Our decision making process, especially when it comes to choice of holiday destination, is interesting. I had most of the month of March as much coveted holiday after a grueling 10-month drill at IIM Calcutta! My brother, in his final year of engineering study, declared that he would be available (meaning no class) in the week starting 9th March, as there would be annual fest in Jadavpur University (which he never attends …err… I mean the fest!). My mother was ready to go on a trip. My father agreed after much prodding to accompany us but on the condition that the trip should not span across more than 2-3 days. So all set! After all, we traveled to any holiday destination together more than ten years back. The obvious thing now is the choice of destination. Here comes the interesting part of choice making. To be frank, I was searching for a destination, near enough to be explored within my dad's specified time limit and about which I can get information from my friends who visited them earlier. My maternal uncle advised us not to go north (meaning to the Himalayas) as we have to carry sweat shirts, jackets, mufflers etc (i.e. extra luggage). I proposed Puri in Orissa. My brother disagreed saying that it's too common a destination. Finally I remembered that one my friends went (with wife) to Vizag couple of months back. I called him up, got some feedback about the place, went to the website of Andhra Pradesh Tourism, collected complete info and finalized it (though with little hesitation whether it would be a family destination as opposed to a honeymoon locale!). Booking ticket, be it for Indian Railways or for airlines, now-a-days is very easy – we only have to have an internet connection, a bank account(with net backing facility)/credit or debit card and a printer! I booked rail tickets from IRCTC. I also booked the hotels and conducted tours from the AP Tourism office in Calcutta the following week. Everything went by without any frills!
We set out on 10th night. The train from Howrah station (Madras Mail) was at 23.45 hours. We had our dinner at the Food Plaza in the old station complex. We discovered, to our surprise, that only mineral water bottles marketed by Indian Railways (Railneer) are available at the station and also only in 1L bottles for Rs. 12/-. So we had to purchase 4 one liter bottles for the night. Surprise again inside the train! There used to be two side berths, upper and lower, in each sub-compartments. But lo and behold! They have made a middle berth on the side too by intricately folding it (which will be difficult to make out by one not familiar with it). Railways too are on a capacity enhancing spree in this economic crisis.
We woke-up next morning to be greeted by Eastern Ghat Hills on both sides. It was Holi – the festival of colors - that day. I got a good number of forwarded Holi messages on my cell. Along with unprecedented customer additions month after months, the mobile companies are enhancing services to a great extent. I was really glad that I got almost full strength signal almost all through my journey and was able to receive and make important calls in the remotest of places on the way. We reached Visakhapatnam at 3 PM, late by one hour. Same familiar scene – a multitude of auto-rickshaw drivers jostling to woo passengers - greeted us outside the station. We hopped on to one and proceeded towards our sea-facing hotel, Yatrinivas, on Beach Road. It's a nice city surrounded by small hills. It's just like any other metro; I noticed presence of big brands (Bata, Nike etc), major retailers (e.g. Aditya Birla Group's More) and major banks (e.g. HSBC, HDFC, Axis and of course SBI). I sensed the presence of the roaring sea as we approached our hotel. Wow! What a view from our hotel room! The sea is just 100 meters away from the window. The room was real big (Air conditioned 4 beds, TV and Telephone sets and all other modern amenities!). We had chicken pakora in the afternoon (it was superb! Best I ever had). There was the Lumbini Park (beside the sea) in front of our hotel. We spent the evening there watching the endless waves, tinged red by the setting sun cracking on the shore. As the darkness enveloped the sea and the city lights came on one by one, we returned to our rooms. We had dinner early. We were to reach to the station by 5.30 AM the next morning for the tour to Araku Valley!
We got up as early as 3.30 AM the next morning (if you call it morning), as we had to get ready one by one. The auto took 20% extra for the same journey (from hotel to station) than we paid the day before while coming from station (We paid Rs. 100/-, which I am sure more than double the actual fair for the 6 KM drive) for some "early morning police problem"! This is a problem wherever you go in India. The autos and the taxis will charge exorbitant amount if you are an outsider and you can hardly do anything about it. The Hindi or English skill of the people in general here is very poor – complicating the bargaining process with the auto drivers even more.
The train to Araku departed Visakhapatnam at 6.45 AM. One compartment was booked (by AP Tourism) for the tourists. We were given Idli as breakfast. The 120 KM journey through the hills took us almost 4 hours. But it was a fascinating journey – hills on one side, deep valleys on the other; water falls here and there, around 100 tunnels along the way, small hamlets in the bosom of the hills – natural beauties at its best! The shutterbugs crowded the doors of the compartment to have the best snaps (my brother was part of the crowd…I was happy with the window view!). We got on to the bus after getting down from the train at beautiful Araku. The guide told us that the place is mainly inhabited by tribal people (among the 430 or so tribal in India AP comes second in terms of percentage of them living in this state). We visited tribal garden and tribal museum before having lunch in the AP Tourism resort. The garden, as told by the guide, was used by British in the pre-independence period for cultivation of vegetables (to hedge the risk of uncertain supply by sea). Post-independence it was given to the tribal people living there, who have the exclusive right to use it (but they can not sell the land). The garden is a real treat to the eye with its lush green flora. There is a toy train to roam around the garden. There are few tree houses inside the garden. The museum depicts day-to-day lives of the tribal people. Outside the museum there was a guy offering four throws of an arrow to hit a target for five rupees. My brother and I tried our hands. Unfortunately, I was able to touch the target (though far from the bull's eye) only once. Throwing an arrow is not a child's play!
