How can a country considered one of the most daunting destinations for solo-female travellers help heal a wounded spirit?
Story and Photos by Mariellen Ward
(Feature photo: SudhirVatsa/iStock)
About three months into my first trip to India, I was walking across the parking lot of my hotel in Chennai when I saw a very thin man in a loincloth emerge from an open sewer. He was completely covered in shit, smeared with it, from head to toe. Evidently, his job was to fix the sewer. He seemed bizarrely calm.
This was in the parking lot of a sprawling hotel, with swimming pool, two good restaurants and a wedding hall. It was where most of the yoga students were staying who were taking the same one-month course that I was enrolled in. Not five-star, but comfortable by any standard.
Seeing that man emerge, in this place, was one of the most shocking things I have ever seen. It shook me in the way India does. India presents images and experiences that life in middle-class North America does not prepare you for. Many of these experiences are joyful, exciting and heartwarming. Some are mind-blowing. This one was shocking.
It wasn’t, however, the most shocking thing I had ever seen.
That was—and will probably always remain—finding my mother’s body the morning after she died in her sleep. We knew she was unwell, though we thought she only had a respiratory infection. So when my sister Victoria and I arrived at her apartment in Toronto to make her lunch one cold, clear day in January 1998, we did not expect to find that she had died in the night of heart failure.
The grief and trauma I felt over my mother’s death haunted me for a long time, and made dealing with an ensuing series of losses more difficult to bear. Just a few months before, in September, my father had declared bankruptcy and we lost our summer cottage, which was like a cherished family member. In July 2000, I fell off my bike and broke my elbow, badly. And just a few months later I was broken again, this time by my fiancé, who left me with only nine words (“I’m fed up, you’re not the one, I’m leaving”). And on February 8, 2004, my father died of cancer, a mere two months after diagnosis.
All of these losses flattened me, left me struggling to keep going, to make sense of it all and to find something to live for. Eventually they led to a crucible, my decision to go to India in 2005.
At the time I was doing a yoga teacher training course in Toronto. Yoga was helping me deal with my depression; it got me moving and breathing more deeply. It also triggered a strange, cathartic experience that pulsed through me at the same time as the South Asian Tsunami of 2004, and left me with a powerful compulsion to go to India.
Yet, it was counterintuitive. I felt vulnerable and didn’t want to leave the safety of my apartment. Plus, I had never backpacked, almost never travelled solo, never been to India, or South Asia.
How could a country that’s known for crowds, chaos and culture shock help restart my life? How could a travel destination that’s considered one of the most daunting, frustrating and challenging, help heal my wounded spirit? How could a place that presents shocking scenes of poverty and filth—like the man emerging from the sewer—inspire and motivate me?
My inner voice, however, was loud and insistent, and I spent most of 2005 saving and planning—even though I didn’t know if I would be able to stand six months of travel in India, or even live through it.
“A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: ‘As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.’”—Joseph Campbell
As the plane began its long descent into Indira Gandhi International Airport, I peered out the window into the darkness and saw irregularly spaced yellow flickering lights on the ground far below. I could not imagine what they signified. I could not imagine what India would be like, or what my six months’ journey would be like. I really did feel like I was jumping off the proverbial cliff. And then we landed and I smelled the acrid, intoxicating air of Delhi for the first time.
A young woman I met on the plane, Jyotsna, stayed with me until I met Ajay, who was waiting for me at the airport exit. I had met Ajay 13 years earlier in Toronto, but had not seen him since. A mutual friend suggested he pick me up and give me a place to stay. I barely recognized him, but was deeply relieved he was there to greet me. I was like the Fool in the Tarot deck, stepping into the unknown, as I walked toward his car in the parking lot.
The next morning I woke up in Ajay’s family home in South Delhi, and walked out of the fourth floor apartment onto their large, white marble terrace and into brilliant sunshine. Freezing cold when I left Canada, it was a balmy 28 degrees Celsius in Delhi. Ajay’s three-generation family was gathered together on the terrace and I joined them. A servant brought me tea, and then a stack of thick parathas (stuffed bread) and a masala omelette.
Shortly afterwards, a man arrived with a large bundle and spread colourful fabrics, shawls and three-piece women’s “suits” on the ground. Sitting with the ladies of the family, sipping tea and shopping, many of my worries and anxieties about India began to dissolve in the yellow, liquid sunshine. Far from the travel hell I had half-expected, and dreaded, I felt I had landed in heaven.
