World Elephant Day Confession: Here’s Why I Regret Riding Elephants in India

Happy World Elephant Day! Below, I share some thoughts with you regarding the recent elephant ride I took with my parents in Jaipur, India.

One of the best things about travelling is the new experiences you get to have. If you’ve read my daily blog posts from our trip to India and Dubai, you’ll know that my parents and I had many new and exciting experiences during our two weeks abroad. We tried new foods, met some of the locals and thoroughly enjoyed exploring India. But there was one thing we did that left me questioning its ethics, and that was the elephant ride. We didn’t have much of a choice because going on elephant back was the simplest way to get up a mountain that led to Amber Fort, a sprawling palace and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Rajasthani city of Jaipur. It’s the main tourist attraction in Jaipur and one of the most well-known forts in India (you can read about our experience here.) 

I really hope the elephants were treated well…

I remember being mesmerized by elephants we saw during our trip to Africa back in 2001. I had seen them at the zoo before, but there was something so special about spotting them in their natural habitat. They slowly roamed around, going about their day, free to go wherever they pleased. Elephants were (and still are) slightly terrifying to me, given their enormous size, but they’re awe-inspiring nonetheless. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re the largest animals I’ve seen up close, or maybe it’s hard to believe that I’m staring at (or riding!) the animals I loved watching in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Either way, there’s no denying that elephants are majestic creatures. 

So, back to Jaipur. As we climbed aboard the elephants (which were all female) and slowly made our way up the mountain, it dawned on me that these gentle creatures were probably suffering. They seemed to be huffing and puffing as they climbed up the winding path, carrying 300-400 pounds on their backs (each elephant carried two passengers plus the driver). Several times, we came to a halt because there was an elephant traffic jam (yes, I made that up), so our driver would tap the elephant with a small stick in order to get her to trot past the six or seven other elephants that were ahead of us. I didn’t notice any of the drivers actually hitting the elephants, and we were told that the rides up to Amber Fort were only available for two or three hours per day so that the animals could get enough rest, but something still didn’t sit right with me. 

While I believed that the animals at Amber Fort were treated fairly, I had to wonder if riding them meant we were promoting the global mistreatment of elephants. It’s widely known that elephants are killed or maimed for their ivory tusks, the trading and selling of which is a booming (and very illegal) business in Africa and Asia. It’s also known that the treatment of elephants at zoos and theme parks is likely subpar at best; unsurprisingly, they’re often unable to thrive in those manufactured and restrictive environments. I understand that zoos and animal theme parks can generate jobs and money, but it’s sad to see elephants (and dolphins, penguins, orcas, etc) forced to perform tricks for an audience. Animals are not our entertainment, which is why I had to wonder if we were helping to exploit them by riding on the elephants’ backs. 

Should we have boycotted the rides and simply walked up the mountain? Should we have inquired about the treatment of Rajasthani elephants? Maybe, but I’m not sure what good it would have done. Perhaps it would be more prudent to educate myself about the global treatment of elephants, to sign petitions that endeavour to protect their homes and species, and to vow never to ride one again. I would be much happier watching them happily roam free. 

Dubai Day 5: Meena Bazaar, Burj Khalifa & a Scrumptious Dinner at Dubai Fountain

Welcome to the last chapter of my trip to India and the Middle East! My parents and I are finally back in Toronto after a long and stressful journey home (more on that later). I’ve had a delightful sleep in my big, comfy bed for the last couple of nights, but keep waking up missing Dubai and the excitement of attending the Jubilee Games. When we left the house yesterday, Toronto felt boring compared to Delhi’s constant honking and insane driving! 

