When Mariellen Ward won the National Tourism Award for Best Foreign Travel Writer / Blogger for 2017-18, from the Ministry of Tourism she tweeted, “Couldn’t be more proud. And grateful. Thank you India for truly showing me the spirit of Atithi Devo Bhava.”
Mariellen Ward first came to India in 2005, while still mourning the loss of her mother. She had been taking a year-long Yoga teacher training course in Toronto in 2004, when she suddenly felt a compulsion to come to India. It took her a year to plan and save for her trip.
Mariellen says, “I left my apartment, put my things in storage, and jumped! My plan was to travel for six months, but I wasn’t sure I would make it that long as I heard travel in India was tough. But the opposite happened. I had a fabulous trip and it completely cured my depression. I felt an instant affinity with India, and started travel writing and blogging … and have never looked back. I built my career and my life on travelling in India, and now I live here, in Rishikesh.”
Six months of criss-crossing the country, Mariellen says she was in a bit of an ‘altered state’, a feeling many visitors to India have described in detail. “It felt like a magic carpet ride. My imagination was stimulated like never before and India essentially became my creative muse.”
Moving down South to the city of palaces, where geography and architecture conjure up history, Mariellen speaks about Mysore. “I remember walking through Mysore Palace and crying because I was so impressed with the beauty and magnificence of the place. It was the stuff of my dreams since childhood. My Mother brought me up to believe in the power of my dreams, and the magic and wonder of the universe. And it was the intractable grief over my Mother’s sudden death in 1998 that initially sent me to India. So walking through Mysore Palace, I felt connected to my Mother and her words, and my own deeply buried dreams. In India, I recovered from my depression and reconnected to my dreams. That trip saved my life in so many ways. And kick-started an entirely new chapter.”
India’s deep mysticism is very attractive and one can soak it in the most …in solitude. For someone who has lived in India for so long, I ask Mariellen what charms her the most. “The most enduring thing about India is …. India. Just India herself. I always tell people, you don’t need to do anything special or go anywhere in particular. Just come here and experience India. Perhaps it would be easier in a place like Pushkar and the desert in Rajasthan. Or Rishikesh and the lower Himalayas. Or Maheshwar and the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. Or the temples of South India. Somewhere less hectic, less crowded, and less “modern.”
A sense of time, of the past and present, merges seamlessly, and for those willing to embrace it, there’s an opportunity to transcend it. “There is a quality of energy in India that I have never felt anywhere else. It could be the combination of an abiding, ancient culture or the palpable spirituality. I don’t know. But I think when visitors come to India with a sense of openness, they can feel it. I’m not the only one! Many others feel something special here, too. I asked a spiritual teacher why seekers have always come to India, and he said, ‘India is the soul of the world. It has all the extremes of human experience, from the darkest to the lightest,’” says Mariellen.
Breathedreamgo https://breathedreamgo.com/ is her travel website and blog which she started publishing in 2009. She had already begun blogging about her travels in India for four years since 2005 on other sites.
The story of the birth of ‘Breathe dream go’ brings a smile. Says Mariellen, “I was actually in the shower when the words “breathe dream go” came to me. I jumped out of the shower to search, and see if the phrase was unique — it was — so I bought the domain name before I was dry!”
A professional communicator she started blogging in 2005. “Initially, it was just as a hobby and I didn’t become a professional travel writer until about 2008. In 2009 I realized the media was moving online, the digital revolution was in full swing, so I decided to take my career online and make a name for myself. I was just one of about three people who were travel blogging about India at the time. The other two were Lakshmi Sharath and Anuradha Goyal, as far as I know.”
She does not set up India for people. She says the experience has unfold by itself. “It’s a challenge to give people an “authentic” experience of India — it’s not exactly something you can engineer. It has to happen spontaneously. But you can help by putting them up in homestays and locally owned guest houses, and steering them away from tourist attractions and towards local markets, for example. It really helps to slow down, and spend some significant time in a place, so that you start to get to know local people. This is hard on a tour of course, especially when people feel compelled to see as much as possible.”
Every state in India has worked hard to get its tourism act together, but there are some that stand out. “Some tourism infrastructure is necessary of course, so the states I visit again and again, and the states that I encourage others to visit, include Rajasthan, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. They are among my favourites. In these states, you do get the tourism infrastructure, but you can also find some off-beat, unique, and authentic experiences too. Of course, this is true for most of the states in India — Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, for example. You need to know where to go.”
Mariellen has been following the tourism scene closely and says that there is a “growing movement of people dedicated to responsible, or sustainable, tourism. They are opening lodges, resorts, walking tours etc. all over the country. These are the people I am watching, and hoping to work with and showcase. I also feel the Northeast is opening up, and I’m really interested in travelling there.”
For those coming to find themselves and also to discover the core of some of India’s ancient sciences, India has never failed to deliver. “India has been the world’s leading destination for seekers for a long, long time. As I mentioned, a spiritual teacher described India to me as “the soul of the world.” There is a palpable sense of spirituality in the air here — or at least, that’s what I feel. It’s also the birthplace of Yoga, an art and science that arises directly from the culture of India. It’s my personal belief that Yoga in the west has been lost in translation. Only a fraction of it has been exported. To experience the entirety of Yoga, you should come to India. It may not be the only place in the world to truly experience Yoga, but I feel it’s the best because here, you can see that Yoga is part of the culture.”
Mariellen says she has tried to do her bit in broadening perceptions of India, but “it’s a big job given the negative and stereotypical picture the mainstream media in Canada and elsewhere in the west insists on painting. I participate in many online groups of female travellers, and whenever the topic of India comes up, the conversations are hijacked by people who are concerned about safety. Safety is, and should be, a concern for all travellers of course. But it completely dominates these conversations and I think that’s disproportionate to the actual dangers of travel here. So, the perception of India as a dangerous place for tourists has taken hold. It’s disheartening. I do my best to offer other perspectives and tell travel stories that showcase the beauty of India.”
Her tips for women travelling to India has been very popular and has been syndicated many times with perhaps over a million views.
What can be done to draw more visitors to India? “Showcasing heritage sites in India is a worthwhile pursuit, but maintaining them better would be the place to start. I’ve seen so many priceless treasures, all across India, that are not well maintained. It’s heart-breaking.”
Aside from better maintenance, infrastructure, and training for people working in hospitality, the India tourism industry also needs to focus more on marketing and storytelling. The tourism industry here is almost exclusively focused on sales, and they don’t see the bigger picture. They lack vision and innovation, and — except for the Golden Triangle and the Taj Mahal — largely don’t know how to create a tourism product. Kerala would be an exception.”
“So first maintain the heritage sites better, then create storytelling and marketing that creates an “appetite” for these places. The world doesn’t know about Mandu and Hampi, Khajuraho and Ellora/Ajanta. If these places were in any other country, tourists would flock to them in droves!”