Later that day, Ajay and I went for a walk in a large park near his home. As we strolled on the reddish earth, in the early twilight, the atmosphere became tinged with pink and we saw peacocks strutting around a large tree wrapped with a circular seat, like the kind I had seen in Indian movies. The effect was magical and I was smitten. I felt very happy to be back in Asia, after living in Japan many years earlier, and uncannily at home in a country I had never visited before.
I spent a week or so recovering from bronchitis, bonding with Ajay’s family, and slowly learning how to be in India.
My first car ride in Delhi—Ajay drove us to Flavours, an outdoor restaurant in Defence Colony market—felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, bikes, cows and dogs streamed past and around us in a chaotic, noisy and overwhelming torrent. Horns honked, entire families were piled on bikes, and no one seemed to be paying any attention to the traffic rules. I was dizzy and disoriented by the traffic, the jet lag, and everything that was so new and different about India.
My first time out alone, I took a taxi from the nearby taxi stand—manned by friendly Sikhs in black turbans—and went to the Qutab Minar. One of the symbols of Delhi, the Qutab Minar is a 12th-century tower surrounded by gardens dotted with ancient tombs. As I strolled through the complex, the sun began to set, the air turned pink, and the Indo-Islamic buildings glowed with age and antiquity.
This was the moment when it hit me: I’m in India.
I could hardly believe it. All my pent up grief, repressed desires and stunted dreams came pouring forth, released by the magic of the moment and the boldness of my leap into the unknown. I cried. I cried because of the beauty I saw and the relief I felt. And this was just the beginning, this was my first week in India.
“The moment you doubt you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.” —J.M. Barrie
Magic in fact, was the thing most missing from my life—a belief in the magic and wonder of the universe. My mother had brought me up to see the world as a miraculous place, sacred and alive. But when she died, it was as if she took it all with her. I felt utterly alone and bereft.
It didn’t help that I was not pursuing my dreams at the time of her death. In fact, I never had. I was working as a freelance copywriter, which paid the bills, but that’s about it. Any dreams I might have had were long buried. Not only was I not doing what I loved … I didn’t even know what that “thing” was.
Due to troubled early years from my parent’s divorce, I never had the chance to pursue my interests or a higher education. I was basically just struggling to survive. I quit school, and even found myself homeless at the age of 18. After having been an A-student who had actually skipped two grades, this was heartbreaking for me. My self-confidence was in tatters, and I suffered from chronic anxiety.
Eventually, as an adult, I went back to school, and compromised my dreams by getting a degree in journalism—when what I really wanted was to study English and comparative religion at university. But that didn’t seem practical, and I felt I needed to be practical as I was supporting myself, and had been since about the age of 17.
Looking back, I don’t remember ever feeling that I could discover what I loved and pursue it. I don’t remember anyone telling me to go after my dreams. I do remember working in public relations after graduating from journalism school, hating it, and thinking: This is life. This is what you do. You get a job, you go to work, you pay the bills. I didn’t have the confidence to find out what I actually wanted to do with my life; I didn’t even think I deserved to know. Success and satisfaction were for other people, not me.
Life went on, as it does, until that day in January 1998 when fate struck a mighty blow and sent me reeling down a path that eventually led to yoga, and the yoga teacher-training course, and then the decision—no, compulsion—to go to India. The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s journey, the call to adventure each one of us senses, in our own way:
“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path … and where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.” —The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The sudden compulsion I felt to go to India was my call to adventure. It was like a cry from the soul, something I had to heed. So, though I was afraid to leave my apartment—which, though safe, felt like it had become a tomb of grief—I started planning.
My first trip alone out of Delhi was by train to Haridwar and Rishikesh. I can’t remember how I booked the train tickets; I think a travel agent friend of the family did it for me. I found everything difficult and confusing when I was first in India. I couldn’t even figure out how to make a phone call.
On the train, I was in a middle seat and asked the man in the window seat if we could switch. He very graciously said yes. We pulled out of New Delhi Railway Station at dawn, and I was as excited as a child, looking out the window.
The city slid past, and then a vast river and marsh area, and we entered the Indian countryside. As we passed village after village, I was surprised and somewhat shocked to see men squatting by the train tracks, a bottle of water beside them, emptying their bowels into greasy black pools. This was one of the first times the reality of India hit me—the vast mass of people, the poverty, the filth, and the material and gender disparity.
