Year in review: Return of the hero

Cork IrelandA year of life lessons from a traveller, writer and spiritual seeker

JOSEPH CAMPBELL OFTEN wrote and spoke about The Hero’s Journey, and the predictable stages it follows. I became very aware I was on my own Hero’s Journey when I heard The Call, the first stage, in late 2004. I heeded The Call and started to plan my first trip to India, and in December 2005 left for a six-month journey. Nothing has ever been the same since. I’ve been back to India five times, for a total of 17 months spent in country, and as a result I have a new career as travel writer and blogger, a second home in the country of my soul culture and a much larger sense of my self as a world citizen.

This past year, 2013, I became aware that I am at a much later stage of The Hero’s Journey, but one that takes just as much courage. I am now Returning. This stage involves integrating everything learned, and becoming more “complete.” It’s also about figuring out what The Hero’s “Holy Grail” is; what was learned on the journey that can be shared with others, for their benefit.

I credit Joseph Campbell and especially this book, one of my bibles, for helping to guide and teach me, and make sense of my life.

In my case, this stage is also about becoming more grounded, balanced and supported. Passionately pursuing my dreams of travel, adventure, India and writing over the past eight years has been the most exciting and satisfying thing I have ever done, and I have no regrets. AND it was also the most destabilizing thing I have ever done because I did it without enough financial or social support. I felt if I hesitated, I would never have the chance again.

Consequently, I found 2013 to be particularly challenging in a couple of very specific ways that undermined my feelings of stability in the world, and I found my faith and energy flagging at times. Yet 2013 was also the year I felt my travel blogging career taking off; the year I became activated about some important issues; and the year I finally got to visit Ireland, land of my ancestors.

Here’s my year in review, by season, each one characterized by a highlight and what I learned.

Women in India, women only toursWinter Lesson: The year of women

2013 started badly. I woke up on New Year’s Day in my friend’s frigid apartment in Delhi, a city shrouded by chilling fog and the Delhi Gang Rape. The young medical student, nicknamed Nirbhaya (Braveheart), had just died of the massive injuries inflicted during the brutal rape, and the capital of India was gripped by rage and protest. The incident affected everything and everyone, including me, an erstwhile Dilliwalla, who dearly loves my second city.

The Delhi Gang Rape was one of the reasons I cut my India trip short and came home early, after three months instead of six. But the bigger reason was the instability I felt in my life, a feeling of homelessness and financial uncertainty, a feeling of being unmoored and cast adrift. Coming home did not in fact immediately solve these problems. It just gave me a familiar setting in which to ask the right questions.

After I got home from India, I became galvanized about the unique challenges women face in the world. It’s not really a surprise that I would become active around women’s rights: I was born on March 8, International Women’s Day, after all.

I also became more informed and outspoken about women and sexual abuse. While the mainstream media was filled with stories about how dangerous India is for women, I grew concerned that the emphasis on the problems in India was a smokescreen for the epidemic of rape and sexual abuse women all over the planet suffer. Certainly rape statistics in other countries are much worse than India. I realize that rates of reporting play into these stats, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that all forms of rape, including date rape, are happening everywhere, including the USA and Canada. In fact, for most women, rape and sexual abuse is at the hands of a known perpetrator, someone in their domestic sphere.

Over the course of the year I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, India; the BBC World News radio; NBC News Travel; the Huffington Post; USA Today; and the CBC, among other media outlets. My message to all of them was to look at the problem as global, not India-centric. India is NOT the rape capital of the world. The world is the rape capital of the world.

And when asked, “Is India dangerous for women travelers?” I learned to answer, “That’s not the right question. It’s not whether India is dangerous; it’s how you travel in India. Or anywhere else for that matter.”

In February, I founded WeGoSolo. It started as a blog tag, in response to the backlash against women travelling alone, and I gained a lot of support from many, many female travel bloggers. Then WeGoSolo became a weekly tweetchat, and it’s still going strong. Through WeGoSolo, I encourage women to get out and see the world, and I also encourage them to practice safe travel.

