Why you probably shouldn’t ride an elephant

Are the people on my Facebook feed just really aware of the world or is elephants suffering in the tourist industry really huge news at the moment? I can’t say, but I’ve ran into several articles lately telling why you shouldn’t go for an elephant ride. Among the articles I read were the one about the Scot being gored to death and the one about the death of a captive elephant.

Elephants carrying tourists at Amber Fort
And I have to admit… I was a little bit hesitant to write about the topic. As I’m typing this, I still am and I’m unsure whether I want to publish this, but I feel like I have to, if not for anything else than to add my voice to the little stream that hopefully will reach a few travellers out there.
First off: don’t ride an elephant.
Or rather, don’t ride an elephant unless you’ve done extensive research. I don’t believe that every company that arranges elephant rides is evil, but there are so many out there that don’t have much concern for the safety or the well-being of these amazing animals. Even though they’re big in size, they are not designed to carry people on their backs – in fact, a few sources (such as this and this, if you’re interested in more profound detail) cite that they could only carry the maximum load of about 150 kg (300 pound). The chair that the industry often puts on the elephants for tourists to ride weighs by itself more than 100 kg. Then you have the elephant trainer riding, plus a few people in the chair… It’s not too difficult to add one to one and see how carrying a load like this for hours every day can lead to serious spinal damage.
Where tourist elephants go to sleep. Note the shackles and cement floor.
Where elephants are kept in cities.
Then there’s the training. I’ve never actually seen any elephant training videos – I don’t have to. I believe when they’re described to me and I don’t particularly want to see an animal getting hit by a big hook. You can train an elephant using softer methods than violence and pain, but it takes more time and where both the trainer – mahout – and the elephant need to eat, they are needed for work quickly. Regular operators don’t have the time for soft training, and usually not the knowledge to do so.
But then there’s the tricky part – in the world where logging (which, also, is quite cruel for the elephants) in the traditional way has almost everywhere given way to the machines, the only way mahouts can make a living with their elephants is in the tourist industry. As elephants are an endangered species, making elephant tourism completely illegal would starve and kill countless elephants and take their not-so-wealthy mahouts out of job.
Working elephants at Amber Fort
I can’t stand animal cruelty. One of my earlier memories is being in a zoo and watching a couple of little boys throwing rocks at flamingos, and I just remember thinking: barbaric! I never kill bees that stray into my apartment but I take them outside. For all this I am so ashamed to write this confession:
I, too, rode an elephant.
To make matters worse, I knew what I was doing. Most tourists ride elephants because they’re ignorant to the bad treatment and just see it as something exotic to do to pass the time. I knew better, and I still did it.
I was reluctant to ride an elephant when it was first suggested. I did my research and got confirmation that I definitely should not ride an elephant. However, I still loved them and was eager to get a chance to spend some time with them, so maybe I could just go somewhere where they let you feed and hang out with the elephants while learning more about them? The Lonely Planet India guide book offered a surprisingly perfect combo: you would get to do all that stuff, plus if you wanted you could ride the elephant bare back. They were all rescue animals, and I thought it looked great. I googled some reviews and all of them said that the owner honestly cares about his elephants. The only negative one I read was some old lady complaining that the owner favoured younger girls when choosing who got to ride the animal.
As the rickshaw driver smoothed to a stop, I knew immediately that something was wrong. We were still too far into the city to be able to do “jungle walks” as the proper park had promised. I sat frozen in the rickshaw. “This isn’t the right place”, were the first words to come out of my mouth. But the driver was up and out and insisting this was it and that I should follow him, and I crashed under peer pressure and followed him inside the walls.
I kept looking around and repeating that it was all wrong. It was just a small backyard, nicer, yes, than the one we had seen the night before but obviously the green grass and the pool were just a front put up for tourists. There was no way for the elephants to roam. They weren’t shackled, but there were trainers sitting around watching them. The animals still carried the chairs on their backs. We were told that when they’re not here on their break (so entertaining clueless tourists is a break?), they’re working in the Amber Fort, carrying people up.
I told them that we were in the wrong place because in the right one you could do bareback rides and the elephants didn’t have to work any extra hours. They answered that it was a new safety regulation and no one was allowed to ride them without the chair.
I asked about the owner of the place by his name, which I had learnt reading the reviews earlier. They introduced the guy walking towards us as him and said that all elephants in India are owned by the government and no one can own them privately.
I told them that the prices were twice bigger than they should’ve been. All they could do was tell me that I didn’t have to purchase all the extras if I didn’t want to.
All the things that were wrong… And still, still there was doubt in my gut that maybe I was the one that was wrong. I beat myself up in that moment thinking I should’ve searched for pictures so I would know what the actual place looked like, but I hadn’t. I couldn’t help but think that after all it was India and not everything had been so far exactly as it was advertised. The rickshaw driver and the elephant guy all went up against me when I tried to argue with them, even when bringing out the fact that elephants shouldn’t be carrying as much weight as they did there. Maybe I should’ve marched. Instead I caved in, gave them my money and fed, painted and rode an elephant.
I could say I was bullied into it. I could say that I wasn’t thinking straight – after all, I was so sick that day that I had contemplated in the morning if we could meet the elephants some other day. I could give all these excuses but none of them would really be good enough to explain that I just didn’t have the confidence to say no when I should’ve. Standing up for it can’t make it right, but at least I am taking responsibility for my own actions.
Later that day when we got back to the hostel I went straight into my bed and stayed there. I don’t think I cried; I was too numb to. The flu was wrapping me in a tight embrace as well and I felt sick, physically and emotionally.
Funny how our rickshaw driver had talked about believing in karma earlier at the elephant park. He got his when the hostel manager, enraged by that a rickshaw driver the hostel had hired had intentionally taken us to the wrong place, called the guy and terminated all contracts between him and the hostel.
I have forgiven but not forgotten. I still think about the “elephant experience” of that day and feel guilty about it. I didn’t only harm the wonderful elephant I interacted with but gave a significant amount of money to the owners of the place so that they could continue their dishonest business. When I think about it, I feel sick to my stomach. So here is my advice: do your research and stick to it assertively.
What can you do, though, if you’re getting disheartened by all this misery but still really, really want to get in touch with elephants? Find a company that does bareback rides, doesn’t overwork the elephants and employs rescue elephants – meaning they haven’t been specifically trained for this company’s purpose but rather rescued from people treating the animals badly by people who are interested in giving the elephant a good life. It may sound a bit like cheating since you know that these animals have still most likely been trained as brutally as any other working elephants, but at least you know that it wasn’t done by the people you give your money to. And the money will go towards maintaining the health of the animals. Of course even better would be not to ride an elephant but spend time with them otherwise, like feeding and washing them.
I believe elephant parks should decrease in number but not disappear completely. Instead, mahouts should be trained how to train and treat their animals right, and the parks should be a learning environment for people who want to get up close to these incredible animals – not a picture opportunity for your holiday album.
And maybe one day I will find a way to atone for my mistake that only further helped the suffering of captive elephants.
Is riding an elephant on your bucket list?
 
