Category Archives: travel

Roll out the magic carpet: How to travel in India and other life lessons from Mariellen Ward

Mariellen, my mother and myself at the Taj Mahal

Mariellen, my mother and myself at the Taj Mahal, Nov. 2012

I have a friend who loves India as much as I do; in fact, it was this mutual obsession with the country that drew us together as virtual friends, several years ago when I began reading her beautiful blog, Breathe Dream Go. After becoming good friends in the online world, as well as writing colleagues across the North American continent — I live in Texas and she lives in Canada — I finally met Mariellen Ward in person last November.

Fittingly, we met for the first time in India. In Agra, to be specific. And visited the magical, stunning Taj Mahal together (the fourth or fifth visit for both of us).

Mariellen has written an inspiring new travel book, Roll Out the Magic Carpet. A very unique cross between Eat, Pray, Love and the Lonely Planet India, the book will inspire you to overcome your fears, go after your dreams and travel safely and well in India and beyond. I would like to share my interview with her, so she can tell you about this book and her exciting IndiGoGo campaign to crowdfund its publishing — and, of course, her love of India.

What initially drew you to India?

When I look back, I think I have always been drawn to India. I was obsessed with the Arabian Nights’ stories as child; as an adolescent, I mooned over photos of George Harrison in Rishikesh with marigolds around his neck; as a teenager I loved to burn incense and try to read books on eastern spirituality (they mostly went over my head). But by the time I reached adulthood, I had deeply buried my dreams and passions. It wasn’t until I was faced with the biggest crisis of my life — a deep depression that followed the death of my parents and several other losses — that I resurrected the dream of India, and made it a reality.

Tell us about your first visit – what was transformational about it, and made you want to go again?

unknown-MI left Toronto on December 5, 2005, and had a six-month tourist Visa, and a return ticket dated June 2, 2006. I had NO IDEA what would happen in those intervening months; whether I would even live through the experience. I truly felt I was throwing myself off a cliff … I needed to find out what would happen. Well, a net appeared of course, and in due time I realized the net was ME. Instead of a terrible travel ordeal, I had the time of my life. It was a six-month long magic carpet ride! I had been through many long years of loss and suffering, and India generously responded by holding out loving arms and giving me a wonderful welcome. I gained so much from that trip — trust, inspiration, a new family, a new career and perhaps most of all, belief in my self and my ability to manifest dreams and land on my feet.

What is the special relationship you’ve had with India through the years?

From the first day I landed in India, I felt uncannily at home. I had a very soft landing, staying at the home of an acquaintance in a really nice area of south Delhi. So that may have helped. But that soft landing set the tone for the whole trip. The acquaintance became a boyfriend, his family welcomed me, and I had a great home base to return to over and over again as I traveled all over the country and studied yoga. So, from the beginning, I was “inside” the culture as part of a family. I never felt like a tourist. A strong bond was formed right from the start. And I have been very accepted all over India, and by many people, including my readers and social media followers. I now have lots of good friends in India, I feel as home there as I do in Canada. But the affinity I feel for India and Indian culture still remains the central mystery of my life. I call India my soul culture. But I don’t know where the affinity stems from.

What is the most beautiful thing about India, to you?

Oh good question! I see beauty in India everywhere. I see it in the colors, the smiles, the sun-bleached landscape and the fabled architecture. I see it in the culture, the mesmerizing dance, the transporting music, the gorgeous textiles. India is a burst of beauty, even as it’s breaking your heart. God poured her soul into creating India, in all its rawness. India represents the knife-edge of beauty, the razor’s edge. You can’t see India’s beauty with your eyes or other senses, you have to feel it, experience it. This is why they say, India chooses you. “Once you have felt the dust of India, you will never be free of it,” as Rumer Godden said.

1-M

What is the most challenging?

It’s challenging in India to keep your feet on the ground. A friend of mine said that India sends you on a roller-coaster of euphoria and despair. And it’s true. I am an ultra-sensitive person, very susceptible to the nuances of atmosphere and energy; I have to be careful and work hard to stay centred. If you travel in India you often see very hard-bitten foreigners, especially in “hippie hangouts” like Goa, Dharamsala, Varanasi, places like that. These people look “off,” they are often quite filthy, and have a far-away look in their eyes that can be frankly scary. In fact, there’s even a name for it — India Syndrome. Some people unfortunately die from it; you do hear about people disappearing or jumping from a roof. I asked my teacher, Swami Brahmdev, about India Syndrome, and he said people should not come to India with fixed notions. I have found that staying grounded, and going with the flow, without judgements, notions, or expectations, works for me. I just embrace as much of it as I can, and close the door on the rest. And having a safe haven, a sanctuary, is essential.