I believe that 2013 was a watershed year for women — in India and elsewhere. It was the year the genie was let out of the bottle. Nirbhaya, the young woman who died from the brutal gang rape in Delhi, must have been a great soul, a Mahatma. Her suffering and death shook a nation, was felt around the world and galvanized change. She was certainly one of my teachers in 2013.

Mariellen Ward Castle Cork, Ireland The Gathering

At “my castle” in Ireland, September 2013.

Spring lesson: The importance of self-confidence

There’s a man in my Toronto neighbourhood named Prem who is 79 but looks 56. He is slender, graceful and inquisitive, and his brown skin is smooth and glows. I asked him his secret, the reason for such youthfulness and he said, solemnly, “I have a mission.”

I thought I had a mission too. I thought my mission was to grow and self-actualize by travelling in India and learning to master the art of travel writing so that I could share the beauty I saw and the joy and wonder I felt.

And I thought that if you boldly go after your dreams, and allow your “mission” to guide you, that you would invariably find support and eventually success. Yet until the end of the year, I found very little real support for Breathedreamgo, in terms of partners, sponsors, contracts, assignments, press trips, etc., and the lack of support began to wear me down.

Joseph Campbell said that when you are on the right path, the path that was meant for you, invisible hands come to your aid, doors open for you that wouldn’t open for anyone else. I have felt this “magic” before, but it seemed to elude me during the first half of 2013!

As I struggled to find my path, I tried many things. I became certified as a travel agent, and worked briefly for a travel agency as the resident India specialist, but it wasn’t my thing. I launched an Indiegogo campaign and tried to raise enough money to write the book I have long wanted to write, but I didn’t raise enough to take the time off.

Spring was by far the most frustrating season of the year, for me. It was the season of Self Doubt.

What I learned in the spring of 2013 is that our belief in ourselves is the single most important factor in achieving any kind of success, contentment or satisfaction. With it, you can move mountains. Without it, you can’t get out of bed in the morning.

Pelican at sunrise in Costa Rica.

Pelican at sunrise in Costa Rica, December 2013.

Summer lesson: Achieving creative freedom

At about the time summer officially started, I attended the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference in my hometown, Toronto. I went to the opening night party at Roy Thomson Hall agape. From a marginalized hobby, it suddenly looked like travel blogging had arrived. About 1,300 people filled the lobby of the massive, luxurious venue, and were treated to music, wine, gourmet food and other pleasures, courtesy of generous host Toronto Tourism.

But though the conference was in many ways a big success, it left me feeling a bit confused. I’m glad that travel blogging finally seems to be taking off, but I have to admit to some mixed feelings. You pay a price when you try to make a business from your passion. I spend hardly any time doing the kind of writing I really want to do. In fact, as time goes on, I feel I am getting further away from the original passion that started all of this. And I question myself a lot. When I started, I just wrote from the heart. Now everything seems like a big production of SEO, networking, marketing, writing proposals and reports, etc. And it’s hard to retain your unique voice and vision amidst all the noise.

I started travel blogging while travelling in India for six months, in 2005-06. Over time, my “casual” travel blogging turned professional, and my career morphed from copywriter to travel writer and blogger. My new profession was born from a love of travel in India, and a desire to express the rapture I felt in words and pictures. A lot of that rapture has to do with the reasons I went on that first long trip, and the role India has played in my life (but that’s another story).

Hugh MacLeod GapingVoid comic

So, part of the balance I am looking for in my life has to do with balancing what Hugh MacLeod of calls “Sex and Cash” in his book Ignore Everybody And 39 Other Keys to Creativity (I love this book, it’s one of my bibles — there’s a gem of wisdom on every page — see book cover image, below). Sex is what you do from pure love, for the pure joy of it. Cash is what you do for money.

In this book, MacLeod writes about the importance of having sovereignty over your work, if you’re a creative person. “The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people to find their own sovereignty than the actual content ever will.” He says most creative people he knows wants to lead lives that are productive and creative; that’s the dream. Me too.

In 2013, I learned I need to demarcate my line of sovereignty, what I’m willing and not willing to do. It’s a basic necessity of creative freedom.

Mariellen Ward travel Kerala India

In Kerala, India at the start of my travels. January 1, 2006.

