India by Rails, Part 2: Agra – Varanasi – Kolkata – Goa


If you’re in India, you need to go to Agra. But you also need to leave after 36 hours.

The city revolves around the Taj Mahal and other monuments like it. And the Taj alone is worth the trip.

The weather wasn’t great. But the palace iteself was bigger than I had imagined, and more beautiful:




We also saw the Fatehpur Sikri, a massive castle that had been converted into a mosque:



It was also home to some of India's more charismatic goats.
It was also home to some of India’s more charismatic goats.

But because the entire city’s economy revolves around these sites, everyone in town is well-prepared to fleece you.

I was especially impressed by one gutsy kid who leapt in front of our taxi, so that he could hop inside and ask us for money when the driver slowed down.

That kind of stuff is no big deal. The major drag about Agra, though, is that there’s not much to do outside of those major monuments. The food there’s not great and it’s not pleasant to walk around. And we were marooned there for a long time.

I never wanted to stay more than 2 nights, but train-ticket scarcity forced us to stay for 3. Not only that, but our outbound train was delayed for seven hours. So we had to hang around Agra until the wee hours of the morning on our last night.

It wasn’t such a problem – but we did spend literally 7 hours at one table in a restaurant.

We got the train without any issue, except for an earth-shakingly loud snorer in the next berth. Somehow we both slept right through it. 13 unconscious hours later, we arrived in Varanasi.



As an American it’s a little disquieting to think about the maturity of Indian culture. Many Indian cities have buildings much older than my country.

The effect is very pronounced in Varanasi. It’s a city full of holy sites, and it’s where many Hindus would prefer to die, so that their bodies can be cremated on the bank of the Ganges. The city itself is well over 3000 years old.






The staircase structures leading to the river are called ghats, and most of the cremations happen at Manikarnika Ghat. Even more than the Taj Mahal, I’d call the experience the most worthwhile thing we did in India.

When you arrive at the ghat you immediately feel like a gawker. It is, after all, someone’s funeral you’re watching. You’re not quite sure what the decorum is – where you should stand or how loudly you’re allowed to talk, etc. But you’re definitely not allowed to take photos. Here’s what it was like, though:

(If graphic descriptions of the cremation process might upset you, please skip over the next few paragraphs)

There are bodies burning at the ghat 24/7, up to 200 every day. There are different platforms for different castes of people, but their fires are all started from a ‘Mother Fire’ within a shrine. If you believe the locals, that fire has been burning continuously for 3,500 years.

A cremation platform for Brahmin, empty for the day.
A cremation platform for Brahmin, empty for the day.

Typically either the eldest or the youngest son takes charge of the cremation. It’s his job to stoke the wood and to sweep away the ashes afterward. He also, at a certain point, has to use a stick to crack open the skull, and then smear ghee inside, so that the skull itself will burn. For the men, the spine never quite burns up. Likewise women’s hip bones. These get swept into the river along with ashes.

The wood stock. They use sandal-wood and banyan. It takes around 250kg of wood to burn a body completely.
The wood stock. They use sandal-wood and banyan. It takes around 250kg of wood to burn a body completely.

According to Hindu custom, if you’re a child or a pregnant woman your body doesn’t need to be purified by fire. Instead it will be wrapped in a shroud and sunk into the river directly. Unfortunately some bodies escape the bundles they’ve been wrapped in, and they wash up on the opposite shore.

We didn’t stay too long because the smoke and heat were hard to tolerate. Thankfully, I couldn’t really detect any distinct odor – the smell of burning wood dominated everything else.

(Cremation talk over)

All this was explained to us by a man who offered to show us around. Of course, he asked us for money afterward to support his work at a ‘hospice’, and of course, I learned later that no such hospice exists. Swindled again. But it was worth it for the information.

After exploring a few more of the sites of Varanasi, we roved around and ate stuff at our leisure. But apparently we ate something we shouldn’t have, because on our last night in town I got horrifically ill.

