Top 5 ways my India travels differ from Eat, Pray, Love

Photograph of Aurovalley Ashram, Rishikesh, IndiaThe similarities and differences between my travels in India and Eat, Pray, Love and why I appreciate Elizabeth Gilbert

BECAUSE I TRAVEL in India and write about it, many people ask me if I was influenced by the book Eat, Pray, Love, and they try and compare me to author Elizabeth Gilbert. The book (and movie) about Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to find “everything” in Italy, India and Bali was a publishing phenomenon: it was an international bestseller with more than 10 million copies sold worldwide. But the year it was published I was already in India, so it didn’t influence me; I read it after returning home from my first trip.

I can’t honestly say that I LOVED the book — there are better books about westerners in India (see my post 10 books about India that are better than Shantaram). But I appreciate it for several reasons. It tapped into the zeitgeist and found an enormous audience for the kind of writing I do (personal narrative / spiritual quest / travelogue); it gave voice to a discontent and a yearning that I know well; and it validated the idea of the personal quest, the hero’s journey, for women.

Perhaps more influential, to me, than the book itself are these words I found on her website in answer to the question: What was the biggest surprise about your journey?

Elizabeth Gilbert: “How well it worked. I found exactly what I was looking for during that year of traveling. In fact, I found more than I’d dared to hope for. Looking back on it now, though, I think that this amazing result was sort of inevitable. I’ve come to believe that there exists in the universe something I call The Physics of The Quest – a force of nature governed by laws as real as the laws gravity or momentum. And the rule of Quest Physics maybe goes like this: If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting (which can be anything from your house to your bitter old resentments) and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally), and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared – most of all – to face (and forgive) some very difficult realities about yourself….then truth will not be withheld from you. Or so I’ve come to believe. I can’t help but believe it, given my experience.”

Joseph Campbell said essentially the same thing more succinctly in his famous dictum: “Follow your bliss.” I did it, and it worked: it changed my life.

So though there are similarities between out stories, here are the five key differences between my story and Gilbert’s, below.

TDH CORE children's homes in Tiruvannamalai

With a group of children at a home for street kids in Tamil Nadu

1. I did not have a hefty book advance to subsidize my trip.

With all respect to Elizabeth Gilbert, she travelled with a book advance and contract, which means her trip could be classified as a research trip. Yes, it was a very personal journey, but to my mind it cannot be called a spiritual quest as there was an objective and an outcome planned in advance, and not a lot of risk involved. Gilbert herself calls EPL a memoir, which I think is more accurate.

My trip to India was not research for a book, and I had to subsidize it myself out of my meager resources. I sold 1/3 of my possessions, gave up my apartment, moved into a small room and scrimped and saved for a year. After I returned, and realized how much I’d changed, I went through a lot of financial instability. The whole experience was a spiritual quest in the sense that I threw myself into it without any attachment to outcome. A big part of my journey was about throwing myself off the cliff to find out IF a net would appear.

2. I did not go to India because of EPL.

I was already in India when the book was published so it didn’t influence me. For the record, seekers and travelers have been going to India for many generations. Steve Jobs went to India. The Beatles went to India. Mark Twain went to India. There’s even some evidence that Jesus went to India.

I went to India originally, in 2005, because of two reasons, carrot and stick. The carrot was that I always wanted to go; that virtually since childhood I have been drawn to the “mysterious east” — I painted Maharaja Palaces on my walls, practised Indian dancing, mooned over photos of The Beatles in Rishikesh (especially George) with marigolds around their necks, went out for Hallowe’en in flowing harem pants and a sequined top, etc.

The stick was that over the course of a few short years, I experienced a series of losses — both my parents died and my fiance and I broke up — and I fell into a lengthy and profound depression. I needed to do something to shake up my life, and at the age of 45, decided to go to India for six months to travel, volunteer and study yoga. I wrote about this in My Story: Why I write about travel in India.

At the Taj Mahal with new-found friends

At the Taj Mahal with new-found friends

3. Gilbert went to three countries; I only went to India.

My version could be called Pray, Pray, Pray because I only went to India; I didn’t go anywhere else. And my spiritual journey was a big part of my trip.

