Welcome to the next instalment of the Human Gallery — where the funny, eccentric, nerdy, poignant, inspiring, and downright weird things live. This time, I’ve interviewed Mariah Friend, who actually happens to be a friend — though, to be fair, I doubt there are many she wouldn’t be friends with, given the chance — and is a strong advocate of volunteer work and doing one’s bit for humankind. She’s got a spontaneous soul and a big ol’ heart that she wants to share with the world. Happens to be a rather talented writer, too.
(Note: all photos supplied are Mariah’s. Some have been changed to black and white for style purposes).
I’ve realised kindness and hospitality transcend borders and cultures; so many people welcomed me into their homes, and treated me like family. I’ll forever be indebted to them.
Why do people travel?
Sometimes, it’s to get some perspective on life back home, and learn to appreciate what we have. To expand one’s culinary horizons, snap some staggering photos, or witness how others survive and thrive in different countries.
Pretty often, it’s because you’re trying to prove something to yourself, or escape from something else. To find one’s true self when lost and confused and tired and forced to pull it all together. Occasionally, it’s purely for the sake of checking places off a list, to satisfy the competitor inside all of us, or to seem cool and intrepid (because it’s impossible to be one without the other, right?).
For Mariah Friend, travel satisfies her curiosity, big humanitarian heart, and desire to seek out beauty in the present tense.
“From a young age, I had a sense there was more to life than my quiet Midwestern upbringing, and I was hungry to see it all,” Mariah says. “I’ve started to prefer rural destinations where I can get away from the typical tourist traps, and really dig into a culture and get to know the people.”
It’s not always simple to break away from the trails leading from city to city, marked by metaphorical flags of past travellers. To help propel her into places less worn, Mariah utilises work exchange platforms, such as Workaway, to find free accommodation (and often food) in exchange for volunteer work.
“My younger sister blazed the trail for me. She backpacked through Central America for three months on her own, and found Workaway by looking for volunteer opportunities. One of the highlights was working on a cocoa farm in Costa Rica, where she was involved in every aspect of making chocolate. Her positive experiences sold me on the idea [of work exchange],” Mariah says.
“My first experience was actually quite negative. I found a host in rural France who advertised a project restoring old cottages for rental. Unfortunately, the volunteers and I ended up doing heavy manual labour and remodeling work way above our skill level. Due to miscommunications with our host and unfair working conditions, we all staged a walkout, and left our host earlier than planned. It was a tough situation, but I learned a lot from that experience, and was more careful in choosing future hosts. Thankfully, my other experiences have been phenomenal.
“My longest exchange was with a non-profit organization in Ghana called The Anidaso Nsae Foundation. I fell so in love with teaching at a local school that I spent a total of five months living and working there with other international volunteers. The project, and young pastor who founded the organisation, inspired me to always strive to make a difference in my community, no matter how limited my resources,” she says.
When not teaching in Ghana or pulling weeds from around European farmhouses, Mariah spent much of her fourteen months abroad traipsing around France, guerilla camping in the woods and sipping grand crèmes in the ever-stylish capital – “Paris has been my sort of travel portal; a city I pass through on my way to other places, and a place I keep returning to. I think it will always have a sort of magical memory in my heart,” she says – and Couchsurfing and soaking up the vibe in seaside Moroccan towns.
“I honestly fall in love with every new place I see. My favourite country is usually the last one I’ve travelled to.”
Like most of us, Mariah has experienced her share of not-so-nice circumstances on the road, from being pickpocketed and losing her passport, to catching malaria and sleeping fitfully in a bed bug-infested hostel. But it’s her passion for the elusive, soul-enriching moments that only come from slowing down – the stillness – that keeps her going during rough times.
My best travel moments are usually the most unexpected ones: encountering that rare person you feel as if you’ve known your whole life, the life-changing conversations shared with strangers while smoking hookah or drinking a glass of wine, the certain ocean breeze that blows while you watch the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen fade away into night.
“These moments happen when I slow down long enough to be present, to breathe in the smells and energy of a new country and appreciate the stillness of Now. It’s usually not when I’m crossing off a must-see list of attractions, or rushing to the next destination!” Mariah says.
From one solo female traveller to another, I feel compelled to ask Mariah “the question” in regards to safety (if only to further dispel the myth that women are foolish to travel alone). She claims to have encountered a handful of situations in which she felt nervous, but not unsafe – even in places like Morocco and Africa, where I’ve certainly been urged to stay away from time and time again.
“I try to use common sense and follow my intuition to avoid any potentially bad situations,” she explains. “I know there is a lot of fear mongering when it comes to solo female travel, but my travels have taught me to have faith in the kindness of strangers.
“I’ve realised kindness and hospitality transcend borders and cultures; so many people welcomed me into their homes, and treated me like family. I’ll forever be indebted to them.”
Now, after more than one year abroad, Mariah decided to return to her home country and carve out a living in Nashville, Tennessee. With her extensive volunteering experience, she hopes to find work in the non-profit sector, assisting refugees.
“It’s been a challenge to return to the daily grind – but in some ways, I’m happy for a bit of stability and routine. I see it as taking a breather so that I can keep enjoying my future travels,” she says.
“I definitely have a lot of future travel plans. I’d hoped to spend some time travelling in Thailand and volunteering with the Pun Pun Organic Farm in Chiang Mai, but unfortunately, my plans fell through. So, Southeast Asia is definitely on my radar for the near future!”
If you’re a fellow solo female traveller, keen to save some cash while abroad, or want to volunteer, Mariah has these words of advice to impart.
“It’s important to strike a balance between planning ahead and leaving room for spontaneity on the road. Keep a sense of open wonder about you, and you’ll attract unique experiences. Be humble, stay grateful. Keep your heart open to the lessons travelling has to teach you. Skype whenever you can, as often as you need. Trust your instincts. Leave no trace except for the mark you leave on the people you meet,” she says.
Whenever you feel afraid, lean into that fear and call its name out loud. You’ll be surprised how quickly it disappears.