I can’t remember the exact moment I started planning to travel in India for six months. I wish I could. But it was around the time of the South Asian tsunami, late December 2004.
I was in the middle of a yoga teacher training program. Yoga was helping me recover from a series of devastating losses that had piled up over a period of about seven years: we lost our summer cottage, which had been in the family for generations; my mother died suddenly; I fell off my bike and broke my elbow; my fiance left me; and my father died of cancer.
By the end of that period, the losses had flattened me. I didn’t know if I would ever get up again, but I did, slowly. I started going regularly to yoga. I hung my hopes on my thrice weekly class with the warm and wonderful Bibi, who created space for me to grieve and just be.
After awhile, I decided to follow a dream and joined a yoga teacher-training program. We were taught that according to yoga philosophy, we are all a drop in the larger ocean of community and consciousness, but I didn’t feel it. I felt alone.
Going to India seemed counterintuitive and scary, but I knew I had to do it. After seven long years of grief and depression, it was time to jump.
And then, about halfway through the program, at the time of the South Asian tsunami, I had my own personal tsunami. It was like a strange catharsis, a release of intense emotions, and in the middle of it, I suddenly felt compelled to go to India. Why India? Perhaps because one of my teachers had just come back from two years there, or perhaps because I had always wanted to go, since childhood, when I painted maharajah palaces on my bedroom walls.
I can’t say I actually decided to go to India. No, it was like I felt compelled. I have never had such a strong compulsion, before or since. It was like hearing a powerful voice, one that you cannot disobey, no matter how afraid and unsure you are.
Staying in my tomb-like apartment was safe, but it was slowly suffocating me. Going to India seemed counterintuitive and scary, but I knew I had to do it. After seven long years of grief and depression, it was time to jump.
Once I was clear about my goal — six months in India traveling, studying yoga, and volunteering — I started to feel recharged. I started going out again, socializing, making travel plans, packing and saving money. It took 11 months from decision to departure. I sold about one-third of my belongings, put the rest in storage, gave up my apartment, and rented a cheap room to save money.
In September I bought my ticket; in October I started a blog on Travelblog.org; in November I bought what I needed and packed; and on December 5, 2005 I flew to Delhi, India, to start the biggest travel adventure of my life.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I didn’t know what India would be like — I had never been anywhere like it — and I didn’t know what it was like to travel for an extended period of time — I never had the courage to do anything like this before. I remember peering out the window as the plane started to descend into Indira Gandhi International Airport knowing everything was about to change, but not knowing how. I was like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole, about to discover a whole new world.
Through the looking glass
The door of the plane opened and I walked down a flight of stairs to the tarmac and a waiting bus. The acrid, pungent smell of Delhi’s air filled my nostrils for the first time, and it was a heady, intoxicating scent: it was the scent of adventure.
An acquaintance I had met in Toronto and hadn’t seen in about 13 years, picked me up at the airport and drove me to his family’s home in South Delhi. I was exhausted, but wide-eyed with wonder at the strange sights I saw on the drive into the city — the dilapidated buildings on the outskirts, the jalopies on the road, the haze.
I’m not sure what I expected from India or from my trip, but I did worry that it might include extended, dark-night-of-the-soul, travel nightmares. I thought the whole thing might turn out to be an endurance test, something I had to get through. Or worse.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t expect to wake up the next morning and walk out into the warm sunshine, on the family’s massive white marble terrace, and be served tea and a delicious breakfast of thick, hot, freshly made Indian bread and creamy homemade yogurt. Though it was December, and freezing back home in Toronto, in Delhi it was the equivalent of a Canadian summer day.
Staying with an Indian family allowed me to deeply immerse in the culture of India and get to know it in a way that most tourists never would.
After a long, leisurely breakfast, the family shawl-wallah arrived with a big bundle and spread glorious fabrics and shawls on the terrace, and I drank tea and shopped with the ladies of the family. Instead of the travel hell I expected, I was in heaven.