Tell us about your new book, and the Indiegogo campaign.

I’ve wanted to write this book, “Roll out the magic carpet: How to travel in India and other life lessons” for a long time. It will be a cross between “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Lonely Planet India.” I want to help people travel well in India, and elsewhere, by sharing my story and what I’ve learned.

I’ve learned a lot about traveling in India, and all the various skills that it takes to travel well there — and I want to share my knowledge and information. It’s not just wanting to let people know how to buy a train ticket — any number of resources can give you that information. It is sharing what you need to know about the culture and the spiritual beliefs of India to be able to travel well there. These are the things that make it so challenging and rewarding for foreigners. For example, in India, you have to learn to let go of control. This is huge. If you don’t, you will drive yourself crazy. So, I want to talk about the inner process of learning to trust.

I also want to inspire people to go after their dreams.

Katha_Images_Mariellen-067-MHonestly, if I can do it, anyone can. I started late (in my 40s), I had no money, and no support; and I have had a life-long problem with lack of self-confidence. Plus, my dreams were somewhat odd and not very practical. None of that matters. What matters is believing in yourself and the abundant nature of the universe. The universe wants you to live your dreams as much as you do, maybe more. For every step you take, the universe will take two steps for you.

Platforms like Indiegogo help people manifest their creative dreams. Today, most writers and other artists pretty much have to do things themselves — publish their own blogs, their own books. That’s the new paradigm. So I need some help self-publishing this book, and by contributing, people can pre-order a copy. And get other great perks! I am offering magic rings, wish-granting mantras, Nirvana incense, even a guided tour of Delhi and the Taj Mahal.

Thank you, Mariellen, for sharing! I myself am going for the magic ring with my donation.

My Heart’s Home

Last month, I returned from my 7th trip to India, visiting the awesome kids who stole my heart eight years ago. On this trip, I took my mother who has grown to know these children through me, and understand that this place is my heart’s home, my second family. It was an incredible experience having my American mother meet my Indian family for the first time, in person.

I would like to share a photo essay of this wonderful time together. Peace, love and namaste.

In Plain Sight but Invisible

Shelley with fellow volunteers Joanne and Kathleen, waiting on the train

Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at ten o’clock p.m., I am waiting with my group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar we are on our way to spend a week with.

From nowhere it seems, two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about seven or eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging. I am acutely aware of the mountain of belongings surrounding the five of us, the suitcases containing toys and treats for other children, the plastic bags of food and drinks for the overnight train journey at my feet.

There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden, in plain sight right out on the pavement or the train stations – yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.

When brought face to face with them, it becomes almost impossible for me to ignore them, to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul and no matter how many times the situation happens, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation. Reinforcing the tactic of children begging as a successful strategy merely continues the cycle. Activists and NGO workers will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like this, or in fact anyone in desperate need, then supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.

With railway kids in Mumbai, 2007

I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to NGOs that work with vulnerable children. It’s the reason I’m in India in the first place, volunteering in this orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I’m approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It’s so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.

A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. But I can’t help it. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.

After we board the train and find our seats, I stow my backpack under a side bench and sit down. Within moments, there is a knock on the window. I look out and the two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They’re all grinning from ear to ear. “One more, auntie!” they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station. As little as it seems, I’m glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. They stay with me long after I’m gone and I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will be tomorrow.

You Bought Me Sleep

This is a post for TRAVEL BLOGGERS GIVE BACK, a unified movement of bloggers giving back by posting stories about their favorite charity organizations. Join us on Facebook, and please help spread the word! 

Shelley Seale and Caroline Boudreaux in India, 2005

The idea of volunteering in another country has long been considered the province of students and recent graduates; images of intrepid twenty-year-old Peace Corps workers in a remote Sierra Leone village might spring to mind. Today, however, the idea has reached far beyond that to become accessible, and highly popular, among travelers of all types and ages. Volunteer travel has grown so popular that a term has even been coined for it: Voluntourism.

