After traveling through some of the most popular tourist destinations of Southern India, I decided to hop off the train on a random city for a few days rest. When I finally got out of the beaten track, I witnessed a completely different India with unique flavours that…

Nah, just kidding. There was nothing remarkable about my stay in the city of Surat.

“I need to get out of here”, I thought as I looked at the traffic jams of Mumbai through the window. It was early morning and I had just woken up in my sleeper bus from Hampi to Mumbai. My body felt exhausted and I felt like I was getting sick soon. I needed to get some rest.

At some point, I was planning to stay in Mumbai for a few days. Now, as I followed the trail of our bus on my offline map on my smartphone, I started to comprehend the scale of the city. We were still in the far edges of the metropolis, but moving around in the traffic was extremely slow. If I had more time and energy, I could have stayed in the city for a longer period. Now, when I had neither of those, even the outskirts of the city felt too noisy and chaotic.

Taxis and rickshaws in a traffic jam in Mumbai.

I didn’t see much more of Mumbai than this.

It was not only the megacity itself that made me think about getting out — I had overslept the moment when the bus went closest to the city center. When I finally realized what had happened, we were already over an hour of driving away from the inner city. I didn’t want to spend that much time just to reach the area where I wanted to stay. Instead, I decided to get off at the last stop and take a train to some city further up in the north.

Train timetable with writing in Hindi in Mumbai.

I decided to take train 12925 to Valsad, but the train never arrived on the announced platform. Instead, I hopped on another train that went to the right direction.

From plan B to no plan

I didn’t have an internet access, but I had skimmed through some parts of my Lonely Planet India guide on the bus. After some thinking, I decided to go to the town of Valsad. Valsad is a small, historical town just a few hours train trip out from Mumbai – exactly what I wanted. There, I could relax from the cacophony of the cities and tourist sights and get my body back to full health.

That could have been a great plan. The only problem was that my train didn’t stop in Valsad.

The train had not stopped in any of the small stations after Mumbai, so when I saw the signs of Valsad whirl by, I wasn’t taken by surprise. Still, I felt like I wanted to stop somewhere soon. I had not eaten properly during the day, my throat was feeling a bit sore and my mind wasn’t all there. I checked the map again to see what the next big city would be. Surat. There was nothing about Surat in the Lonely Planet guide, but that didn’t matter. That’s where I’d stop.

A young Indian man sitting on a second class train carriage.

While the first day otherwise dull, the train journey was interesting because I met Arjut, a wise young guy from Northern India. 18-year-old Arjut wants to become a successful rapper – a difficult task in a country where Western rap music is not very popular.

I got out at the station, went to the closest rickshaw driver and asked him to take to any hotel. The driver didn’t speak English, so it took him some time to understand that I didn’t have a reservation and any hotel would do. The man drove me for 500 meters to a nearby hotel. I was happy to see that the hotel had their fares printed on a paper, so wouldn’t add any tourist extra to the tariff. I checked the room and I liked it, so I decided to stay.

Soon, I learnt that the Wi-Fi of the hotel was not working. Besides that, there wasn’t a restaurant in the building, so I had to find other places to eat. I did some writing during my first day, but mostly I just sprawled on the bed, reading and counting hours until it would be late enough to go to sleep.

I wasn’t feeling very tired, but when I finally fell asleep, I slept for nearly 11 hours.

Surat, a random city in India. A main road with motorbikes in Surat photographed from the side.

Motorcycles are very common everywhere in India. I’ve seen whole families with up to four members share the same motorbike.

Groundhog days

When I finally woke up in a random city, I noticed two things. First, I wasn’t feeling all too bad. My nose was running and I was developing a minor flu, but I didn’t have a fever. Second, the air in the room felt heavy and humid. The power in my non-air conditioned room had gone out at some point and the ceiling fan had stopped moving.

The electricity was eventually fixed, but the Wi-Fi was still off-limits for the rest of my stay. That’s why I couldn’t search information about the city online. Luckily, I had downloaded an offline map of the state on my smartphone, so I could look at the map and get the idea that there wasn’t much to see nearby. The city would go on for miles in all directions and there weren’t any sights marked nearby.

An improvised desk with laptop on a locker and hotel room nightstand used as a chair.

When there’s no desk in your room, you have to improvise.

I didn’t feel like exploring, so I limited my territory to the nearby streets. When I had to eat something, I’d walk to the extremely loud main road towards the train station and pick a restaurant. These visits were quite interesting in all their awkwardness. Usually, there were just a few other customers or none at all besides me, and I was definitely the only Western person around.

And because there were so few customers, I’d have the full attention of all the staff, all the time. Customer service is nice, but it gets kind of distracting when six to eight workers – including the manager, all the waitresses and some other sharp-dressed guys whose job description I never really understood – stare at you or constantly walk around your table and pretend not to stare.

Once, when I was waiting for my meal, the manager of one of the restaurants came to talk to me. He asked if I was in the city for business, and I told I was a tourist.

“I guess there aren’t many tourists here now during the monsoon season”, I said, attempting some casual smalltalk.

“There are no tourists here”, the manager responded. And he wasn’t just talking about the rain season.

Gray cars parked on the side of the road next to a narrow pavement.

There was a pavement by the main road, but I didn’t see anyone walk on it. Instead, it was used as a public urinal.

Back to the beaten path

While I didn’t see much, my short visit to a random city made me understand India better. Previously, I couldn’t truly comprehend the massive amount of people living in the country. While I knew that India had over a billion residents, I still wanted to believe that only the most popular and famous cities are extremely crowded.

Well, I can’t fool myself any longer. While Surat is not popular with tourists, the city center is not really different from all the other big cities of India. It is lively, crowded and a bit untidy. The mazes of alleys sprawl around and crossing the street as a pedestrian is as chaotic as it is in any other town. The only thing that were missing were the sights and landmarks that make the city stand out from the others.

Now, as I finish writing this, I’ve finally left Surat and I’ve been granted an internet access. Online, I find a little bit more information about Surat, previously known as Suryapur. The population of the city is 4,5 million, which makes it the 9th largest city in India. It is also one of the fastest growing cities in the world and world’s most important hub for diamond cutting and polishing. The city has a long Wikipedia article, but the text never mentions anything about sights or tourism.

A man and a white dog photographed from a window above.

I wasn’t very interested in exploring, so I took most of my pictures from the hotel room window.

While I didn’t really do anything in Surat, I don’t regret my sidestep. I’m traveling for a long time now, and there’s one big difference between vacations and vagabonding: when the trip gets longer, traveling becomes a permanent state. And when traveling is all you do, you don’t want all your days to be jam-packed with thrills and action. There are always some mundane days in between, but those are usually left unmentioned in travel blogs and Instagram feeds.

While the life of a traveler is often like an endless loop of Saturdays, you still need some time off from the fuzz. If you don’t listen to your body and you just rush around to see as much as possible, you’ll quickly become exhausted. And even though Surat is not a popular tourist destination, I could have gotten more out of it had I spent time with the locals. Now, my only longer discussion happened after my last check-in when I waited at the hotel lobby and the hotel manager came to talk to me.

But still, I can understand why some destinations are usually left unvisited.

Have you ever ventured off the tourist trails? I’d love to hear other travelers’ experiences. If you have a story to tell, please share it in the comments below!