All of the pictures in this post were taken in Jaipur, India.

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Rice

I have just got back from a few days getaway in Poland and I will soon be writing about it. In the meantime, have a story about rice.

Do you know how hard it is to get a bag of uncooked rice in the Himalayas?

It’s hard.

The trek to the Valley of the Flowers was perfect except for one little mishap – I fell into the river. It didn’t hurt, the river was more like a rivulet, we laughed it off. But my trusty camera had taken a dip. I took out the battery and the memory card in hopes of saving them if the camera itself was beyond salvation. As soon as we got back to the hotel in the village, Ben suggested we put the camera in a bag of rice for a day. Whelp, I never even knew that that was a real thing – just an internet joke. I guess you learn something new every day. I was having a mini-meltdown-freakout about the camera (we’ve still got four weeks of the trip left how am I going to take pictures of monkeys now) and my knight in a sweaty t-shirt and worn out sport shorts came to rescue, promising to go downstairs to ask for a bag of rice.

Here’s the first thing: the hotel keepers didn’t really speak English. The village is located on a Sikh pilgrimage route, and even though we met a tourist Couple and a couple of Sikhs from abroad on the road, the majority of people passing by would assumingly speak a language other than English.

The second thing was that we lived three stories up. The kitchen was on the ground floor.

Soon enough Ben comes back, saying he’s taken care of it with the of what I can only imagine was vigorous pointing and helplessly repeating the English word for rice since dumb foreigners didn’t think to learn a word that is only relevant on every freaking Indian meal.

