The thing which I have found hardest about cycling through India is dealing with the entirely different rules of etiquette here. The concept of personal space seems to be alien.
As an introvert, this has been very tiring. Here are a few examples from our experiences so far. Please do share any stories of your own or advice on how to deal with it.
1. Quietly observing us for an hour
Sitting down by a river reading our books, we notice a head peering down from the bridge above. We’re not sure how long he’s been there but he looks pretty relaxed. We say hello, have a brief conversation, return to reading our books and the man remains staring down on us for another half hour.
2. Mobbed in every town
Cycling through a small town centre we pull over to buy some bananas. Before this simple 30-second transaction is completed, a mob of 30 people has gathered and surrounded us. Slowly emboldened, they are testing my brakes, pushing buttons on my cycle computer, tapping my ukulele case and squeezing my tyres. I say hello/namaste and am ignored or looked at like a nut job. I shout bye-bye with a smile and move to wheel my bike but rather than disperse the crowd just reshapes to move with me and I have to nudge my way out.
3. Stopping off to stare at the freak show
Collapsing under the shade of a tree at the side of a deserted road – it’s 40C in the sunshine – we eat our lunch of biscuits and bananas. A moped pulls up within 3-feet of us, stops, and its two passengers silently watch us. We greet them, get a nod in response, then continue our snacking whilst our visitors – now joined by another boy dropped off by a passing motorbike and a farmer who’s downed tools and walked 100yds to join us – stare in silence.
4. Coming into our hotel room
To escape the constant attention and to gain some personal space, we check into a guest house. Unpacking our bikes to move in, three youths and the hotel manager gather around the door to our room and observe. We thank them and close the door only to find a head pop up at our window to watch. We smile, gesture that we’re going to change, and close the shutters – just as a boy we’ve never seen before opens the door, walks into our room, flicks a few switches then walks out again leaving the doors open.
It’s obviously just a different set of norms rather than rudeness but it is so different and so suffocating that it can be really hard to maintain decorum and keep smiling when you’re tired, hot and hungry. Add your anecdotes or words of wisdom below.
The last one made me laugh out loud!
I’m still stunned how kids manage to reset my GPS-recorder within seconds by randomly pressing buttons. Nowadays i’m quick to shout “Don’t touch”.
Practice the “headwaggle and smile” to get a reaction.
…and it’s not just the kids! Fully grown adults seem to be just as curious/shameless with their investigations.
Najeeb Ahmed Khan
this is an eye opener, this is same everywhere you go in the entire Indian subcontinent,
I’m hoping Nepal doesn’t count as part of the subcontinent… That’s where we’re heading to escape the madness!
When I drove through Mongolia in 2005 it was a similar story. I remember one incident in particular. We stopped for petrol beside a local gentleman with a small canister of fuel (the local equivalent of a Shell / BP garage) and whilst negotiating how much petrol we needed, a local child got in the driver seat, played with the buttons and started the engine. It was a touch concerning at first but we soon learned that this was just the norm in a country where personal space does not exist and it is normal for three generations to live in the same (albeit usually large) tent.
Cheers Dan. I worry enough when someone tries to ride my heavy bike, but a car…!
I’m an Indian. To be perfectly honest, privacy and personal space is not even a thing in India. As much as it pains me say this, it is true. Even in households, cousins grow up under the same roof and joint family system exists, so there is no concept of privacy. Even though my family is a nuclear family, my dad still views the concept of privacy and personal space to be something we youngsters trying to copy westerners. It is sad, really. There mustn’t be a password to your phone either cause if you do, it means you’re hiding something from them. They understand it that way. The only consolation in this situation would be that our generation is a lot better in this aspect. Also, I apologise on behalf of all of them who did not respect your privacy. I hope that you make better memories the next time you visit India. Because, it may have a million problems, but it is still a paradise once you get to know it deeply. Good day!
Hi Snigdha. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It is interesting to hear about it from an Indian.
In many ways, it is a more normal way to be. Why are so many of us so precious about our “personal space”? And since most of us don’t usually have major secrets to hide at all times, what are we so concerned about?
I guess that’s one of the reasons for travelling. To see different ways of life and challenge our assumptions.
And don’t worry, I am still a big fan of India! We have many fond memories from that trip and had a wonderful time on our previous visit.
All the best,