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Tired and Overwhelmed in Surat, India

The four-hour train ride from Mumbai to Surat was cool and comfortable. It was my first ride in an AC2-class car, one of the best classes you can take on a train in India. The first thing I noticed were the passengers: they were much different than those on the lower class cars. Many of them spoke English, even to each other, and they spoke more quietly.

Several passengers used their laptops during the journey and listened to music on their smart phones. Each seat came with a complementary bottle of water, a blanket, a pillow, and even dinner! Talk about luxury.

As we left Mumbai, the man sitting next to me asked me where I was going.

"Surat.", I replied.

"Surat? I am also going to Surat. Be prepared for hell getting off!"

As we approached the Surat train station, the passengers filled the hallways and lined up to get out. They moved their luggage as close to the exit as possible and seemed to prepare for battle.

Pulling into the station, I could see what they were preparing for: crowds of people were ready to push into the train in an attempt to get any available seats. (It's still not entirely clear to me how these people can fight for seats without already having an assigned ticket.)

I felt lucky to only have one bag. Other passengers had to manage getting several bags off the train through the crowds, which were ruthless with their constant pushing and shoving. I was pushed several times and almost fell over when I tripped on someones luggage.

As I made my way up the crowded stairs towards what I could only guess was the exit, I felt my backpack move in a strange way. Since I was in a huge crowd, I was already extremely alert to any strange movements of my bag or the feeling of foreign hands in my pockets.

I spun around and caught a pickpocket red-handed trying to open my bag. I turned so quickly that I caught him by surprise when I slapped his hands away from the bag. He immediately turned around and walked back down the stairs into the oncoming crowd.

This was going to be a long night.

My final destination was not Surat, but rather Udaipur. However, I couldn't find any available trains from Mumbai to Udaipur, so my plan was to take a train as far as Surat and then find an overnight bus that would take me from Surat to Udaipur. I wasn't particularly looking forward to the ten-plus hour journey by bus, but I was already used to discomfort.

Approaching the exit to the train station, I asked a young man which way to the bus station and proceeded to walk in the direction he pointed. After walking a few hundred feet, I asked yet another person, once again walking in the direction they pointed. This zig-zag approach to finding places was becoming a regular way of finding my way around in India.

It was just after 8pm and the traffic around the train station was thick, noisy, and fast moving. It looked like a river of cars and horns. Crossing this river to reach the bus station involved standing in the middle of the traffic and making small quick steps to avoid oncoming cars.

The bus station wasn't much better than standing in the middle of the traffic. Big clunky buses moved slowly blaring their horns as people weaved through them. I looked for signs that might indicate where I should go for the Udaipur buses, but nothing was in English. Nothing. Not even one sign!

I walked over to what looked like the ticket counter to inquire about a bus to Udaipur. From my experience in India thus far, the ticket attendants nearly always speak some English.

A response comes back to me in some other language, not even remotely similar to English. I spoke again in English, and once again the official behind the counter replied in a different language. The situation was not looking good.

"People only speak Gujarati here, you're going to have a tough time."

I turned and saw a young man. He was a bit taller than me, thin, and wearing glasses. His English wasn't perfect, but it was a relief to hear a familiar language. I was at first skeptical that he might try to take advantage of me, but I didn't get that vibe from him. He seemed like he genuinely wanted to help.

After I explained that I was trying to get to Udaipur, he proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes asking uncooperative bus officials and staring at the train schedules trying to find a bus to Udaipur.

Eventually, he gave up and said that he couldn't find one. He suggested that I take a bus to the next major city up, Ahmedabad, and then find a train to Udaipur from there. That was actually my own backup plan, so I agreed and he began looking for a bus to Ahmedabad.

Five minutes later he tells me that all the busses to Ahmedabad have already left and he suggests another, slightly smaller city, with a name that I don't recognize.

"Hmm, adventure", I think to myself as I quickly try to assess the risk.

After thanking the young man for all his help, I climb into the bus to this unknown town. Looking around, I see that the bus is mostly filled with younger people. This is usually a good thing, since younger people seem to be more likely to understand English.

