Vizag Diaries: My First Introduction to the Southern Coastline of India
It all started with a train. It always starts with a train. A few hours before we boarded the Shalimar-Secunderabad Weekend special, we were sitting at the waiting room in Kolkata’s Shalimar Railway Station.
In Kolkata, I’ve been to two railway stations. Howrah and Shalimar. The two are exactly the opposite of each other. The former bustles with people. In Howrah, passengers run past one another to catch their train. Others deboard the train after a long journey. Families and single men casually retreat on the railway platform, lie flat on the cement floor and doze off.
Others, like me and Sahid, would visit the station’s cafeteria, brimmed with people, serving railway food. In India, railway food isn’t drool-worthy, but it fills your hunger and the thali comes with a gulab jamun swimming in a dollop of saccharine syrup. In Howrah, there are several broad, long railway platforms. The station is a large colonial building erected by the British Raj. Everywhere you go in Kolkata, there’s a touch of East India Company written over it.
Shalimar is different. It’s the quiet, long-lost sister of Howrah. It sits on another end of the bustling metropolis. It’s silent. There are two or three platforms. Shalimar doesn’t have a cafeteria. Outside the small waiting room of Shalimar, where you put your phone to charge at one of the power sockets, half a dozen of small shacks sit by the dusty road.
In one of them, we had our lunch before the train journey. Lukewarm rice served on a tin plate with a bowl of cold, bland fish curry. There was dhal, mildly cooked, and served cold. An old grandma brought us water and chutney.
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The Shalimar-Secunderabad Weekend Special was a beautiful train. It was new. Every coach had cleaning staff who did regular cleanups. We had booked ourselves two berths in third class AC (or 3AC). In every train, we board, Sahid would put bed sheets on the berths, washed and ironed by the railways, and make it as cozy as possible.
He always packs a cozy woolen blanket from home, which he declares as the 200 rupee blanket he bought from a roadside vendor. It withstands any kind of cold, from the high Himalayas in Nepal to jungles in Nagaland. And he tucks me in. A few weeks later, when I traveled on a 56-hour train journey to Guwahati, alone, by myself, I had to tuck myself in. He had given me his 200 rupee cold-killer blanket. But he wasn’t with me. And I missed him.
Once on the train, we settled ourselves to our berths. It was by the door. A book vendor came with a basket full of secondhand English reads of various genres. I bought myself a copy of Sapiens and John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down for 300 rupees.
A couple of hours later, I was almost in my slumber when the ticket checker told us that we were in the wrong compartment. I had the tickets, and as always, I had read them wrong. We were in B2. Our tickets said B6. So, with our luggage, and the 200 rupee blanket back in our bags, we walked from B2 to B6. Sahid made the ‘bed’ again and tucked me in again. By now, he had got used to my daily hiccups. So apart from the two-minute immediate nag, he wouldn’t get angry at wrong compartments or wrong trains.
Arriving in Vizag
At 5.30 am, the train pulled off at Vizag (Visakhapatnam). Oh, Vizag! We got off the train when the crowds swarmed us. Incoming passengers didn’t wait for the deboarders. In India, this is normal. I was already standing on the railway platform with my backpack on when I realized I had left my phone on our berth. So I rushed in, pushed off the passengers boarding and deboarding the train, and screamed excuse me dozen times although no one heard them.
I made my way through hands dressed in sequin-embedded bangles and buttocks covered in fine kurtis. Finally, when I reached my berth, no one had occupied it. I found my phone hidden underneath the scattered bedsheet. My phone was a gift from Nathan and the only electronic gadget, apart from my laptop, I had loved in my life. The OnePlus 6 I own takes beautiful photos.
Outside the station, a small assorted shop served coffee. People queued up for a dose of caffeine to fuel up themselves in the early hours of a new day. Soft, flaxen-fainted rays of the morning sun appeared in the misty skies. There was a touch of surprising cold in the January air in Vizag. The city is a booming hub in the southern state, Andhra Pradesh. Vizag holds a reputation for its beautiful beaches, organized infrastructure, and good education.
Our tuk tuk (or auto-rickshaw as you call them in India) dropped us off at our Airbnb for 200 rupees, which we later came to know was doubled the price for a trip from the railway station. Once we showered, we came out for a cup of coffee and a rickshawala from the parking lot took us to the town.
He was a kind old man with a warm smile and grey hair who talked proudly about his beloved Vizag. We asked him to take us to the place serving the best Andhra biryani in town. He brought us to Nallur Vari Meals. Tuk tuk charges: 70 Indian rupees.
When I thanked our driver uncle–or, the auto rickshawala, he would call me amma. Amma means mother. Later during our days in Andhra Pradesh, I came to know that amma not only means mother but also symbolizes immense respect for a female.
It was during Pongal days we had visited Vizag and many shops remained closed. When we arrived at Nallur Vari Meals, their doors too were closed.
Feeling hungry after an overnight journey, we walked for a few hundred meters and found a bustling Muslim neighborhood. Tiny eateries and hole-in-the-walls lined up the streets. A Nepali guy wore his long straight hair into a ponytail and fried oil in a hot work for the Indian Chinese food.
In one of the hole-in-the-walls, we bought ourselves a plate of chicken fried rice for 90 rupees. Subtly fried juicy chunks of chicken worked wonders with the delicately fried rice mixed with fresh, finely chopped vegetables and Indian Ocean spices. In the south of India, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, spices are the king. Punchy red chili powder, textured flakes, and dried red chili overpower others. It’s heaty and fiery red.
We walked around the neighborhood, glancing daily life in the city, and stopped at one of the cool corner parlors for a glass of falooda overdosed with saccharine. It was a delight to the rising midday heat.
