Marielena Smith of San Francisco, California, was in medical device marketing for 12 years, working 70 hours a week.
Well-traveled, it was her dream to visit to her seventh continent in seven years--a trip to Antarctica--that inspired her to make the biggest change of her life in 2016.
"I was so inspired by the photographers and conservationists on-board, and people had said, 'Oh, where can I see your work?' And I said 'Oh no, I work 70 hours a week, you will only see what's on here.' So after that trip, I got to thinking more about it, and I thought this isn't even my target market and so many people said: 'I'm really inspired. You've been to 65 countries, I'd like to learn more from you, you've inspired me to visit other places.'
"So two weeks later, I came back and resigned from my medical device marketing career to chase a dream with regards to travel photography and writing."
But it wasn't easy. For the first time in her life, Smith had no plan.
"It was funny, my CEO at the time had said, 'Well, you've always had a five- or 10-year plan, what's your five-year plan? And I said, for the first time in my life...I'm going to fly by the seat of my pants and see where this takes me, and it has been an absolutely amazing journey with the people that I've met, what I've learned, the way that I've grown. Every day is different, and you're wearing 20 different hats as an entrepreneur and a travel blogger, but it's the greatest career that I've had."
But she used her public relations, writing, and marketing skill sets, and other people's love of her photography inspired confidence in her.
Her adventure blog, Epic 7 Travel, was born the next year.
"Because the seventh continent played such a big role, and then the 'Epic' stands for empowering, propel, ignite, and connect with adventure-seekers all over the world."
By then, she'd already visited 65 countries.
"So I'd had the opportunity to travel to London and Puerto Rico, but it was really studying abroad in Australia, when I was in college, and I met people on a gap year, which I'd never heard of, and that's what really incited the travel bug."
After graduation, she set off to see the world.
"And sampled Asia, Africa, and Europe, then it was 'Where do I return?' And then I had taken up scuba diving, so that continues to expand the pie."
Her adventurous spirit has taken her to some other-worldly destinations.
"Papua New Guinea is one that, while we were there, my husband was questioning: 'What are we doing?" Because there were carjackings at machete point that had taken place a week before we got there. But to me, I was like 'What are the odds of that?' I traveled many places that may be having security issues, and we didn't have any issues while we were there. It was absolutely amazing, but it is like stepping back in time, the society was first discovered, if you will, in 1935, and the last documented case of cannibalism was in 1965...some of the articles that we had read or people had shared that during World War II, with cannibalism, they had developed a taste for Japanese meat, and my husband is Japanese, so that gave him a little bit of trepidation."
"But people were absolutely wonderful, the festivals...the reason they started those festivals was to quell the warfare between the tribes, and so it's wonderful in terms of how they bright people together and made that more to share that culture with the outside world with one another and kind of share and appreciate versus having that cause tribal issues."
And she's seen things under the water, you can't even imagine.
"Two things--pygmy seahorses are my all-time favorite critters--they're the size of a grain of rice; they're teeny tiny so you need guides to point them out...and we were just in Raja Ampat in Indonesia in April, which is very off-the-grid. It took us about 50 hours to get back from there--it's about four stops. But we had a sea fan that had 15 pygmy seahorses on it, so to see them jumping between the fan and moving around the fan it's very special because some of these fans can be 100 years old, so they're these beautiful, prolific fans under water. Then, whale sharks has been our other most special experience, so we just got to in Raja for the first time scuba drive with whale sharks--we snorkeled with them in four different places in the world, but this was our first time on scuba, which was really, really amazing, so we got kind of the silhouette shots that we wanted of them coming right at us, mouths open to see the gullet.
Divers pioneered the area, and when she went to Papua New Guinea for the first time in 2010, just 1,200 people a year were visiting, making the waters absolutely in great condition.
"It's such pristine untouched rain forest, that there's not the ability....at that point there were some oil companies coming in, so there were some roads being built, and some of the rain forest was being razed for that, but to be able to see that from above and see a truly untouched landscape is really special to see. But it does limit, in terms of travel, you've got to kind of fly place to place, it is very difficult to drive place to place, and of course, it's an island nation so many of those places you're going require a flight or boat."
She's had some close calls on her solo travels, too.
