Ancestry Travel: How These Women Explored Their Roots

by | Dec 2, 2019

Exploring your roots through travel
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Last updated on March 26th, 2024

What inspires journeys of the heart to ancestral homelands?

By Amanda Burgess, Editor, JourneyWoman

Travel stirs the senses, engages mind and body, and fills the soul. But tracing your roots on a journey to the lands of your ancestors? There’s a special place in a traveler’s heart for that.

What inspires these journeys of the heart to ancestral homelands? Some trips, like Tara T.’s to Iceland two years ago, are motivated by family stories and a desire to maintain a softening heritage. “I’m the oldest grandchild and was interested in my Grandma’s stories of her Icelandic heritage,” she says. “My sister and brother have passed away, and my cousins were either younger or not as interested in the family stories. I realized my niece and nephew and my cousins’ kids (and their kids) knew next to nothing about this part of their heritage. I knew some of the family history in Iceland and immigration to North America, but there were gaps. So when the opportunity arose to participate in the Snorri Plus heritage program, I decided it would be a perfect opportunity to combine learning about my heritage with travel.”

Barnafoss waterfall in Iceland
Barnafoss, The Children’s Falls. Photo snapped by Tara T on her roots journey to Iceland

Others, like Jo-Anne W’s to Scotland three years ago, are inspired by a family’s lack of stories.

“My grandparents emigrated to Vancouver, BC separately in the early 1900s, and met in Vancouver. Unfortunately, my grandfather died before I was born and my grandmother when I was about six months old,” she recounts. “I therefore never heard any stories about Scotland, and my dad says they never talked much about the ‘old country.’ This just made me more curious as to what kind of life they had in Scotland and what stories the family history could tell.”

Seeing family members making sojourns to explore shared roots and hearing their tales can issue a call through the blood as well. That’s exactly what happened to Shirley A. when her father and uncle visited Ukraine.

A man and woman with a walking sticks standing in front of a white door

Jo-Anne W’s father George and Aunty Shirley in Auchencairn, Scotland

“My grandfather came to Canada with his parents and siblings in the late 1800s. My father, the youngest of 11 children, always wanted to go to the village my grandfather came from,” she says. “Dad and Uncle Phil went on a tour and were able to find the village, about 45 minutes outside of Chernisiv. After Dad’s trip, I found myself wanting to take the same trip, and did so in 2006.”

For some people, visiting ancestral land is enough. They feel the call, they make the trek, they feel the pull of those deep and winding roots – and are satisfied. Others, deeply curious and motivated by a desire to document and preserve family history, dig deeper.

“Iceland has detailed genealogy records going back for centuries. The Snorri program provided me a detailed record of generations going back to when my family first immigrated to Iceland,” Tara says. “And I decide to document as much of the family’s Icelandic history as possible so it will be available for future generations when they want to explore this part of their heritage.”

No matter how carefully you plot out your genealogy or journey to explore those roots, almost nothing can prepare you for the deluge of emotions that engulf you the moment you set foot on ancestral soil. “I’ve been researching our family tree for over 40 years and have a big interest in history in general, and Scotland in particular,” says Jo-Anne, who made a second journey to Scotland three years ago with her family to explore the villages her father’s maternal family hails from.

“I felt a sense of ‘coming home’ on both my first and second trip to Scotland,” she says.

Some people feel a deeper connection to nuclear and extended family who have made the same journey to homelands

“Landing in Iceland brought back memories of family members who had traveled in Iceland and the stories they told of their trips,” muses Tara. “The trip from the airport to Reykjavik takes about half an hour and takes you through a lava field. The combination of travel fatigue and the foreignness of the landscape emphasized the uniqueness of the country.”

Sometimes emotions hit you because going back to your roots meaning coming home again; replace meaning with mean

Riguhey A. left Colombia as 17 in search of a better life for her and her infant daughter, ultimately leaving her baby in her mother’s care. Seven years later, her life was stable once again, and she returned for her daughter.

A woman standing in front of a row of red houses in Iceland
Photo taken by Tara T while exploring her ancestry in Iceland

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“It’s bittersweet. As the plane approaches the runway, I look out of the window and see the beautiful mountains, a Vallenato – very traditional Colombian music – is playing through my headphones, and tears roll down my cheeks,” she says. “They are tears of joy, accomplishment, but also sadness to know that this place where I was born feels completely foreign to me. My only connection to it is my daughter and family.”

Connection is something Marlene R. feels when she discovers that she was once stood near the place where her paternal grandfather is buried in New Zealand. Her parents separate and divorce when she is young, but her mom remarries and she is gifted with an amazing stepfather, so she has no desire to shake down her paternal family tree – until her father dies in 2008 and she and her brother receive boxes upon boxes of papers and photos.

“We find our grandfather’s passport and documents in the boxes, and I send a money order and inquiry away to Vital Statistics and discover that our paternal grandfather is buried on the south island, and I had been less than 2 kilometres from the cemetery in 2008 on a 10-day trip to New Zealand,” she says. “I feel such a sense of melancholy – and the wonderment and amazement of karma. Had I known, I would have stopped in Lawrence and looked up his final resting place. I have a thing that no one should die alone, and often wonder what the circumstances around his last days and minutes were – and if there is an acknowledgement or marker where his remains are now.”

Whatever travelers might expect when they embark on journey to explore their roots, they almost always come home with more in their suitcases or backpacks than they expected.

“I have a deeper connection to my Icelandic heritage and a strong love for the country. One of the Snorri program participants was from Michigan and her great-great-grandfather and mine were brothers. Our families didn’t know each other,” Tara recounts. “We became good friends, have visited each other’s homes, and have traveled together. As well as sharing some common heritage, we have a lot in common and enjoy each other’s company – a wonderful bonus from an amazing trip.”

The President's Residence, Iceland
The President’s Residence, where Tara T went for coffee with the President of Iceland
An old small white building in Scotland
The butchershop where Jo-Anne W’s great-great-grandmother had her butcher shop in Auchencairn, Scotland

Other travelers return home with a deeper appreciation of the historic harshness of ancestral land, and the hardiness of their family lines.

“One of the things I took away from the trip is how resilient my ancestors were, and the hardships they endured – especially the women,” says Jo-Anne. “My great-great-grandmother’s husband died when he was only 30, leaving her a single mother with five young daughters. She started a butcher shop and slaughterhouse and just got on with life.”

She was struck by her ancestor’s resilience, and notes that her five daughters inherited it as well. “My great grandmother and her husband bought the butcher shop from my great-great grandmother who then opened up a store in the village,” she says. “The feeling I have when I hear her story is one of gratitude that I live in the time that I do – I’m also grateful that my great grandmother emigrated to Vancouver and started the family on a path to good health and prosperity. We are very fortunate.”

Still others find themselves and their perspectives changed. “When I left Colombia, I saw it as a cruel place,” says Riguhey. “When I return in 1999, I am able to see the beauty, the possibilities, the love and pride people had for their heritage. The highlight? Holding my daughter in my arms and walking into the American consulate to get her passport stamp. This experience teaches me that even the scariest, most impossible dreams can come true if we commit to them heart and soul.”

Travel changes you, but perhaps no trip quite as much or as lastingly as the ones we take to explore our roots – and ourselves.

Have you taken a journey of the heart to the lands of your ancestors? Share it with us at [email protected].


Amanda Burgess is a Toronto-based writer and creative strategist whose bags are always packed for her next adventure. She is a Certified Cancer Journey Coach who creates a safe space for cancer patients and caregivers to design their dream lives – while living with cancer, and on the other side of it. Amanda freelanced for JourneyWoman until December 2021.


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