Our pre-lunch plans included a visit to the harbor area. We climbed up the hill where a Hindu temple and a church sit next to each other. The viewpoint from the top overlooked the vast, expansive blue waters of the Indian Ocean. A tall statue of Christ stood alone. Inside the open church which sheltered us from the scorching sun, crumbling down walls filled murals of Christ’s life.
It was a sluggish day at the harbor. A ship sailed ashore. Birds cruised the cloudless blue skies in this January afternoon where the bright sun shone. Over the horizon, an Indigo flight took off to its next destination. Some minutes later, a Spice Jet cruised the skies. Helicopters marched along. Sahid took countless pictures of birds, helicopters, flights, the ocean, and sailing ships. These are the objects he loved capturing.
Once we climbed down the hill, we had a bottle of a Minute Maid from the small grocery shop. On the plastic table was a large coffee table book filled with geographical and environmental facts about the globe with colorful illustrations. The shop owner told us that it takes only 50 rupees to the center of the town. “Don’t pay more,” he flashed a wry smile.
But we did. We paid more. For 70 rupees, we were back in the town and marched to Alpha Hotel for the infamous Andhra Biryani.
A taste of Andhra biryani
We were too hungry to take a photo of our biryani so here’s a photo of the delicious Andhra thali
Downstairs of the Alpha Hotel, which is a famous family dining restaurant in Vizag, hungry customers queued up for takeaway parcels. The top floor was an expansive dining hall. Families, friends, and relatives occupied every table of the dining hall on the last day of Pongal.
The restaurant was short-staffed as some of them had returned to their villages during the holidays. After waiting for ten minutes, we shared a table in one corner with two other locals. They each ordered a pot of spicy Andhra mutton biryani for themselves while we limited ourselves to one pot.
Heaty spices of the biryani, delicate basmati rice and perfectly cooked chunks of mutton paired perfectly with the tangy notes of dried tamarind. I found spices closer to home, but in ways, I loved more. I watched my friend eat. His fair skin reddened, and eyes brimmed with tears.
I had a flashback to the spicy tom yum soup I had devoured in the center of Bangkok. Sahid’s Assamese soul could barely withstand the heat brought in by the spice gods. “You don’t like this food?” one of the guys who sat opposite us asked, noticing his struggle to finish the biryani the locals took pride in.
Salty hair and sunkissed souls
We spent our evening at the famous Ramakrishna (RK) Beach in Vizag. Before that, we sat atop the ramparts and watched crowds seething at the promenade. There, we met our Airbnb owner, who happened to run another establishment for travelers overlooking the RK beach. His new guests were a group of Bengali travelers who arrived in a car, lavishly dressed in long kurtis, shirts, and pants with their suitcases and didn’t forget their branded sunglasses.
People dropped their empty wrappers, leftover food, and plastic bottles on the beach. Young men, shirtless, swam in the shallow waters. Women, dressed up in sarees, kurtis, body-hugging pants, and sequin-embroidered tops stopped by makeshift shacks for over-fried shrimps, fish, and ocean crabs. A cow dressed in vibrant silk marched along the beach with its cowherd, who looked for excited kids and grown up adults to take pictures with his cow for a few bucks.
We bought ourselves a fried fish served on a paper plate with sliced onions and half a lime. Along the pavements, families, couples, and friends sat next to each other with ice cream cones in their hands. Women, casually retreating on the floor, boiled corn on the cob slathered in salt and lime. I munched on one like I was a kid again.
Across the road, star hotels, boutiques and restaurant chains served high priced meals. We stopped at one of the coffee joints, pouring a fine cup of Araku Coffee. Araku Valley is the coffee-growing region in Andhra Pradesh. Initially, our tentative travel plans included Araku, but soon we dropped the valley from our plans when we saw that all trains had been reserved. Instead, we decided to head further south along the coast.
Near our coffee joint, men and women in their runners jogged along the pavements. Two friends stood next to us and talked about the Indian Premier League (IPL) that never happened this year. We sipped coffee as the sinking sun bade adieu to the Vizag skies. Palm trees swayed. Birds flew home. The dusk settled in.
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In Vizag, we visited two beaches. Ramakrishna and Rushikonda. The latter sits in the suburbs of the town, expanding for about a mile with calm blue waters and soft, silver-like sand. When the evening settles in, crowds galore at the sandbanks. In attempt to keep the sandbanks clean, garbage pickers collect every plastic wrapper thrown on the beach.
The golden hour arrives with a nod for the fishermen to sail back ashore. On the right end of the beach are boulders scattered across the powdery sand. I sat on one, looking at the couple in front of me. She was dressed in a long salwar, orange in color. He wore a shirt and a pair of pants. They took photos. Selfies. They took selfies of themselves while the navy blue waves gently lapped the pebbled shore.
Vizag was my first real introduction to the gentle, mellower South. The South of India that feels closer to home, but in ways I love more. Before we left Vizag, we went to Nallur Vari Meals and devoured a plate full of chicken biryani and garlic prawn. We took a cable car ride to the hills of Kailasagiri. Inside one of the air-conditioned restaurants near Rushikonda Beach, we dined in for lunch. The restaurant served us thali with a classic Andhra fish curry, with subtle hints of tamarind I dearly love.
Before we left Vizag, we had two bowls of idli sambar. Each bowl came with one giant, soft and fluffy idli dumped in a bowl of spicy sambar. And in the morning we left, the salty coastal breeze kissed my hair, flowing aimlessly, tangling my hair into a poorly combed mess.
Writen by Zinara
Photos by our friend Sahid
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