Fall lesson: Doing it my way

The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it. โ€“ Rudyard Kipling

“Feeling like a traveller. Feeling free.” My friend wrote this on Facebook about a short trip she took that reignited that old familiar feeling. My favourite moment in life is when the train wheels start to turn, and the train begins to move out of the station. My second favourite moment is when the plane starts down the runway, picking up too much speed and momentum to do anything except hurl itself forward.

On September 8, I walked out of my spotlessly clean apartment in Toronto and flew to Prince Edward Island for a Canadian Tourism Event called GoMedia. I didn’t return to my apartment until the end of November, after my subletter left. In those three months:

It was a whirlwind, I had a great time, but I was worn out by the end of it all and very happy to be home.

I’ve been a writer most of my life, starting with my childhood obsession with Scheherazade. I graduated with a BA in Journalism in 1986. I started travelling more than eight years ago, and spent about 17 months’ travelling in India. Writing and travelling are two of my chief passions, and I feel in my soul they are both a big part of who I am.

But until this year, I had never really been on a press trip. Not one with a set itinerary and other travel journos. I found it hard to “smell” the country on those trips.

And while I really appreciate the opportunities to travel and experience things I wouldn’t get to do on my own; and while I really enjoyed meeting the people I did on the press trips, this year I learned I need to travel my way, the slow way, the way that allows me to connect deeply with the culture and the people. Why do I love India so much? There are many, many reasons, but no doubt the amount of time I spent there over the past eight years, living with an Indian family in Delhi for weeks at a time, or with my spiritual community at a yoga ashram near Rishikesh, plays a big part.

Children Varanasi India

Brother and Sister, Varanasi. Photo courtesy Danielle Winter

2014: The year of heart-opening travels

In this life we cannot always do great things. But we can do small things with great love. – Mother Teresa

This holiday season, I took a time-out. I cancelled my Christmas plans and instead went to a women-only spa and made healthy, tasty dinners at home. A seven-dish Japanese dinner on Christmas Eve, a Spanish paella with three kinds of seafood on Christmas Day. I walked in the park for hours and mediated.

I meditated on the theme of, “What am I doing with my life? What happened to my mission, my purpose, my dreams? How can I regain balance and vitality? How can I use my energy and talents to add something positive to the world?”

The phrase that came bubbling up to me in meditation was: Travel to open your heart.

In previous years, I learned that going after your dreams is not for the faint of heart. To go after your dreams, you have to push yourself way out of your comfort zone. If you’re really trying to live your life — your personal, real, authentic life — it means you are going where no one has gone before. There is no path. There is no net. When you look ahead, you see nothing but possibility. When you look down, you see nothing but your own two legs.

What I need to learn in 2014 is how to achieve balance in my life so that my various gas tanks (energetic, physical, financial) are refilled while I continue to build my dream life of travel, writing, creativity, spirituality and trying to do something good in this world to foster the feminine spirit and to open hearts, including and especially my own.

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38 Responses to Year in review: Return of the hero

  1. Prasad Np January 1, 2014 at 4:29 am #

    Beautiful post Mariellen. Wishing you all the success and happiness in your life and travels during 2014 and beyond. Happy New Year….
    Prasad Np recently posted..2013 Pictures and MemoriesMy Profile

  2. John blagrave January 1, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    Thank you for this post, it chimes in with my own thoughts at this moment which I find reassuring. I was going to make my own trip to India this month but started questioning my motives and decided against it. Why travel? Life itself is a spiritual journey a journey of the soul and sometimes you can stay in your room and see “the whole of the moon”. At least that’s what I told myself but I’m not that wise and I love travel and let’s hear it for keeping our hearts open!

    • Mariellen Ward January 1, 2014 at 10:08 am #

      Thanks for your comment, I love that phrase you used about seeing the whole of the moon in your room. I remember I used to watch the moon traverse the sky from my attic apartment — the one I left to go travelling in India. I had no plans to ever leave that room. And then one day I felt I HAD to leave. Let the process guide you, and have trust in the wisdom of the universe.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..First time visitor to Canada, eh?My Profile

  3. Rachel of Hippie in Heels January 1, 2014 at 10:25 am #

    i haven’t been on a press trip yet, but I too worry that it could change for the worse my experiences even if I gain more readers. i really liked reading this post! I promote solo travel in india often and tell people the same thing you said about “asking the wrong questions”
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..Tips on Vatican City- bribe security!My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 1, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

      Hi Rachel, Great to hear from you! I hope Goa is treating you well ๐Ÿ™‚ I was there about this time last year.

