Truths&myths about hostels

Hostels seem to have a bit of a bad rep around people who have never stayed in them. Over the last three and half years I’ve stayed in tens of hostels in, umm, maybe ten countries and when I travel, looking up a hostel is the first thing in my mind. Sometimes I do book into a cheap hotel – especially when I’m travelling with my boyfriend – or look into couchsurfing, but with the way I travel, hostels are my number one option. I live in this little backpacker bubble that I barely notice myself until someone bursts it with a genuine question: What is a hostel? Just a few days ago I explained to a friend what Hostelworld was. more “Truths&myths about hostels”

Truths&myths about Finland

Guys! Guess what! My tough little home country celebrates its independence day today, so in celebration for Finland’s 98th birthday I wanted to write a bit about what makes it such a cool country. I did a similar truths&myths post about India a few months ago and it was fun, so I figured Finland surely deserves its own.

With the humble population of some 5,3 million people Finland is a relatively small country. Although  Finns are pretty happy wanderers, with a small population like that it isn’t very common to run into a fellow Finn in hostels. I’ve met many who’ve told me I’m the only Finnish person they know, and because of this they don’t really know much about Finland or have weird ideas about what the country is like. I constantly get asked if we get any kind of summer. To some, Finland portrays itself as this wonderland of free education and pure nature, which it in part is, too, but fail to remember that all countries have their faults. One of the funniest conversations I ever had about my country was with an Irish girl a few years ago as she asked me what we tend to eat for Christmas and I casually mentioned that my family always had delicious reindeer cutlets. She was absolutely horrified. ‘You can’t eat Santa’s pets!’ She made it sound like we were eating cats and dogs. I assured you that there’s enough reindeer in Finland, especially in Lapland, to both have on the table and in the forests. She chuckled a little bit and said, ‘So Lapland is actually real? I always thought it was fictional, like North Pole.’

I am not trying to make you feel stupid for having to look up Finland on the map. Especially if you’re from outside of Europe, what would you need that information for anyway? It is okay if you didn’t even know such a country exists before now, but hopefully after this post you will be a little wiser.

Iisalmi

Myth: Finnish people are rude, swear a lot and never speak.
Truth: As a Finn, I had this same idea for years. I had heard people say that they went to the Nordic countries and met some of the most helpful, genuine people they had known. I could only think of the way I pretended to not see people I sorta-half-knew-maybe on the street, and they treated me equally. Of course over time I realised (with a little help from memes and Best of Tumblr) that this is the case in lots of other countries, not just mine. Where does the myth really originate from then? I gues from the idea that the norm is to be a social butterfly, be like people in foreign movies that chit-chat and small talk with strangers. To break this myth what needs to be understood is that there are different ways to be friendly. It all doesn’t have to be in-your-face smiles and instant emotional proximity. I’ve often heard it be said that once you get to know a Finn, they are the most open and the most crazy people you will ever know. I’m really happy that in general Finns are also known for their honesty (I mean, Finland got nuked in South Park because of their honesty!)

I had also never looked at it from a tourist’s perspective. Finns are, in general, really proud of their country and their culture and will be more than happy to let a visitor in on it. If you’re ever hanging out with a bunch of Finns (or even just one), you could make a drinking game out of how many time sthey will start a sentence with ‘In Finland we have this thing called…”

Oh, but the part about swearing is totally true.

Tampere


Hailuoto

Myth: Finnish people are depressed and alcoholics.
Truth: Sadly, this myth is somewhat true. (Which is strange considering the price of alcohol here.) I have seen a myriad of statistics stating that relative to the population, Finnish people commit some of the most suicides in the world. Maybe it is the darkness, as people often say, that gets people down. Maybe it is the failing economy and competition in the working life or in school. Maybe it is the genes that our forefathers left us. Maybe it’s all of them. What I know is even though you could never say that most Finnish people are depressed, this stereotype doesn’t come from nothing.

Even when calling Finnish people alcoholics is wildly exaggerated, in my experience the drinking culture here is somewhat unhealthy. You don’t see people going out for “just one” that often – and if they do, it can easily turn into an all-nighter. I find that some other countries – Germany and Spain spring to mind but correct me if I’m wrong – you can actually drink in moderation, and you will see a few less blabbering drunks plowing the gutters with their nose. Finnish people are usually great at partying, I just wish it wasn’t always the case with downing beer with both hands.