As someone who has had food poisoning perhaps 20 times, I’m no stranger to this stuff. The Varanasi bug, however, whalloped me like nothing I’ve ever felt.

It would also stay with me for a long, long time. Well past our train ride to KOLKATA.


We loved coming back to a major city again. Varanasi, though fascinating, had the Agra Problem: too many touts trying to shake you down. In Kolkata it was lovely to walk down the street without turning anyone’s head.

The accommodation here also suited us pretty well. We rented an apartment with a kitchen, as opposed to a hotel room. Although it sounds dumb, it was thrilling to cook for ourselves again.

Not too much happened during our Kolkata stay. For our entire time at the serviced apartment we both had stomach bugs. So we confined ourselves to our beds, and to a regimen of clear fluids. One night we slipped out to go see a Christmas Fair at a nearby park:




But overall we spent almost as much time watching X-Men movies as we spent outdoors.

Kolkata definitely had its charms, though. Some of the best and tastiest street food we’ve ever had, and some very reasonable clothes markets. I’m ashamed to say I also enjoyed more than one Subway sandwich.

For Christmas Eve we checked into the Lalit Great Eastern, Kolkata’s oldest hotel. Christmas is always better with the family, but for festiveness I couldn’t have asked for much more. They did a special dinner buffet, with a Johnny Cash Christmas album for the soundtrack. I forced Rebecca to wear Rudolph antlers, and I fell asleep that night in my Santa hat.


On the day after Christmas we had yet another train to catch. It would be our last one, and by far our longest – 37 hours from Kolkata all the way to Mumbai.

And oh how pleasant it would have been, if we weren’t so, so miserable.

We spent the whole ride clutching our stomachs and glazed with fever sweat. It was a big relief when the train finally rolled to a stop in Mumbai.


This time around we didn’t have much time here. Less than 24 hours. But by a bizarre stroke of luck a few dear friends of mine from Macalester happened to be there too.

Hiroyuki Miyake was in town for a wedding, and Kabir Sethi followed his hard-workin’ fiancé Anne Johnson (who was there on a research grant) to meet up with family. The four of us got together at the Leela hotel for our First Mumbai Summit. In the absence of family, these guys definitely did the trick.


After that brief Mumbai layover, we caught our flight to Goa.


As with our last trip to Goa, there’s not too much to tell. You get to the beach, you wake up, you eat, you drink, you sleep. That’s all we did for 9 days.

It was great to revisit some of the places we enjoyed in 2013, and to reconfirm our finding that Goa is the best beach we’ve been to yet.


And after a nice lazy spell we caught our flight from Goa back to Mumbai, en route to Tanzania.

Flying in India is interesting, because it has just as much justified fear of terrorism as the US does. It’s the only place I’ve been that rivals the US’s TSA in strictness and inefficiency. But the Mumbai airport is a decent place to finish writing.   

As I mentioned before, India definitely ran me ragged. Looking back, I was at least a little sick for more than 75% of our trip. We had a lot of laid-up days, and we made lots of visits to the pharmacy. It’s hard to feel positive about anything when you’re ill.

But I can’t say that it wasn’t worth it. India has so, so much to offer, and I can certainly understand the culture of backpackers who come here for months at a time. Maybe if I had better microbial luck, I might feel the same way as them.

I don’t imagine that Reba and I will be back – the expense and the challenge might be too much for us later on. So I’m glad we came here while we had the time and energy to do it right. We didn’t see everything, but we saw enough for me!

2 thoughts on “India by Rails, Part 2: Agra – Varanasi – Kolkata – Goa”

  1. Yay! You’re back. Glad to hear from you again. Carlye and I were just talking to my folks about you. Sorry that you were so sick for the trip, but glad you made the best of it.

    1. Hey Joe! Thanks for being my most vocal fan. Returning to the States soon-ish (Mid-March)! Looking forward to seeing you two again!

Comments are closed.