      Also great to hear that you concur about travel in India. You just have to be smart about it. But women know they have to be alert and cautious just about everywhere.

      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The best day of my lifeMy Profile

  4. Shalu Sharma January 1, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    You are a great traveller and you tell your stories very well. The WeGoSolo hastag is a great creation and have been following it. I am a fan of yours.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Interesting facts about IndiaMy Profile

  5. Lesley Peterson January 1, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    Thoughtful post, Mariellen–wishing you all happiness in 2014!
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..Atlantic Cityโ€™s cool new Arts Garage in old DucktownMy Profile

  6. Candice January 1, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    Awesome post, Mariellen. We’re a lot alike. I, too, felt confused and somewhat disheartened after TBEX…took some time to realize I’m a writer first and foremost. Here’s to 2014 and staying true to our hearts, focusing on work that means a lot to us, and following our paths!
    Candice recently posted..To go the journey aloneMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 2, 2014 at 10:33 am #

      Thanks Candice. Really like what you said about being writer first and focusing on work that matters. It’s so easy to get distracted, and to get pulled away from the “mission.” Here’s to a focused and meaningful 2014!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pura Vida in Costa Rica My Profile

  7. Nandita January 1, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

    Dear Mariellen,
    It was lovely to read your recap of 2013 broken up into seasons. Wishing you lots more travel, work and joy in 2014.

  8. Dilip January 1, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

    Hello Mariellen, I appreciate your optimism. When things get worse and we stand watching helpless the only solace at his juncture is optimism. When we visit a place with an extreme level of expectation and find little in reality we naturally become depressed. Then we suddenly become optimistic and say “Ah my next destination will be awesome’! This is the feeling that keeps us pulling on brushing aside the previous year in disdain and accepting the New Year with extreme complacence!
    As i am also not different I wish you a happy, prosperous and joyous travels in the New Year 2014.

    • Mariellen Ward January 2, 2014 at 10:38 am #

      Thanks Dilip. I do think we have to remain positive and always foster hope. But I never think the destination is a disappointment. It’s just the lack of time I have there, or following someone else’s agenda or schedule that makes it difficult to get to know the place.

      Happy new year to you, too, and onwards to more travel adventures!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Photo essay: Kerala is India’s soft landingMy Profile

  9. Tammy January 1, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    This is a beautiful post, Mariellen. I’m often not a fan of year-in-review posts, but this one is so much more than that (which is just like you — you have so much more to offer in every part of life, I think!). It sounds to me like you’re definitely headed on the right path, and by “right,” I mean the one that’s right for you, not just the one that’s the quick answer in a difficult industry.

    You’re a superb writer with incredible stories to tell, way beyond SEO and marketing and all that nonsense that seems to be drowning out the heart of what we do.
    Tammy recently posted..My 2014 resolution: Go slowMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 2, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      Thanks so much Tammy! Your words mean a lot to me, as I feel the same way about you as a writer and editor and trust your judgement. The encouragement, support and approval of my peers really helps. So thank you! Here’s to a year of new stories, waiting to unfold, for both of us!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part TwoMy Profile

  10. Laura January 1, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

    Beautiful post. Having never traveled to India and hearing what the mainstream media say about women traveling there, I think you’re doing a great service with your message of how to safely travel there as a woman. 2013 was a challenging year for many of us but it’s so nice to see what you’ve been able to take away from the difficult times. Happy new year to you!
    Laura recently posted..100 Ways to Make 2014 Adventurous, Eclectic and HappyMy Profile

  11. surabhi January 2, 2014 at 5:25 am #

    Hi Mariellen,

    First, please accept my wishes for new year! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I loved this piece just like all the posts on the blog. It was nice and inspiring to see how you have followed your calling and decided to do what you love. Hope to meet you someday! ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Renuka January 2, 2014 at 7:38 am #

    Nicely weaved story! I like the way you have designed this post – stating everything you have learnt in each season of the year. ๐Ÿ™‚ Best wishes for 2014.
    Renuka recently posted..My 5 Travel Resolutions For 2014My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 2, 2014 at 10:44 am #

      Thanks so much Renuka. I tried to make my experiences useful for others, hope I have achieved my goal! Best wishes to you too ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Hogga January 2, 2014 at 11:01 am #

    happy new year!

