A Lifetime of Travel Using Curiosity as Her Compass

Featured Image: One of Marillee’s favourite things to do while travelling is sit in parks, people watch and snap photos (even in the rain) / Photo provided by Marillee Carol

Women’s Solo Travel Memoirs: Marillee

Retired teacher Marillee Carroll uses curiosity as her compass – in her everyday life, and when she travels. With it, she’s found her way to becoming an expert and insatiable collector. Of knowledge, people, and experiences.

She didn’t have to be inspired to a life of travel. She lived it as a young child, with her parents taking the family on a vacation every year for Spring Break – driving from Minnesota to Florida, flying to New York or a tropical destination.

“I’m very curious, and I love to learn. I love good food, culture, and music. Those things and travelling go hand in hand,” she says. “When I got older, my parents took us out of school for a month and we went to Jamaica and Cuba. This was before Castro. I was about nine or 10 and learned how to cha-cha outside this beautiful restaurant in Havana. How I remember that moment!”

Fast forward through the years, and Marillee found herself married for 11 years to a man who didn’t like to travel, whose idea of travelling was going to LA for the night with another couple and out for a fabulous dinner. Her curiosity compass began to collect dust.

“We lived on Long Island for three years, and I think a couple of times we went down in the winter to the Caribbean. That was a big deal for him. But that’s all we did,” she says. “So, the first thing I did when I divorced was a backpacking trip by myself. I knew it was going to be challenging. I knew I needed it. I knew I was going to grow from it. And I did.”

Marillee dancing with village children in Ghana

Marillee dancing with village children in Ghana / Photo privded by Marillee Carroll

Groups of people along the Ganges River

Experiences the pilgrimage to the Ganges River in India was a dizzying assault on the senses for her / Photo privded by Marillee Carroll

Her first big solo adventure – and how it shaped her travel style

In the summer of 1984, a 34-year-old Marillee backpacked across Europe with a Europass in hand. Her 10-country trip kicked off in England, and along the way, she gained courage, empowerment, many friends and saw spectacular scenery.

The US dollar was strong and went a long way. Marillee offset costs by getting rooms in B&Bs or homes. While she had friends that she connected with in Brighton, Brussels and Valencia, she had no one and nothing but her own whims to answer to.

“I would think to myself: ‘This is a gorgeous little village that we are pulling into on the train. I think I’m going to get off here and stay a day or two;’ and that’s what I did,” she says.

While she was in her 30s, she didn’t give a lot of thought to her personal safety as a solo traveller. She was in Europe. There were many people on the streets at night. What did she have to worry about?

One incident taught her a valuable lesson that has stayed with her – and took with it some of the travel freedom she felt in her younger days.

“I had long blonde hair, dressed in blue jeans, looking obviously not European. I was in Munich and they had to put me out a little out of the way because the city centre was packed,” she recalls. “I should have gone on to somewhere else, but no, and I’m not using cabs or anything because I’m saving money. I was so naïve. Here I am thinking everyone walks out at night freely, and it seems to be very safe – why can’t I do it?”

She’d visited a beer hall, took the train back, and was walking from the station to her B&B when the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. “I got this feeling, you know, that you just do as a woman when something’s not right. I turned around and saw a man, about 50ish, in a boxy Mercedes car following me. I’m thinking I’m going to ignore him. I keep walking, turn around, and he’s still there, stalking me! Now I’m getting panicky,” she says.

She saw a boy walking a bike, ran up to him, told him a man was following her, and asked if she could walk with him. He agreed and the pair walked in the direction of Marillee’s hotel. Her misstep? She didn’t ask him to accompany her to the door.

The front door was locked, and the man was walking purposefully towards her. She caught a glimpse of something in his hand and started screaming and yelling. Visions of him drugging her and dumping her in his car played on a loop in her mind.

“I can just see it now. It’s seared into my memory. I’m screaming. The man is right there, and the manager finally opens the door. He didn’t speak a word of English; I didn’t speak German. There was no conversation, but I was hysterical,” she says. “I went up to my room and put the armoire – everything in the room – against the door because I didn’t know if my stalker was returning. I stayed very close to the train and town centre for the rest of my trip, but it did but a damper on things.”

Now, when she travels in groups in that include young women – like on her Semester At Sea voyages – she shares her story as a cautionary tale. Asked how the experience impacted her, Marillee admits that it affected her travel style dramatically. Gone were the days of exploring a city from a wide base or staying outside of the city centre. Her trips became a hybrid solo-group model.

