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September 5th 2010
Published: September 5th 2010
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Saturday morning found us sat in a simple veg dhaba eating a delicious breakfast of onion outhapham and coffee. The outhapham was served with a type of pickle called Podema which was new to me and absolutely delicious, as well as being very hot indeed. The friendly waiter told me that it is made from a leaf; he was delighted by my interest but unable to explain in any greater detail. I like that it’s an unknown and that I'll probably never eat it again, I don't even think that I heard the name right and I'm not certain of the spelling even if I did. What I do know is that it was the perfect accompaniment to my fluffy outhapham and that it blended seamlessly with the sambar and coconut chutney. My coffee came in two containers, both of which were small and made of tin. One looked like a large thimble while the other was wider and shorter and the trick is to pour the strong sweet coffee from one to the other before drinking. Something to do with aeration and mixing I'm told but, like eating with my fingers, it is more about enjoyment and acceptance.

We were sat at the back of the dark and narrow restaurant, next to the kitchen and by the hand wash. Looking out at the small square of street that the restaurant's entrance framed, I was staggered by how many Sadhus there were on Visag's streets. Not only Sadhus in their saffron robes, but grubby beggars whose matted hair covered quick keen eyes and sad cripples that shuffled past with as much dignity as walking like a crab allows. Many of those left the bright white light of the street to enter the dark cave of the restaurant where, behind his desk at the entrance, the owner sat handing out coins to this steady stream of grateful mendicants. I called the waiter over and again bent his ear for information. It turns out that Saturday in Visag is alms giving day. Any more than that I could not ascertain but the simplicity of his answer pleased me; I imagined a city where in one day the poor and ascetic would be able to collect sufficient money to see them through the week without having to beg again. I like that India does not hide its destitute away or ignore them, that they are seen as people who, although massively down on their luck, have as much right to the streets as anyone else. I think in India people are that much more aware than we in the west of how we are all but one step away from the gutter and are, consequently, that much more compassionate than us towards those who make the streets their home. We should have begging Saturdays in England.

Visakhapatnam is a large Industrial city on the East coast of India in Andrah Pradesh, backed by green hills and facing the Bay of Bengal. It is busy, overcrowded, polluted, noisy, crumbling and frustrating, as well as being exciting, vibrant, surprising, fascinating, kitsch and generous; in short, it has nothing to differentiate it from hundreds of other Indian cities just like it, except a beach. A beach that looked just as I imagine the Spanish Costas would twenty years after Armageddon and colonised by Indians. Crumbling concrete tower blocks and half finished buildings line the wide coast road, the beach side of which is filled with semi-derelict play areas, amusement parks and food pavilions. The beach itself is dotted with the half buried remains of unknown concrete structures, whose exposed bones collect great drifts of litter through which hungry dogs, crows and children pick in the hope of finding a few scraps. This, in any other country, would be a monumentally grim place. In India it is anything but. For, with their vibrancy, joy, exuberance and love, Indians can bring colour, life and happiness to the most depressing and dead places; Ramakrishna beach being a perfect example.

Ladies in brightly coloured saris giggle as they jump waves in the shallows; enterprising traders set up small food stalls on the sand to vend snacks to the masses; young men in denim shirts and shades pose for photos on the rocks; children and sadhus work the crowds for money and sorry looking donkeys stagger past carrying chuckling, rotund business men with their grey slacks rolled up to their knees. We watched as a couple stopped to have their picture taken in front of the waves. Indian's love of the still image is so completely insatiable that within seconds this couple had attracted a small crowd, which in turn attracted yet more. Some of whom were stood behind the photographer jostling with each other to gain prime position behind his shoulder, the better to see the display screen. Pretty soon people began happily insinuating themselves into the photo itself, something the smiling couple didn't seem to mind, and in the blink of an eye their attempt to capture for themselves a moment for posterity was entirely sabotaged by this happy homogeny of strangers. As I knew they would, the assembled masses called for us to join and made us sit in the middle, right at the front. Our presence seemed to complete the picture as seconds later the photographer, with his eye to the viewfinder, raised his arm to signal that he was about to take the shot. An excited hush descended, smiles were fixed and then, after the climactic click, a loud cheer was raised, smiles were shared, and the disparate group dispersed. Everyone, including ourselves and especially the pleasantly embarrassed couple, walked away from the group photo markedly happier than before they joined.

On the way back from the beach we took the unusual decision of choosing the restaurant for lunch from the Lonely Planet. We were very glad we did as the Thali at Vaisakhi was quite simply the best I've yet had. For a comparatively expensive 110INR (£1.50) I had soup to start, which was followed by the Thali which consisted of a paneer butter masala, a mutter masala, a lovely veg fry with ochra, sambar, lime pickle, curd, riatha, fried rice, roti and desert! Oh, and at the end of it all I was bought some ice cream! The only mark against was that my nimbu pani was served with salt, not sugar. Indians love salt in their drinks but this is one habit of theirs that I'll never manage to fall in love with.