,But apparently he has done something right because soon enough there is a knock on the door. Yes, finally rescue for my poor camera! Behind the door is one of the hotel guys with a bag in his hand.

He’s asking if that bag is good for the rice. We say yes and he leaves. We have a little chuckle but hey, you gotta make sure, especially if you’re not sure you understood it correctly.

Second knock on the door. The guy is back with a HUGE amount of rice, probably more than a litre. You could feed a classroom of children with the amount of rice he has in the bag. Ben says yes, that is exactly what we want, but we don’t need that much so can we get about half of it? He gestures halving it to the guy and he nods knowingly. ‘Okei okei.’

Third knock on the door. The guy is back with twice the rice he had last time. Now we’re both having trouble holding back our laughter, not for the poor guy but for the ridiculous situation and the fact that this guy has indeed run three sets of steep stairs back and forth so many times now that he won’t ever need another squat workout. Ben explains it again that he only wants a little bit of rice, just enough to cover up the camera. The guy leaves. ‘Okei okei.’

Fourth knock on the door and the guy is back with a perfect amount of rice. Finally! We pay him too much for it, thank him very much and dip the camera in the bag.

It was like Goldilocks and the three bags of rice. All’s well that ends well though since the incredible Indian rice absorbed all of the Indian mountain river water out of the camera, and it actually works better now than it did before its swimming practice. All praise to the clear waters of the Himalayas and the helpful Indian staff.

Valley of the Flowers

What are you guys up to anyway?

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A hike in the Himalayas: A Journal 2/2

This is the second part of the Himalaya journal. If you’d like to check out the first part, you’ll find it here.
Day 3. Where have the flowers gone?
3049 m to 3500 m and back

We wake at five to the sounds of prayer coming from the temple next door. The sun is already on the rise, illuminating the surrounding snow capped mountains. We grab a quick breakfast, snacks and the Dutchies and start yet another climb to our destination, Valley of Flowers. The uneven path takes us about three kilometers further from the village through a Nordic-looking forest and before we descent later that afternoon, we never even realise how steep the way is. We’ve rested and left our backpacks at the hotel – we’re buzzing with energy.

The valley stretches out before us as a vastness of green spotted with a few glaciers that haven’t melted yet. The air is crisp and the sun is high. It gives all the colours a bright hue that almost hurts the eyes. (I’d like to point out that none of the pictures in this post have been edited whatsoever.) We have passed a couple of puffing Indians on the steep way up but they have fallen far behind and the only thing traversing through the valley is us. I’m the last in line and shuffle forward slowly, lazily. if I turn around and put my back towards my friends, all I can see is green grass and snow caps, and it feels like I’m the only person left in the world.

Most people visiting Ghangaria are Sikhs on a pilgrimage to the holy Hemkund Sahib, so the Valley gets very few visitors. On top of that, the valley area suffered from a huge flood just two years ago and they have only recently finished all the renovations. A couple of years ago the valley would see thousands of visitors each year but last year there were only 181 adventurous hikers.

The path in the valley itself is not an easy one. Stones are strewn across in a seemingly irrational order, so I need to step carefully not to twist my ankle. The further into the valley we progress, the more forceful and wider become the streams that we need to cross hopping from one stone to another. I lose my balance as I’m just reaching the other strand of the biggest stream, and splash goes my camera into the water. (Lucky for me that the water is so clean that after an overnight stay in a bag of rice my camera actually functions better than before its little dip.)

There are no dust bins inside the valley as they want to maintain it as natural as possible. That means there are no snack stalls either so we have carried biscuits and nuts with us for lunch. (Ben has got rid of my bag of spicy nuts and dried peas and I’m secretly happy about it. They tasted horrible.) To avoid dehydration we have been logging along heavy two-liter canisters of water, but we quickly run out of drinking water. Luckily I’ve brought my LifeStraw (and I swear this is no advertisement!) and it is quite a lifesaver. It is easy to carry and very light-weight, and can filter most bad stuff out of the water. The ice cold glacier water tastes like heaven,

We have been lucky, since usually the sky would be filled with clouds (just search Google images), but today they only start moving in during the afternoon when we’re already making our retreat. On the way back we meet two big tourist groups lounging at various points of the path. I can only feel happy that we have made an early start and managed to enjoy the magic the valley has to offer on our own.