“I’ve since gone on my own to Tahiti and other Club Med’s, but even though I was alone, there’s a safety net. I need a little bit more backup than I did. So, I’m just wiser,” she says.

When she began taking cycling trips in the US, Canada, and Europe – feeding yet another passion – she’d head out solo a day or two ahead of time, staying at the hotel she’d be meeting her group at. “I’d venture out a little bit, but very, very carefully, and then I’d meet up with the group,” she says.

Still, she can’t discount all the positives that her first solo backpacking trips brought her:

“I found out that I was okay on my own, that I could enjoy time with myself as well as others, but I didn’t have to be surrounded by people all the time. I could sit back in a park and just people watch – and I love photography, so I was taking a lot of pictures as well. The two of them go very well together,” she says. “I’d say that everybody needs to try a solo trip at one point or another. It is truly an amazing growing experience!”

Collecting knowledge people and experiences – Setting sail on Semester At Sea

A photo from above of a group on a shipMarillee meant to take a Semester At Sea (SAS) voyage in her junior year of college. It’s a multi-country semester study abroad program on a ship open to all students of all majors as well as lifelong learners, emphasizing global comparative study.

“I ended up switching schools in my junior year, and I thought ‘I can’t switch schools and take off immediately. I need to get to know people here.’ So I didn’t go and always regretted it,” she says.

In 2008, JourneyWoman co-founder Evelyn Hannon was invited to be the ‘embedded blogger’ and lifelong learner on Semester At Sea – blogging the highlights of her 108 days onboard a floating campus and ashore with 750 students, 50 professors and the ship’s dedicated crew.

Marillee was inspired and began digging into the program. The more she learned, the more inspired she became. “It just fit me so well. It’s learning and education, community, and very safe for the single woman alone,” she says.

While she’d been on a couple of cruises – one in Europe and another in Alaska – she found that the hop-off, hop-on, go to a nightly show on board rhythm just wasn’t her thing. “You’re maybe six hours in a city and then you’re back on the ship going to the next city. You’re check-check-check for one week as fast as they can go loading you and offloading you. Not my style,” she says.

Marillee’s first Semester At Sea voyage was a four-month stint around the world departing from Halifax and visiting Spain, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius Islands, India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Japan. It was the first time she’d been to Asia or Africa.

Collecting knowledge
“With Semester At Sea, you’re studying every day in classes relevant to the next port. You have six days in each port, and taking a Semester At Sea organized trip or scheduling your own,” she says. “There’s faculty from all around the world teaching philosophy, religion, geography, history, global studies and more. It’s preparing you for the next stop in the next country. You’re learning about their cultures, their history, their current issues – so you have a really good sense of the place before you get off the ship.”

Her favourite class from that voyage was a religion class that touched on every country before the ship docked at one of its ports. It was the professor and his passion for the topic that really brought the subject matter alive for Marillee.

“He had a true love for and a lot of knowledge of India from all the times he’d visited. We talked a lot and he showed us videos,” she says. “There’s truly an appreciation for the religion, what they believe, their rituals. It better prepares you to be traveller versus tourist. They’re not all comfortable spots that you visit. Some of them are a bit difficult, so you need to know and understand more about the place to appreciate it, and SAS does such a good job of that.”

What’s more, the professors and students alike had a deep appreciation for the dynamic that lifelong learners brought to the classes they participated in. “The professors ask us a lot of questions because we have so much history and knowledge that we’ve gained over these many years, and it brings a new interesting dynamic to the group,” she says. “The students value what we have to say, and it’s intriguing all around.”

Are you intrigued? Check out SAS’s Lifelong Learner Electronic Brochure to see what classes you could be taking on one of its voyages.

Marillee sits at a table with others

Marillee and the extended family she adopted on her first Semester At Sea trip / Photo provided by Marillee Carroll

Collecting friends
“On a Semester at Sea voyage, you meet up with a group of like-minded lifelong learners – a mixture of couples and singles. Then there’s the faculty – we mixed so well with them. My favourite experience is adopting students on the voyage who become your extended family. It’s given me a huge group of friends, lifelong learners and students, who otherwise wouldn’t be part of my life,” she says. “I’m invited to weddings – I’ve now been to three. One former student is now pregnant, so I’ll have my first baby soon. These kids are still a large part of my life, as well as the lifelong learners and faculty.”