From the restaurant we caught a rickshaw back to our room. We agreed on a price of 40INR and set off, it quickly became clear however that the driver had no idea where our hotel was, even after I showed him the key fob with its name and address on. He stopped to ask several people where it was; even though I cannot speak Telugu it was clear that they all knew its location and that they gave him what looked, to me, like clear directions. In the end I asked him, after much protestation, to take us to the train station from where I was able to direct him to our hotel. Upon arriving I braced myself for the minor conflict that I knew was to come. "Danyavadum," I said, getting out of his vehicle, "thank you. Do you have change?" I was holding out a 50 rupee note so all that was needed from him was a ten.

"No Sir, one hundred rupees." He stated, impassively.

"Why? We agreed on forty." I replied calmly.

At this he fished his hand in the air to indicate the convoluted route that he'd taken and said, again, "one hundred rupees."

I had every intention of paying for my ride but only the forty agreed on and there was no way I was handing over my fifty rupee note until I could first take his ten. "We agreed on forty. Here is fifty. You give me ten now or I'm walking away." I stated as clearly and calmly as I could.

"One hundred" he replied, his voice shaking a little.

I tried again but he was immovable so I walked away in the direction of my hotel, half way there I turned and went back to him, desperately hoping he'd now be happy to accept the fare on which we'd agreed. Holding out the note I said, "forty rupees, please give me ten change."

"You give me one hundred, very long drive," was the response, anger detectable in his voice.

In mine too, as my frustration made me forgot my simple sentences and slow speech: "It is your fault you took twenty minutes for a five minute trip. We made a deal and it would be nice if you honored it. This is your last chance to receive any payment, give me ten rupees." I held out the note and began, like an angry father to his errant sibling, to count on my fingers. "You have five seconds. One, two, three, four..."

I turned and walked, this time entering the hotel's dank stairwell where I paused, out of sight of the driver, to gather myself. I was determined to settle this matter and walked back out in a final attempt to pay. When I got to the rickshaw I could see him reaching into his pocket to extract ten rupees. With visibly shaking hands he held out the note for me to take. I gave him mine and as I did I lent down so as to look him in the eye. I smiled, not a sarcastic smile, not one of gloating or of victory, but one just as I'd have given him had this whole episode not transpired. "Danyavaadum sir," I said, placing my hands together in front of my chest, "thank you."

"Danyavaadum sir," he surprised me by replying, with a simple smile of his own, before driving off.

With rickshaw drivers it is never about the money, not ever. If a driver uses his meter I will always, every time, round up the fare or tip at least 10INR. If they have no meter but I can agree a fair price before the trip then I will also tip at the end. I expect to pay perhaps 10 or 20 rupees more than a local would, this is understandable, but what I cannot accept is when a smiling driver will attempt to fleece me out of hundreds of rupees for a fare that I know should be no more than, say, 50INR. Often is the time that I'll have to approach several different drivers before I can gain a fair price for my journey. I have learnt that a hassle (the collective noun for a group of rickshaws) of autos are best avoided as they'll gang together to guarantee that not a single one amongst them will quote the correct price. A short trip down the road however and the price will often halve, if not more. I kind of understand them trying for a massively inflated price, but to then refuse the fare at the correct one just seems silly.

I only intended to spend a solitary day here in Visag before catching the train to the Aruku Valley but, as the planning department at "Mice and Men Inc" will surely agree, things never quite work out as one wishes. I was initially disappointed that we would have to spend so long in a place that really does its visual and nasal best to disappoint. To walk down one of the filthy, rutted streets around our hotel that smell so strongly of urine while being watched impassively from the shadows by sundry gathered locals, is enough to make one want to buy a ticket on the next bus out of town. But, take the same walk moments later, while this time engaging the groups of men with smiles and suddenly ones perception is utterly transformed and the ticket is torn to pieces. To watch a seemingly aggressive stare be replaced by a radiant smile is beautifully enlivening, to realise that it is your incorrect perceptions and assumptions that coloured your judgments and interpretations in the first place, is priceless.

Without an open mind and a generous heart, India could very quickly disappoint. Proof can so easily be found to corroborate a travellers most negative perceptions. Decide early on that India is nothing but a dirty, overcrowded mess of a country with rude and dishonest people then only the very worst will you see. If you imagine a world of monsters, a world of monsters shall you find. If you are convinced all Indians are dishonest, your fear will invest all interactions with mistrust. However, like no other country I know, India rewards the open of heart. Love is a transformative emotion, here in India it has the ability to radically alter ones entire perception. Send out a smile as a solitary emissary of friendship and a hundred declarations of love will return. Seek only the beautiful, the honest and the joyous in India, and nothing but the same will you find. My three days in the outwardly grim Visag have been full of moments like this, and my initial disappointment at being forced to stay has given way to a genuine sadness at having to leave. My advice to any first timer: when walking into a small dhaba and encountering a full restaurant all paused in their mastication and impassively staring, is to smile. You will see for yourself the transformative effect it has, both on them and yourself. If you do not, you may well ruin your whole trip.

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15th October 2014

I also like utappam. I enjoyed this article very much. You can book bus tickets to Visakhapatnam on travelyaari. Volvo Bus

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