My soft landing in India set the tone for my entire trip, in fact. I spent the next few weeks comfortably ensconced in Delhi learning how to be in India, and then the rest of the six months traveling literally from one end of the country to the other.
I flew down to the southern state of Kerala for New Year’s Eve and spent two weeks at an Ayurvedic resort on the Arabian Ocean. I got up in the middle of the night and had a driver take me to the southern tip of India, at Kanyakumari, to watch the sun rise over three oceans. I drove north along the coast, stopping in historic Cochin and to get a hug from Sri Mata Amritanandamaya, the “Hugging Saint,” at her ashram.
I spent a month in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, studying yoga at a world-famous school, the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. I went to the former French colony of Pondicherry for the weekend and visited the Aurobindo ashram. Back in the north, I finally — after three months in the country — saw the Taj Mahal, and it exceeded all my expectations. Many times over.
I traveled in magical Rajasthan, stopping in Jaipur and Jodhpur, where I stayed at an oasis-like hotel, the former home of a maharajah’s son, and walked the ramparts of the magnificent Mehangarh Fort. In the spring, when the plains started to get hot, I took an overnight train up to the hill station of Dharamsala and volunteered for a month with Tibetan refugee children.
I met my Indian boyfriend in Simla, former summer seat of the British Raj, and walked on the mall with him (in pre-independence times, it would have been illegal for him to walk on the mall). And on my last trip, in May, I went to the sacred cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar, and to a small garden-like ashram where I found my spiritual home.
I often say that in India, I found my ‘soul culture.’
And in between all these trips, I stayed in my boyfriend’s family home in Delhi, where I was welcomed and made to feel part of the family. Staying with an Indian family allowed me to deeply immerse in the culture of India and get to know it in a way that most tourists never would. It also gave me a home base and a sanctuary — something that’s necessary if you plan to spend a long time in India.
I quickly developed an affinity for India and a bond with the people and the culture unlike anything I have ever experienced. In fact, I often say that in India, I found my “soul culture.” I was surprised at how well I fit in — though of course I did have to adapt a little (but never did get used to the lack of privacy or late night dinners).
A drop in the ocean
Almost the entire trip was a magic carpet ride of excitement, adventure and learning — about myself, India and the world. I definitely had moments of challenge, frustration, and fatigue. There were a lot of emotional roller coasters and some illnesses. But they were minor in comparison to what I was gaining and the fun I was having. And besides, India was teaching me to take things in stride.
When I was getting to ready to leave on June 2, 2006, almost exactly six months after arriving, I didn’t want to go. I felt sick as my boyfriend drove me to the airport.
It’s not what I expected. I thought by the time my six months’ in India was up, I would be tired of the “heat and dust” and want to get back to the refreshing coolness and creature comforts of Canada. I was wrong.
Something happened to me when I was in India, something I’ve been struggling to give words to ever since. Traveling in India was much more than just a great travel adventure. When I left for this trip I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. Landing in India made me feel as if I was caught in an embrace and gently helped me back to my feet.
So, India was a mother to me. The trip cured me of a lengthy grief depression and restored my faith in the beauty, magic, and mystery of life.
When I left for this trip I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. Landing in India made me feel as if I was caught in an embrace and gently helped me back to my feet.
India was also a muse, inspiring me with her infinite varieties of beauty and also with the surprising affinity I felt. Traveling in India reconnected me to my childhood imagination and long-buried dreams. It kick-started my long-stifled creativity and opened a floodgate of words, words that have been spilling out prolifically ever since. All my life I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t have the skills, confidence, or subject matter. Feeling inspired by India and blogging about my travels gave me all these things and started me on the path of a new career, my dream career: travel writer and blogger.
India was a guru, a teacher, that taught me so many things. The trip opened me up to the entire world, and made me see myself as a global citizen and as a deeply connected part of the whole cycle of life, the whole circle of life.
The grief I felt when I arrived in India ebbed away with this awareness and by the time I left, I felt once again part of the ocean.
To read more about Mariellen Ward, check out her author bio.
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- Check out our RTW Traveler Profiles and fill one out yourself
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