Foreign destinations are luring American citizens who want to sightsee, while at the same time engage in community service. Companies and websites specializing in voluntourism have sprung up by the hundreds, and volunteer vacations can be found in all parts of the world, doing all kinds of activities – from digging wells for clean water in South America, protecting the elephant population in South Africa, or working with children living in orphanages.

It was this last type of volunteer vacation that hooked me. In 2004, I became involved with a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas called The Miracle Foundation, which manages orphanages in India and recruits sponsors and donors to support the children living there. I began volunteering for the foundation and sponsored a child, a ten year old boy named Santosh, living in the state of Orissa in northeastern India. Caroline Boudreaux, founder of the organization, soon invited me to accompany her and a group of other volunteers to Orissa. And so it was that in March 2005, I found myself in India for the first time – a ten-day volunteer trip that I was to make, it turned out, many more times over the years since.

The village is remote, and it took forty-eight hours of exhausting travel to arrive at the ashram where the children live. By the time we arrived, all ten volunteers in the group were suffering from sleep deprivation and culture shock; the overwhelming throngs of people, the smells and sounds that awakened all the senses at once. The streets filled with bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows with the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns that rose above it all. Mostly, the frantic poverty that does not let you rest.

Caroline had briefed us well on both India and expectations for our week at the orphanage, but nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when we turned through those gates. Dozens of children were lined around the drive in a semi-circle, waving and chanting “welcome” over and over. I climbed out and they swarmed all over me, reaching for my hands and touching my feet in blessing. I was overwhelmed, lost in the sea of small bodies; smiling, barefoot children who asked nothing from me more than simply being there.

As I would soon come to find, in India these “invisible” children are everywhere – they fill the streets, the railway stations, the villages. Others have been trafficked or taken into indentured labor to pay off an old family debt. They are orphaned by AIDS and malaria, simple infections or sometimes, nothing more than poverty – their parents cannot afford to feed them.  Many are homeless, overflowing orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. Amidst the growing prosperity of India there is an entire generation of parentless children growing up, often forced into child labor and prostitution – more than twenty-five million in all.

But there in Choudwar, a small town about a hundred miles south of Calcutta, one man named Damodar Sahoo had dedicated his life to providing a home and family for some of these children. Before The Miracle Foundation, he had constantly lacked enough food, clothing and supplies to adequately provide for those he had taken in – children who had nowhere else to turn.

Mr. Sahoo, known to everyone simply as “Papa,” greeted the volunteers heartily, chewing the betel nut that turned his teeth red. He gave us a tour of the compound while the children trailed us, rushing past each other to claim a volunteer’s hand. They were everywhere, always underfoot, craving our attention. As I walked along four or five clung to each arm; when I sat down they filled my lap, their slight frames making barely an imprint against my skin.

I spent the following days just being with the kids, befriending them, playing with them. Our days at the ashram were filled with games, reading, dancing and laughing. It felt a lot like summer camp. There were puzzles, English flash cards, hopscotch, frisbee and the hokey-pokey, which the children wanted to do over and over once it was taught to them. I began to discover who they were – their individual personalities and dreams. I watched the shy ones come out of their shells and self-confidence blossom.

As it did, their “best behavior” fell away and they were normal kids, not always sweet and perfect but often mischievous as well. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they would shove each other out of the way or bestow thunks on one another’s heads in annoyance. They used the language barrier to their advantage, pretending at times not to understand when the adult volunteers said it was time to put a game away, reminding me of my daughter when she was young and seemingly deaf to the word “no.”

We began to make friends, and I discovered that they were just as curious about us and our lives as we were about them. The kids spoke varying levels of English, largely dependent on how many years they had been living in the ashram and attending school. Some had a large vocabulary and conversational skills; others spoke little more than a few words of English. I found it was surprisingly easy, however, to communicate without sharing even a word of common language.

In many ways they were just like other children I’ve known with homes and families of their own – except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging. In the midst of the games, laughter and silliness that we engaged in all day long it became almost easy for me to forget that they were orphans. When that reality came crashing back it never failed to hurt my insides with the same breathless intensity as it had the first time. Especially when it intruded unexpectedly, as happened one afternoon.

