We checked in with award-winning site Breathedreamgo and its founder, Mariellen Ward, for her thoughts on what responsible travel in India could look like in the future, after COVID-19.
I have been following Breathedreamgo for many years now, and have come to know its founder, Mariellen Ward. She is a professional writer and blogger who publishes Breathedreamgo.com, based on her extensive travels in India, and runs custom tours through her company India for Beginners. Though Canadian by birth, Mariellen considers India to be her “soul culture” and lives up in the clouds in Rishikesh.
With a passion for sustainable travel, she is also a kindred spirit.
I checked in with Mariellen to hear her perspective on what responsible travel experiences might look like after the pandemic. When COVID-19 is a thing of our past, it’s in my mind to create an all-women Social Impact Traveller tour with India for Beginners.
Checking in with Breathedreamgo
Social Impact Traveller (SIT): Mariellen, you have been living in India and have stayed there throughout the pandemic. Can you share with us what are the things you most love about living in Rishikesh right now?
Mariellen Ward (MW): Just now, on a sunny morning in June, I hear the cicadas suddenly start their distinctive hum in the forest and ashram outside my flat in Rishikesh. This sound portends a warm day, and reminds me of long summer days at our family cottage in Ontario. Those were the happiest days of my life – and it’s a funny thing, but this region of India has always brought back those sunny, happy, and free times.
So while the general atmosphere and sunniness has remained the same, Rishikesh is affected by the lockdown in India, just like everywhere else. The Ganga (Ganges) River is still flowing green and serene through the valley, but many of the stores, cafes, restaurants and hotels are shut. Rishikesh is a tourist town, so no tourists makes a big difference. The animals – dogs, monkeys, cows – are all a bit more assertive, the streets are much emptier, the boats that take you across the river are not operating, and so on. And of course, the people who make a living here are badly affected, and communal kitchens have been set up.
Right now, I mostly love that I have a quiet, safe place to live, my own kitchen, and the ability to buy all the food supplies and other things that I need. India has done a good job of keeping the essentials moving, such as food. Every time I go to the vegetable market, there’s always a profusion of fresh, quality produce. I feel very blessed and lucky to be in such a safe and peaceful place, and I know I am in a better situation than many, many people here in India who are suffering terribly because of the lockdown.
SIT: I’m a long-time lover of Sivananda yoga, and it would be a dream to practice Sivananda yoga in India, specifically in the Himalayas. Can you share with us one of your favourite yoga experiences that travellers could also experience in India?
MW: I can see the big Sivananda Ashram from my balcony! They are my neighbour. But here in Rishikesh, Sivananda is not really open to foreign students as far as I know. They teach a rigorous Vedanta course in Hindi, to men of Indian origin only.
However, Rishikesh is chock-a-block with Yoga schools and ashrams that cater to foreigners, for better or worse. Some places are genuine and knowledgeable … and some are not. You really have to do your due diligence. Read this post to find out What life is like in a Yoga Ashram in India.
I like Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, founded by Yogrishi Vishvketu, which caters to foreign students. He lives in Canada part of the year, so there’s always a lot of Canadians there. It’s in busy Tapovan for people who want to be part of the Yoga “scene.” For solitude, I go to Aurovalley Ashram, which is 14 kilometres out of town. It’s ideal for meditation. You really need to connect with a place and/or teacher, in my opinion, to pursue spiritual studies. Picking a place off the internet is a risk, unless you really get to know the teachers. I have a Guide to Yoga in India on my site.
SIT: Using your wealth of knowledge from years of experience in visiting, and now living in India, you have been building custom tours for solo women. I would love to build a special Social Impact Traveller tour to experience responsible travel in India with Breathedreamgo. Can you share what makes your itineraries unique? Who is your ideal client-traveller?
MW: After 14 years of extensive travel in India, and 10 years of publishing Breathedreamgo, I was getting a lot of questions, and requests for recommendations, about travelling in India. It seemed logical to start some kind of business, and I experimented with various models until I hit on India for Beginners custom tours. It’s a partnership with a small, bespoke travel company based in Delhi. I do the marketing and they do the bookings and payments. Together, we create unique itineraries that are customized for our clients. So, it’s a custom tour business.
Currently, we are developing some unique itineraries that will offer travellers authentic, cultural experiences in offbeat locations. We will have tours to rural Rajasthan, and villages in the lower Himalayas; wildlife and tiger safaris in remote Madhya Pradesh and a tour to lesser-known beaches and hill stations of Maharashtra and Karnataka.
Our ideal client is someone open to adventure and new cultures, and who is not worried or stressed when things don’t go according to plan. In India, you really have to go with the flow – and I find that when things veer off course, that’s when the best adventures happen. And you realize it was all meant to happen that way …
SIT: I know that we share similar values and ideas around responsible tourism, and it seems that the pandemic is going to bring some much-needed changes that will improve the way people travel in this regard. What do you hope will be the biggest change when travel opens up to the world again?
MW: I really hope people will become much more mindful of the way they travel. Travel is a privilege, it’s not a right. You are a guest in someone else’s home and you should treat it with respect. Respect the local environment, the culture, and the animals. Local people and animals are not there for your amusement.
I also think people should do a bit more research, go places that are less touristy, and focus less on your bucket list and making your Facebook friends jealous. Travel has been commodified, it has been turned into a status symbol for consumers. This is a terrible way to look at travel — which ultimately is all about the experience. Put the phone down, enjoy the moment, engage with local people.
SIT: I was heartbroken to read about the elephant that was recently injured when it ate a pineapple with explosives. I know that this impacted you greatly, too. Do you have a recommendation on credible non-profits accepting donations for elephant conservation in India?
MW: A pregnant elephant ate a pineapple stuffed with explosives that was left as bait for wild boars, who were raiding farmer’s fields in Kerala. The elephant made it as far as a stream, where she tried to find relief, no doubt, before dying a slow, painful death. This tragic story captured the hearts of millions in India. The elephant wasn’t killed deliberately, but it’s still a heart-breaking story, and the device used by the farmers is illegal.
Human-animal conflict in India is a big problem, especially with regards to elephants, snakes, tigers, and leopards. There’s also a history of tiger hunting — long outlawed — and using animals, especially elephants, for work, tourism, and in religious ceremonies. There’s a growing movement to ban elephant riding for tourism and to protect Indian elephants.
I’m a big fan of Wildlife SOS. They run two animal rescue centres, both near Agra in north India. One is for bears, and the other for elephants, but they also rescue and rehabilitate many other animal species, as needed.
I’m also very supportive of well-managed wildlife tourism in India. I have been on many tiger safaris in India and love Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve especially – it is regularly voted the best-managed national park in India. Well managed wildlife tourism actually helps with conservation efforts and protecting habitat as well as animals.
SIT: Is there anything you would like to add?
MW: Travel is one industry that’s been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Borders are closed, planes grounded, and hotels shut. People are naturally reluctant to travel for obvious reasons — they don’t want to risk their own health, or the health of others. Travel was the primary way the virus spread, so staying put, and staying home, is the logical way to slow down the rate of infection.
We don’t know what the future holds, but as I said above, I hope that travel changes for the better. I hope mindsets change. There’s an urgent call to end systemic racism, and to overcome colonial attitudes, and both of these things should affect travel in a positive way. There’s a need for more diversity within the travel industry — an industry that routinely depicts travellers as young, thin, and white.
Let’s travel with respect, and to learn about how others live and what they can teach us, how they can help us grow as people and citizens of village earth.
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