We wanted to make the most of this past Sunday because, sadly, it was our final day in Dubai! We had the whole day to explore the city, so our first stop was Meena Bazaar, a famous shopping area in Bur Dubai. Contrary to popular belief, the Bazaar isn’t actually a souk (outdoor market); it’s a few streets filled with little shops selling clothes, jewellery, textiles, and souvenirs. After passing some empty streets lined with modern-looking buildings, we turned a corner and I immediately felt like we had stepped into a city in India. The streets were dirty with garbage and had puddles of something that did not look like just water, many of the buildings and stores appeared to be falling apart, and Indian men with thick accents harangued us to come inside their stores or buy knockoff designer handbags. I realized we were probably seeing the poorer parts of Dubai that people usually don’t talk about because they either forget about them or want to concentrate on the opulence within the newer parts of the city. While I understand that impulse – after all, rich sheikhs, magnificent buildings and over-the-top attractions are what Dubai is known for – it was a jarring reality check to see those few crowded streets, which were just a few minutes away from swanky hotels and shopping centres. If I ever go back to Dubai, I’ll take a river boat into the older parts of the city, where you can gain a better understanding of the authentic, day-to-day lives of the locals. I think that would be more interesting to see than Meena Bazaar, which felt like a tourist trap. 

If only the rest of Meena Bazaar had been as clean as this area…

We had heard from friends that Meena Bazaar was overhyped and overpriced, but my parents still wanted to check out a few stores to see they could get custom outfits made. They were a little disappointed with the modest selection of stores and the poor quality of the material they found. Honestly, I think the reason we didn’t find much at the Bazaar was because you have to look very hard to find what you want. Many of the stores had cheap, dirty-looking souvenirs that were just not worth purchasing; even clothing from higher-end places was of lesser quality than expected. I did buy a $3 pair of sunglasses to replace ones that broke in Abu Dhabi, but other than that, we didn’t find any of the clothes, souvenirs and jewellery that we were looking for. If you’re planning to check out the Bazaar, my recommendation is to take someone who’s familiar with the area and will know which stores will have what you’re looking for. 

Speaking of the city’s over-the-top attractions: next up was Dubai Mall, which was every bit as unique as we’d heard! One of the first things we saw was a skating rink in the middle of the mall (what?!), followed by the Dubai Aquarium, which had sharks, sting rays and dozens of other species. We didn’t have time to tour the Aquarium or the Underwater Zoo, so that’s something to look forward to for next time. I have a hunch that they’re both quite spectacular inside…

This was just a small section of the Aquarium. The rest of it would definitely be worth seeing!

I was feeling really under the weather with a headache, stuffy nose and bad cough, so I browsed through some of the stores but didn’t have the energy to do any shopping. The mall is massive – it houses several fully-fledged department stores such as Debenhams, Marks & Spencer, Galeries Lafayette and Bloomingdale’s! After two hours we had barely covered a quarter of the mall but still managed to get lost once or twice. (Oops.) Toronto’s Eaton Centre is shockingly tiny in comparison.

We headed back to the Conrad hotel to pack our suitcases and checked out at 6 PM. Then we headed to the Burj Khalifa to watch the 7 PM dancing water show at Dubai Fountain, which, in case you didn’t know, is the world’s largest choreographed fountain system! Each show lasts for three minutes and occurs every half hour during the evening. We had been told that the show would be great, but I didn’t expect anything like this:

The upbeat Arabic music that accompanied the Fountain show made it a pretty unique experience. The choreographed waters jetting high up into the air, the Burj illuminated in front of the beautiful sunset, the hundreds of people oohing and aahing around us…it really was a spectacular show, even though it only lasted for a few minutes. Considering that it’s free to watch and just a hop, skip and away from the Dubai Mall, it should really be on everyone’s to-do list for the UAE. 

Our flight was at 1:30 AM on Monday morning and we wouldn’t get dinner on the plane, so we decided to eat beforehand. A family friend had recommended we try out a Lebanese restaurant called Abd El Wahab, which is situated across from the Burj and offers great views of Dubai Fountain. I’m so pleased that our friend recommended it because the food was delicious! We had creamy hummus with warm pita bread, fattouch salad (a tasty mix of greens, tomato, radishes, sumac and toasted bread), batata harra (baked potato cubes mixed with tiny chunks of garlic and tomato), and a small plate of grilled meats. I also got a bowl of warm vegetable soup, which helped clear my sinuses and soothe my throat. I should’ve taken pictures of the dishes but was too ravenous to wait!