Tampere



Myth: You can see ‘Europe’s Big Five’ in Finland
Truth: I read this on an article that Lonely Planet had on their Facebook page a while back, and I wanted to write about this especially since nature is the first thing that springs to mind when people think of Finland.* By the European Big Five they refer to bears, wolverine, wolves, lynx and moose.

Even though all of the aforementioned animals do live in Finland, spotting them is not as easy as someone might think. (Reindeer also don’t run around in the central market of Helsinki. Sorry.) They are shy animals, and you would have to be well into the wilderness in specific regions of the country to spot them. I am pretty sure there are tours for this, which might help you see some of these animals, but you won’t just randomly come across them. C’mon, Finland isn’t that much of a forest. I’ve never seen any of the beasts with my own eyes except than in an animal park, so if you’re not willing to take a tedious trip into the wilderness that will probably leave you staring at moss and squirrels for hours, I’d recommend those for you, too. Even the moose, which are the easier ones to see, will hopefully not get on your way. During 22 years I’ve seen a moose two times and both happened in a car. The other time I was driving and could see it from a distance so I was able to let it cross safely (I thought it was a kangaroo – I had returned from Australia like a week before), and the other time my mum was driving and I was on the back seat, maybe twelve years old or something. The road was icy and when she swerved around the thing, we ended up spinning a bit and sliding into a ditch. The moose passed my window so close that I could’ve touched it. Stuck to my mind, for some reason. (Don’t worry – everyone in the car was all right.)

*Just to get over and done with this myth, yes it is true, Finland is the promised land of pristine nature. There’s lakes and forests everywhere. I live only about eight kilometres from the city centre in a suburban area – ten minutes on the bus, or an eternity if it’s winter and it gets stuck on that god damn hill again – and there is a full-blown net of hiking trails about three minute’s walk from my apartment. Oh, and a skiing slope, too. An Australian friend visited me a few years ago and the first thing he exclaimed as he stepped out of the bus was: ‘You said you lived in a city, not in the middle of a black forest!’

Hailuoto
Tampere
Tampere


Myth: Eskimos live in Finland. (Seriously though, does someone still think like this?)
Truth: This is like the age-old myth about eskimos and polar bears and the land of eternal snow. Is this something people think, or just what they think others think?

Personally, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone ask me about this myth as it is, but often people who have never been to Finland wonder if it really is that cold. For many foreigners, pictures from deep in the nature in Lapland are their image of Finland, so I can’t really blame them. And yes, it does get cold. My home town where my parents live is only somewhere in the middle of the country, and when I still lived here January and February always had a few weeks when the temperatures would drop to -35 to -40 C. In the north it can get even colder. However, where I live now is pretty mild for what I’m used to, and I don’t think it usually drops below -20 C even on the worst days. We also get a bit more snow than Helsinki since the city’s not located right by the sea. When I moved here two years ago, though, the winter was really warm and we experienced maybe a collective two weeks of sorta-anow. So you can actually go to Finland and not even have snow in the winter.

I have also been asked if there’s any kind of summer at all. With relatively cool autumns and springs, the “real” summer usually starts around late May and if we’re lucky, continues well into August. It is a game of luck, though. Last summer was horrible. It rained all the time, and even when it didn’t it was too chilly to not wear a jacket. I believe I wore shorts about five times last summer. There were a lot of memes around Facebook saying “Finnish summer is my favourite day of the year”, and even though last summer that was relatively accurate, the Finnish summer – when it occurs – is amazingly beautiful.

Tampere


Tampere


Myth: Finland’s only gift to the world is Nokia.
Truth: To be honest, even when a lot of people know that Nokia comes from Finland, I have heard as many people say they thought it was Japanese, Swedish or something alike. Many things have changed since Nokia came about. It was THE Finnish success story, and they say that in the 90s it was the biggest one thing that kept Finland afloat from the depression. I’m sad to see the company hasn’t done as well with the latest one. Once known as the producer of the best cheap cell phones, the company has been struggling to keep up with the latest technology and is (as I understand it as a technologically challenged person) proving worse than its competitors. The company was recently sold to Microsoft, which also left thousands unemployed. I hear they still have a considerable market in the third world, though.

Luckily Finns are an inventive bunch and have been coming up with new international bestsellers. Finnish literature is still quite popular in Europe – especially in Germany – and there are many successful Finnish people working abroad. Finnish designs are still surprisingly popular (I got so excited when I saw the classic Marimekko design on pillows in a bar in Melbourne!). A few Finnish TV series have been sold to the US to be remade in English, and one thing that Finns can really pride themselves in – Angry Birds. No one even seems to know it is from Finland, yet everybody knows it. Well done *pats Finland on the shoulder*

(Still waiting for some other great Finnish inventions to make it out of the country, though. Rest of the world, when will you start using cheese slicers and drying cabinets for dishes?)

