“The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Solo-travelling sounds as exciting as it sounds scary, especially for women living in India and honestly, it was something I never considered until I came across a blog by a Canadian woman who, in her own words believes that India is “my muse and my ‘soul culture.'” Having visted the country for the first time after a personal tragedy, Mariellen Ward kept coming back and today, she has one of the most popular and most read travel blogs on India.
Mariellen Ward publishes Breathedreamgo.com, an award-winning travel blog, dividing her time between India and Canada, and is the co-founder of Toronto Travel Massive and Delhi Travel Massive. Ward is also the author of Song of India: Tales of Travel and Transformation and believes in “meaningful adventure travel.”
In an interview with Shubhangini Arora for SheThePeople.TV, Mariellen talked about her experiences as a solo traveller in India and how it changed her life.
You are the founder and writer of one of the leading travel blogs in India. How did this journey begin for you, and what made you gravitate towards India?
That’s a long story! I traveled to India initially in 2005, for six months, because I was trying to “re-start” my life. I was recovering from a long depression following my Mother’s death. I needed to do something bold, something adventurous. I needed to start manifesting my dreams. I was also pursuing yoga studies, as I am a long-time yoga student (25 years).
But now, when I look back, it seems so obvious to me that I always wanted to go to India. I remember mooning over pictures of George Harrison in Rishikesh when I was a young girl. And when my friends were going to see Peter Frampton, I went to see Pandit Ravi Shankar when I was a teenager in Canada.
Nevertheless, the biggest surprise and mystery of my life was how strongly and quickly I felt an affinity for India, I had no idea that would happen. Literally within 24 hours of setting foot in Delhi the first time, I felt at home in a strange and uncanny way, a way I had never experienced before.
You say that India is your ‘soul culture,’ how has seeing and experiencing the country changed you?
Travelling in India definitely “broadened my horizons” as my Mom used to say. It gave me so much more perspective on my life, on my place in the world, and on the world in general.
Travelling solo gave me a tremendous amount of self-confidence, something I’ve always lacked. I used to be a fearful person, very anxiety prone.
In India, I discovered a part of myself, like a piece of the puzzle. It just fit, and made sense, and I feel more whole now.
I also have expanded my spiritual understanding. And I started writing. Travelling in India and blogging uncorked a life-long writer’s block. I’m a fountain of words now!
Pursuing my dreams of travel, travel in India and writing has made me more alive and more passionate. I have a lot more faith in the power of dreams, and our ability to make them come true.
Oh, I have gained so many things from this experience, I could go on and on!
Having visited the country multiple times, as you mentioned, you are now familiar with India. But in the beginning, as a solo traveler, in a foreign culture, did you ever have any safety concerns?
When I first travelled in India in 2005, the issue of women’s safety was not under the glare of the media spotlight like it is today. I don’t remember reading a single thing about women being particularly unsafe in India. Most of the scare-mongering stories were about travel challenges and getting sick. So these were the things I was braced for.
I have never felt particularly unsafe in India, then or now. I am cautious wherever I go, even in Toronto, my home town. At the same time, I am also generally trusting and open.
I actually think it’s much better to NOT be afraid. Fear attracts the wrong kind of energy, the wrong people, the wrong experiences. Much better to assume people are good, and practise safe travel strategies.
My biggest fear in India are street dogs. I have a very strong aversion to them.
For all the women in India and abroad, what pointers do you feel they should keep in mind while travelling alone in the country?
You need to be aware, to have your wits about you. And you need to exude confidence. Studies have shown that men attack vulnerable women, women who look like victims, like they won’t fight back. Walk with pride and confidence, even if you don’t always feel it.
Of course, it’s also important to do lots of research about etiquette, customs, safe travel and accommodation options, etc. Try to arrive at a new destination during the day. Use social media to meet up with friends or friends of friends — not strangers. But be careful about broadcasting your exact whereabouts. I never talk about where I’m staying until after I leave.
Having read your blog, I know you love India and its culture, but as a foreigner, what were your biggest concerns when visiting new cities?
I’m not conscious of myself as a “white” or foreign woman traveler, so it’s hard to answer this question. Of course I know I am a “white” or foreign woman traveler, but it’s not really front-and-centre in my consciousness when I’m in India (or elsewhere, I suppose).
For one thing, when I’m in India, I live in Delhi with a Punjabi family, and I am treated as one of the family. I think I kinda become Indian, to a certain extent, to live in the house. Sometimes, I certainly don’t feel Indian — like when I want to eat dinner at 7 pm or have some privacy or a shower instead of a bucket bath! But generally, I try and blend in and go with the flow of being in India. It’s like I tap into a different personality, my Indian personality.
But there’s another thing, too, which is that I am spiritually oriented. People to me are first and foremost spiritual beings; their skin colour, ethnicity, culture, etc. are secondary to me. I try and gauge people by whether they have “good energy” or not, if you know what I mean.
This is a digression …
When I travel to a new city, I try and find somewhere safe and central to stay. I read a lot of reviews, reach out to people on social media to get recommendations. I research the best things to do, the best restaurants and tourist attractions. I read books and watch movies so I can find something about the city that appeals to my imagination. And I try and connect with people I know who live there, or who are passing through.
I had a great dinner with a fellow travel blogger when I was in Ahmedabad, for example, and we have become friends. We went for a full Gujurati Thali dinner on a romantic roof top. It was a great experience.
You are a Canadian citizen, yet you are regarded as one of the top India-travel bloggers today and your passion for travelling is clearly visible in your book and blogs. What advice would you give to amateur travel bloggers out there?
Travel blogging is much, much harder than it looks. If you’re serious, you better be passionate. The only thing that’s kept me going for six long years publishing Breathedreamgo.com is my passion for travel, for travel in India and for writing. I am truly passionate about these things, as I think my readers know. You can’t fake passion. So my advice is to find out what you’re truly passionate about.
Please share your favourite travel story with us.
I like to tell the story about how I went to the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 2010, on the most auspicious day, when it was 44 degrees and 10 million people were pouring into the small city. Along with about 14 people from my nearby ashram, we walked about 12 kilometres into Haridwar, starting at 4 am.
After we had our dip at 7 am, I separated from my group to join my media colleagues on the press tower. However, the officials wouldn’t let me up and they were clearing Har-ki-pauri because the Naga Sadhus were parading in. I had a moment of sheer terror. Wondering where to go and what to do. The city was completely shut down and jam-packed with people, the sun was rising and I did not know my way back to the ashram.
In that moment, I faced my deepest fears. I knew that if I buckled, I could die. I had to reach down into myself for strength, and reach out to the divine for guidance. I put my head down and started walking. Together, we got me back to the ashram. And I didn’t even miss lunch.
[Featured Picture Courtesy: Flickr.com]