Canadian travel writer and India-travel expert at the helm of ‘Breathe, Dream, Go’.
Lives in: Delhi, India
Countries Travelled: 19
Mariellen became a traveller at age 45. It was to be the first of many journeys to India, where she now feels at home. Her inspiring travel blog ‘Breathe, Dream, Go’ explores the more meaningful and transformative aspects of travel, especially for women. Her heart is all over her blog, where she tells colourful stories of India, starting from the first trip that saved her from depression, to stories today that capture her appetite for life, culture and spirituality. She is an active advocate for solo female travel and a wonderful reminder that the benefits of travel is open to women at any age.
The Call to Travel
Where’s home today?
Ha, this is the million-dollar question!
One of the reasons I love travelling in India so much is because the very first day I was there, in 2005, I was walking in a park in Delhi and had an uncanny feeling come over me. I felt, “I’m home.” It was a completely unexpected feeling, I had never had it before. I have felt very attached to India ever since, and I call India my “soul culture.” I’ve spent more than four years in India in total, since that first trip.
As an experienced traveller though, I’ve also done a lot of meditating and I now think my home is within me, and also in the world. The world is my home. It’s a very liberating feeling.
Women wear many hats. I think it’s safe to say ‘traveller’ is one you wear, you’ve been to some amazing places! What made you put that hat on and start your mission to see the world? Was there a significant pivotal moment or did it happen gradually?
Yes, I am a traveller through-and-through. Travel makes me come alive. But I didn’t know this until I took the big leap to travel in India in 2005, when I was 45 years old.
People start travelling for different reasons, but for me it was about saving my life. I was in depression after a series of personal losses that included the deaths of both my parents and breaking up with my fiancé. I needed to do something big to give me a new start in life.
I took a Yoga teacher training program – which was a long-held dream – and during it, I suddenly felt compelled to go to India. I think I had probably always wanted to go, but the Yoga program uncovered this deeply buried desire.
So, I took about 11 months to pack and save and plan a six-month trip to India in 2005. Starting my travels by going to India, for 6 whole months, alone, was like diving into the deep end of the pool. I don’t necessarily recommend it for everyone, but it worked for me. I listened to a powerful inner voice that was telling me, without any uncertainty, that this was what I needed to do.
We know it’s hard to pick, but if you had to pick just one, what would you say was your favourite trip ever?
Actually, for me this is easy. In December 2005, I flew to India to travel for six months. I had never done a big trip like that, never back-packed, never been to India. I just knew I had to go. I felt compelled.
I was nervous and exhilarated in equal measure. It was truly like jumping off a cliff. I had no idea what would happen, but I needed to find out. I thought, in fact, that I might have a terrible time but it would still be worthwhile because I needed to recover from depression and shake up my life.
But I had an amazing time.
It changed everything. It changed me, and it changed my life. I discovered I’m a traveller, a free spirit, and Indiaphile, a writer – and much more bold, adventurous, and confident than I ever thought possible.
On that first trip, I literally criss-crossed the subcontinent, from the very tip of India in the south, Kanyakumari, up to Dharamsala in the north, where I volunteered with the Tibetan community. I studied Yoga in Chennai and lived with an Indian family in Delhi and went to an ashram in Rishikesh.
I experienced a dust storm in Rajasthan, and underwent an Ayurvedic treatment in Kerala, and cried in the Maharaja of Mysore’s palace because I felt my dreams were finally coming true. It was a magic carpet ride.
How big a role does travel play in your life today?
Travel is my life. It’s my job and my passion and my lifestyle.
The Power of Travel
For Women and Personal Growth
As a female traveller, did you face any barriers or naysayers when you first wanted to travel independently/lots? How did you overcome them?
I was already 45 and independent when I started travelling, and Canadian, so I didn’t personally experience any barriers. But I have come across negativity online about women travelling, especially women travelling alone solo. In one case, a crime was committed against a women travelling alone in a foreign country, and that received a lot of sexist comments made online about how irresponsible she was. Typical sexist victim blaming.
I responded by helping to initiate a “WeGoSolo” movement to support women solo travellers. A lot of female travel bloggers jumped on board to write about this backlash and how negative it was, and how women have every right to travel whether in groups or alone.
Would you say that travelling has had a strong impact in making you who you are today? Meaning, if we took away all your travel experiences, if you had never travelled, would you be a different person?
To say travel has had a strong impact on who I am today is an understatement. Travel has given me so much in terms of experience, understanding, adventure, and inner growth it would be impossible to track it all.
Have you ever encountered a difficult situation that tested your strength, and taught you something new about yourself?
This happens regularly, hahaha, but one experience eclipses all others – the Kumbh Mela in North India in 2010. The Kumbh Mela is a massive spiritual gathering for Hindus. The day I went was the most auspicious day, and 10 million people were pouring into the small North Indian city of Haridwar. I was with a group from a Yoga ashram. We got up at 4 am and walked about 14 kilometers into the city to take a “dip” in the sacred Ganges River.
Afterwards, I separated from my group to try and join the media platform in the center of it all, but they wouldn’t let me on the platform and suddenly I was stranded in a city closed to all traffic, filled with millions of pilgrims, on a searingly hot April day. I had no idea what do to, where to go, or how to get back to the ashram. For a split second, I felt an intense wave of panic rise up, but I pushed it away, grit my teeth, reached inwards for strength and outwards for guidance, and started walking. I made it back to the ashram just before lunch. Everything there seemed calm and normal, but I noticed something was very different when it hit me: I was different.
For having overcome that challenge, I was a different person. And it’s true. Every time I face a challenge, I feel a lot of inner strength because nothing is ever as difficult as that was. The Kumbh Mela worked its magic on me. This is the purpose of a ritual.