After lunch there was a tribal dance performance by the tribal women folk at the resort premise. The dance is called "Dhimsa" meaning "expression of happiness". Many of our female co-tourists, I would say mainly the newly married (to impress their hubby), took part in the dance. My mother (an exception – married for 27 years) also did some leg shake (err…hand sake rather!)
We next proceeded towards Vizag, this time by bus. On the way, we saw the 11 KM stretch of coffee plantation (Arabian variety), a valley where many films are shot (including Bengali film Bombaier Bombaete) and the second highest peak (4000 meter) of the eastern ghat hills – Galikonda. We stopped for a while at Anantagiri to have snacks. Next was the amazing naturally formed cave, called Borra cave. Borra, in Oriya, means "hole". The cave's entrance, from inside look like a hole; hence the name. The cave was discovered by British geologist William Kings in 1807. The cave was inhabited by Stone age men 150 millions years ago. There is a Shivalinga inside, which was worshipped during Shivaratri. Around 25000 tribal people (Shiva is their God) assemble here during that time. At the extreme end of the cave yellowish water comes out of the rock – which colloquially believed to be the water in which Sita bathed after applying turmeric on her body (Ram and Sita, the characters of the Hindu epic Ramayana are believed to have travelled through this place to (Sri) Lanka). The scientific reason for this yellow water is the chemical reaction of Sulpher and Iron. Steps have been made inside the cave for better decent and ascent. Peculiar shapes resembling different animal like monkeys, dogs etc have formed inside. Southeastern Coastal Railway lines runs above the caves. The cave is so strong that it did not give way. Our guide told that the cave is now being demanded by Orissa (from AP) and the issue is being battled out in court.
Borra cave was the last destination for the day. We drove for two and half hours and reached Vizag around 8.30 PM. The bus left us at RTC Complex. We took an auto to our hotel (yes, paying two times the normal fare!)
The next day's trip was the Heritage trip – within the city. The trip started from the RTC Complex. Some school girls accompanied by their teacher were our co-tourists on this day. We first went to see the Simachalam temple on top of a hill. The temple is like any other temple in the south India with engravings on huge stones. The temple was being expanded. The temple might be appealing to religious minded people, but I did not quite like it. We moved on from there to Thotlakonda. On the way we saw the Rama Naidu Film Studio, built as a replica of Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad. Thotlakonda, on top of a beautiful hill, is an excavated site of a 2200 years old Buddhist complex. Thotlakonda means 11 tanks. The complex had 11 tanks to store rainwater. One of the tanks had a spring inside so that its water never goes dry. We saw prayer rooms, living rooms, kitchen of Buddhist inhabitants. The place, a hill top bordering the sea is very beautiful. We went to nearby Rushikonda Beach next. It followed lunch at Yatrinivas (yes the hotel we stayed). Post lunch we visited the Kailashgiri hill. The Vishaka city and the coastline look awesome from the "Titanic" viewpoint here. Toy train and rope-ways are the other attractions. The weather radar and the giant Shiva-Parvati statue are also present atop the Kailashgiri hill. Next we went to the Fishing Harbor off Ramakirshna Beach. This place is full of fishing trawlers. Here we enjoyed (speed) boating in the sea. The Dolphin's nose, a hill descending on to the sea resembling a Dolphin's nose looked beautiful from the boat. The picturesque city as viewed from the boat was mesmerizing. Some fishing boats passed by us. We spotted a beautiful white ship at a distance. We returned to the jetty after 15-20 minutes of boating. We went to visit the Submarine museum next. It was a Russian submarine, which fought during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Its service life has been expired. The submarine had been pulled to the shore by spending 6 crores rupees and one and half years' effort. The guide told us that it is the first submarine museum in Asia. We were taken inside and shown the instruments. The guide gave us some information regarding its operation. For example, a submarine can go a maximum of 280 meter (feet?) inside the water; it carries supplies to stay a maximum of 3 months under the sea etc. We were shown 4 torpedoes in the front and 4 in the back to destroy enemy ships within 11KM radius. The structure inside is too complex and too intricate to be understood by a layman. Our last destination was the Visakha museum. It had special sections for maritime displays. The other sections contained historical as well as cultural objects and displays pertaining to AP.
We returned to our rooms by 6PM. We were to check out at 10AM next morning. We got up early to watch sun-rise-from-the-sea from our hotel verandah. I don't know why, the sun never pops out of the water. We only see it after it is above a few feet from the sea level! We boarded the Tiruchirapally - Howrah express at 12.40 PM. One incident in the train is worth mentioning. In the AC compartments, new set of pillows, sheets and blankets are supposed to be provided to each passengers boarding from a non-terminal station. But to our much dismay, we found that used pillows and blankets were being given as new! Two families who boarded (in our compartment) from Bhubaneshwar complained to the TTE about this. What the TTE said was interesting. He said that this service (upholstering) had been privatized and Railway minister's kith and kin got the tender (and they do not bother much about the customer service)! Anyway, the TTE managed to have the pillow covers changed! We reached Howrah station at 3.30 AM in the morning and reached home at Burdwan by 7 AM.