It must have been at least 35 or 36 degrees Celsius outside, so we opted to eat inside. There were many restaurants in that area, but I think what made Abd El Wahab so popular (other than its amazing food) was its proximity to the Fountain. The restaurant had a large outdoor balcony from which you could eat and/or observe the Burj. At least half of the indoor diners jumped up from their seats and rushed outside at 8, 8:30, and again at 9 to watch the show. Each three-minute performance had different music and different choreography, making every show feel like a totally new experience.

The restaurant was inside a shopping area called Souk Al Bahar, which Google tells me is an “Arabic-style shopping mall” that sells crafts, antiques, clothes and rugs. As we left the restaurant through the indoor souk, we stopped to browse vendors and stores selling silk scarves, oud (incense), pashminas, dates, handmade purses, and crafts. We happily picked up a number of beautiful purses and scarves for the women in our family.🙂

After dinner and shopping, it was back to the hotel to wait for our 10:30 PM taxi to the airport. We made it to Dubai Airport in good time but needn’t have rushed as the airline had actually cancelled our flight to London Heathrow due to “technical difficulties”, whatever that means. They had cancelled it earlier that day, so there was no excuse as to why we weren’t notified of it. We spent an excruciating hour and a half standing at Air Canada’s service desk while the agents scrambled to figure out which flight to get us on so that we could still make our 8:30 AM connecting flight from London to Toronto. By the time they finally booked us on a 2:30 AM Qantas flight to Heathrow, I and several others around me had taken the liberty of sitting down on the baggage-weight scales next to the service desks. We were all tired and extremely frustrated, which is probably why the agents didn’t dare tell us we weren’t allowed to sit there. 

Thankfully, the Qantas flight to London wasn’t bad. We were on a newly-built, double-decker plane, with business class upstairs and economy downstairs. The fact that it was a massive plane led to minimal turbulence, allowing passengers to sleep soundly. Upon arrival, my dad let one of the flight attendants know that we only had forty minutes to catch our connecting flight to Toronto and wouldn’t make it if we had to wait for everyone to get off the flight (the economy section had 88 rows and we were in the 87th). The flight attendant kindly let us exit from upstairs after everyone in business class had de-planed, so we got to skip the line of economy passengers waiting to get off the plane. We hightailed it through the security line, ran as fast as we could to the correct terminal and got to the Air Canada service desk just as our flight was boarding a few minutes away. “Sorry,” the British agent told us as we gasped for breath in front of her, “you’ve missed the flight to Toronto.” 

There was no way we were accepting that answer, so we took off in the direction of our gate and ran for exactly 9 minutes to get there. When we arrived, huffing and puffing with our hair and clothes in disarray, they hadn’t even boarded! We thanked the heavens that we hadn’t listened to that agent and made it to our seats with no further problems. 

After so much excitement, I think my family and I are pretty relieved to be home! All in all, it was a splendid vacation and I’m so thankful to my parents for taking me along with them. I’m also thankful to you, the readers, for taking this exciting journey with me through India and Dubai. I’ll be posting some final thoughts and reflections later this week, so please make sure to come back for that. 

Dubai Days 3 & 4: Closing Ceremony of the Jubilee Games, Jumeirah Beach & a Road Trip to Abu Dhabi

I’m sad to say that our time in the Middle East is almost over. We’ve enjoyed lots of fresh hummus, dates and coffee over the past few days, and it’s been so much fun cheering on Ismaili athletes alongside fans and friends. While I’m looking forward to getting back to a normal routine and my own bed (the absences of which can throw us off whack during a long vacation), this has been the most eye-opening and adventurous trip I’ve ever accompanied my parents on!

You know how the days seem to blend together when you’re busy exploring a new place? That’s how the last two weeks have been. We hit the ground running in India, visiting three cities in six days. We took long, informative tours of important cultural monuments and areas such as Jama Masjid, the Red Fort, Lotus Temple, Fatehpur Sikri, and the Taj Mahal. I’ve probably just been having too much fun! The good news is that it’s not over yet – the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall are on tomorrow’s schedule for our last day in Dubai.