Day 4. Glad we took the horses. Kinda.
3049 m to 4329 m and back

 
Even before our heroic expedition to the valley, we had predicted that our poor legs would probably deserve a break and instead of climbing the winding six-kilometer stretch to Hemkund Sahib, we would hire a couple of mules, or ponies as they rather liberally called them there. Besides, I am a star-struck pony girl for life. I used to go horse-back riding once a week for about ten years before I moved out of my home town, so I was excited to get back in the saddle, even if it would just be a slow and steady mountain mule.
Did I just say sound and steady? Yeah, forget that.
We watch the ponies through the door way as we are having breakfast. Ben makes a comment about the dun one, ‘how it loves to climb’. There is a little pile of rocks on the streets and the pony is trying to climb on top of them. I laugh and tell them, ‘That’s my pony’. Turns out, it was.
It is me, Anne, and the mule driver, plus our three mules. The boys are quickly left behind as our driver ushers our ponies to go faster and faster. I nervously laugh and tell him that we’d like to go slow, slow, and he smirks and nods even though he doesn’t speak a word of English. As our journey progresses, I start to feel like maybe he doesn’t understand body language either. The path is wide enough for three ponies to step side by side, but mine has decided he likes living on the edge and spends most of the first hour as close to the cliff as he can. If anybody gets in front of him, he is furious, and I mean – pushing past them on the outer side of the path furious. I haven’t got reins and for some reason Anne’s have been taken away after a while, too, so all I can do is kick the pony’s cliff side and talk sense into him. Our driver keeps stopping Anne and giving her directions in Hindi, and while they’re below us behind the last curve, my pony happily trots along the edge and occasionally stops to graze.
After an hour of riding we take a break. Without any explanation they put me on a different pony that is attached to another one, and the crazy one is left climbing small piles of rocks at the rest stop. The rest of the way up I finally have time to take in the breathtaking view and for a bit I have been liberated of my fear of death. Screw you, crazy pony.

Hemkund Sahib is one of the most holy places for Sikhs. The service that is held there is broadcasted around the world non-stop, and the sing-songy calls to prayer never let the place go quiet. We climb on a small hilltop to enjoy the sun (it was supposed to be cold up there, but the sun has made it a pleasant place for a lazy afternoon hang-out) and get some snacks. The boys decide to venture higher up, but I know I’m a slow walker and prefer staying where we are. Anne and I lie on the grass for what it seems like an eternity, with the Himalayan sun on our faces and the sounds of songs coming from below. It is still early, and the surrounding mountains are still clearly visible.

We descent back to Ghangaria on foot after the cloud moves in and covers us completely. We are all drowsy and absent-minded; the altitude has crept up on us without a warning. For the last time we view Ghangaria from high up as we make our way back into the town and towards a steaming hot Punjabi dinner.

 
Day 5. Out there be dragons (but we can’t see them)
3049 m to 1875 m
 
It has come time to kiss the town and the mountains goodbye, and we do it so light-heartedly, minds set on adventures to come. I guess we both feel a little bit uneasy thinking about all the work we have gone through to get to this place, and how we will most likely not do it again since we have seen what we came to see. It is a special kind of sadness when you’re leaving a place you’re rather sure you will not see again.
 

Breathing gets easier the lower we descend. On our way down we’re laughing and practically prancing along the path – the past two days trekking has been so tough that it seems ridiculous I ever had such trouble climbing up this tiny little hill we’re descending now. However, it has rained and the stones are slippery. We have had incredible luck with our visit since we have had the chance to see all our destinations unhindered by clouds. Now the way down is covered in thick mist which paints the scenery in eerie greyness.

We made it!
 

Back in Joshimath we meet up again with our trusted Dutch friends and go get the most delicious tandoori chicken we have ever tasted. I feel victorious thinking about the insane hike we have just completed. The memories are already starting to turn into a surreal blur in my mind. Can a place that magical and far-away actually exist?

I look at the pictures and see my face smiling in them. I leave the Himalayas with the sense of achievement; out there be mountains, and I have conquered them.

A hike in the Himalayas: A Journal 1/2

Edit: My thoughts go out for Paris and I hope the people there can keep going without fear or hate.