The ticket attendant comes over and I tell him where I'm going. He says something in Gujarati and gives me a disgusted look. I tell him again where I'm going and this time he ignores me and continues collecting money from other passengers.

I turn to the young man sitting next to me.

"Bharuch?", I ask.

He replies in Gujarati.

"Is this bus going to Bharuch?"

This time he shakes his head no and replies with another name I don't recognize.

OK, great. So it looks like I might be on the wrong bus. For a moment, I try to decide whether or not I should just see where the bus takes me. Then I realize that I will probably regret doing that when I arrive in some random place with absolutely no one who speaks English and no way of figuring out exactly where I am.

I get off the bus and start walking around. I ask several other ticket attendants for "Bharuch" and eventually one points me to a bus. I climb in and sit down in what looks like the only available seat.

Two minutes later, a man comes over holding a bag and what looks like a bus ticket in his hand. He motions to my seat and says, "Assigned seat".

Great.

As I climb out of the bus and start walking around again, I realize how mentally exhausting all this is becoming. I wonder to myself if I should just find a place to stay for the night and resume looking for a bus in the morning when I can think clearly.

Walking away from the bus station into the great unknown of Surat, I start looking for a hotel. I find one close to the bus station that has prices on a sign outside: 200 Rupees ($4) a night. Perfect.

The receptionist gives me a dirty look and says there are no rooms.

The next hotel over seems much more expensive and out of place next to the bus station, with a fancy lobby and marble floors. Out of curiosity, I walk in and ask for the room prices: 680 Rupees for one night!

I leave and check with several other small hotels, each time getting a dirty look and being told there are no rooms. The people here seem much less friendly than any of the other places I've been to in India.

After walking around for another forty minutes, I finally give up and check into the Rs.680/night hotel. At this point it's almost midnight and I'm just happy to have a place to lay down.

The simplicity and reliability of trains was starting to look more and more appealing.

Hoping my luck would change, I opened my laptop and spent the next hour trying once again to find a set of available trains to take me from Surat to Udaipur. To my amazement, I find two trains that will work: Surat to Ahmedabad and then six hours later, Ahmedabad to Udaipur.

After purchasing the tickets, I fall asleep comforted by the fact that the remainder of my journey is not only guaranteed, but that I'll also have a comfortable place to sleep during the twelve-hour journey from Ahmedabad to Udaipur.

--

This post was a bit different that what I normally post here. If you enjoyed it and you want to see more like this, please let me know. Oh, and if you read the whole thing, thank you! πŸ™‚

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30 Comments

  1. Sounds like you are having quite the adventure! I’m quite surprised that there are not so many people that speak English… After all India has the most English speakers out of any country in the world so I believe. I guess they are mostly in the bigger cities tho.

    What is your favourite spot in India so far? I lived in Dharamsala for a couple of years when I was young but haven’t been back in over 12 years. Its on my list!

    Also, how do you feel about moving through places so quickly? I have done a combination of sprints where I do 3-5 nights in a city then move on and stints where I get an apartment and stay for 2-4 weeks in a place. I am consistently enjoying the latter more. I like seeing all the sights, but I build better friendships and have a stronger experience if I stay for longer.

    • Hey Vinay,

      Everywhere else I’ve been in India, especially the bigger cities, there are plenty of people who speak English (even if only a little). That’s why I was really surprised about Surat. However, in retrospect, I suppose it could have something to do with the fact that I was near the bus and train station the whole time. I suppose the people traveling could have been from further outside the city and so they were less likely to speak English.

      My favorite spot in India so far… hmmm. That’s a little tough! I’d have to say Gokarna and Udaipur. The energy and atmosphere here in Udaipur is just incredible. It really does feel like the Venice of the East (I say that without ever having been to Venice!).

      As for the traveling speed: I definitely prefer staying longer — preferably 1 – 3 months. I feel rushed when it’s only a few days and I feel like I can’t just relax and take my time seeing places.

      I had no idea you lived in Dharamsala. I was in the next town over, Ujire, for almost a month! I went to Dharamsala briefly to use an ATM, but I didn’t explore at all.