"My mom used to say you have nine lives, and I think I've used eight of them because I've had a number of close calls around the world. I've been extremely sick in a few countries...close to hospitalization. I now, as a result of that, I always travel with a SteriPEN...I haven't used a plastic bottle anywhere in the world; I use my SteriPEN to sterilize water but it's because one of the sickest incidents that I had was from supposed bottled water, so they had refilled a bottle, and I had severe food poisoning.
"I was in a near bus accident in Vietnam, and I messed up my knee in another one where we almost kind of flew off the side of a cliff so kind of teetering and looked at it, but I've always viewed it as part of the adventure.
"People have helped me out, complete strangers. I picked up a parasite in northern China--didn't know that that's what I had--and another traveler diagnosed me on a bus and gave me the medicine that I needed, so the kindness of strangers will amaze you, and I think that's one of the continuing themes I've seen throughout the world that gives me a lot of hope in humanity."
It's all of these experiences combined that have fueled Smith's strong desire to inspire others to travel.
"I'm very accident-prone, and I have no sense of direction, and so people are like 'You can travel all over the world by yourself?' And now I travel with my husband, but many of these countries were visited on my own, so it instilled confidence in others that they could do the same with those same challenges."
"To me, it's really, really rewarding, and one of things that I didn't expect is the number of people who now reach out and say 'I've decided to get certified in scuba diving because you've removed some of that fear and anxiety that I have surrounding it,' and the photography, they said, is what put them over the edge of, 'Wow I didn't know a world like this existed under the water.'"
In 2020, Epic 7 Travel plans to offers intimate group tours to off-the-grid destinations in hopes of expanding opportunities for people who might be intimidated to go to certain destinations. Smith is scouting sites for the trip now.
"I will be doing groups of six. Bhutan is the first country I'll be running in 2020...and I'm getting special access for festivals, monasteries, schools, with llamas, incredible view points, and so I've spent a lot of time really customizing that itinerary to make it special for those who join."
That trip will cost about $7,000, but you've still got to get yourself to Bangkok. Fees for tourists, not including the cost of a visa, can be up to $290 a day in high season and $240 a day in low season, if you're traveling alone, according to unusual traveler.
"Bhutan is an expensive destination. One of the things I find most exciting, it is the only carbon-negative country in the world, and they have a very strong sustainability focus, so my trip that I'm offering will be two-weeks, there will be a trekking add-on option, and for the trekking they weigh everything that's going in, and then they have to weigh it coming back out, to ensure that every piece of trash that's generated comes back off the trail so that there's nothing left behind because the pollution in beautiful places like Iceland--people are just leaving places--Bhutan has done a great job. For every person that visits each day $65 goes towards education so every child is guaranteed education through high school as well as health care."
Her tours will be cultural in nature, but she also runs photo and visual storytelling workshops
On tap for her 2020 travels aside from leading a trip to Bhutan, Eastern Greenland, photographing tigers in India, and Kwakas in western Australia.
"So they look like tiny little kangaroos, and they are always smiling, and everybody does selfies with them, but I learned about them on Instagram, and they are the cutest critters, so western Australia is high on the wish list as well."
But for her, Antarctica will always hold a special place in her heart.
"I describe it, and particularly for me given what it led to, as awe-inspiring, mind-blowing, and life-changing, and it's a pristine beauty like nothing you've ever seen, and I never thought that the grays and blues that you could see--I never realized that there's that many different gradients that can exist within those spectrums, and it's so silent, and so pristine, and being able to see the animals in such close proximity.
And the greatest wildlife spectacle I've ever seen is in a sub-Antarctic island called South Georgia, and you land on this beach...but 250,000 king penguins on one beach, and so the cacophony associated with that, the color, the sound, the smell is a little overwhelming, but it took a while, my brain was on overload trying to process what I've was looking at it. I posted these pictures on my blog and on Instagram, and people asked me, "Did you Photoshop and did you copy these penguins across?" I'm like no that's what the scene looks like, and it holds a very special place in my heart because it's what led me to pivot and say 'I am so passionate about this, how can I share this with others?' And make others realize it's an achievable goal. We had saved for it for a number of years, but there's ways you can do it on a discount if you're down on your schway and it's last-minute, and we've been fortunate to go back twice; we had said we'll go back again in 10 years."