Iisalmi


Myth: Finland’s education system is on top of the world.
Truth: Umm, yes and no. Finland has traditionally been known as one of the countries with the best education system in the world, and there might have been a time when this was true. Alarmingly though, test scores haven’t been as compatible in international comparison as they have before. Of course tests don’t measure everything, and when we consider that we have some countries that over-challenge their students (take Japan for example) on the top of the list, it definitely shouldn’t be the only way of judging how Finnish students are doing.

However, as I’ve understood it the Finnish education system has kind of got stuck in snow. I have been out of school for a few years now (university doesn’t count as school, right?) but all twelve years that I did stay in the basic school system, I don’t think the teaching style changed much. I’ve been flabbergasted to hear how Ben teaches his students – group discussions, causes and effects, tasks according to the level the student is on… Sure, back in the day we had possibilities to go on field trips and even had an occasional guest speaker, but mainly it was the good old system of teacher asking questions and only some of the front-row kids raising their hand, and copying notes from powerpoints – or, even worse, from the teacher’s speech. I have learned this way all my life so at first I thought it would be strange to do anyhow else, but I’m starting to think that maybe some changes are in place.

Of course there are plenty of good things about the education system in Finland that many other countries could learn from, first of all the utmost respect for education. Being a teacher is a rather highly respected profession, and most university students end up getting both Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. It doesn’t hurt that all education is free.

By the way – where did the “no homework in Finland” myth come from? I’ve seen it in a few places and let me tell you, I have had homework since the 1st grade. Maybe it is because we don’t hand our homework out like the British kids do with their books, but we do still need to have it done. Sorry, 10-year-olds that were dreaming of moving to Finland.

Tampere

What kind of myths have you heard about Finland?

ps. Finland is totally not part of Scandinavia, either.

Truths and myths about India

As usual, they ask me excitedly, how it was and did I have a good time, and I try and describe my trip without bursting into a non-stop ramble about every single thing I saw and experience and avoid clichés like “eye-opening” or “life-changing”. And as usual, they smile and say they wish they could go travelling too and that it sounded like an amazing experience. One thing is different, though, because now there are more questions than there has ever been before, and also the slightly puzzled looks. Why did you want to go to India? Was it a dangerous place? I would never travel there myself. I don’t wonder much, nor do I blame them – at the time I booked my flights last January I knew nothing about India either. When I told my mum where I was headed, she acted like I had just told her I was being shot out of a cannon into a war zone.

omg the food in this war zone is delicious in Varanasi
There are a lot of misconceptions and prejudices surrounding a lot of countries alike India. This summer Humans of New York has been posting from Pakistan and Iran, and in the comment sections conversation has been circling around how different people’s perceptions have been from the reality. Of course brutality and human rights violations that have been widely covered in media are part of that reality too, but those things are only a hue in an iridescent mixture that those countries are. As I was reading the inspiring stories, I had to mirror them to my experiences in India because I felt it gets treated the same way as a lot of the more conservative, third world countries as a dark spot on the map. People have their doubts about it, but as they have never had a chance to visit the country, their ideas are based on their interpretations of caricatures in TV series and media coverage.
So I decided to put together some myths about India and look at them, maybe rebuke them, maybe not. All of this is based on mere five weeks of travelling in only one small part of the country, so this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive or even an accurate description of the whole of India in 2015. If your experience is different somehow, I would love to hear about it in the comments! I feel like with everything I learnt on the trip there is still so little that I know about India as it is today, so if you can add something, I’d be very interested to hear.

Camels laughing at your prejudices in Jaisalmer
Rishikesh
Myth: India is dangerous for a female traveller.
Truth: Western girls are exotic in that corner of the world. Even among Indians lighter skin tones are favoured, and there’s even a prevailing racist attitude towards those with darker skin. In commercials and billboards on the roads most models are as white as a Finnish girl, and some even shamelessly sported actual westerners. So, as a rather pale redhead I did get a lot of looks and not all of them were just innocently curious. Sometimes I even got comments from men as I was passing by.