  2. Ugh, sometimes travelling in another country where you dont speak the same language can be very stressful. Im sorry you had to eat into your budget for a little peace of mind. Do you have backup funds if you over spend?

    Also, have you experienced, or do you think you may have experienced prejudice because you are American? Or white?

    • Hi Lisa,

      I can’t say for sure that it was prejudice towards being American/white, but it definitely felt that way at times. It definitely makes you feel a lot more isolated and alone when people are not friendly AND you can’t understand them!

      As for my budget… I have a tiny backup, but I’m already working on bringing in extra income through freelancing so I’m not worried too much.

  3. One lesson I have learnt travelling in local trains in Mumbai is always carry your backpack like a baby carrier in front! That way you dont have to worry about the pick pocketers and also the chances of your bag strap getting stuck in random poles, grills,etc are reduced!

    • Hi Aditi!

      Yes, I also carry my backpack on the front sometimes. However, when it’s fully packed and I’m moving from one place to the next, it’s quite heavy and difficult to carry in the front! I have to work on emptying it some more. πŸ˜€

      Thank you for the suggestion!

  4. Great Post! πŸ˜€ Enjoyed it very much.

    “each time getting a dirty look and being told there are no rooms.”

    Do you think they gave the “dirty looks” because they knew it would keep you from asking questions and they didn’t want to struggle with trying to communicate with you since maybe their English was poor or because you didn’t speak their language?

    • Thanks David! Glad you enjoyed it! πŸ™‚

      I’m not sure what the dirty looks were for. It’s very possible they just didn’t want to try communicating, but that’s never happened in the past here in India. Even if people can’t communicate, they still try. Not in Surat though. At least not around the bus station.

    • Haha, you’ve got that right, James!

      I knew it would make great story material as it was happening, but it sucked at the same time. It was the first time I’ve ever felt overwhelmed by anything like that. I’m pretty adaptable and I like to think that I deal with discomfort and unfamiliarity pretty well, but that was just frustrating, tough, and very exhausting.

  5. Hi Raam, this is was cool sharing your experience in India. Thanks for that. I wouldn’t doubt that it can get chaotic and crowded in eastern countries. Last year when I was in Taiwan, I wanted to get on a bus to go back home from Taipei. The first time the bus came, about 40 people tried to get on it. So I waited 10 minutes. The second time the bus came, about 40 people tried to get on it. So I waited 10 minutes again. When the 3rd bus came, about 40 people tried to get on it again! I said screw it and found a way to get on the crowded bus. πŸ™‚

    • Hey Hulbert, thanks for the comment!

      I’ve already decided to avoid the buses here in India whenever possible, especially in the cities! I prefer walking places anyway. I’ve also gotten pretty good at bargaining with taxi drivers for the lowest price — I usually end up asking three or four drivers before figuring out the lowest price they’ll settle for. πŸ˜€

  6. Ha! I lost about 5 kg in my first week in China – getting around Shanghai along – which in 2005 was still not very well signed in English.

    But while my conscious mind was working out what to do, I still somehow felt like I was floating on a haze of wonder.

    When I look back on it, it was part and parcel of the travelling experience.

    But then again – no one was actively giving me looks of disgust! THAT is hard to deal with and I’d say THAT is what made you most tired (knowing you, you strong, patient guy lol… hey I did say we were twins in our first contact, remember)

    • I’ve definitely lost lots of weight since coming to India, but I’m sure it has to do with all the sweating, walking, and eating relatively healthy.

      The disgusted looks and unfriendly people definitely made me the most tired. Everything else I could deal with just fine, but the constant feeling of being in a hostile situation wears you out quickly!

  7. Hey Raam,

    I see you are getting to know India for what it is :).
    And I also read that you avoided being o victim of a thief.
    Good stuff Raam.
    Also if you don’t have reserved tickets on the train you can always try the unreserved compartments. It gets a bit rough at times but for journeys less than 200 kilometers ……….well its bearable.
    Good Luck.

