Privacy in India? Not a chance...

If you're a traveler who covets space, enjoys anonymity, and likes a city without ten pairs of curious eyes following you, then India is NOT the place for you. After 2 months here, I've grown quite accustomed to strangers requesting to take a photo of me with their cell phones. I've been bombarded by a flurry of rickshaw drivers the instant I step off a public bus, and I've had my U.S. passport examined by my porter on a trek.
No, India doesn't offer any privacy. But, my golden rule here is: Do as the locals do. If I catch someone invading my personal space, it's my personal right to do the same to them. It's not offensive; it's simply Indian.

Three weeks ago, I was visiting the small town of Joshimath, a gateway to spectacular hikes in the Uttaranchal region. For 3 consecutive days the village's satellite had been down so that the entire town had no internet, no ATM access, and no ability to dial from a land line. My incessant question of "When will the satellite be working?" was met with nonchalant stares that read, "I don't know and I don't care. Come and have some chai (tea)." I was quite desperate to access the ATM, because I needed to pay my porters for the Kuari Pass hike that I had returned from. By the evening of the 3rd day, the satellite was back up, and I ran to the nearest ATM.
ATMs all over the world are designed the same: there is a room with the ATM machine that is accessed by swiping your bank card to gain entry through the glass door. In every single country I've lived or traveled in, ATM courtesy is to wait patiently for the prior customer to finish his transaction, wait for him to exit the ATM room, and then complete your transaction. Simple, one-customer-at-a-time, private services.
In India, as I soon found out, none of these rules apply. I found the ATM room crowded with 8 people. Yes, eight. The line outside was only 2 people long, and as soon as one person exited the ATM room, all the outside customers would do their best to crowd into the narrow room so that they could at least be physically closer to the ATM machine.
I followed suit, and found myself crowded in the ATM room with 7 other men, all staring at the ATM machine like teenagers fixated on a video game. As each customer made his transaction, at least one man would comment. "You have to withdraw from your savings account." "Why did the machine reject your card? You have no money?" Interesting, I thought. As I inched closer to the ATM machine, I readied my Wells Fargo card so that the pot-bellied Indian next to me wouldn't elbow his way in first.
My turn, finally! I slipped in my card, and heard comments from behind me. "What country is her card from?" "How much are her international fees?"
Up popped the PIN screen.
"You have to type in your PIN number. You know your PIN number?"
I looked over my shoulder at the voice breathing down my neck, and found myself staring at 5 peering sets of eyes.
I didn't even respond. I entered in my PIN number, and each time I typed in a digit, I heard voices behind me repeating my PIN sequence. How annoying. But, they had done it to everyone else, so I couldn't scream that I was being targeted.
Up popped the "Savings Account or Current Account" screen. Debates of which account I should tap into ensued behind me.
"Push savings account."
"No, she should push current account."
"Savings accounts always have more money."
"She looks confused."
I didn't even turn around to face my intruders. I pushed current account, then typed in 15,000 rupees.
"Oooh, 15,000 rupees. I wonder what she does."
"I wonder if she works here."
"No, she's just traveling."
And then out popped my cash.
"Take it!" yelled the voices in unison behind me.
I took it. Then I counted it, while everyone else counted with me. Satisfied that the ATM machine had given me what I wanted, I turned around to exit and fight my way through the waiting bodies. Immediately, men started to surge forward, and the battle of whose ATM card would get into the slot first began again.

Another example of nonprivacy? I was standing in the line at the railway station in Haridwar, waiting to book a ticket to Amritsar. The line was long, and people kept cutting in front of slower moving folks. I waited patiently, clutching my stub that would reserve my ticket for the next day.
"You're going to Amritsar?"
I turned around to face a grandpa wearing glasses thicker than my dad's. He was pointing to my train reservation stub.
End of conversation.
After 20 minutes, and the line having only moved 2 feet, I curiously glanced over the shoulder of the man in front of me. His stub read that he was cancelling one seat on a ride to Delhi the following day.
"Why are you canceling your train ticket?"
The man turned around to face me, and answered, "Because I'm not going."
"Oh. Why not?"
"I have business."
I nodded understandingly.
5 minutes later, he turned around and shoved his stub 3 inches from my face.
"Does this say UB or LB?"
His fat finger pointed at an ink-smeared line reading "LB."
"Good. I thought so."
"I wanna make sure I cancel the Lower Berth ticket and not the Upper Berth ticket."
I nodded understandingly, again.

And more invasion of privacy in India:
I was in a shared jeep going from Manali to Leh. These jeeps fit 12 people. Yes, it's a standard size jeep. Three passengers and the driver are in the driver's row. Four passengers are in the last row, and the trunk is converted into 2 rows facing each other, each with 2 passengers. A full jeep with no seat belts for maximum profit. True Indian style.
Along this 2-day jeep journey to Leh, there are numerous checkpoints where all foreigners are requested to show their passports. I was the only foreigner and the only female in the entire jeep, so whenever we would pull up to a checkpoint, the entire jeep would turn to face me and chant, "Passport. Passport. Passport." Take it easy, guys, I'm not stupid.
Because I was sitting in the back, I'd have to pass my passport to the second row, who would then pass it to the driver, who would then give it to the security post. At the first checkpoint, after we had been cleared, the passport weaved its way from passenger to passenger before it was returned to me. I didn't mind; my fellow passengers were simply curious and wanted to touch/stroke/attempt to read my visa stamps and passport pages.
It passed through 11 pairs of enquiring hands before it was placed safely back in my money belt. In any other country, would locals have read through your most important document and then passed it down the line? No; only in India.

And in my stay at a gurdwara (Sikh pilgrimage house), I was looking through the photos that I'd taken on the trek that I had returned from that day. I was sitting in the courtyard after dinner, surrounded by Sikhs who were drinking tea, staring at others, or heading off to an early sleep in the communal sleeping halls. As I looked through my photos, deleting some and studying others, a fan base slowly grew. Within 5 minutes, I had 8 peering Sikh heads over my shoulder. The comments were in Punjabi language, so I couldn't understand them, but I could see that they were itching to view a slideshow of the photos. I played the slideshow, and one man eagerly grabbed the camera so that he could see better. Soon, they were all standing gathered around him, oohing and aawing at my photos. I sat on my bench, waiting until they were done or got bored.
"OK, nice photos," the only English-speaking one among them thanked me as he handed back the camera.
8 smiles greeted me, thanking me nonverbally for the entertainment of the slideshow, and I smiled back.
Then, just as quickly as they had gathered, they dispersed.

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