It’s been, whelp, almost three months since India! No wonder I am getting itchy feet again. One of the hardest, scariest and most amazing experiences I had there was hiking in the Himalayas, and as the whole ordeal from Delhi to there was worth a good story, I put together a two-post journal about the trip. I took this trip so that you don’t have to (although after seeing the views, you probably will want to go anyway).

By the way – I have really enjoyed writing this blog, it has been something to take my mind off my Bachelor’s (which is not necessarily a good thing – ahem) and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. However, I have been thinking about the blog’s future and content, and I think some cool little changes are gonna happen after Christmas. (I know, I know, Christmas is still light years away.) Other than that, I am not sure if only travel-related content is enough to make an interesting blog. I will most likely try to incorporate a little more of my personal life here, too, and try to come through the screen a little bit more. Is there anything you guys would like to read about?

Anyway – let’s get down to business.

Day 1. Bus ride from Hell

532 m to 1875 m

None of the buses have got names of destinations on them. The station is a disarray of buses of various sizes scattered around the area. Even the corner shops are still closed as we find the right bus shouting our destination’s name. The bus is barely bigger than a regular van but it has no less seats than a normal charter bus, and I have trouble squeezing through the tiny aisle. My backpack, even being carry-on size, doesn’t fit the rack so I push it under the seat. Almost an hour behind the schedule the engine finally comes to life, and the small bus starts its determined crawl from Rishikesh to Joshimath. Oh well, at least until it stops for petrol. The bus is packed, and Ben and I are the only tourists on board.
We’ve opted for the earliest bus possible, since the drive up will take all day, and the roads are sketchy as it is – I would never want to get stuck driving up here in the dark. On the left, there’s a solid rock wall rising high – on the right, a sheer drop of hundreds of meters. The road never straightens out but reveals one curve after another, and since it is impossible to see behind them, horns are diligently announcing the oncoming traffic. The Dairy Milk bar Ben has got me during one of the breaks tastes gone off but I’m hungry so I gobble it up anyway. It’s impossible to predict when the bus is going to leave the rest stop. At times it comes alive again, drives for a hundred meters and stops for another fifteen minutes. Even though it is painful to sit still for all this time, I prefer to stay inside the bus for this reason.
As the journey started, we were driving on a paved, two-way road, but towards the end of the drive the roads have become progressively worse, until we’re riding on a narrow gravel road at a steady pace. A few times our driver carefully steers us as deep into the small ditch beside the road as he can as a truck inches past us so close that it’s a miracle the cars aren’t scraping off their paint. The edge of the road looms probably less than a meter away from our wheels. Three times we stop to let a couple of small bulldozers clear the road from landslides ahead of us.
After a bone-rattling, fear-evoking journey of twelve hours we finally arrive in Joshimath where a new problem arises: the police has put up barricades  and won’t let us through, so we stay in for an additional fifteen minutes as the bus takes another route into the town. Luckily there is one guy on board that can tell us what is happening – we have already started to panic that the bus has started to head right back to Rishikesh. I have never ever felt as good about getting out of a bus. We quickly find a cheap and seedy hotel that we judge decent enough for one night’s sleep.

That night we sit out on the stairs eating Indian fudge and gazing at the mountains around the town until darkness finally covered them completely.

Day 2. Oh my God, my legs are shaking
1875 m to 3049 m
It’s only six o’clock when we make our way back to where the bus dumped us last night to find a jeep to take us to Govindh Ghat. I was terrified to get back on the narrow, unreliable roads, but I feel much safer inside a jeep and the hour-long journey goes by quickly. We’re now at the start of the 15-18 km trek to Ghangaria, which is a town completely dedicated to tourism. From May to August the hotels and restaurants in the town open to take in swarms of Sikh pilgrims – for the rest of the year, the area is covered in ice and snow, and the population of Ghangaria moves to lower villages.
We take the first break after the first little village. So far I’ve surprised myself keeping up with Ben, who, honestly, has been working out more than I have for this trek. I feel good. I feel like we can tackle the climb. Friendly pilgrims stop to chat with us every once in a while and ask for pictures. Riders on mules pass us by, some gazing at us suspiciously, some smiling and waving. There are loads of people on the trail, but we are some of the only ones trekking with our backpacks on. We are also some of the only ones wearing proper foot gear – most of the pilgrims are making their way forward in flip flops or even barefeet.