    Jacob

    • Hey Jacob,

      Thanks for the train tips! I’ve been getting my train tickets online and so far that has worked well. I’ve learned to book the tickets well in advance and when I can’t do that, I know how to get Tatkal tickets at 8:30am. πŸ™‚

  8. Hi Raam,

    A good post for others, but being a Surti, I felt the post is somewhat half truth.

    First of all, you are traveling in India, and you cant expect everyone to understand English. India may have largest number of English speaking people, but not all people speak English, and there is nothing wrong in that. No offense to English language, but you also got to respect the local and national language of the country. India is what it is today due to its rich cultural heritage. If you know Hindi, your life can become easy in most parts of the country.

    One can not expect any foreigner to know Hindi/local language when traveling to India, but at the same time, they don’t have any right to complain about communication issues arising from the language barrier. It is just like a Chinese guy complaining in Russia that no one here understands Chinese language.

    Regarding the dirty looks, you may be right to some extent. But let me present my perspective here:
    I have seen that westerners visiting India have a different kind of attitude. you can say they have a superiority complex. Again, not all of them are like that, but most of them. In earlier days, it used to do the trick, but not now. The generation has changed. They feel proud of what they are and wont tolerate any aggressive attitude.

    Above all, you have not seen Surat if you have not taste the food in the city. You need to experience the hospitality of real Surti people in the heart of the city. It is unfortunate, but yes, the bus station and the railway station is not where you will find the local people. These are the places used as a transitioning point to go towards north of the state and country, so you will see may people from all the parts of the country. Surat has been home to immigrants from all over the country, and many of them have made it big in the city.

    I am sure you can find more facts about the city here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surat

    “I searched for the crooked, met not a single one
    When searched myself, I found no one is more crooked than me” – Kabir

    • Hi Pranav,

      The post is simply an account of my experience. There are no hard facts anywhere. As I mentioned in my response to the first comment, I believe the uncomfortable experience is directly related to the fact that I was only around the bus and train station.

      I never expect anyone in India to know English. It was just my observation after being in India for three months, that even people in tiny remote villages understand some English. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when none of the bus or train officials I spoke to understood or could speak any English in a city as big as Surat.

      I am familiar with the “superiority complex” that some Americans exhibit, and I’ve made it a point to avoid this, so I doubt that has anything to do with my experience (unless the people I approached already had it set in their mind that I would come across that way).

      The Wikipedia page is indeed filled with interesting (and amazing) facts about Surat. I read the entire page before stopping there.

      Thanks for the quote by Kabir! πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Earl! Yes, Udaipur! I miss it so much already. It was an incredible place and three days was not nearly enough time!

  9. Hey Raam, great post! I really love the narrative style. Coincedently I am reading around the world in 80 days for the first time and your stories remind me of it a bit.

  10. Wow, what a story.

    I went through my own mini-hell story yesterday on a cramped mini bus for 6 hours 5 of which were through a major range here in Laos with a 2 & 4 year old.

    The 2 year old only threw up three times, so I am taking that as a win πŸ™‚

    It’s hard not speaking the language in a given country!

    Great writing, great story. Travel isn’t always glamorous!

    • Thank you, Colin!

      Traveling alone in foreign countries is one thing, but traveling with two young kids? I can only imagine how much more difficult that must be. I give you major props!

      Hopefully we get to meet up in Vietnam!

  11. Good God, Raam!! What a crazy adventure…..I could never ever ever do this. I am so spoiled and I would not make it out of the train station. Pick pockets. Dirty looks. No way to communicate. No place to stay (although I’d have stayed in the 680 Rupees (~$14 right?) in a heart beat. You are brave and I just hope you make it out of this place alive and well to continue onto Vietnam or wherever else your journeys take you. BE SAFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Hey Farnoosh, thank you for the comment and your concern. πŸ™‚

      I can definitely understand how difficult it would be for some people, but at the same time I think it’s really worth every bit of the experience!

      I made it safely to my next destination, which was New Delhi (and no, I wasn’t on the train that derailed and killed 90 people just as I arrived!).

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