Welcome to the very first episode of Travel Chicks podcast! Watch or listen here, or read the transcript below. Then tell us what you thought in the comments below!
Melissa: Welcome to another episode of Travel Chicks, where we help you find your flow and say YES let’s go!
Today’s guest, I am so excited to have — I found her on Instagram … big surprise! Before we begin, I have to say, all of the photos that I’ve been following from you, Marielena, all the photos on your Instagram are absolutely incredible. I don’t know what kind of camera you use, or who is taking these photos, but I give you huge props.
So, let’s get started. How about you introduce who the heck you are and what you’re up to in the world.
Marielena: Yes, I am Marielena Smith. I am the founder of Epic 7 Travel, and I do adventure travel photography on all seven continents along with underwater, aerial, landscape and wildlife, along with my husband, he does a lot of our underwater and aerial as well.
Melissa: Wow, OK so that makes sense … why you have these incredible photos. So every single one of these photos has been taken on your trips?
Marielena: Yes. None of the photos on Instagram are stock. Those are all from trips that we have taken.
Melissa: Oh my goodness … so I’ve got to ask you, what inspires you to travel? You probably have a story … when was that first trip that you took and what inspires you to travel?
Marielena: It’s kind of a multi-factorial for me. I grew up with two parents who worked for the airlines. So I had a passport at six months old and became very comfortable on planes. I can now sleep in any moving vehicle — whether that be car, train, plane — very easily.
So that’s what first inspired my love of travel. And then in college I studied abroad in Sydney, Australia, and down there I met people for the first time who introduced me to the idea of kind of gap years.
I’d never heard of that, it’s not something I was familiar with in the US. And so I met people who were doing round-the-world trips for a year as part of their gap year, and I thought wow, what a great idea!
So I called my mom from Sydney, and said, “The day I graduate from college, I’m going to do a round-the-world trip,” and she said, “Where did you get this idea?”
So that planted the seed for my first round-the-world trip. But before I left for that, when I left Siydney, I was travelling through Australia and New Zealand, and I met a couple in their 60s black water rafting in New Zealand.
They said to me, “We’re really excited to see you travelling while you’re young. Take advantage of these opportunities, don’t wait until you’re retired, don’t wait for that rainy day,” they said, “because we’re both in our 60s and many of the adventures we had hoped to have, we have health issues that are now precluding us from doing that. So do it while you’re young.”
So I have taken that to heart, and I typically travel to two or three new countries a year. I have been to 65 countries on all seven continents.
Melissa: That’s so incredible. Just hearing your story inspires me even more because my daughter, who just turned three, has already been to 10 countries and counting. And so listening to your story about “I’ve had a passport since six months old,” it’s just … what better education can we give our children? What you’ve learnt as a child growing up with travel is almost like part of your foundation of who you are.
Marielena: Oh, absolutely.
Melissa: So my question is: how do you think travel can actually have the power to transform lives?
Marielena: I think travel continually energizes people. I’ve seen that as I’ve travelled with people and kind of wildlife that I witness, but I think it makes you a more confident person, more open-minded, and it expands your horizons in numeral ways.
And I think it gives you an ability to experience places in a much deeper way.
In high school, I didn’t have a deep interest in history, and now I’m a huge history buff. And so I love travelling to these places and reading about these ancient places that you’ve read about and heard about your entire life.
So I would say Angkor Wat has been my favourite, followed by Machu Picchu and the Pyramids. But it’s astounding to be able to stand in front of those places and think about how they were constructed during that period of time when there were no modern construction vehicles available. It’s just mind-boggling. And it would be mind-boggling to do those things today, much less in the era in which they were built.
Melissa: And that was actually one of my next questions: out of all the places that you’ve been, what would your top three be?
Marielena: That is a great question. Antarctica is my number one. My husband and I, for milestone birthdays, decided to visit our seventh continent in our seventh year together. We only intended it to be this milestone trip, but it actually served as the impetus to leave my medical device marketing career and chase this dream of travel photography and writing.