I soon realized that I couldn’t take the things I liked about India—the yellow sunshine, the family that had adopted me, the delicious food, the fabulous clothing, the adventure that awaited—without taking the rest. It has been said many times that India is a land of extremes, of light and dark, beauty and degradation, and it’s the sum total that makes it so dazzling, confounding, inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Somehow, I was able to adjust my expectations and accept everything, without judgment, as part of the experience. I discovered that you don’t visit India, you experience it. And the experience forces you to say yes or no. I said yes. I said yes to India and to life. And it changed everything.
Those days I spent in Haridwar and Rishikesh were among the most important of my trip. They were the first time I was alone, for one thing, and the first time I was experiencing spiritual India.
I arrived at the Haveli Hari Ganga in Haridwar, and walked out onto the guesthouse terrace to behold the Ganga (Ganges) River for the first time. Again I was ecstatic, again I cried. All I could think about was my mother, her unrequited thirst for travel and adventure, and her love and support for me. I could hear her voice urging me on, “Oh, Mariellen! The Ganges River!” I could sense that she was happy for me, happy I was finally living my dreams, happy I was finally discovering my adventurous spirit.
Both in Haridwar, and later when I went up the river to Rishikesh, I participated in aartis (rituals) on the banks of the Ganga, to honour and celebrate the “Mother River of India.” In Rishikesh, I joined a family of girls and women on the ghats (steps) who taught me how to participate in the spectacle of the aarti. With their help, I lit a candle in a small boat made of leaves and flowers and placed it on the current, imbuing it with all my love for my mother.
I set the tiny, flickering light on the black current and watched it recede, the sound of devotional music ringing in my ears, the smell of sandalwood incense filling my nostrils. The timelessness of this ritual struck me; the feeling that I was participating in something that had been performed in the same place, and in the same way, for eons.
The river, and the ritual, and my attachment to my mother in spite of her bodily death, together made me feel that I am part of the cycle of life, the cycle of nature. And it had a profound effect on me: it helped me let go, and surrender to the inevitable and wild forces of life.
Back in Delhi, I jumped onto my blog to record my impressions. I used my friend Ajay’s desktop computer, clunky keyboard and slow Internet connection, and uploaded photos from a newly bought 3.2 megapixel digital camera. The blog started out as an afterthought, but eventually became an integral part of the trip. After yoga-teacher training and going to India, the third buried dream to surface was to become a writer. I had always wanted to be a writer—a “real” writer, who writes from their heart about topics of real interest—but I lacked confidence, skills and subject matter. The skills I had started to acquire through my years as a copywriter. In India, I found the confidence and subject matter.
India became my muse, and my lifelong writer’s block was uncorked. Like a genie released from the bottle, creative inspiration finally flowed. I wrote on my blog about my daily life in India, and especially my relationship with Ajay and his family, who were quickly becoming my Indian family.
I wrote about all my mistakes and frustrations as I slowly learned how to book airplane tickets, negotiate taxi fares, navigate life in an Indian family, and deal with the sensory and emotional onslaught of travel in this raucous, kinetic country. I wrote about the bronchial infection that dogged my first weeks, and were probably the reason I bonded with Ajay and his family (I spent days recuperating in their home).
But mostly my first travel blogs were filled with wonder, curiosity, a sense of adventure and the joy of travel. In the December 16, 2005 entry I wrote: “Everything I do here is an adventure and a learning opportunity, so I am open to whatever experiences come my way.”
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” —Martin Buber
After I had decided I had to go to India, I spent 11 months working hard to save $10,000—the amount I thought I would need for about six months there. I sold some of my belongings and put the rest in storage, then rented an inexpensive room. I gave my cat to a friend, who looked after her for a year. I researched India, and long-term travel, and spent months putting my packing list together. The day I bought my plane ticket, I felt elated.
As I planned and packed, I felt more alive than I had in years. A river of loss had swept through my life, taking away so many of the things I loved and valued, and I was hanging on to the bank, hanging on for dear life, with the effort wearing me out. But when I made the decision to go it was like I was finally letting go, and a powerful and positive current was sweeping me along, energizing me. I sensed I was entering a new and different way of being in the world, one that is dictated more by the soul and the heart than by logical or practical considerations.