Those faculty and lifelong learner connections were greased via the ship’s large top-level bar open only to them. Every two weeks, they’d have a dance party to rival anything the college kids could swing.

While on her maiden SAS voyage, Marillee reconnected with Mika – a Japanese woman she first met on a bus travelling through Germany’s Black Forest in 1984. One of the ship’s stops was in Japan, and Marillee used the opportunity to meet up with Mika – who, as a neurologist and professor of neurology at a university in Sapporo, rarely has the gift of time.

“We wrote each other a Christmas card once a year and when email was introduced, we began emailing. She’s a worker bee, and it’s really hard to get a lot of email communication from her,” Marillee says. “But I told her in advance that our first international port was in Japan, and wondered if she could get away so we could travel Japan. She made it happen.”

The pair of long-time friends spent four days exploring Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, Atami, Yokohama, and Tokyo. In Kyoto, they met a man from Tokyo who was travelling from temple to temple. When he heard the pair speaking English, he told Marillee that to pay it forward for the American who had taken the time to teach him English long ago, he’d love to take her and Miko to dinner and show them some temples. The experience touched Marillee, and while it was one small moment on an epic journey, it has stayed with her.

At the end of their whirlwind tour of Japan, Mika joined Marillee on the ship, and that’s when Marillee noticed a very special guest speaking to a group of her on-ship friends. It was Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“I asked Mika if she’d like to meet Desmond Tutu – the “Arch,” as he calls himself – and of course she said yes,” says Marillee, who claims that of all the people she has met, Tutu left the deepest impression. “Having him on the ship and going through a series of his seminars where he would talk about apartheid, his take on it and what he went through, you could feel the love and compassion coming from this man and his stories. He is truly an amazing man and I gained a lot from his knowledge.”

(Right: Marillee and Mika, whos he first met in Gemany in 1984 / Photo provided by Marillee Carroll)

Marillee and Mika, whom she met in 1984

Collecting experiences
Of all of stops on all of her Semester At Sea voyages, the most memorable was her six days in India with other lifelong learners and faculty. They visited the Ganges River, and even after all of the knowledge she’d gleaned on this sacred spot and what it meant to the people who bathe in it, nothing could prepare her for the dizzying assault on the senses that was the in-person experience.

“We got up at dawn to make the pilgrimage to the banks of the holy waters for the ritual immersion and prayer, where the people release their souls from the cycle of rebirth. The belief is that they’ll be delivered into paradise if buried at the Ganges. It was an unforgettable, emotionally moving sight,” she says.

She and her group saw what was floating in the water. A child’s body. Other bodies. People with no money to cremate forced to throw loved ones in. You can know this on an intellectual level, but to see it is to feel it, and Marillee did. Deeply.

“India is magical, intensely profound, heartfelt, overwhelmingly exhausting to the senses and soul, complex, fervent, and passionate. India is horrific/extraordinary, disturbing/exhilarating, the yin and the yang, spiritual, possessing sights and sounds I’ve never encountered,” she says. “My senses were on overload watching the movements of the crowded streets of people, sacred cows, pigs, goats, monkeys, and vendors selling produce.”

Map detailing Marillee's semester at sea voyage

This map details the route Marillee took on her maiden Semester At Sea voyage / Photo provided by Marillee Carroll

What’s next for this intrepid traveller?

While concerns over COVID and her country have Marillee sticking close to home for longer than she’d like, nothing can break her traveller’s spirit. She’s still using curiosity as her compass at home, attending webinars and lectures from Context Travel and others. She’s dreaming and planning for the day she can take her next trip.

Where to? For a woman who’s been virtually everywhere, that’s a difficult question. Marillee says: “My first trip will be a planned but COVID-delayed Expedition with Nat Geo to the British Isles with three dear friends.” She was also inspired by my early 2020 trip to Bali and how some of our fellow Advisory Council members like Amit Janco and Cathy Gotfried speak of this magical island. I see a yoga retreat with some immersive learning workshops in Marillee’s future.

Amanda Burgess

Amanda Burgess is a Toronto-based writer and creative strategist whose bags are always packed for her next adventure; co-founder of the Sharyn Mandel School in Gobele, Ethiopia; and Acting Editor of Journeywoman. Follow her and her adventures on Instagram @unshakeable.me.

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