Yesterday, we attended the Closing Ceremonies for the 2016 Jubilee Games. It was held at Dubai World Trade Centre and featured a ton of awesome performances. From incredible Tajikistani dancers to a surprise concert from famed musical duo Salim-Sulaiman, there wasn’t a dull moment to be found. The best part was when each and every Ismaili athlete walked in a parade around the hall, some dancing to the music with their teammates, others proudly carrying their home flags. After months and years of dedication and hard work, it was their moment and they deserved to celebrate!

The Tajik dance troupe stole the show with stunning choreography and visuals!

(Allow me a moment to brag here: Canada led the medal standings with a grand total of 60 golds, silvers and bronzes! Pakistan followed with 42 and Tajikistan was next with 26. Being selected to play in the Games is an accomplishment in itself, but congratulations to the Canadian, Pakistani and Tajikistani athletes who totally succeeded everyone’s expectations. Also, congratulations to every single athlete who participated. Even if you didn’t win a medal, you did your best and helped to fulfill the purposes of the Games: to excel, compete and unite.)

Today, we took a road trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. It took just over an hour by car, and we were able to stop for pictures of unique structures, buildings and vistas along the way. First up was, of course, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It was truly stunning.

View from the entrance.

Inside the breathtakingly beautiful marble courtyard.

The white-marble domes atop the structure simply added to its beauty. Tourists and locals alike quietly walked through the mosque with their shoes removed and cameras poised for unique pictures to be taken at new angles. The flashy gold, red and green decor inside some of the halls was maybe too distracting, but the bright colours were an interesting contrast to the white hue of the exterior marble walls and floors.

The Grand Mosque was our main sightseeing attraction for the day, but afterwards, there were still several sights to visit. (Though I think we were all silently praying for indoor attractions as it had reached 50 degrees Celsius outside.) We went to Heritage Park, a waterfront area with awesome views of Abu Dhabi’s downtown core:

Can I move here?

We saw Emirates Palace, a luxurious, 5-star, beachfront hotel:

Inside the lobby of Emirates Palace.

Finally, we saw Jumeirah Beach and its main attraction: the dhow-shaped Burj Al Arab, which I believe is the only 7-star hotel in the world. We arrived there in the early evening and strolled along the boardwalk as the sun was setting:

Jumeirah Beach is picture-perfect!

The distinct dhow shape of the Burj Al Arab.

I suddenly came down with a cold today, so the plan is to get as much rest and orange juice as possible before our flight home tomorrow night. FYI, we leave for London Heathrow at 1:30 AM on Monday and arrive in Toronto later that day. The next post will be my last for the India & Dubai series, so I hope you’ll come back to see how our journey ends! Thanks for reading.🙂

Dubai Day 2: Gold Medals for Canada and A Midnight Cricket Match

Today was a great day, mostly because I slept past 7 AM for the first time since we left Toronto, but also because I got to witness Canadian soccer teams taking home gold medals! As I mentioned yesterday, we’re here in Dubai for the Jubilee Games, a global sports competition organized by our Ismaili Muslim community. For me, soccer has been the most thrilling game to watch – I shouted and screamed so often during today’s games that my throat feels like it’s been burned.

During the day, I took it easy and just relaxed at the hotel. I had some time to kill because the men’s soccer final was taking place at 9 PM inside Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC). It was Canada VS Tajikistan – we knew it was going to be a very close match because both teams were equally strong and, I think, equally motivated to get the win. Tajikistan started off strong with a 1-0 lead for the first half, but in the end, the Canadians nabbed the gold medal with a 2-1 victory! 

The Canadian men’s team celebrating their win!

My mum and I also caught the second half of the Canadian women’s soccer final, where our team won 3-1. The U.K. won bronze and Pakistan won silver; on the men’s side, Tajikistan was awarded silver and Pakistan got the bronze. 

Right after the awards ceremony, my parents and I and some of my mum’s Council colleagues decided to check out the cricket game final (Canada VS Pakistan), which started at 11 PM at an outdoor field thirty minutes away. There was a coach leaving DWTC at midnight, and when we arrived, it was clear Pakistan was winning. The crowd’s loud cheers in Urdu and the hundreds of Pakistani flags made me feel a little out of place, but it was great to see so many united Ismailis supporting their home team. They also made a point of tossing out some, “Go, Canada!” cheers, which we appreciated given that the score was heavily in Pakistan’s favour. 