My departure was not without its trials, however. About two weeks before leaving, the person I was supposed to stay with in Delhi, Kailash, emailed to tell me his mother-in-law was coming and he couldn’t host me. He was just about the only person I knew there. Then I contracted bronchitis, and as I lay in my narrow bed in my tiny rented room coughing uncontrollably, with all my carefully chosen clothes, medications and travel gadgets piled neatly on the floor, I considered cancelling.
I was gripped with anxiety, but excitement; and so I made a fateful decision. I decided that I was supposed to go. I decided that no matter what happened, it was part of the adventure, the hero’s quest. I decided that everything that was about to happen was going to unfold for my betterment, for me to learn and heal and grow. I decided to take the giant leap, and go.
“I hadn’t realized ‘til that day that you travel to stumble into unvisited corners of yourself.”—Pico Iyer
I loved the sense of freedom I experienced on my trip, and the ability to make plans on a whim. When it became cold in Delhi near the end of December, I booked my first flight and flew to Kerala, in South India, to a place recommended by Kailash, one of my only friends in-country.
The only ticket I could get was on New Year’s Eve, so I arrived at the Shinshiva Ayurvedic Resort south of the popular beach town of Kovalam just in time for their celebrations. On a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea, with the starry night sky above and the lights of the fishing boats spread across the darkness of the ocean below, I sat enchanted by a display of traditional music and dancing.
I spent two weeks at Shinshiva undergoing Ayurvedic treatment (the traditional Indian system of health care) and enjoying the tropical climate, beautiful beaches and relaxed atmosphere of southern Kerala. During the second week, the people from the nearby Hindu temple placed banks of giant speakers up and down the road and began blaring devotional music from 5 a.m. to midnight.
I wrote in my blog: “I was very upset at first and told Ajay and he laughed and said, ‘relax and enjoy it,’ and I decided to change my attitude. Now I feel I am experiencing Hindu culture, and with a pair of trusty earplugs and the ceiling fan on at night I am happy.” I used this technique of changing my attitude throughout my trip with great results.
From Shinshiva, I hired a car to take me first to the ashram of Amritanandamayi Devi (also known as Amma, or Mother, as well as the Hugging Saint) and on to the historic port town of Cochin. Long a centre for the spice trade, I was finally able to write in my blog “the air smelled like spices.” I also wrote about how the guesthouse I had booked and confirmed gave away my room—probably to make more money—and made my first night in Cochin very stressful.
So though there were definitely some lows that went along with the highs, my adventure was well underway, and I was truly living my dreams.
It turned out that the soft landing I experienced in Delhi set the tone for the entire trip. I know I was very lucky. Many travellers experience the travel hell I had dreaded on landing. But my six-month trip turned out to be more like a magic carpet ride. It was every life-changing cliché you can think of rolled into one—and one of the best things I have ever done.
When I hear about the problems other people have had travelling in India, I do understand. I was also often frustrated by train delays, by bouts of Delhi belly, by a man grabbing my breast in a crowded lane. I had a meltdown at a big temple in Mysore because so many people were pestering me for money, to give me advice, and to have their picture taken with me.
But the momentum of the quest—and my decision to see everything, everyone and every occurrence as a teaching moment—carried me forward, diminishing annoyances, and imbuing the trip with meaning.
I wrote in my blog, in early 2006: “My friend Tamara sent me an email today about how India seems to give each person who comes here the experience they need. I love that observation and I think it’s true. She remarked that India seems to be generous in this way. So the ‘real India’ is the India that each person who comes here experiences. My ‘real India’ will not be someone else’s ‘real India.’”
When I went to India, I had already had years of loss, loneliness and hell. I needed a warm and loving embrace, and to have my being and imagination fired by the beauty and pathos of this world; that is largely what I got from India. That was my real India, what I sensed and saw. I also experienced the feeling of following my bliss (so to speak) for the first time.
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” —Joseph Campbell
In February 2006, I flew to Chennai where I studied yoga for a month, and visited Pondicherry, Mahabalipuram and Mysore on the weekends. Then I flew back up to Delhi, saw the Taj Mahal and toured Rajasthan. Back to Delhi again, and then up to Dharamsala, where I spent the month of April volunteering as an assistant art therapist with a wonderful program called Art Refuge. My job was to hug and play with the newly arrived Tibetan refugee children on the roof of the reception centre.
