The Journey Home: Women Travel to Retrace Their Roots

Photo by Olaya Barr. Me In Chinese Mirror.
Photo by Olaya Barr. Me In A Chinese Mirror.
Olaya Barr is a translator, photographer, and writer living in New York. Her current photography projects revolve around diptychs, self-portraits, and the litter found on Brooklyn streets. olayabarr.com & @olayabarr

The combination of social media and television programs like “Who Do You Think You Are?” has made people increasingly aware of how impossibly big and, simultaneously, surprisingly small the world is. As women grow more interested in connecting with their roots, it’s no surprise that the allure of heritage travel is growing.

“A couple of years ago genealogy was found to be the second most popular hobby in America,” says Rafi Mendelsohn, director of PR & social media for MyHeritage, a leading platform for discovering, preserving and sharing family history. “As more people in society have a yearning to uncover their own family story and investigate their identity, genealogy has become increasingly popular.”

MyHeritage offers users across 196 countries access to 7.5 billion historical records—birth, marriage, and death certificates, newspapers, immigration papers and more—and claims the widest coverage of ethnicities of any service. Along with sites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and FindMyPast.com, MyHeritage offers “smart” technology that makes it easy to build your family tree. Even Mendelsohn has connected with an Australian relative through the tool, with plans to meet soon.

Photo by Olaya Barr. Me With Another Woman's Body.
Photo by Olaya Barr. Me With Another Woman’s Body.
Photo by Olaya Barr. Me With Hair Chunk.
Photo by Olaya Barr. Me With A Hair Chunk.

According to 23andMe, the first testing site to analyze genetic data and generate personal reports, human DNA is about 99.5 percent identical from person to person, but there are small variants that make each of us unique. Last year, MyHeritage jumped on board and also launched MyHeritage DNA, a kit that exposes those variants. Mendelsohn notes a “rising trend” in the number of people traveling to their hereditary homelands as a result of findings from research or DNA tests.

Finding a village not on a map

Take for example Aimee Cebulski, a 45-year-old San Diego-based writer and founder of the blog and corresponding book, “The Finding 40 Project.” Cebulski, who has traveled to 60 countries, accompanied her mother to Candia Canavese, Italy, in 2013, on a two-week-long quest to learn about her great-grandmother.

Cebulski soon discovered that many of their family records were not readily available. She and her mother were missing wedding and property records, for example, and information regarding family members who didn’t emigrate from Italy. So they hired a guide from their hotel to help them unearth archives and cross-check dates and names they already had on file.

 
“When you’re there, you get a sense of just how small my great-grandmother’s life must have been—and to choose to go to America, what an incredible adventure that must have been for her.”
 

With his help, the pair acquired quite a bit of information: “Things like finding the church where she was baptized and got married, finding the bakery that the family ran, the house—all of that was through our guide who took us to the records office, helped us pull records, and translated from Italian,” she explains.

But what stunned them more than any document was the “being there.”

“We knew that the town was small, but when you’re there, you get a sense of just how small my great-grandmother’s life must have been—and to choose to go to America, what an incredible adventure that must have been for her,” Cebulski says. “That really helped me appreciate what guts she had … It’s different than seeing it in a picture or reading about it in a book. When you walk into a church and you know, for my mom, this is where her grandmother was baptized, where her family went, it’s a very powerful experience.”

And it’s an experience that Cebulski was already familiar with. While traveling solo in Poland 10 years ago, Cebulski explored her father’s side.

Photo by Olaya Barr. Me At The Salon.
Photo by Olaya Barr. Me At The Salon.

She was staying in Krakow with intentions to visit the village from where her paternal great-grandfather had emigrated. She knew he’d had two brothers who’d stayed behind, but she had no records of them; she was equipped with only the most rudimentary sense of the place, scrap paper with notes from her father, and a few photographs. Cebulski again hired a guide, to both find the village of just a few hundred people—so small it’s not on most maps—and translate for her. She thought if she could just get there, she’d be able to snap some new photographs for her father to treasure.

“We just started knocking on doors of people’s houses and explaining what we were doing and who I was,” she remembers. “People were so friendly, they started pointing to other houses … And by pure luck, I actually found someone who is a second cousin to my father in this little village.”

