In 2005, following a period of loss and frustration, travel writer and storyteller Mariellen Ward made a decision that would ultimately change the course of her life. In what seemed like an out-of-character decision at the time, she packed her bags and dove straight into the deep end of the world of travel. Six months traveling solo through India not only reawakened her appetite for life, but it unraveled the person she was meant to become. Mariellen now runs the award-winning travel site BreatheDreamGo, a publication dedicated to transformational travel and cultural immersion.

We caught up with Mariellen to discuss her experiences and why she believes that if you’re willing to just say “yes” to the journey, you’ll discover things you never thought possible.

Golden buildings glint in the sunlight on the water's edge

How did your journey begin?  

I started traveling in December of 2005, when I decided to travel around India for six months. It was the first time in my life that I had taken on such a big trip, but I knew I needed to do it. I was recovering from grief and depression due to a series of personal losses — including the deaths of both my parents. I needed a big adventure, something to shake up my life, and hopefully renew and recharge it. My trip did all of these things and more! Since then, I’ve returned to India about 10 times, spending a total of at least four years there. Not only did the trip serve to renew my appetite for life, but it paved the path for my career. I’ve been travel blogging about India since 2005, which I think makes me prehistoric in the travel blogging field.

Why did you choose India as your destination?  

I believe, as many others do, that you don’t choose India India chooses you. I felt compelled to go, and when I did, I realized I had wanted to be there since childhood. Oddly enough, I never thought I could actually just get on a plane and fly there — it seemed like a mythical destination, something beyond the reach of time and space. But from the moment I stepped foot  there, I felt an uncanny affinity for the place. I felt at home in a deep and profound way I’d never felt before. I like to call India my “soul culture.”

Foggy view of the Taj Mahal at sunrise

Where did the idea for BreatheDreamGo come from?

It was born from misery, really. In 2009, I attended a writers’ and publishers’ conference in Toronto, Canada, just when the internet was starting to seriously impact traditional media. I went to the conference because I realized I had finally found what I “wanted to be when I grow up” a travel writer. But every session I attended was predicting doom and gloom: a collapse of the industry. I was miserable. I couldn’t believe that I had finally discovered my dream profession only to find out that the industry wouldn’t be able to sustain it. On the second day, I cried myself to sleep. The next morning, the last thing I wanted was to go back to the conference, but I dragged myself into the shower. That’s when I had an epiphany: Why don’t I take my career online? Suddenly, the words “breathe, dream, go” popped into my head. To this day, I have no idea where they came from, but when I turned the phrase over in my mind, I realized that it was the perfect mantra to express my personal story and my intentions. I jumped out of the shower to Google it, discovered it was completely unique, and before I was dry, I had bought the domain. I’ve loved the name ever since, believing it was somehow “gifted” to me.

How would you describe your travel philosophy? What exactly does transformational travel entail?

I started traveling by throwing myself into the deep end of the pool, so to speak. I spent six months in India studying yoga, volunteering, living with an Indian family, and totally immersing myself in the culture. I went with an open mind and an open heart, and let the experience affect and shape me without imposing my own expectations onto it. That’s my definition of transformational travel — you go with the willingness to learn and to change. It’s very different from vacation travel, where your main purpose is to relax and unwind.

How does mindful travel complement transformational travel?

Ornate archwayThey are really the same thing. They are both about being attuned to your surroundings, and concerned about the impact you are having on the culture and environment — and the impact that travel is having on you.

How has this approach to travel impacted you personally?

I am a completely changed person. It’s almost impossible to list all of the ways in which I’ve grown through travel. I have a lot more confidence, I am more at home in myself and in the world, I’m more aware of myself as a citizen of the world… I could go on and on.

How has India, in particular, encouraged you to discover, practice, or develop this travel philosophy?

India is a very unique place. It tests travelers like nowhere else, but it also rewards travelers like nowhere else. I think India teaches people to trust and surrender. Personally, I could write a book on all of the ways the country has influenced me, all the things I’ve learned. It is, after all, home to an ancient culture and the most spiritual place on Earth. At least three major religions were born there, and many others too. Indian sages were espousing very sophisticated ideas about time, consciousness, and other lofty subjects thousands of years ago. I think the former BBC correspondent in India, Mark Tully, said it well when he said that the main thing he learned in India was to be certain only about uncertainty.

Mariellen with some locals in front of a small altar

A friend of mine was planning to go to India and asked me to encompass the essence of the country in one succinct idea. I came up with: “India forces you to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” I don’t think I could’ve come up with any better summation of what travel in India is all about. If you say “yes,” as I did, you’ll discover it will open all kinds of doors you never knew existed.

Has traveling solo as a female played a role in shaping your journey toward transformational travel?  

I think that when you travel alone, you’re forced to engage with the local community. You don’t have a companion with you, so to meet many of your needs and socialize, you find yourself stepping out of your comfort zone and doing that thing our parents warned us not to do — talk to strangers. It’s engaging with the local culture and people that will inevitably leave the biggest impression on you and potentially change you the most.

Also, part of learning to be a solo traveler — or just a traveler in general — is learning to sharpen your senses and listen to your intuition. You’ll have to size-up situations very quickly and think on your feet in milieus that are often very foreign to you. You gain a lot of different skills this way and, eventually, a lot of self-confidence, too. After you’ve handled some extreme situations like getting lost during the Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage, among a sea of about 10 million people on a scorching hot day in North India — you discover that you can cope with much more than you ever thought possible.

Mariellen sits with a group of local children and adults
Mariellen takes a photo with an Indian local

A woman stands in the middle of a crowded festival

What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered on the subject of transformational travel?

Some people think that journeys of self-discovery are self-indulgent or narcissistic, even. The way I see it, nothing could be further from the truth. The more conscious or self-aware you become, the more you’re able to understand the world and yourself, and ultimately make decisions that contribute positively to the world.

Why do you believe practicing this philosophy is so important?

Mariellen holding a hot drinkBeing a responsible traveler is important to me, as I suppose it’s important to others who have similar values because there are a lot of reports these days about how mass tourism, over tourism, and other forms of “irresponsible” tourism are having a negative impact on communities and environments around the planet. Beaches are closing in places like Thailand, residents of cities like Barcelona are getting fed up, and plastic water bottles are piling up all over the place. It seems obvious to me that responsible tourism is the only way forward.

What do you hope to achieve through BreatheDreamGo?

I hope to inspire people to step out of their comfort zones and test themselves. I want to encourage them to be respectful of local cultures, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because of how much they will gain by traveling with an open, respectful attitude. I think, most of all, I aspire to share my vision of the world as a wondrous, magical place full of good people. Ultimately, I hope this vision contributes to the preservation and protection of local cultures, as well as the environment.

To learn more about Mariellen’s journey and transformational travel, visit breathedreamgo.com

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A Cuban girl with an American passport and a home in the Dominican Republic, Caro Moya is a writer and wanderer with an affinity for finding home in the unknown. When she’s not working for Passion Passport or planning her next big adventure, she’s most likely dipping her toes in the ocean or singing her favorite songs into a hairbrush. Follow along on instagram @caroocaracol