Responsible travel as a way of life

Mariellen Ward – Breathedreamgo

In 2005, when I was at a very low point in my life, I decided to pursue a dream and go travelling. I had never backpacked before, never been on a long-term trip, never travelled alone overseas … and had certainly never been to India. None of this stopped me from buying an airline ticket from Toronto to Delhi, with the return portion dated six months after my arrival.

Six months in India. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, how the trip would change me, or even, frankly, if I would live through it. I was trying to recover from grief, depression, and feeling completely rudderless. I needed a big change of life, and I hoped long-term travel and pursuing a dream would do it for me. It did.

taj mahak responsible travel

Many things happened to me on that trip to change my life. And while they were all ultimately positive, there were some difficult moments as I confronted the realities of life outside my middle-class Canadian bubble, and my own fears, limitations, and biases.

Overall, I was very lucky, though. Lucky to have had a soft landing by staying at the home of an Indian family in South Delhi. Lucky that I didn’t have any really negative experiences (aside from a big spider in my bathroom in Dharamsala, a few cases of Delhi Belly, and one breast-grabbing incident in Old Delhi). And lucky that I had somehow adopted the attitude of a spiritual seeker.

When I went to India in 2005, I was very clear that I was on a personal quest. I saw everything that happened to me as a teacher. In other words, I felt that everything happened as it was meant to – and my job was to open my eyes and heart, to observe, learn, and grow.

This meant refraining from judgement as much as possible, questioning my prejudices and biases, and allowing the experience of being in India to affect and change me. It’s a very different way of travelling than simply going on vacation to relax and unwind, and it had a very different outcome.

Over the course of the trip, I became less interested in me and my suffering, and more interested in India, the culture, and the people. This not only helped heal my grief and depression, it inspired me to start travel writing, to feel more re-engaged with life, and to develop a deep and abiding love and appreciation for India’s culture.

As I started to try and capture my experience as a traveller in India on my blog, and also for print and online publications, I tried not to let “me” – my judgements and biases – get in the way of story telling, and I tried to abstain from resorting to clichés and stereotypes. The clichés were hard to avoid, though, as I was really awed by the many Incredible India travel moments I experienced!

responsible travel India

Over the years, as I became aware that Indian readers really liked my writing about their country, I felt proud that I had learned one of the tenets of responsible travel. I had learned to show cultural respect, both in my writing and as a traveller.

I went out of my way to learn the etiquette, traditions, and cultural norms. I learned a few Hindi words and phrases. I wore modest, Indian clothing. I took my shoes off, and used only my right hand for accepting prasad, at temples. I said Namaste, with hands pressed together, instead of shaking hands.

Mind you, there were times when I completely missed the mark, and some of them make me laugh and cringe when I think about them. Like the time I was attending a fire puja with my Indian family, in the living room, and I got up and shut the door to my bedroom to keep the smoke out. The point of the ritual is to send the cleansing smoke throughout the house – and I was trying to shut it out. Or the many times I over-reacted to the full-on sensorial overload that characterizes travel in India – sometimes by having a meltdown, sometimes by being way too over-zealous, and sometimes by just not understanding what was really happening.

But the point is: I was trying.

I am always aware that I am a visitor in India. It is not my right to be a traveller, but a privilege. It’s much the same in life. There is a big difference between seeing life as a right – as many people in North American culture do – and seeing it as a gift – as many people in India do. And this is one of the many reasons I love to travel in India. I love being surrounded by people who see life as a gift.

And I feel that having spent a total of three years, so far, travelling in India has been one of the biggest gifts I’ve received in life thus far. I am very grateful.

responsible travel

About Mariellen Ward – Breathedreamgo

Mariellen Ward is a travel writer and digital storyteller. Her award-winning blog Breathedreamgo.com is one of Canada’s top travel blogs, and one of the world’s leading travel blogs about India. Mariellen is an advocate of female solo travel and responsible travel. She has been blogging since 2005 and splits her time between Delhi and Toronto. Mariellen recently won the Outlook Media OSM Award for Traveller of the Year in India. Though Canadian by birth, Mariellen considers India to be her “soul culture” and has spent many years immersing herself in the culture.