Sunday, January 18, 2009

ATM Protocol, a comparative study (plus a secret contest for our readers!)

By this time loyal S.L. N.C. readers no longer need (or want) me to tell them how totally completely FREAKIN different Varanasi is from any other place I have ever been.  But the fact remains that even now, 3.5 months into this crazy journey, I am still, almost-daily, smacked up-side the head with the fact that I am really not in Kansas anymore.  Even something as seemingly simple as getting money from the ATM is an exercise in culture shock.  

Back home I'd take a peek in the wallet and upon seeing that cash-holdings were a bit low I'd plan to stop by any one of the 40+ ATMs within a mile of my house.  If, upon arriving at the ATM, I found another person using it I'd wait patiently for my turn, standing a goodly distance away so as not to encroach upon the other person's privacy.  I'd politely avert my eyes so as to not even accidentally discover any details of their transaction.  Once the ATM was free I'd step up, confident that other ATM users would wait patiently and at a distance while I completed my transaction.  The transaction would be quick, simply selecting a cash withdrawal from my checking account.  Upon receiving my cash I'd pause for moment to put it in my wallet and then put my wallet in my purse, while the person behind be continued to wait patiently.  Then, on with the rest of my life.  Sounds pretty straight forward, right?

Not so here in Varanasi.  Here, upon realizing I need cash, I first ask my husband if he has any. (Anything to avoid going to the ATM, even sacrificing my status as a financially independent woman!)  If Chris doesn't have enough money to give me we compare our plans for the day and decide who will be better able to hit the ATM.  If the task falls to me, I set out with the kids and our driver on some other mission which will take us past one of the 3 ATMs in the whole city that I've been able to use with success.  Shamsher (our driver) will cheerfully suggest we hit the bhang-wallah road ATM.  (SECRET CONTEST!  First person to correctly define "bhang-wallah" in the comments* wins a bar of  Nag Champa soap and a pack of Nag Champa incense.  Ginny and Sus, you are exempt, as are all others who have ever had any personal interaction with a bhang-wallah.  Ready, GO!)  Shamsher and the kids and I will all spend the next 5 minutes re-affirming our disdain for bhang and our conviction that bhang consumers/vendors are bahd-mash-s.  Eventually we get to the ATM.  Shamsher parks at a goodly distance from the ATM and is left with the kids (lucky Shamsher).  I walk up to the ATM which is conveniently located in a little glassed in room, with a locking door.  Invariably a man is using the ATM and there are about 3 more men waiting.  I stand behind the guys already waiting, maintaining what I feel is a comfortable amount of personal space.  (Note here that I say "waiting" and not "in line."  There is most assuredly NOT a line for anyone to wait in.)  (Also note the use of "man" not "person".  ATM usage seems to be a decidedly male endeavor.)  More men will walk up, stand between me and the men already waiting, invading my personal space, and then turn around to stare unceasingly at me for the duration of the wait.  I wither internally, but decide to persevere, even if it means allowing the starers to go first.  (Would you really want to debate the niceties of turn-taking with a paan-chewing Indian dude who is STARING at you like a piece of meat?  Me neither.)  After a LONG time it will finally be my turn.  After allowing the prior ATM user to exit at his leisure I enter the ATM room, firmly closing (and locking) the door behind me, much to the consternation of the men who have joined the line behind me.  Apparently this desire to use the ATM ALONE is baffling - many people seem to bring a friend with and welcome the supervision strangers while using the ATM.  I mumble a prayer that the ATM will work and start the transaction.  I first have to choose Hindi or English and then whether I would like my money from my "saving" or "current" account.  ("Current" is the right answer.)  I input the amount desired in 100 rupee denominations.  I am scolded by the ATM for not using 100 rupee denominations.  I try the exact same amount again and am again scolded.  I decide I ought to check the account balance, just to be sure.  While waiting for the machine to process that request I realize that I can hear, from outside, the next ATM user narrating my transaction to the others.  Every single thing the screen displays this guy reads aloud to everyone else in line.  Assured of my balance I try my withdrawal request a third time, for the original amount.  This time the ATM deigns to give me my money.  After a long wait, the money comes.  I take it and hear the door being rattled as my narrator demands to be let in.  Unfazed I put my money away, and then put my wallet away. Rattling continues.  I step to the door.  The door which opens outward and which is completely surrounded by Indian men wanting to use the ATM.  They are so close that I cannot physically push the door open.  I stare at them until someone gets the bright idea to back up enough to allow the door to open.  Finally, I exit and am minutely scrutinized as I walk back to the car.  Opening the door to the car, I see my entire ATM fan club still staring at me.  Only after I get in the car do the narrator and his assistant enter the ATM.  

Everything is an adventure here.  Everything.  

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Grampy said...

grass seller

Grandpa George said...


This sounds dangerous to me. I think you should make Chris the desiginated ATM user, UNLESS, you have a Hindi speaking "authoritarian" type who can say "back off" or whatever Hindi admonition seems appropriate.

I suspect an Indian policeman would do the job for a small gratuity!!! but where are they when you need one.

Sus and Ginny are catching up on sleep, but they gave a show at Rick and Kay's. You all are much in our thoughts and prayers.


MeeMa said...

I ditto George's comment!!! After all, having a husband should mean you can avoid more of the dangerous and obnoxious things in life. That's sexist, yes, but it's a philosophy that makes your life MUCH nicer! (You know me and pumping gas and getting my fingers smelly...or dealing with the repair guys.) There are things we CAN do if we must, but MUST we? That's the question!

margaret said...

first off, grampy beat me to it, but i was thinking the same thing. also, i probably would give up on the atms altogether if i were you, having chris do it instead. or bring ben to scowl at those rascals. fingers crossed that atms will be more pleasant in pune!