Shelley and Santosh, 2005

Caroline and Papa had arranged an ice cream party. Two tables were pulled into the courtyard as the frozen cartons were delivered. The kids lined up eagerly from youngest to oldest to be handed their paper cups of ice cream as we scooped it out in a battle of time against the sun blazing overhead. As we served the icy treats and listened to the kids slurping away, I noticed that Santosh, the boy I sponsored, was nowhere to be seen. I asked some of the other boys about him, and they pointed toward the top of the stairs.

I went up and found him sitting alone, seeming sad and listless. He wasn’t interested in the ice cream. A house mother named Madhu passed, and I asked her to help me find out what was wrong; I was afraid Santosh was hurt, or sick. Madhu took him into the boys’ dorm and talked to him for several minutes.

“He misses his mother,” she said simply when she came back out.

I felt it in my heart, and knew that although they loved us being there it could sometimes only make them miss the presence of their own parents. The good of all these caring surrogate parent figures – Papa, Caroline, the house mothers, the volunteers – outweighed the heaviness of sorrow, to be sure. But it was easy to miss the sadness, at times, in the presence of love that filled the ashram. I was reminded anew that these children all carried secret grief and damage inside them, often hidden or temporarily forgotten but never erased entirely.

I sat with Santosh on the edge of the concrete walkway outside his dorm room. Draping my arm around his shoulders I squeezed reassuringly and held him against my side. I knew that his mother had died when he was so young he couldn’t possibly remember her, not really; but to mourn the idea of a mother, that huge absence in his life like a great gaping hole – that was another thing completely. We sat together, not speaking, while in the courtyard in front of us the other children slurped up their ice cream noisily.

* * *

Still, these children living under Papa’s care are the lucky ones. Far from the tourist’s India of the Taj Mahal and yoga retreats, a journey into an Indian orphanage is a difficult one – hard on the body, hard on the heart. In homes like The Miracle Foundation where children are well taken care of, it’s far too easy to forget how many street kids are outside those gates, the children sleeping under plastic roofs beside a sewage-filled canal, the thirty thousand babies born HIV-positive each year. In the best of institutional homes there is love and community, and needs are met on the most basic sustenance levels; although there seems to never be enough food, never adequate medical care. And never, ever enough room.

For every child fortunate enough to live in a home like The Miracle Foundation provides there are a thousand more the orphanage cannot afford to take in. A thousand who have nowhere to turn but homes run under vastly inferior, sometimes horrific conditions; a thousand more children living on the streets, begging at train stations, or working twelve hours a day for pennies. Children for whom childhood has been discarded.

The beautiful kids at Papa’s home no longer had their own parents, yet they were still joyful and filled with hope. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. They offered seconds and thirds of their precious food, serving us before eating themselves. They rushed to bring water, pull up a chair for us, take our shoes off and put them back on, carry our bags – anything and everything.

Even in the most deprived circumstances they were still just kids – they laughed and played, perhaps far less frequently than others; they developed strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they had an enormous amount of love to share. As I bore witness to the harm that lay in each of them because their past, as I discovered the stories behind the faces and the names, there was simply no way to go on with my life afterwards as if they did not exist.

* * *

It was clear that Papa and Caroline were doing something special, something more than what could be seen with the eyes. Papa was the heart of the ashram and had created an almost tangible presence of love. He had given up a far easier life and job as a government official to dedicate himself to these orphans. Paid a very small allowance as the director of the home, it was not an easy existence. He didn’t seem to regard himself as remarkable or noble, however, and appeared detached from all things material.

Papa with his children

“I am a simple beggar,” he said, his eyes boring into me to confirm that I didn’t doubt his words. “I need nothing, except for these children, my family.”

Caroline told me that over the past few years as she raised money for the orphanage, building a new wing and bunk beds and bathrooms for the children, she had repeatedly asked Papa to let The Miracle Foundation make some improvements to his small quarters. To give him something that would make his life a little easier.

“Let me do something for you,” she told Papa.

“No, no, I need nothing,” he answered always.

“Let me buy you something,” Caroline persisted.

But Papa only shook his head, gesturing toward the new dormitories, the children in their uniforms going to school.

“You have already bought me the most important thing,” he said. “You bought me sleep.” 

Millions of children in India share a similar story. A life of poverty with no family and little hope. The Miracle Foundation provides these orphans with food, water, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, love, and most of all – hope.

For more information, visit: 

The Miracle Foundation – www.miraclefoundation.org

Miracle Foundation’s Voluntourism site 

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