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".
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! 🙂