The encounter was a surprise for everyone

“When the man opened the door, he looked just like my grandfather,” she says. “When I showed him the picture of my family, which included my dad, he pointed at the picture and started saying ‘Cebula,’ which is the Polish version of our last name.”

After inviting her in for lunch, they shared photographs and stories for hours. Cebulski’s guide then took her to the town church to uncover the baptismal, birth, marriage, and death records the family had never had. Her dad, whom she was able to call from the church, was overjoyed—though she wishes he could have been there to experience it himself.

Embarking on spiritual journeys

Cebulski’s wish is not unlike that of Elena Nikolova who, too, wished her mother could have experienced Saudi Arabia with her. But Nikolova wasn’t out to dig up family history; rather, she was traveling to understand her religious roots. The blogger at MuslimTravelGirl—the largest website covering Muslim and Halal travel—grew up Greek Orthodox on the island of Corfu, but later converted to Islam.

Nikolova remembers her “very normal Greek upbringing,” spending summers by the beach. Neither her family nor any of her friends identified as Muslim at the time.

“I grew up going to church every holiday,” she explains. “I was always interested in religion, but I never imagined I would become Muslim. This was until I went to the U.K. to study and started mixing with so many different cultures. It really triggered my curiosity, and the fact that I had so many friends who would cover [their hair].”

Nikolova’s family owned a hotel, at which she’d help out during busier summer months. It kindled her initial interest in travel and, since moving to the U.K. for university, she’s visited at least 30 countries and an estimated 100 cities.

“I really consider myself a citizen of the world,” she says. “I was born in Bulgaria, raised in Greece, and lived in the U.K. Six months ago, [my husband and I] made a move to the Middle East, to Qatar.”

While there, Nikolova pours her energy into MuslimTravelGirl and helping fellow Muslim women fund Umrah—a smaller pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia than Hajj, which happens once a year.

“It is a great opportunity to visit and pray in the holiest place for Muslims,” she explains. “During that time, you pray, enjoy the spirituality of the place, and take in the fact that you are in one of the most blessed places on Earth. I love it there.”

Nikolova didn’t know anything about Umrah before she converted to Islam and took the trip herself over Ramadan, the most sacred time of year. Like Cebulski had only photographs and was surprised to find her father’s cousin, Nikolova had only mere memories of watching Umrah on television and was surprised to find herself.

“I remember watching the news where they mentioned Umrah and how people prayed for about a minute,” she recalls. “I found it totally strange but … little did I know, 10 years on I would be one of these people. Life is a funny thing.”

For a long time, she didn’t want to embark on the journey because she didn’t feel ready and Umrah can cost thousands of dollars.

“A large portion of my site [is dedicated to] helping Muslims save as much as possible on their Umrah cost,” she says. She offers DIY Umrah courses that provide Muslims with tips on taking the trip for under 300 euros, as she managed to do.

“I don’t think there is a time you are ready to go; I just feel, as a Muslim, you have to go,” she says. “The energy, the people, the buildings, the history—it is surreal and very emotional. I usually turn into a crying baby because of the emotions.”

Returning to the country they fled

Emotional is an understatement for travel blogger Jen Morilla who, like Cebulski and Nikolova, decided to retrace her roots. Morilla’s background, however, is Cuban, and instead of remembering hearing the call to prayer on the news, she remembers hearing stories of Cuba’s communist government.

Morilla, who blogs at The Social Girl Traveler, is the first one in her family to visit Cuba in 40 years. In the 70s, when her mother was nine and her father 13, their families left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Morilla had the opportunity to visit Cuba on a press trip for her blog over her 28th birthday. She then extended her trip by five days to stay with her mother’s family and visit her father’s side—all of whom she’d only ever seen on Facebook.

“Because of a government, I never got to meet [some of my family],” she says. “I never got to have conversations with them; we could never take family photos—none of that. It was all taken away. And now we’re all adults; some are married and have kids, and generations have moved on … That hurts me so much because I’m all about family.”

This kind of detachment isn’t unusual for Cuban families, many of whom have been estranged as a result of the country’s repressive regime. For Morilla, the latter half of her trip was life-changing—it’s when she really got to witness “raw Cuba.”