But then again, doesn’t that happen in Western countries as well? I never felt unsafe even when I was walking around the cities on my own. After all, it was just looks – no one tried to touch me. Even the comments I overheard were, even if sometimes delivered in a flirty tone, as innocent as ‘nice hair’ or ‘beautiful’. Of course it helps to be smart. I avoided walking alone in the dark, I didn’t strike up conversations with guys unless it was shopkeepers, rickshaw drivers or someone similar, and even then I sort of kept my guard up, and I tried to wander around in places with lots of people, tourists, or women and children around.

wow I’m so threatened in Varanasi

Women’s safety is an issue widely discussed in India these days. After the rape case in 2012 (which I was reading about in Moscow before my flight to Delhi – probably #1 on list of things not to do before you go to a country is to read about it’s most horrific crimes) there was an outcry for attention to women’s issues, which might stem from the hugely male dominated culture. Nowadays protecting women from harassment is taken seriously, and in public transportation there are even specific women’s sections. It is hard to travel the country as a woman, though, because a lot of men don’t simply talk to you. I had heard of this practice but was still left gaping in dismay when your hostel receptionist blatantly ignored my question and started talking to Ben. At first I thought it was because their respect for women was so low women weren’t considered worthy to talk to, but an Indian guy we met in a Jaipur hostel had a different view on the matter. According to him, men are often afraid to talk to women in case this could be understood as harassment. Having this “power” had it’s perks; when Ben couldn’t shake persistent touts and taxi drivers off his back, one polite and firm ‘no thank you’ from me was often enough to lose them. However, it’s not worth not being talked to.


Agra
Myth: India is dangerous in general.
Truth: Well, I did not die. I think no matter which gender you are it always helps to be smart about your surroundings, in other words stay the heck out of situations that could turn unfortunate for you. People rob people. Crimes happen. News, huh? There are areas in even a place like London where locals tell you to never, ever go. There have been terrorist attacks and there are areas where you’re not recommended to travel (and unless your crazy job requires it or something you should listen to those recommendations), but there have also been terrorist attacks in the UK, Denmark, USA, and France, and in general no one says, ‘You’re going to France, huh? Happy time dying then.’ India can be intimidating just because it’s so different to at least my home country, but I wouldn’t label it as dangerous.

Jaipur
Myth: Indians are creepy and only see tourists as walking ATMs.
Truth: Yes, there are some people who see tourists as wads of cash and cold hard plastic, and even though the constant hollering from touts is annoying, you have to keep in mind that the people there are only trying to make a living. In some way exploiting tourists seems justified to them because if you can afford living in your wealthy Western home and travelling, you can afford giving money to the people in your destination. Even if at home you were scraping by on noodles and ketchup, they still consider you rich.
And it’s annoying. Of course it is. Sometimes in the biggest tourist centres it almost felt like we were not even humans but monkeys. An Indian guy would in plain sight put his camera on my face and snap a picture, then get angry if confronted. In shops some of the clerks seemed to be conspiring to figure out how to squeeze as much money out of me as possible.
What you have to remember though is that we’re talking about a population of more than a billion here. Most of the people we met were genuinely happy to help and talk about their country. After two days of exhausting encounters with all kinds of touts in Delhi we arrived in Rishikesh ready to distrust every single person. A guy selling mangoes who helped us find our hotel was surprised and saddened by our attitude. He told that he had heard similar stories from tourists and said he wished more Indians could see the benefit in making tourists feel like home, because it would eventually help the country itself. Some locals that we explained our ordeals to actually apologised on behalf of all India, even though I didn’t see the need in that. All in all I’d say India is the same as everywhere – there are both good and bad people, and people that are a little bit of both.

Look at these creepy little people in Jaisalmer
Agra
Myth: Everybody gets sick in India.
Truth: On the third day of the trip Ben got sick. We were taking a train from Delhi to Haridwar and later suspected the dubious patty things that they served on the train as the culprits for his condition. He was bad for one evening, then better, then the next evening worse than ever. I swear it was one of the scariest nights of my life when I stayed awake (and woke up several times before the morning) to make sure he was finally sleeping soundly. He drank 18 litres of water that night, had severe stomach aches and probably a high fever but was still shivering. However, antibiotics tackled this classic Delhi Belly problem and two days later we were hiking in the Himalayas. We met quite a few other travellers who had experienced the same, so yes, getting sick is very common.
But does it happen to everybody? I never experienced any of Delhi Belly, in fact, for the better part of the trip my stomach was functioning even better than it often does at home. (Yes, I just wrote that because it is painstakingly normal to discuss bodily functions at the dinner table in India. Only with other backpackers that can relate, though. Maybe chit chat about something nicer with actual locals.) I did lactic acid bacteria for half of the trip and after I ran out of them, I started getting mild stomach cramps, too, so I would definitely recommend getting similar kind of medicine to give your immune system a heads-up that something dodgy might be coming its way.
Oh, but I did get a cold in India, because why the hell not. This is one of those things that could only happen to me,

