you know how it is! I’ve been doing a poem a day for April so just had to go with what presented itself. Thanks much. K.

  18. hobgoblin2011 Says:

    Excellent narrative. Love the way you painted the scene. Never been to India, but been to plenty of airports, definitely know the duty frees, and just loved how you painted the setting. and that was a really nice gesture giving her the bottle. But I totally saw myself in this poem, I, just how I have known myself to be, would’ve been worrying myself about my things while in the shower. Great read. Thanks

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks – you know that in fact someone did steal all my things but I took that out of the story as it was kind of tangential (and a different story.) k.

  19. Nice prose with all the scents and colours….my nose is still twitching ~

    Thanks for the wonderful story ~

  20. kaykuala Says:

    Been to Delhi,Agra and before home to cool Kashmir. There were so many new things to see, most centuries old, but also noise and dust, cow-dung cakes on walls, taxis honking, colorful dresses.

    Kashmiri nature undisturbed,cool streams gushing down hillsides,flowers and maidens just as you had described!. Give another decade, most would still be undisturbed but the country an economic miracle! Great take K!

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Hi Hank–I was in Kashmir about two years ago — just as new wave of violence broke out–we left on morning of general strike. Crazy and so sad — one soldier per every ten yards in places. But you know–really beautiful, really sad. K.

  21. Wander Says:

    In some pros there is poetry, or is it that in some poetry there is some pros…

    I am not sure if this is my first time here, probably not, but if it is… hi
    my name is Chris, I go by wander and I liked this piece!


  22. David King Says:

    I loved Shanti, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes. She alone would have made the post a glorious read. This is prose poetry at its best, I think.

  23. poemsofhateandhope Says:

    Beautifully descriptive narrative- capturing the sights, sounds, smells as well as your internal emotions. Would love to go to India- I’m sure the poverty would be eye opening- this reminds meof an experience I had in Morrocco- gave a kid a few dirham- he looked at me like I had just made him a millionaire – this was totally engaging and hooked me right in….

    Also- thanks for pointing out my typo’s – you are an EDITOR! Ha ha- my attention to detail is shocking

  24. kelly Says:

    i love this… these kind of stories that come from what should be an ordinary moment, just as you say “a courageous trust in the random”… life is filled with these, yet so often they go unnoticed.

  25. Interesting sensory story

  26. Patti Says:

    Don’t even begin to question if this is poetry. Prose poetry for sure, but pure poetry nonetheless. It speaks of the good in humankind, and a lot that is not so good. I could never withstand the assault on my senses, but I love your descriptions of the time-warped beach town.

  27. Ben Miller Says:

    As others have said, it’s no matter if this is a poem or not. It is evocative in its detail and sense of color, not to mention tactile scent as it’s anchor and great to follow the duty free portal into such verdant memory.

  28. vivinfrance Says:

    A pungently written prose poem! I loved the ending – yes, we have a duty to be kind.

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