The outdoor game had a nice atmosphere. Congrats to Pakistan…

We left before the end and got back to the hotel at 3 AM. I’m heading to bed now – can’t wait for the Jubilee Games Closing Ceremonies tomorrow! 

Dubai Day 1: The Jubilee Games, Ismaili Centre Dubai and Great Indian Food

Welcome back to my travels, everyone! Thanks for sticking with me this far. Today’s post will be a short one as it’s 1:34 AM here in Dubai and sleep beckons. 

Today was the perfect first day in Dubai. Technically we started our week-long trip yesterday after flying in from Jaipur, but we were so tired that we couldn’t do much more than check out the hotel, grab dinner and go to bed. Today, we were able to have breakfast amongst family and friends from Toronto, watch an awesome soccer game, attend jamatkhana at the beautiful local mosque and go out for dinner with some friends.  

What soccer game, you ask? Let me explain. We and ~11,000 others are in Dubai for the Jubilee Games, an international sporting competition organized by the Ismaili Muslim community. Since my parents and I belong to this community, we decided to come and support Canada’s Ismaili athletes! The Games actually finish this week, but we’ll be able to catch the semi-final and final matches as well as the closing ceremonies. Yesterday we watched our men’s soccer team beat the USA 3-2, and today it started off as a tie game between us and Tajikistan and then our team ended up winning 6-5. Tomorrow (Thursday) is the final, which all of us Canadians are very excited about! Our male soccer players are the defending champions from the first-ever Jubilee Games back in 2008, so here’s hoping they’ll bring home the gold again tomorrow. (You can learn more about the Games here.) 

Such a thrilling game!

After screaming ourselves hoarse after the win, we got ready for jamatkhana (mosque) and headed there in a cab. (So far, Dubai seems like a very sleek and developed city – its streets are lined with fancy stores and flashy skyscrapers.) The Ismaili Centre Dubai, where jamatkhana is, is a beautiful space that my parents and I will hopefully take a tour of tomorrow. We met several Toronto friends there and decided we would all go out for dinner afterwards. One of our friends suggested we go to an Indian restaurant called Jaffer Bhai, and I’m so glad we listened to him – everything was great, from tandoori chicken and vegetables to mutton biryani and butter chicken. There were 11 of us, and even though we ordered about seven or eight dishes, we couldn’t finish it all. 

Jaffer Bhai’s may not look like much, but its food is delicious!

That’s it for today. I’m off to bed – goodnight!

India Day 7: Elephant Rides, Amber Fort & Shopping in Jaipur

Whew! Today was another full day of fun in India. Monday was our only day in Jaipur and we wanted to explore as much of the colourful city as possible. We started off with a tour of Amber Fort, an ancient maharaja palace built on a mountain. There was an option to reach it by riding on elephant back…and we took it! 

Can you spot the elephants?

I wasn’t aware we’d be riding elephants until the day before it happened, which was good because it allowed me less time to feel nervous about it. Meaning I was pulling my hair out as we drove up to the elephant station and saw the animals we’d be getting on: 

We were way up there. What a ride!

I’ve taken an elephant ride once before, around age 5, but was probably too excited to be scared. This time, I couldn’t help but wonder: what if the elephant collapses while heading up this steep cliff in 30 degrees?! Thankfully, other tourists around us looked just as nervous as I did. We met our Jaipur guide, Vijay, who explained that he would meet us at the top and take us on a tour of the Fort. My mum and I climbed onto a padded cart atop one of the elephants and, before we knew what was happening, we were off. You may not know this (I didn’t), but large animals tip and veer as they walk, making for a very bumpy ride. Let’s just say I was glad I’d taken Gravol before the ride! It would start to feel fun for a few minutes and then the animal would tip to one side, forcing us to lurch forward with each step. (I had a death grip on the side handle of the cart at all times to help steady myself.) Meanwhile, my mum was loving it! Behind us, my dad was having a ball – he had bought a colourful Rajasthani maharaja hat and looked like a king as he rode his elephant. 