A number of people on board said, “Oh, who are you with?” and I’d say, “Have you met my husband, Jason?” And they’d say, “That’s not what we meant, we meant what outlet are you with because your photography is really great and your stories are inspiring.”
And so two weeks after that trip, I came back and resigned to chase this dream. It has been the most awe-inspiring, breathtaking place I’ve ever visited, but it has also been the most life-changing, given that I decided to take that leap after the trip.
I would say my second other favourite place has been Papua New Guinea. It’s about as off the grid as you can get and truly [feels like] stepping back in time. The island was first travelled and discovered by outsiders in 1935, and the last documented case of cannibalism was in 1965.
And so visiting and being able to see the festivals that take place — most of them are in the fall — as well as the diving there, it’s some of the most pristine diving. On average I think they get about 1200 visitors a year. I think that number has gone up — we visited in 2010. So I would say that is a second favourite.
And third favourite, I would say Africa in general. We’ve had some amazing, touching experiences there, the most touching being trekking to see Dian Fossey’s Susa troop, which is portrayed in Gorillas in the Mist.
That was something that I had admired … her and Birute Galdikas, who studied the orangutans, and Jane Goodall with the chimpanzees, so those have been three of my idols since I was very, very young, so to get to see the troop that she studied was really transformative for me.
Melissa: Oh my goodness! Just listening to this … I can’t even imagine how people would not want to venture out in the world because at the end of the day, what is life about? We don’t take any of this material stuff with us, and these experiences that you’ve just shared, and these places that you’ve visited, it’s inspiring me to want to go to these places.
I myself, have never been to Antarctica or Africa or Papua New Guinea. And wow, I didn’t even realize that Papua New Guinea had so much history.
Marielena: Oh, yes, and it’s stunning! The entire reason that a lot of travellers go in is to see those festivals, and the reason those festivals started was to decrease warfare between the tribes.
Within Papua New Guinea, there are 700 different languages spoken, and the thought was, “Let’s provide awareness and recognition for the tribes.” And these beautiful costumes that they wear, and the face paint, and the way that they’ve been decorated and designed, and to see the dances, it was just extraordinary to experience that.
And then seeing people that live in a very different way … and depending on whether you’re in the highlands versus down lower near the rivers, the way of life is very different in terms of the way they’re harvesting and farming, etc.
Melissa: Wow, so I’m curious, when is the best time to go there?
Marielena: Tends to be, I would say, with the festivals. Most of those are September/October because if you go in the middle of our summer, it is stifling hot. I will still say it’s pretty stifling hot, it’s a very hot and humid place.
The festival we went to was the Goroka Festival. That’s held in September each year.
There is also one called the Mount Hagen Festival. So I would highly encourage if you do visit, to schedule it around one of the festivals.
But also it’s a place that, when visiting, you really need to book through a tour operator that can handle everything … just because it’s relatively new to tourism, but there are safety concerns that pop up there.
Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea is considered, by some, to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. So you land and then take off to other places.
But tribal warfare and different things escalate at various times, so you want to keep an eye on that before you visit. But we are looking at when we can next get back there because we loved it so much.
Melissa: Cool. So what advice would you, or could you, give somebody who is sitting on the fence, and afraid to take that leap to start exploring outside their own city?
Marielena: I understand how that can be intimidating. Right before the first round-the-world trip that I did, I did with someone I was dating. But I also did a round-the-world trip again … well, I guess it wasn’t around the world, it was Asia … but I did that just before business school. I did it completely on my own.
I went through China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. All I had was a plane ticket in and a plane ticket out.
I think it allows you to discover a lot about yourself. You realize that you’re stronger than you are, even if you’re more introverted, you’ll become a bit more extroverted to meet people. And I think you’ll be continually surprised by the kindness of strangers.
I had a really tough time travelling on that trip in China. It was 2002, and I do not expect anywhere I go for people to speak English, so I’m going to make an attempt to speak their language. And Chinese is a very difficult one. And signage and things were not in English, so it was very difficult for me to understand.
I rolled into a town very late at night, it was one in the morning, on this bus, and there was this man and woman who said, “You don’t speak the language and finding a place to stay will be very difficult.” I was on the Vietnam border getting ready to cross the next morning, and they said, “Come with us.”