Part of the reason I went to India, and one of the things that drew me there, was yoga. But I have to say, I learned as much about yoga just by traveling in India as I did by studying at an ashram. In order to deal with the crowds, chaos, delays, I learned how to:

  • go with the flow,
  • find inner stillness,
  • trust in the universe.

In other words, I learned many of the teachings of yoga, and found my spiritual home, Aurovalley Ashram.

Blog posts about Aurovalley Ashram

 4. This is not a love story.

EPL ends with Gilbert meeting the love of her life, Philipe. I actually did meet a man in India, and became part of his big, fat Indian family, but that wasn’t the point, it wasn’t the ultimate gift of that trip.

I gained so much from that trip, and my subsequent four more trips to India, that I could write a book about it (hey, I did!), but here is the top 3:

  • I gained a completely new awareness of the world and my place in it. Traveling in India was really the first time I have ever left my “middle class bubble” and stepped out of my comfort zone. It gave me a completely new perspective on life and on myself as a global citizen.
  • I gained a new career. I started travel blogging and now I publish Breathedreamgo, write travel stories for magazines and newspapers, and I published a book, Song of India.
  • I gained a new spiritual awareness that includes recognizing the power each of us has to manifest our dreams and remake our reality. We have more control over our minds than we think we do, and less over the circumstances of our life. So the other big spiritual awareness for me was around realizing that I am part of a much bigger consciousness, that we’re all connected, and that everything turns out the way it’s supposed to.

5. Going, going, gone.

Gilbert came back from Italy, India and Bali, married her man, and wrote a book about commitment. I never really came back from India. I’ve traveled to India on four seven lengthy trips since my first trip, and have a career that is largely based around writing about India. Part of my journey has been to open up to another culture in a very profound way, and it has given me so much in terms of meaningful adventure. In fact, in India I discovered my soul culture, and parts of myself that I never knew existed.

Mariellen Ward at Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, India 2010

Moi on the morning of the Kumbh Mela 2010 in Haridwar

My top travel tip

If you really want to travel, and be a traveler, not a tourist, consider going alone; or if not alone, then make every effort to open yourself up to the experience and let it affect you, let it change you. Let it shatter your biases. Let it provoke your compassion. Let it change you. I call this respectful travel — and it really means not only respecting the culture you are traveling in, but also respecting yourself too.

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19 Responses to Top 5 ways my India travels differ from Eat, Pray, Love

  1. Alouise October 19, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    I think it’s always easy for people to make correlations like this. You went to India, and Elizabeth Gilbert went to India so it’s the same. It’s always important to remember that everyone has their own journey, different from anyone else. I love your last tip. For me traveling solo sort of forces me to take note of my surrounding and the people in it, whereas when I travel with other people I’m usually worried about whether they’re having a good time or not.

    • Sham July 30, 2012 at 10:36 pm #

      You are absolutely right. Not just worried if they are going to have a good time or not, sometimes we have clash in our interest, frustrating one another. I am going to travel alone to India for 2 months and I am so looking forward to it!

  2. Heather - the kiwitravelwriter October 19, 2011 at 10:48 pm #

    Oh this is such a breath of fresh air!!!!!!!!!! well done. I too travel mostly on my own money,and have been to Italy Bali and India. My version of them (and all the other countries) is nothing like EPL which I only read as a friend gave it to me “you’ll love it ‘ she said. I didn’t!

    will sign up for you blog .. loved the pic re Haridwar … I stayed there too as it seems all tourists go to Varanasi!

  3. Amanjeet October 19, 2011 at 10:57 pm #

    nicely said, Mariellen

  4. Mariellen October 19, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    Thanks for comments Alouise, Heather, Amanjeet. It’s great finding like-minded souls in cyber-space.

  5. linda October 19, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    nice! and you know all about me and India…I could have written the same post!

  6. Mariellen October 19, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    Haha, it’s true Linda!

  7. shubh cheema October 20, 2011 at 3:46 am #

    nicely written…and it seems like those journeys were more in search of your inner being than just being touristy ….would like to read more about you and your experience..take care.

  8. Scott October 20, 2011 at 11:17 am #

    There are as many India’s as there are people that go . . . as many reasons . . . as many motivations . . .

