When a train gets delayed they say the schedule is broken. We were scheduled to leave Jalgaon at midday but our Hotel manager said “Your train is coming from Varanasi, that train is always delayed, go to the station and check what time it will arrive before you take your bags.” He was a mine of good information, he’d already supplied hot tips for good restaurants and prices for auto rickshaws, he was right again.
Our train was delayed three hours. At first we thought this was a good thing, it cut back the time we would be waiting for our connection at Surat but the clock kept ticking and the train never arrived for another hour. Our second class AC carriage was next to the food cart, mmm yummy Samosa, Chicken lollypop, but given the delay even they did’nt have enough food to provide everyone with dinner, just another omlette. At one moment it looked like we might just make our connection but no it stalled again and finally when we arrived at Surat we were 8 hours late and had missed our connection. This was not good news, as a friendly man onboard said, “You are going
to Rajastan, you may not get another train tomorrow, I am very sorry for you, I truly am.” We were meant to arrive at Ranthombore at 10am and go out on Tiger Safari that afternoon and again the following morning but it was 2am in Surat, once described as the dirtiest and smelliest city in India until hey cleaned up their act even the guide book had little information, there was no reason for a tourist to go to Surat. Wendy and I looked gloomily out the window of the train as we entered the station precinct, there were many neon signs of hotels nearby, we laughed, “Look, Hotel Go Home, Hotel Discomfort, Hotle Shiteonastick.”
Surat train station at 2am is a sea of sleeping bodies covered in dirty fabric, nearby a young boy waved locks and chains for sale, Wendys level of discomfort at having to lead Casey through this labyrinth was visibly growing. But people stopped to help, to give us directions to the exit and the reservation counter. I leaned close to the glass to try and understand what I was being told - If we wanted to leave now we could with a general class
ticket, but tourists have been known to leap from a moving train rather than travel in those carriages -12 hours at night in general class, sitting room only, no thanks. We were clearly a novelty item. A man with a Nike beanie appeared, he wanted to help too, one moment he was beside us, next he was behind the counter, Nike was fast, he was everywhere. We were told to return at 8am, “Go to counter 4 and make a train reservation”. I asked about hotels and Nike really kicked in, found out what sort of price we wanted to pay and led us to the Mr Bollywood of Surat autorickshaws and we were off into the darkness, away from the station, past roundabouts, more human debris and left into a dead end laneway.
There was no front door to the Hotel Ostria, just a dingy arcade and some dirty steps to an elevator that could have featured in Eraserhead. We piled in, Nike, Mr Bollywood, everything…. Wendy looked terrified. But Nike was on the money…. It was the hot tip! We got a large room at a good price and it was quiet - no beeping cacophony. I
paid everyone off . Casey gazed out the window and counted the number of kites caught in the powerlines - we at the chimney stacks and the grey concrete endlessness.
It was 3am. We made it to the reservation counter by 8… it was packed. To book a train you need the form and the name of the train for starters. We wrote down the name of the train we were meant to be on last night and I stood in line 4. There is one small hole to speak through and another to pass forms a hole capable of fitting maybe 6 or 8 arms at once. I did my best fonzie impersonation trying to bring some order to the Indian queuing method. Strangely it worked but the train we selected was full, only general class seats, my chance at communication was spent, no wait lists nothing…go away. This was when Wendy kicked in and we went to find an internet café, sourced info on all trains to find everything booked …. we resolved to travel general class by day.
I cannot remember how many counters we were sent to then lo and behold Nike reappeared and
insisted we use counter number one. Yet again Nike had the hot tip - we had found our place in the world, a queue for pensioners, disabled and yes, freedom fighters. Freedom was what we sought and somehow we purchased a second class sleeper ticket on the provision we visit the Station Manager on the third floor and invoke (da daaaaa)… The Emergency Clause, and fill in all relevant information, Xerox everything and return it within the hour. Poor Casey still hadn’t had breakfast. We had already crossed the road to use the internet, an exhausting process which involved maneuvering through a sea of auto rickshaws 60 meters deep all hassling to move… somewhere. But we were freedom fighters and brushing aside Mr Bollywood who reappeared with a whole cast of hangers on we embarked upon our mission. Wendy almost cried when we returned to find the office door shut. But our disappointment was short lived, our application was accepted and finally we were able to relax and find something to eat.
The restaurant was crowded, we were ushered upstairs to the AC room. It was a shoebox that must have been 36 degrees hot and the AC was struggling. It was hard to eat, to breathe, but with an icy chocolate even Casey smiled and the stage was set, we were to leave in four hours.
Looking at the ticket on the platform it became obvious we were only wait listed and had no idea which coach to get on. Our confusion was apparent, a porter grabbed our ticket and thrust it at a platform attendant, confirmed something, then grabbed us and forcibly attempted to drag us through a seething throng of people. But even this was impossible. Some local dignitary had arrived and the crowd commenced to sing their welcoming song and nothing was going to interrupt that. We chose the closest entry in the other direction and attempted to pass them from inside the train… of course every one else had the same idea and there was another sea of people with all their bags pushing to pass each other …. It was madness. If people could have beeped it would have been hysterical, still I was very worried for Casey that he might be crushed. We eventually reached the end of the carriage, showed a conductor our ticket and of course we were in the wrong carriage…we had to return from whence we had come. How embarrassment!
Eventually we found our place - but instead of 8 people there were 10… everyone presented tickets to prove their right to be there except those hanging from the ceiling and we squeezed in. 12. At various stops things changed and we all re shuffled. The old Rajastani man with high blood pressure, the bald man with the map of Afganistan, the young man with the “cause physical damage” chilli powder….. The two older ladies in Saris with oversized big toes, the young boy accompanying them with the glitter vest for bedtime. Eventually I asked where was everyone going to sleep and found out the ladies and the boy and “physical damage chilli powder” were on the floor… Casey and Wendy had to share, Casey’s wait list hadn’t been confirmed. There was no space for Yahtzee, someone kicked the grate next to Wendy everytime she was about to nod off, the toilets were a disgrace but we were elated. We were freedom fighters. We were leaving Surat and had only missed one of our two booked Tiger Safari’s.
The train belched and hooted for 635km like a bad dahl slipping through a Dehli belly and arrived spot on time at 3:50am. Vishnu from Vatika Lodge had a driver there to meet us… with an hours sleep he would wake us up for Chai and Tiger safari.
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