Now, they could have drugged me, robbed me, but I had to trust my gut and instinct that these were good people. And they introduced me, they took me to an area with some great street food that I did not get sick from. They introduced me to lychees, which are still my favourite.
And the next morning they said … it was a businessman and woman … they said, “We’ll have our driver drive you all the way into Hanoi,” so all of this rigmarole I was going to have to do at the border, they took care of all that.
This was just a random meeting at one in the morning and just trusting my gut. So I think that … the kindness of strangers is one of the things that will really open your eyes. Particularly with a lot of what’s going on in the world these days. So being able to see that and have your belief in humanity reaffirmed is a great reason to travel.
Melissa: And what is the number one thing that you will not leave your house without when travelling?
Marielena: Obviously, my camera. As a photographer, that always comes with me, that’s very important. But I’ll name two other things because they have become absolutely key for me.
One is the SteriPEN UV filter.
Sustainable travel is really important to me and I have not bought anything in a plastic bottle in three years anywhere in the world, and the SteriPen has allowed me to do that. So you can fill up your Nalgene bottle from the tap, and for 90 seconds you can use this UV light — and you can buy it from REI, from Amazon, it costs less than $100, and it removes viruses, protozoa, bacteria from the water.
It is amazing. I’m heading out for a trip to Bhutan shortly, so I’ll be using that there, but I have used it all over the world.
Melissa: So do you just pour the water into a cup and then put this thing in?
Marielena: Yes. I travel with a large Nalgene bottle — it needs to be a wide-mouth bottle — and then you just stir your UV filter, it has a UV light in there, and then it gives you a smiley face at the end to tell you that it’s been completely purified.
I’ve gotten violently ill in China, India and Egypt, to the point of almost hospitalization. And in India I was told it was filtered water that I was drinking from a 4-star hotel … and it was not. So this way I absolutely know that it was sterilized. And I’m not having to contribute any plastic in these countries that don’t have any recycling facilities, so that makes me feel great as well.
The second thing is … I am very prone to motion sickness. And being a scuba diver and travelling all over the world, and having crossed the Drake’s Passage, which many would say is the most treacherous passage to cross in the world. You can get 40-foot waves within that passage — we only hit 10- to 15-foot waves but that still will send your stomach on a bit of a roller coaster ride.
The Reliefband has been game changing for me.
It was originally developed for women with morning sickness or patients going through chemotherapy. It was previously only available in Canada and Europe. It is now available in both of those places as well as the US without a prescription.
You can buy that from ReliefBand.com, but you can use it on small planes, trains … I’ve used it on winding roads as well as boats. They don’t do a lot of marketing. But I recommend it to every traveller who expresses they have motion sickness and it will be game changing for them as well.
Melissa: Wow, two things that I haven’t even heard about. Thank you!
At the end of the day, if we have people, especially photographers who would like to join you, or travellers or bloggers, how can people get a hold of you?
Marielena: My blog is Epic7Travel.com. For those that are in the Bay area, I have started running local photo workshops to share all that I’ve learned. I’ve attended 8 photo workshops around the world, so now I’m teaching a lot of those tenets here.
I’m also starting to run international tours. Bhutan is my first offering in 2020, so that’s why I’ll be in Bhutan in November of 2019, scouting for that tour.
You can reach me on my website, and I’m the same “Epic7Travel” across all social media: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram.
Melissa: OK, and with your upcoming adventure trips that you’re doing, that will also be posted on your website?
Marielena: Yes. I will start marketing the Bhutan trip in December once I return because I want the brochure I’m going to create to be with all of my own photography. It’s customized with only six travellers joining and with a lot of behind-the-scenes access to festivals, schools, monasteries, etc.
So I’m really excited to share this ‘magical kingdom of happiness,’ is what Bhutan is known as, with others.
Melissa: Amazing. I want to thank you for taking the time out to share your travel insight and wisdom and knowledge. Thank you!
Marielena: Thanks for having me! It’s been a fun conversation — I always love chatting travel.
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