The elephant driver seemed to enjoy getting the animal to speed up to a gallop because of the terrified squeals I was emitting, but overall it was a fun experience and definitely out of my comfort zone. And it beat the heck out of climbing up the mountain! 

Amber Fort, built in 1592, was stunning. As Vijay explained, the maharajas led very good lives and enjoyed opulence. Their grand halls, palaces, gardens and private chambers were fascinating to look at and nicely tied together the examples of Mughal architecture, ancient marble and sandstone carvings, and Islamic gardens that we’d seen recently. 

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to live in a place like this?

After the Fort, we stopped for a photo op of the Jal Mahal, a palace built in the middle of a beautiful, man-made lake. 

Vijay then took us to an emporium that had silk and cotton scarves, tablecloths and pashminas along with material for men and women’s clothing. My parents each got an Indian outfit made (it would be dropped off at our hotel later), then we went to a jewellery store and my dad bought me a beautiful sapphire ring. It’s my birthstone and he knows I’ve wanted one for a long time! 

Tomorrow (Tuesday) we leave for Dubai. India has been absolutely phenomenal and I’m sad to leave it behind. Stay tuned for Day 1 in Dubai! 

India Day 6: Drive to Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri & a Hectic Ride on an Indian Bus

After yesterday’s magical trip to the Taj Mahal, I don’t think anything can beat the morning we had. (Though there’s an elephant ride scheduled for tomorrow, so stay tuned for that!) The visit to the Taj totally exceeded my expectations and has definitely been the highlight of our vacation thus far. Today we left Agra for Jaipur, a vibrant city rich with history and culture.  

We left the Courtyard Marriott in Agra at 9:30 AM and drove straight to Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient city that Mughal Emperor Akbar built and once ruled in. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was constructed in the late 1500s and consists of beautiful mosques, halls and palaces. Akbar built palaces within the city for each of his three wives, and we could see details in each palace that referred to the wives’ hobbies and religious beliefs. Fatehpur Sikri remains, to this day, one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture in India.

Stunning 16th-century architecture and designs!

But I forgot the most important part: in order to get to Fatehpur Sikri, we rode on a cramped, run-down local bus up a hill in 34 degrees Celsius and a humidity factor of 89%! (It was honestly as bad as it sounds.) Now, keep in mind that my parents and I try not to be snobs when we’re travelling. Despite staying at nice hotels and taking precautions to ensure our safety, we mingle with locals whenever possible and find it fun to live like them for a day. The problem with today’s mingling was that it was a sweaty, smelly mess that left me desperate for a refreshing shower. 

Upon arrival at Fatehpur, we were a little disappointed to learn that we couldn’t take our car up to the ruins and would instead have to take the local bus, a small, ancient-looking vehicle that carried 25-30 people. My mum and I were a bit hesitant to get on when we saw that we were the only foreigners, but there was no other option. We squeezed into some tiny seats and received a mix of glares and curious looks from almost everyone on the bus. I started to feel like a goldfish – for some reason, people stared at us as if we were their entertainment. Maybe they were trying to figure out if we were Indian and, if we were, why we were dressed so differently than them. 

Everyone on the bus was dripping with sweat and wiping their faces with their clothes. Sweaty toddlers sitting on their parents’ laps had hair plastered to their foreheads and we saw more than one person with a totally soaked shirt…the humidity was truly overwhelming and I missed a fair bit of what the local guide was saying due to feeling very lightheaded. An hour later, one bus pulled up in front of a crowd of 60 people and there was immediate shoving and shouting as people scrambled to get a seat. We’re talking actual shoving – many of the people already climbing on to the bus were grabbed at until they had to give up and let others take their place. I was trying to stand still but ended up getting pushed and yelled at anyway. I think Fatehpur would’ve had more meaning for me if we had had a more pleasant method of transportation, but hey, at least we can say we took an authentic Indian bus ride and survived.

We arrived at Le Meridien hotel in Jaipur in the evening and didn’t get to see much of the city (although we did see elephants!), so tomorrow will be a full day of sightseeing. Can’t wait!

Elephant crossing!