A long line of mules leads us to a rickety little bridge that crosses over a powerful stream. My inexperience in hiking has started to take its toll, but the guys at the snack stall inform us we’ve only got four more kilometers to go. That’s nothing, right, so let’s get going! Wrong. Right after the bridge the trek takes an upwards turn, and the last four km know no mercy. I’m taking breaks every five minutes. The air is getting thinner. Finally, in the distance, we spy a gate-looking snack stall and I hurry forward, thankful that we have finally made it. Wrong again! A clear sign informs us that there’s two more kilometers left.
Getting to Ghangaria make me want to sing hallelujah to the whole universe. I am never walking again! (Except in less than twelve hours.). We go around a couple of hotels and pick one that looks somewhat clean. The neighbouring room gets occupied by the Dutch couple we met on the tough hike up. In the evening we all eat at the restaurant downstairs and retire early.
Will our heroes make it to their destination? Will feet ever stop hurting? To be continued…

What to wear in India

Right now I’m on my way to London. Long time no see! While I travel, please enjoy this appropriately timed post about the last time I travelled.

Before my trip, I was freaking out. I spent countless hours on travel blogs, stalking what people who know better than I do had worn to India, and I researched probably everything you can about what to wear for this hugely conservative country. No kidding, I googled what kind of pyjamas you need in India (it doesn’t matter), and then what kinds of clothes you need for monsoon season and freaked out again when someone somewhere said that ‘long skirts get soggy, mini skirts are OK’. I did think about this for a bit before running headfirst into planning a new packing list and decided to just go with the same long skirts I had prepared with in the first place. People, if someone tells you that short skirts are OK in India, just unfriend the holy heck out of them. Or educate them or whatever.

Sunnies, sandals and skirts in Jaisalmer

I visited India during the monsoon season but, surprisingly, my rain poncho was the most useless thing in my backpack. I wore it once in the mountains when I thought it was going to rain and it didn’t. I got caught in the rain twice without it during five weeks, so you shouldn’t stress about it too much. One tip I heard was to wear dark-hued clothes so when they would get soaked they wouldn’t turn see-through, but then again light-coloured clothing is more pleasant to wear in the heat, and apparently also attracts less mosquitoes.

Anyway, since posts like this helped me hugely before my trip, I hope my take on the thing will help someone as well. And I also like posting pictures of myself, she says in a joking tone so that no one will ever know if she’s serious or not.

Where to start?

Local women and children in Jodhpur

First and foremost, India is one of the fastest developing nations in the world, but it is still widely conservative, so you should dress accordingly. Otherwise you might be denied access to certain attractions, and speaking of attractions, that’s what you become rocking those micro shorts. And not in a good way.

Interesting enough, traditional sari blouses are extremely cropped, so you will see a sea of brown bellies everywhere you go. Blouses also reveal some of the back so showing some skin there isn’t too much of a problem either. However, watch out for your legs, shoulders and cleavage – and this goes for you men, too. (Well, maybe everything else but the cleavage thing because apparently a big part of Indian men can’t afford freaking top buttons on their shirts or they just like airing out their chest hair.)

In biggest tourist destinations you can get away with shorts and tops, but the question is, do you really want to? Just because some French family at the Taj is dressed like they think they’ve flown to the Canary Islands, doesn’t mean it would be appropriate for the culture. I hear in Goa anything goes. But anywhere else, please cover up.

And on a brighter note – literally – indulge in loads and loads of colours and patterns, because India is the holy destination of all that. Mix and match. Don’t mind if your art teacher told you when you were ten that purple and yellow don’t mix. In India they do. Just go crazy!

Agra Fort

Long skirts

Hands down my favourite thing to wear was long skirts. They were moderately cool but still covered up. I wish I could wear more maxi skirts at home but if it isn’t summer, they just look funny. Damn you, Finland and four seasons.

Sarnath near Varanasi
I also find that skirts resembled closely to the type of clothes women in India wore. I didn’t notice many of them in same kind of maxi skirts that I wore, but some kinds of skirt-like garments were very common, and saris form a sort of a dress-type of thing, so yeah. I even got a few compliments for my skirts so they were never a problem. Well, if you exclude the goat that thought my green skirt looked like grass and tried to constantly chew it while I was talking to a group of school kids.