“It gave me a greater appreciation for my culture altogether,” she says. “Being born and raised in a Cuban household, you hear the stories of how hard it was—communism, what it does and how the government can break a family. You hear it, but you don’t really experience it.”

While she says she went over there with an open mind and a keen curiosity, she was nonetheless taken aback by what she learned.

 
Morilla’s father told her that his family had a choice: stay in Cuba and face oppression and limited professional opportunities, or risk everything to move to America.
 

For example, Morilla’s family, like the vast majority of Cuban families, relies on the Libreta de Abastecimiento, or “Supplies Booklet”—a distribution system instituted in 1962 that entitles households to daily allowances of provisions like chicken, milk, and eggs—for their daily food intake.

Morilla’s father told her that his family had a choice: stay in Cuba and face oppression and limited professional opportunities, or risk everything to move to America. Morilla realized how grateful she is that her parents had the courage to leave, but also how difficult it was, and still is, for them.

“This is my home because my family and my place are here [in New Jersey],” she says. “I can grow up, grow old, have a family and still bring them back to this place. My parents couldn’t do that; they literally left everything behind. And it’s not just like it’s a home or property; it’s an entire culture.”

Morilla says she “couldn’t be more proud” to be Cuban and raised in America. “I speak fluent Spanish, I got to know all of my grandparents, and my Christmases, my traditions, and my morals are all Cuban … just in a different part of the world.”

She says the funniest similarity was the greasy but delicious food, which brought her back to running around her grandmother’s house at the age of five, as her grandmother cooked and yelled at her to stop chasing her siblings.

When she sat down to feast, her family was surprised by their similarities, too. They’d assumed Americans might all be picky eaters given how much we’re spoiled for choice.

“The way my mom and dad raised me was, whatever is at the dinner table, you’re going to eat it because it’s what is served—that’s something they taught us, that the most important things are a roof and a meal,” Morilla explains. “[Sharing a meal with them] was exactly like how I was raised, and that to me was just priceless.”

Photos by Olaya Barr. Left: Me With A Big Cake. Right: Me At The Jewelers.
Photos by Olaya Barr. Left: Me With The Big Cake. Right: Me At The Jewelers.
Photo by Olaya Barr. Me At The Dog Shop.
Photo by Olaya Barr. Me At The Dog Shop.

Taking a walk through history

While not all journeys home are as replete with surprises, emotions, and revelations, heritage travel is, indeed, becoming more accessible. Tour companies to facilitate expeditions like those of the aforementioned women grow in unison with increasing interest.

Family Tree Tours, for example, takes about 30 to 50 people per year on both intimate group and private tours. They specialize in German trips but offer several options for people interested in visiting ancestral hometowns all over the world. They’ll cross-check and verify customers’ ancestral sites and reach out to their country contacts to then make village contacts. Family Tree Tours can also coordinate rides for clients to those towns and prepare itineraries for them, including lectures by local historians and connections to assistants who can help with research.

“On our small group tours, we like to take our tour members back in time to learn how their ancestors lived,” says founder Kathy Wurth. “We learn this by visiting open-air history museums so they can see the types and styles of farms, homes, and businesses where their ancestors spent their lives.”

Wurth has done genealogy work since the late 1970s, when she helped her mother start to research her own family history. She found her grandfather’s home village in Lorraine, France, and was in contact with distant cousins. She even decided to visit them.

That experience was so impactful that she decided to turn her love for travel into a business that would allow others to feel the same thing. “Many years later, I met a friend who was in the travel industry and she helped me put my two passions together, genealogy and travel, and help people have that same emotional experience that I had,” Wurth explains.

She recalls one occasion when a tour member, a church organist, was able to play the organ at their ancestral hometown church, bringing visitors to tears. On another trip, a woman who had a picture of her grandmother in her hometown took the same photo 100 years later to the day.

“Many people have met distant cousins and, for most people who have spent years working on their genealogy research, just being in the place where their immigrant ancestors lived and left from is a very emotional experience. You see what they saw and feel what it must have felt like to know you were leaving and would never see this place again,” she adds. “[Heritage travel] really makes you appreciate how your life came to be.”