After I returned from Dharamsala, I was walking in Connaught Place in Delhi when I spotted a young Indian man sizing me up. He was wearing clothes that had been washed too often, a mustache and a lean look. Months of travel across the subcontinent had taught me to be wary of conmen and hawkers. And Connaught Place teems with them.
The commercial centre of Delhi, Connaught Place is a white-colonnaded circular market, built by the British and full of clothing stores, fast food outlets and every manner of service, from passport photographers to travel agencies. It’s a central hub for tourists, and wherever there’s a large conglomeration of tourists in India, there’s an even larger conglomeration of people who make their money off tourists. Like the young man sizing me up, deciding if I was a likely target for whatever scam it seemed like he was peddling.
And then, just like that, he looked away.
That was the moment when I knew I had found my “India legs.” Though fair-skinned and blonde, I was walking with confidence, I was tanned and I was wearing a salwar kameez (a three-piece suit consisting of a long tunic, baggy pants and scarf). The tout took me for a local, maybe not an Indian, but someone who knew their way around and wasn’t likely to be scammed.
For me, it was a quiet moment of triumph, one of the proudest moments of my life. I had overcome a huge amount of fear and resistance, had taken a big leap of faith, to travel in India by myself for six months. I had no idea what would happen when I left Toronto; frankly, I did not even know whether I would live through it. When that man in Connaught Place, fishing for gullible tourists, let me off the hook, I knew I had made it. I was surviving whatever test life was throwing at me.
“India always changes people, and I have been no exception.” —Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala
Finally, in May, at the end of my trip, I went back to Rishikesh and stayed for a few days at Aurovalley Ashram, where I almost instantly felt more rested and relaxed than I had in many, many years. I had found my spiritual home.
By the time June rolled around and it was time to return to Canada, I was in love with India, and with travel adventure, and I didn’t want to leave. I remember how nauseous I felt as Ajay drove me to the airport.
In India, I found many of the things missing from my life. The trip gave me a new family, a second home, the start of a new career. I gained a new way of looking at life, a broader perspective on the world and a much-needed jolt of self-confidence. Travel to India helped me deal with intractable grief. It put my legs back under me.
But even more than all of this, India helped me reconnect with my soul, and I began to see India as the soul of the world.
Would all of this have happened had I opted for six months of travel in Australia, Indonesia or Patagonia? Possibly. But I think India has a special quality, the unique combination of a rich, colourful and extremely diverse culture, ancient wisdom traditions, incredibly warm people, sensory overload, astonishing geographic variety, and … something more.
India is not an easy place to travel or live in; and of course, life for many Indians is hard and unrelenting. And yet, there is something fluid, light and joyous about it. For travellers who say “Yes!” to India, I can say categorically that it gets under your skin. Novelist Rumer Godden wrote that “Once you have felt the Indian dust you will never be free of it.”
This was my experience. I felt a strong and almost instant affinity with India that I have never felt anywhere else.
For someone else, their quest could take them to another country, or nowhere at all. It could simply take them within themselves, in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. But the physics of the quest remain the same. Elizabeth Gilbert, famed author of Eat, Pray, Love knows a little about this, and expresses it with a powerful clarity:
“If you’re brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.”
Since that first trip, I’ve been back to India six more times, travelling extensively from one end of the country to the other, and staying with my Indian family when in Delhi. In total, I’ve spent the equivalent of two years there out of the last 10. I started travel writing as a career, and my work has been published in dozens of online and offline publications. In 2009, my casual travel blogging turned professional when I started publishing Breathedreamgo.com, and it’s become one of the leading travel blogs about India.
I’ve gained so much from my travels—from pursuing my dreams, from opening myself up to the world—after I had been so shut down.
I am no longer shocked by the sights of India, like the man emerging from the sewer. Instead, I feel compassion and kinship. I’ve learned that we are part of one streaming flow of consciousness, that love is the basic substance of the universe, that suffering and rapture are two sides of the same coin, and that nothing ever dies, it is merely transformed.
India continues to inspire me and to draw me back. As I write this in my apartment in Toronto, I’m drinking tea flavoured with cardamom from India. When I opened the jar of cardamom to make the tea, the spicy, exotic smell triggered a stream of travel memories and longing. And perhaps that’s how it should be, that travel should always leave us wanting more.