  14. Carol Perehudoff January 2, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

    This is the most soulful piece I’ve read in ages, Mariellen. My Joseph Cambell is Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey – very similar, but I never thought of looking at it in a ‘life’ context, only a writing context. Thanks for making me think.
    Carol Perehudoff recently posted..Inspiration for 2014My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 2, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

      Hi Carol, thanks for the comment, I really appreciate it! I have never heard of that book before, but I will definitely check it out. We need to find our own “bibles” in this day and age, don’t we?
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The best day of my lifeMy Profile

  15. Alfredo Begazo January 3, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    A nice story and nicely written. Thank you for sharing your travel experiences.
    Alfredo Begazo recently posted..The Galapagos IslandsMy Profile

  16. Luke January 4, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Hey, great post! You are not alone when you talk about your travel blogging sometimes becoming more about SEO than writing about your passion.
    Luke recently posted..Jaco, Costa RicaMy Profile

  17. Kristin January 4, 2014 at 11:32 am #


    I always read your posts but I’m not much of a commenter– but I had to pipe in and let you know how much I’ve enjoyed reading your posts this year– and this was a wonderfully inspiring wrap up. Hope to meet you at the NYC Women’s Travel Fest!
    Kristin recently posted..Azulejos in Lisbon, Portugal: Souvenir shopping antique tiles at bargain pricesMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 4, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

      Thanks so much for commenting. I read a lot of blogs I like and never comment either. But I have learned something from your example — it’s awesome when someone leaves a warm, supportive message like the one you just left! Definitely, we must meet in NYC!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pura Vida in Costa Rica My Profile

  18. Cathy January 6, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    Wow – what a great message Mariellen. You have such a wonderful story and I am glad that you are still searching for answers. It’s what makes life interesting. I hope that 2014 is your year to shine! I see that you will be at the NYC Women’s Travel Fest. I just heard about it yesterday and I would love to go.

    • Mariellen Ward January 12, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

      Hi Cathy, I really hope you go to the Women’s Travel Festival on March 8 in New York! It’s the first one, so it will be highly memorable. Cheers.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..The RiverMy Profile

  19. Andrea Rees January 8, 2014 at 4:34 pm #

    Loved this Mariellen and it resonates with me, especially travel with an open heart. I adopted that mantra last year while in South Africa and want to live it not only in travel, but in life. As for travel blogging, press trips etc. I agree with you. It’s hard not to see where everyone else is going/doing etc, but I agree with you being true to yourself. You have talent with your words and I would much rather hear your truest words and stories. It’s the type of writing I strive for as well. Namaste.
    Andrea Rees recently posted..Travel With Purpose: Khayelitsha, South Africa โ€“ A Photo EssayMy Profile

  20. Erin Houlihan January 12, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    Hi Mariellen! LOVED this post. I think 2013 was a whopper of a year for most people. For me, it was the year of shedding, composting, dying the old away and freaking out at what may come. I read your blog when I went to India almost 2 years ago, and it was just the start of my journey. We are all on a hero’s journey, yet at the same time, we want to control the journey because we think we had some sort of idea what it should look like, not having a clue that Spirit has a much bigger and more expansive vision for us than we can possibly have for ourselves. I toggle between listening to my inner voice, controlling everything around me, and letting go.
    Don’t lose your voice! This post had your vulnerability, honesty, and hopefulness weaved throughout; keep it up!

    • Mariellen Ward January 12, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

      Thanks Erin, I really enjoyed your comment, it’s wonderful to hear from a kindred spirit, a fellow voyager. I think that tension between inner and outer worlds is something we all have to contend with. Just part of the game of life. Here’s hoping 2014 makes up for 2013!!!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..How to find vegetarian food in CanadaMy Profile

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