What’s the single best thing in your life, anything at all, that has ever come out travelling for you personally?
There are so many things. Self-confidence is a big one for sure. And also discovering my soul culture, India, and how it spoke to so many things inside of me that were dormant for so long. It’s a bit like falling in love. But if I had to say one thing, it would have to be spiritual awareness.
Under Her Cape
Experiences on the Road
How does one make friends while travelling alone?
One of the best things about travelling solo is that it forces you to engage with local people to get your social and other needs met. This is what’s so great about it! You are pushed out of your comfort zone and you get to know the culture and community at a very grassroots level.
So many women travel to Bali for their Eat, Pray, Love experience. But the secret to transformation isn’t tied to a specific place or copying someone else’s experience directly, is it?
You cannot copy anyone else if you want a personally or spiritually transformative experience. Only Liz Gilbert is going to have the experience she described in Eat, Pray, Love, and there’s no point in copying her. You have to listen to your own inner voice. That’s the whole point of this type of journey, to get to know YOURSELF – not someone else. You have to walk your own path.
Having said that, there are places that especially great if you’re on a spiritual journey. India has for centuries, maybe longer, been the pivotal destination for spiritual seekers. Several of the world’s major religions were born in India, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Everyone from Mark Twain to Somerset Maugham to The Beatles to Steve Jobs, to even Jesus (according to some accounts) went to India to increase their spiritual understanding. In India, there is a palpable sense of spirituality, especially in sacred centres like Rishikesh, the Yoga capital of the world.
I think India is the most transformative travel destination, and many others agree with me. People who’ve spent some real time in India, and by that I mean a couple of months or more, will usually tell you it was their most life changing travel experience.
Despite everything you have accomplished, I’m sure you sometimes still get negative comments. What is the no.1 sexist nonsense you get most often, and how do you shut them down?
Sexist nonsense is built into every society on earth, from what I can see. Don’t even know where to begin with this one…I’m sure many people will be expecting me to say something about the sexism in India, which comes part and parcel with the traditional patriarchal culture. And of course there are a lot of things I could say, lots of ways I would like to see things improve. But I would like people to see the sexism in their own cultures before they point fingers at other cultures.
I would also like to address the sexism and ageism in the travel industry. There are a LOT of middle aged and older female travellers, but most marketing imagery is of young attractive women. The guys get to be bold and active, but women have to stand around looking pretty in a lot of these images. If there is one thing I would like to change, it’s this. Women are idealized for their sexual attractiveness to men, rather than for their actions and accomplishments, and outer beauty is valued over inner beauty. Travel is not fashion. It’s bold and active, and requires curiosity, sensitivity, and a sense of adventure – and sometimes a lot of resilience, strength and stoicism, too. Let’s make the imagery in travel reflect that!
I also want to say that I’ve battled with confidence and self-esteem issues my entire life. But now, in middle age and largely because of all the solo travels I’ve done, I’m much more confident. And I find the more confident I get, the less sexist nonsense is thrown at me. So my best advice is to shut people down by being confident.
Reflections and Pearls of Wisdom
Empowering Other Women
To someone who is planning her first solo long-term travels, what is the most important bit of advice you could give?
Listen to yourself, be honest about your capacity and comfort zone, start small and take baby steps if you need to.
If there is one thing you could say to your younger self what would it be?
I would say stop trying to fit in. You are a free spirit with an adventurous nature and buried dreams. Dig them up double-quick and go for it.
What is something you know now that you wish you knew before you started travelling?
Organize your photos and add keywords to them!
There are strong women in communities all around the world, who do amazing things in very different ways. Have you met any that really inspired you?
Lots of women have inspired me and inspire me daily. First and foremost, my Mom, who planted in me the idea that I had shouldn’t settle, as she did; that I should dream, and go after my dreams. Unfortunately, that message got lost in the rough-and-scramble of growing up. But finally, I did resurrect it again, in the years following her sudden death.
It’s probably the greatest irony of my life that my Mom’s death, which hid me harder than anything that’s ever happened in my life, ended up being the thing that also galvanized me to start dreaming again. I went to India both because I felt compelled to go there (and had probably wanted to go since I was a girl) and because I was trying to recover from the irreconcilable grief, I felt over losing her.
What would you say to any girl who is out there thinking she would like to travel the world, but is afraid to do it because she’s been told she’s “just a girl”?
Even the question makes me feel sad and angry. I heard this a lot growing up in the 60s and 70s. I could skate better than my older brother, but he got the hockey stick. (I’m Canadian, that’s a big thing, ha.) A common insult at the time was, “You throw like a girl!” Yup, I got the message that girls were apparently weak and inferior.
But the older I got, the more I realized that many, many things in life are actually the opposite to the way they are presented.
Women are strong, and this is our world. We have every right to go out and see it. We may be a bit more vulnerable than men because of physical size and assault and rape concerns. But a lot of men run into problems and issues when travelling, too.
Ideally, no one should let things like gender, age, size, ethnicity, etc. stop them from doing what they want to do.
If someone tries to tell you it’s too dangerous for you to travel, or too dangerous to go alone, or some other such nonsense, you need to understand where it’s coming from. People often feel the need to keep others back. Many don’t want to see their world change. They don’t want to see women become powerful and independent. In other words, when people say things like this, it’s about THEM, not about you. Once you get clear on that, you can start getting busy manifesting your dreams.
And for the last parting pearl of wisdom, What is one thing you’d like every woman to know that could help her lead her best life?
You are born worthy. You are loved. You don’t need to do anything to “achieve” it. And you certainly don’t need to be perfect.