Mariellen Ward is a professional travel writer, blogger and editor based in Toronto. Breathedreamgo.com, her award-winning travel blog about “meaningful adventure travel,” is inspired by her extensive travels in India. She writes for many print and online sites, self-published a book of travel stories, Song of India, co-founded the Toronto Travel Massive (a successful monthly meet-up group for travel bloggers and industry) and regularly speaks at events and conferences.
Why did you choose to be a solo female traveller?
I don’t really feel I chose to be a solo female traveller … it’s just what happened. I was recovering from a sustained period of loss (that included the deaths of both my parents), and feeling depressed, adrift. I needed to do something. So, I started following my dreams. My first dream was to become a yoga teacher, and it was while I was pursuing that certification that I suddenly felt a compelling desire to go to India for six months. It honestly did not feel like a choice; it felt like a compulsion. I saved for a year, gave up my apartment, and jumped.
Tell us about your first solo trip. Where did you go? What were your challenges/reward?
My first and second solo trips were both inspired/provoked by my mother’s sudden death. I was devastated by grief and traumatised as I found her body. She had died in the night, calmly, in her own bed, of heart failure. She was at peace, but I was hit hard. After struggling with extreme grief for a few months, I decided to go to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, by myself for a week. I drove around the gorgeous Cabot Trail, pouring my feelings of irreconcilable loss into the North Atlantic. I felt I needed a container the size of the ocean to absorb my grief. That was a great trip because the people of Nova Scotia are so warm and welcoming, and the scenery and ocean are so spectacular and reviving.
My second solo trip was several years later when I went to India for six months. That one was really like jumping off a cliff! By the time I went to India, I was also recovering from my dad’s death (from cancer); and a break-up with my fiance. I was in need of a complete recharge. I have written a LOT about the benefits of that trip — in fact, my entire career is now based on it! The most challenging thing about it was just getting over my own fears and anxieties. Once I hit the ground in Delhi, I was fine.
The most rewarding thing is the feeling I now have that I am living my life. I am living MY life. I am LIVING my life. Hard to explain, but completely and utterly life changing; completely and utterly priceless.
What destination was the most challenging? Why?
Haha, you can’t beat India! But, that’s what makes India so special. The journey in India is a teaching, a blessing. When you can master travel in India, you are well on your way to spiritual enlightenment 🙂
India is challenging for so many reasons — above and beyond the obvious chaos and crowds, heat and dust, delay and Delhi-belly. India is challenging because it is ultimately YOU who you confront. By travelling in India, you learn a bit about India and a LOT about yourself. Behind the facade of noise and colour in India is something else, something ineffable … there is a different rhythm. And if you can align yourself to that rhythm, you get a glimpse into the workings of the cosmos.
As a solo female traveller have you been in a situation where you felt unsafe? What did you do?
To be honest, I have rarely felt unsafe. I trust myself, and I have a basic trust in the universe. But there have been moments, when I was by myself in a house in Goa surrounded by a construction site, and construction workers, for example; or taking an autorickshaw through a desolate area south of Delhi, a few weeks after the Delhi Gang Rape, when I was very uncomfortable and my imagination started to get the better of me. I listen to my instincts, and in both cases, I moved to a “safer” location — one that felt safer to me.
How do you handle the curiosity/stares/leers/advances from local men when you travel?
I have developed a thick skin. If someone is really coming on strong, the best course of action in India, where I usually travel, is to make a scene. This is what Indian women do. There is a lot of social pressure in India, it is a kind of communal society, and people will rally around you, and come to your defence. If you say something like, “Would you say that / do that to your mother, sister, wife?” the man will be shamed, he will back down.
Solo female travel has come under fire recently if you had everyone’s attention, what is the one thing you would tell them about being a solo female traveller?
Fear is not in itself a bad thing: it can alert you to danger and help keep you safe. Anger is the same. But you cannot let fear rule your life. Sexual terrorism is like any form of terrorism: if you let your fear stop you or hinder you, then it means “they” have won. We, women, need to show the world our strength and power.
It’s your world girl, go and get it. But do not forget to pack your common sense, research your destination, and listen to your instincts.
Have you ever been sick or injured while travelling? What did you do?
Yes, in India, sick many times with Delhi-belly and the like. Very common. I reach out to local people, they always know what to do. Most people are very kind, very caring; and Indians perhaps more than any other people I have met will really go out of their way to be helpful. They have a philosophy in India, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” which means the guest is God. It is one of those many paradoxical things about India. One minute, the driver, tout, shop keeper is trying to extract as many rupees as possible out of you; and the next, the same person will not hesitate to come to your aid if you need it.
What is the BEST thing about being a solo female traveller?
There are so many … but learning to trust — yourself, others, the world. That’s a big one.
When I left for India, I had just been through one of the worst periods of my life. In a few short years, I lost both my parents, my fiance left me, my sister got married and moved out of town and I had a bike accident that left me with a broken elbow. Going to India for six months alone, never having done anything remotely like that before, was like throwing myself off the cliff. I needed to see if a net would appear. And of course, it did! And the net was me.
Getting out into the world gave me so much confidence — it was a complete reboot.
What should EVERY girl pack before travelling the world solo?
Confidence! Confidence, comfortable shoes, a good bra, your passport and your credit card. And you’re good to go.
How do you treat yourself (create a special ‘me’ day) when you’re travelling?
I like to use my imagination and create atmospheres, almost like I am in a travel street performance. Many of us probably do this, but it’s hard to explain. For example, I walked in the rain in Shinjuku, a very built-up part of Tokyo, listening to the music from Blade Runner. This is the exact neighbourhood that inspired the art direction of Blade Runner, and I felt at moments I was in the film! I went cycling outside of Bundi in Rajasthan, and found an overgrown group of old temples and monuments, and felt very much like Adela in Passage to India. In Mysore, I toured the grandiose Maharaja Palace listening to the music of Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov and crying because I felt I had entered into my childhood fantasy world of the 1,001 Tales of The Arabian Nights. Things like that. I’m a bit kooky.
Name one guilty travel pleasure/indulgence you have.
Oh, where do I start? I’m all about treating myself. Burning incense and listening to inspirational music, splurging on a nice hotel, taking myself out for dinner, visiting a beautiful site, going to see a dance or music performance … it’s a non-stop parade of treats … and no guilt involved.