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?
I 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.
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.
Honestly, 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.
You might think that going to India time and again, immersing myself in this orphanage and the plight of these children who have no one else, over years and years — the poverty and never, never ending need — would be an exercise in sadness. Depressing. Demoralizing, traumatic even.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. What has been the most surprising thing, and meant the most to me, kept me coming back all these years, is how readily this family accepted me into their home. This family of 120-plus children, all taken in by one man and his kin, a hodgepodge of castaways who came together to create a home — they, who had so little, welcomed me. Joyously. And they never once have asked for anything from, other than simply my self. My being. My presence.
My Papa has never once asked me for money. The children never care what I bring them, and when I do produce stickers or toys or coloring books they are, of course, happy and enthralled as children would be anywhere. But they are, by far, mostly interested in ME. In the fact that I am there, with them. That this is where and how I choose to spend my time, who I have chosen as my family, halfway across the world.
Believe me, this means more than you can know to me, as well. Their acceptance, their unconditional love and joy with me.
They have let me into a world that is a hidden world — not because it is secret, but simply because very few people really choose to look. But once there, if you had that sort of curiosity, if you opened yourself to the experience and the love, if you decided to have an involved interest in the welfare of children for whom childhood has been discarded — well then, you are in a new world. One in which your own petty troubles are so easily checked at the door. One in which you quickly come to realize how little, how pitifully, inconsequentially little, it takes to turn the world around for one child here.
$20 a month is all it takes to send one of these kids at the Servants of India Society orphanage in Choudwar, India to a good English school. Education is the key. They have already come a long way with having the basics of food, shelter and basic medical care provided. What they need now is education — which equals future hope and opportunities.
My very first night ever with these children, back in 2005, I wrote the following:
There seemed no other world outside this place. Papa spoke as my eyes traveled over the faces all around me. I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go home, or if they ever had. As much of a loving community as the ashram seemed, it was not the family that most of the children had once known, now distant and ghostly memories for the most part.
Home is a fragile concept — far more delicate than those of us who have always had one can imagine. When a person no longer has a home, when his family is taken from him and he is deprived of everything that was familiar, then after a while wherever he is becomes home. Slowly, the pieces of memory fade, until this strange new place is not strange anymore; it becomes harder to recall the past life, a long ago family, until one day he realizes he is home.
Will you help me in giving these children, so brave to find a way in their new home, the possibility of a bright future through education? I am asking people to pledge $20.13 per month in a recurring donation beginning this year, 2013. Think about it — for less than the price of two movie tickets, or about five lattes at Starbucks, you can create a bright and hopeful future in one of these children’s lives.
At my home, in fact right above my head as I write this, hangs a beautiful woven tapestry that I bought in India some years ago, made up of scraps of dozens of sarees. Each small individual piece of material, before it was sewn into the final product, is fragile and insignificant. It is not anything except a torn scrap of cloth, beautiful but delicate, easily ripped or lost.
Yet, when it is stitched together strongly to the next tiny piece, and then the next, suddenly the pattern of the whole begins to take form. The finished patchwork, all these scraps of what was once discarded, together are strong. Together they make something. They have a purpose — to cover a bed, to keep a child warm or, as in my house, to simply be beautiful.
And so it is with these children of India — the orphans, the street kids, the world’s forgotten throwaways. They may be fragile and easily lost on their own, but held together with the thread of those of us who care, they can be whole again — strong and vibrant, and above all, simply beautiful.
Help me create a strong tapestry to hold these children together. Have you ever despaired at the state of the world and thought it was impossible to do a little bit, that would really make a difference? Now is your chance. You’ll be amazed at what a difference your $20.13 per month can make.
Can’t commit monthly? Make a one-time donation here.
I thank you. I will keep you updated on their progress. And more importantly, these kids and their future families thank you. Now is the time to stop the cycle of poverty.
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.
Have you heard of Kiva? It’s revolutionizing the way we lift people out of poverty. Harvard Economist (and author of The End of Poverty) Jeffrey Sachs says that micro-lending is the single most viable method to end poverty in our lifetimes.
I’ve made numerous loans through Kiva for years. They have always been paid back extremely quickly, and then the money is back in my account to loan again. Most of the loans I have made have been for $25 — this money is pooled with other micro-loans from people around the world, to loan the recipients a few hundred dollars to start a business, buy a sewing machine, or a cow or chickens, or supplies to craft or resell. It’s an amazingly simple way to let someone become self-supporting and support their family, rather than a charity handout. It’s also much more empowering for the recipients.
In fact, the rate of repayment for micro-loans in the developing world is much, much higher than the rate of repayment for traditional credit in the first world — an amazing 98.94% repayment rate!
Now Kiva is making an amazing offer — new lenders can sign up through existing Kiva partners like myself — and then BOTH Kiva lenders get $25 deposited in their account, for free, to loan out. What is there to lose? It’s a win-win-win situation, for the lender and recipient and Kiva.
My last loan was made to Esther (47), in Nairobi, Kenya. My $25, plus other lenders, gave Esther a total $900 loan that she used to buy a stock of clothing to resell, and raw material to make hair wax that she then sold. And the loan was 100% repaid. Esther has been running her business for 12 years, and used this loan to expand her business to support her family.
And in case you’re wondering, 100% of every dollar you lend on Kiva goes directly towards funding loans; Kiva does not take a cut. Furthermore, Kiva does not charge interest to their Field Partners, who administer the loans.
I have also made loans to Sok in Cambodia, a 50-year-old woman who farms for a living and earns $1.50 per day. Sok’s husband is a motorcyle taxi-rickshaw driver and earns $3 per day. Her requested loan of $500 went to buy a new motorbike for her husband, to earn the family additional income so that they can make repairs to their home. I’ve also made loans in The Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. I re-loaned my Kiva credit, from repayments of past loans, to the group Fe Y Esperanza in Nicaragua, a communal bank of 11 women who have various business ventures; and the Mungu Tubariki Group in Tanzania.
Now, with the money paid back from previous loans and the $25 that Kiva credited me via this promotion, I have just made a new loan — my first loan in India, where Kiva just announced its newest launch! I have often wondered why Kiva did not have loans available in India; it’s because determining how to work in India wasn’t easy. In particular, Kiva loans are subject to Reserve Bank of India regulations that require loan funds sent to non-government microfinance institutions to remain in the country for at least 3 years.
Therefore, any Kiva loan made within India won’t be paid back for 3 years; the Kiva Field Partners will simply hold on to loan funds for the minimum 3-year term before sending repayments back to lenders. The borrower you select will probably repay beforehand, in which case your funds will be recycled to help other local borrowers, maximizing your impact before your funds are returned. That is perfectly fine with me — and so I made my new loan to the Sri Jaggannath Group, a cooperative of four women in Cuttack, Odisha where I visit every time I go to India, and the region where my children’s home that I support is. These women have a general store, and want to use the loan to expand their inventory and increase their stock of items. In the last year, the shop was relocated due to road construction and the move has hurt business. I hope that my Kiva loan helps!
Give,” said the little stream, as it hurried down the hill; “I’m small, I know, but wherever I go the fields grow greener still.”