Accidentally turning into an album cover in Rishikesh


Myth: India is dirty and poor.
Truth: Unfortunately India is one of the countries with the biggest gap between the poor and the wealthy, and it shows. It’s impossible to steer the streets without coming in contact with the homeless, and the old scrawny women selling trinkets from their baskets, and skinny kids with huge eyes smiling and extending their arm towards you. And a billion people also produce a lot of trash. There is, in general, no sense of waste disposal. Trash is thrown on the nearest pile on the street, and some of the hotel rooms don’t even have dust bins. Some areas don’t have proper sewage systems, which results to smelly open sewers. It would be unfair to only pinpoint one culprit, but just to say, the British reign left them in a mess.
Westernising India is trying to tackle these issues as best as it can and as the progress continues, the country will slowly become cleaner and cleaner. However, until the caste system has been completely erased in people’s minds, there will be little done to the wealth gap.

Jaipur
Just your friendly neighbourhood goat watch in Jodhpur

Myth: Public transportation is a disgrace and trains are always late.
Truth: We had had our doubts about travelling within India before arriving, so the first time we stepped into a train we were nervously excited. You know those pictures that you sometimes see of train carriages loaded with humans? As a foreign tourist I doubt you would ever end up in one of those carriages. In general the carriages are simple but relatively well-kept – I’ve seen public trains in worse condition in Australia. As to trains always being late… I’d say it was about fifty-fifty for us.
In Delhi there’s also a metro system that is parallel to those in Western countries in quality. It is weird stepping down from the noisy, dusty streets into this modern underground train with spotless structures and AC. It’s like you forget for a second where you are until a rush of every freaking person on Earth jams into the same car and you find yourself unable to even move. Definitely take the metro outside of rush hours.
Buses tended to be a bit more sticky. Seat belts are pretty much unheard of, and some of the buses are clearly made thinking of the skinny Indian figure. Ben was pretty much a head taller and half broader than a normal Indian guy and just looked like someone had taken his kitten away when he first witnessed the tiny little bus that we had to spend twelve hours in.

All nice&cozy in sleeper class

And yes, there are a lot of accidents on the road. India’s road and rail systems are still developing, and with the vastness of their network they take a lot of work to maintain as monsoon rains and landslides take their toll on them. There’s also many kinds of different vehicles from cycle-rickshaws to brand new Mercedeses, not to mention dogs, cows, monkeys and people, on the roads, so everybody’s going at a different pace. However, India doesn’t even come close to the countries with highest fatality rates in road accidents. In the cities there is often so much traffic that driving fast is impossible which also helps to prevent crashes.

Jodhpur
Agra

Myth: It’s difficult to travel in India.
Truth: Even though millions of tourists travel to India every single year, the country’s tourist industry hasn’t yet reached it’s full potential. This is about to change, however, as this new young generation of travellers is starting to explore India. The concept of a hostel is still moderately unknown to Indians, but more and more are popping up in the biggest cities, and I’d say that within the next five or ten years the country’s tourist industry – as well as the whole country – will have experiences a drastic face lift.
As things are now, it feels that they are doing things in a more complicated way than would be necessary. Booking trains, for example; it seems you can’t book online with a foreign bank card, and booking the tickets at the stations is painful. Imagine long, unorderly lines of Indians who have no idea what a queue is, separate booking and inquiry offices and officials who don’t speak a word of English but who want you to fill in a form which then tells them which tickets to book… Yeah, that.

Rishikesh

On top of this maps are useless because rarely the smaller streets are marked on them, and if you try to ask for directions, there’s a good chance that the person doesn’t understand English or just points you to whichever way because they don’t want to admit they don’t know. Maybe things would be different during the high season, but during monsoon the few hostels were rather quiet and socialising was at times hard, especially without the social lubricant friend alcohol. (Drinking is a bit of a taboo and night life is near to nonexistent as bars close at 11 p.m. latest.)

Travelling India was harder than, say, travelling Australia or Germany. However, I got to where I needed, I met some great new people and somehow in the middle of all this mess managed to have a blast. Even when India threw me a challenge, I loved taking it. With a bit of determination and loads, LOADS of patience India is not impossible to travel – even if you’re going there without a tour operator.

Hemkund Sahib

Do you have any prejudices about India? Would you travel there or have you already been?