    I read EPL during the course of three flights during my last trip to India (2006). Gilbert writes well, and as a writer myself, I was grateful that she shared – so literarily well (IMHO) – her journey.

    My own first time to India – the first five months of a year-long round-the-world-trip in ’82 – was the result of me looking at the journey I had planned – a three month bicycle trip around the coasts of Portugal and Spain – and thinking, “No, I want to be shaken, not stirred,” and in India, I was (and still am) repeatedly . . . India remains, after thirty years of solo globetrotting, the most complete travel experience that I’ve ever had.

  9. Silvia October 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Thanks so much for this post, very touching and inspiring – I am leaving for India in two weeks,for the next five months…

  10. Mariellen October 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Sylvia, That is very exciting! Is it your first time? There is a magic to traveling in India the first time that can never be repeated. Enjoy it, savour it, lean into it. Even if things “go wrong,” remember that is what’s supposed to happen. India is a guru. She will teach you the right lessons. 🙂

  11. Leslie October 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Beautiful post and you are such an inspiration. I laughed at your childhood of harem pants for Halloween and painting your walls and breathing in everything Indian. I was the same and if I was old enough I would have followed George Harrison but sadly I had a few more years of high school to complete. Now I am in my 6th decade and I have made it a MUST to get to India any way I can. For now it will be a tour and I am sure it will be my ‘starter trip’ to India; so much to explore. The funny thing for me is that my common-law daughter-in-law of 11 years is Indian – family immigrated from Goa in the early 1970’s and Sabrina has shunned all ‘things’ Indian.

  12. Silvia October 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    thanks Mariellen, actually it’s my first time, have been travelling to South-East Asia in the last couple of years, and I am very curious about the differences….

  13. Mariellen October 20, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    Scott, I love that line: “I want to be shaken not stirred.” It’s fabulous, can I borrow it?

    Leslie, I would have followed George Harrison, too, but I was about 7 or 8 years old when they went to Rishikesh. I hope you get to India soon. Did you see my resources page? I list about 5 or 6 tour companies that I recommend.

    Sylvia, I think India is quite different than SE Asia, though of course you will see some similarities. I will be interested to find out what you think!

  14. Jessica October 21, 2011 at 8:10 am #

    This is the first time I have come across your site and I’m glad that I did through this post. As someone who has spent significant time in India I can relate with many of the things that you mention here. The point that hits at home though is number 5. I feel that this is also true for myself–that I discovered a part of myself that I did not know existed until I came to India. I think this is true for many of us that have ventured throughout the country and find ourselves returning. If others have not experienced such feelings it is difficult to explain how India can have such a profound affect upon you. At least, that has been my experience. I am glad that there are others who have had similar experiences to me in this great country. I look forward to checking out this site further!

    PS- Sorry for rambling!

  15. Mariellen October 21, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    Thanks so much for your comment, Jessica, which I did not think was rambling at all. There are some experiences in life that are difficult to articulate, especially when they seem unusual, or rare. I have tried many times to put these feelings into words, and to succinctly and accurately answer the question, Why India? Some people get and some don’t. And it’s really wonderful when you meet people who DO get it. 🙂

  16. Luigi October 26, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Fantastic post, Mariellen! Thanks for sharing this. Sometimes you need to contrast your experience with one others know about to truly explain it. Sounds like you changed as much during your time in India as I did in Ecuador 20 years ago.

  17. Ravi March 27, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

    Dear Mariellen, please stop attending these so called literary fests in India. Indians just go overboard in organising these events without understanding their true purpose. Jaipur Festival has become an annual regatta of bored housewives, society butterflies, literary jokes, Bollywood buffoons and all kinds of fixers. I failed to understand why Mr Naipaul is in attendance almost every year. He has no respect for the contemporary Indian writing in English – a glossy narrative of family boastfulness and is of no consequence in literary terms.

    Mariellen, every person has to carry the burden of his life. You have to realise yourself your true being. You do not have to seek it outside – just take a look into your inner being. Look Inward.

    You must also travel to some of the Buddhist Sites in India and Nepal – Sarnath, Sanchi, Kushinagar, Nalanda – small tranquil places to seek your spiritual quest and inner peace.

    I have been travelling to these sites as a part of my assignment with the World Bank. Please write to me.

    Regards and Best Wishes



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