Observatory in Jaipur

Light trousers

Another great thing to wrap your legs around is long, lightweight trousers. Even though most young women in India seem to be happy in skinny jeans, you can always question if that is the most comfortable choice (or if you could get them off at the hostel after the day). Harem pants also make good souvenirs. I’ve never been a big fan until I walked into a store in Varanasi and they just had elephant-patterned EVERYTHING. I could’ve bought five pairs but had to be content with one. Stupid carry-on bag only. In general only tourists wear this type of loose, colourfully patterned trousers, but wearing them is not a sin. (I hope.)

Or just be a total tourist and buy everything that has elephants on it. New favourite trousers!
Lotus Temple, Delhi
Salwar kameez in Jaisalmer
Almost Victoria’s Secret in Rishikesh

Blouses

More traditional Indian ladies sport saris or loose trousers with long tunics that cover the bum. I have to admit this is where I cut corners because my body is weird and I end up looking like a German sausage if I don’t tuck shirts under the waistband. But in general covering the bum might be a nice idea. Even women who dressed up in more modern clothes wore, in general, long shirts. However, a lot of those shirts reveal shoulders and even some cleavage. As a tourist I would avoid all the borderline-okay choices and just go with the conservative pieces.

A mum and a very fab kid in Jaisalmer
I only wore lightweigh blouses throughout the trip, but t-shirts are absolutely okay, too. As long as they cover your shoulders. If blouses are not your thing, get a tunic-type shirt and loose trousers to match – according to Wikipedia this outfit called salwar kameez is the most popular dress for ladies in India. If I had stayed longer, I would’ve definitely worn this, but seeing back at home it’s that sort of a thing my mum would wear, I didn’t see a reason to put my money on something that would become useless after the trip.
Agra Fort

Scarves

I know, +30 degrees and I’m telling you to put on scarves? I haven’t lost my mind – or maybe I have, but on this I am right. Many women in India cover their head even on the streets, and in temples and mosques doing this is absolutely necessary. I’ve heard people say that covering your head can also draw less attention to your obvious tourist-ness. Personally I felt I was so blatantly not-Indian that even covering up didn’t help much, but I felt I got respected for wearing a scarf. If you cover your shoulders with a scarf you could also try wearing tank tops, but because my scarf was very unco-operative, for me this failed greatly. And then there’s the obvious reason for wearing a scarf – to protect you from the blasting sun.

Indian ladies tend to wear their scarves so that the closed bit hangs off on their chest and the ends are behind their back and I never found out the reason why. I need answers.

Hemkund Sahib
Best thing I have ever packed was a bandanna scarf. That thing is seriously coming with me to every single trip from now on. I had never been a big fan of bandannas (unless you count that phase when I was like 10 when I wore one on my neck and thought I looked like a cool cowgirl. I’m so happy that only lasted for about a week) but I’d been rocking work with one on my head all summer because it kept hair out of my face nicely. After going around like Rosie the Riveter for weeks, I felt it might come in handy, and since it didn’t take any space I just shrugged and shoved it in the backpack. But that thing is bloody magic! I wore it on my head when my hair was dirty. I tied it around my leg to stop my thighs from rubbing each other. On trains I used it to block out light. If you don’t already travel with one, you should either get one or eat poop. This is unofficial bandanna propaganda brought to you by me.
Jodhpur
Buy your scarves in India because they are beautiful and colourful and, well, great souvenirs to take home. I had to constantly remind myself not to buy more scarves since I already had a residue of unused, forgotten ones at home. One thing to pay attention to, though, is the material. I had one red cotton one (I think?) that just had ridiculously lot of cloth in it, and a lot of times it felt too heavy to wear normally, especially when it kept slipping around and never stayed in place. Same thing with my blue silk scarf that I am still head over heels in love for (because I’m a sucker for anything with elephants on it). It was way too light-weight and kept getting blown away. The only perfect scarf I had was the plain one that I brought from Finland and which I hated to wear because it was boring. Get all the colours!

Shoes that I wore for like one day when they fell apart after an hour of walking and which kind Indian ladies don’t really even wear  and which I will probably never wear again but which I just had to have because shiny! Sparkles! Pretty!
Jaipur

Shoes

If your feet don’t get dirty in India, you’re probably doing something wrong. I hesitated putting on open sandals because of dirt and possible diseases it could infect me with, or some rabid mouse biting my toe off. Majority of the shoes I saw Indian women wear, though, were sandals, and they are bloody more comfortable than anything with a closed toe.

Oh yeah, speaking of comfortableness… Make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes. By day two my feet were covered in cuts and blisters because my super quality 5/5 H&M sandals decided to fall apart five minutes away from the hostel. Also, even though there are more snack stalls in one block than in probably the whole of Finland, you shouldn’t trust the vague hope that you miiiiiight find a shoe salesman on accident. If you do, you might end up walking around for ten hours in sandals that are literally trying to escape your feet.

Oh, and hey! Most temples won’t let you in with your shoes on. When you visit Taj Mahal they give you shoe covers (so don’t worry, Slumdog Millionaire had it all wrong), but otherwise you’ll have to give them up. Take some socks with you. Those floors are HOT.

Mum picture: a picture where some part of you is without any reason and in a ridiculous way framed out of the photo.
Valley of Flowers

Hiking

I will try and post about my trek to the Himalayas in the future, but just a few quick words: the path was pretty rough with loads of steep climbs, crossing streams and walking on paths that only consisted of rocks strewn across in a path-like shape. I was fine wearing my normal trainers that i use for running back at home. Partly I packed them because they were like half smaller than my actual hiking boots and also fit my tiny feet better. A Dutch girl that was hiking with us was wearing cheap Primark sneakers. She survived, but her shoes fell apart, so I’d recommend some sort of walking gear. Then again some of the pilgrims complete the route in flip flops or bare feet so what do I know.

A pair of leggings was fine for trekking although I did catch a few more stares than usual in the skin-hugging clothing even though my shirt covered my butt. However, there was no one around in the valley to stare so I felt all right in them, besides, they were much more comfortable than my sticky flowy trousers. Although, again, Indian ladies just trekked in their normal saris and stuff. A lot of women in the fields work in that kind of clothes, too.

Take a hat or anything to cover your head with because, you know, sun. Also long sleeves/massive layers of sun screen are essential unless you plan on coming back looking like a lobster (and like it when wearing a shirt hurts you). Oh, and buy a walking stick. They only cost like 50 cents (30 rupees). I didn’t get one because I have enough trouble with two feet, but Ben loved his. (So much that I got jealous and got rid of it in a train later. I mean, he totally forgot it.)

Leggings – also great for the desert. Grumpy face – not cool, photographer, not cool
Thar desert

Flash guide for guys travelling to India:
No one in India wears shorts. Except for Ben, apparently, and all the other tourists. And that’s OK because you want to be comfortable too. Just remember that some temples or mosques won’t let you in if you’re sporting your pretty knees. Some will provide a scarf to wrap around your waist – for an extra charge, naturally – but some won’t. In general, Indian guys tend to wear jeans.

Indian men seemed to be weird and wore long-sleeved shirts, you know those with the collars on them. It’s like everything was a smart casual event. There’s no way that’s comfortable, but if you really want to blend in, don one up. Or just go with t-shirts since a lot of people wear those, too. If you really want to go for it, a lot of Indian guys can be seen wearing long shirts and jackets for a more traditional look.

And yes, you should wear a scarf as well. And sandals, since most of the people go around sporting flip-flops. Of course closed shoes are fine too, but unless you want your toes to bake, get rid of that ‘only boys who look good in sandals are 10-year-olds and Jesus’ attitude and put on a pair. Umm, sandals, I mean.

Delhi

The way I dressed up in India was in no way Indian but rather Indian-inspired and my wardrobe was put together thinking of conservativeness, comfortableness, and yes, cuteness. I got my initial clothes cheaply from a flea market and once I got to the dazzlingly colourful markets in the country, started replacing my boring clothes with Indian ones. My wardrobe goals for my next trip in India (which, hopefully, will happen!) is to get a sari and dress up in more colours. A part of me is almost afraid of colours. Part of it is the Finnish national mindset that only allows us to wear dark and neutral colours, part of it is my red hair that makes every brightly coloured piece of clothing look like a piece of clown’s outfit. Damn you blondes who look great in everything.

Did you find this list helpful? Have you ever had trouble picking clothes for a trip?