Lessons from our Mothers: Karen’s Adventurous Spirit

by | May 4, 2022

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Last updated on May 5th, 2024

Featured image: Karen with her mother, Ruth, on her 100th birthday, with her brother Donnell on the left

A lifetime of travel, cultivated in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia

by Carolyn Ray

Growing up in the small mining town of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, population 24,000, Karen Barclay, now 78, never could have imagined how much her mother’s sense of compassion and adventure would affect her life.  

“My mother is one of the most caring, compassionate, brave and insightful people I have known,” says Karen. “When I was in high school, she went back to school (having been sent out to work to support her family since the 10th grade), graduated top of her class, taught school for years, as well as volunteer tutoring disadvantaged neighbourhood children.”

Her mother passed away peacefully this week, close to age 105, in Nova Scotia.  

“When I reflect on the difficult childhood she had, and to see the remarkable, giving, lifelong learner mother I have been gifted, I cannot believe my good fortune,” Karen says. “Her ability to self-reflect, to grow, to adapt, is admirable. She has also inspired me and many other people with her sense of adventure. My parents travelled extensively, to Indonesia, Africa, Europe, Russia, Asia, and even camped across the entire U.S. in a VW Westphalia for an entire year.”

Many of the places Karen’s parents travelled to, like Cuba and Russia (then the USSR), were considered dangerous in the 1970s. Her father, an electrician, was the eldest of 11 living children. “My parents were involved in social outreach, the peace movement, and totally dedicated to family life, including their siblings and cousins,” she says. ”It was a very joyful community, always pulling together, helpful, kind, compassionate.” 

“I grew up in a very globally oriented family,’ she said, when I met with her in her apartment in Toronto, which is a colourful testament to her worldly travels to countries like India, Bosnia, Vietnam, Israel, Antarctica, Jordan, Papau New Guinea and Russia — to name only a few. “We were all so curious about the world.  I knew every country in the world. I knew their leaders. I knew their political system. I knew a bit about their culture.” 

What else did Karen learn from her parents? Trust. “My parents were trusting,” she recalls. “They’d invite people in off the streets to stay for a few days. No fear. Trust comes early on as well. Trusting the universe, trusting the environment. And I guess the community I grew up in too.”

Karen Barclay in front of Banias Falls, Sea of Galilee, Israel

Karen stands in front of Banias Falls, Sea of Galilee, Israel

Karen Barclay in St Petersburg, Russia

Karen in St Petersburg, Russia

Located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Glace Bay was where the first official transatlantic exchange of radio messages was transmitted by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Karen’s father and brother had short-wave radios that let them connect with people in countries around the world. 

“These letters would come in with stamps from different countries,” she recalls. “One of my brother’s pen pals was from Warsaw, Poland. One day the letter arrived from a woman in Poland and he opened it to find a medal with the coat of arms of Poland. He was delighted, and then read the letter, which said: ‘this is for your sister, Karen.’ I wore it on a chain around my neck. It was just a beautiful little pendant from Poland. I had this sort of family. Travel was just the next extension of that.”

Finding new adventures with her husband

By the time Karen met her husband Jim, she had travelled extensively, and was eager for more. 

Karen at Mostar Bridge Bosnia

Karen at Mostar Bridge, Bosnia

“He had recently returned from a year-long backpacking trip to Africa, India, Afghanistan, Europe with a colleague and I found that intriguing. He was an engineer, working on his MBA, the strong, silent type,” she remembers.  

“After we married in 1967, we both had this travel bug,” she said. Three years in, they applied to work on development projects overseas with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). CIDA, which was created in 1968 to support sustainable development in developing countries. Applicants were evaluated, trained and sent to work in countries around the world. 

We said we’d go anywhere,” she says, but people didn’t travel in those days. “We were posted to go to Uganda, but when we were in Ottawa, we were told it was too dangerous to go to Uganda. Instead, they posted us to Nairobi. When I said that I was going to Nairobi, people said ‘are you nuts? You’re going with a toddler!’

How Kenya stole her heart

Karen lived in Kenya for five years, from 1973 to 1978, and raised her two son, Ross, there. She says her heart is in Africa, and that she’d go back in a minute. 

“I guess I was 27 or 28,” she says. “When I arrived, my first thought was ‘why didn’t I come here years ago?’

For two years, Karen volunteered in a slum in Nairobi with other expat women, including her dear friend Jeannette. “We set up a feeding program for children,” she remembers. “Then, I was offered a job at the American embassy as a foreign service nurse. I went from the slum into the elite and both were equally fascinating, believe it or not. I would have worked free of charge. It was so interesting because we covered Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Rwanda, Tanzania. Wonderful people.” 

“It was like a grand adventure, that whole five years we were there,” she says. “You’re living in these countries where everyone is just like you, meaning that they’re adventurous. They will go anywhere, the most ungodly places at the drop of a hat if they have someone to go with. We had all of these amazing trips to Lake Turkana (a lake in the Kenyan Rift Valley) and Uganda.” 

But she also saw that Kenya wasn’t for everyone. “I met so many women from the embassy who never adapted, never adjusted,” she says. “There was this crisis and that crisis and this fear and that fear. They left and went back to Canada or the US.” 

Giraffes stand against the Nairobi skyline in Kenya

The Dani Tribe, Baliem Valley, West Papua New Guinea ( Irian Jaya) around 1985/ Photograph provided by Karen Blarclay

Volunteering in Indonesia

After Kenya, Karen and her husband went to Bandung, West Java, about four hours from Jakarta. 

“I did volunteer work the entire five years,” she says. “It was fascinating as well. In Nairobi, I was hands on with volunteer work. In Indonesia, I didn’t speak to the language and I’m not good at languages. I joined a group of expats and locals called Helping Hands.” 

The group worked with NGOs like Care Canada, and helped fund libraries, latrines for the poor and invited local artists to display their art to help them promote their work. 

“I read for blind people,” she remembers. “There were a lot of blind students, so I would go to their homes once a week. Then I taught conversational English at the university in Bandong. That was one of the most delightful experiences I’ve ever had. Indonesians are very reserved. They’ve been so socialized to not expose themselves in any way, any vulnerability at all. I sent them home with magazines from Canada and the next day we’d talk in class about it. They loosened up a lot with me. They had a sense of humor. What they thought of North American society was what they had seen on Dallas.”

Karen at a Bandung Indonesia Fundraiser

Hosting a fundraising dinner in Bandung, Indonesia

Climbing Mt Bromo Central Java, Indonesia

Climbing Mt Bromo in Central Java, Indonesia

What her children learned through travel 

“I find travel is such a confidence builder and enhancer,” Karen says. 

Karen’s son Ross was seven when they left Nairobi, and 11 when we went to Indonesia. Her daughter Alison was six.  

“They’re really global citizens,” she says. “I think they learned that the world is a very user-friendly place. People are wonderful no matter who they are. They’ve learned that they can, they’ve found their voice I think the way I have.”

To parents who might be fearful of traveling with young children, Karen suggests challenging their mindset. 

“I would say try to explore your mindset and maybe challenge it somewhat,” says Karen. “Be open to expanding it because if you already had a mindset you’re not going to go anywhere, you’re not going to travel. It happens in your head before you can translate it to somebody else. You can’t sell something to someone you’re not committed to yourself. 

Or explore what your fears are and what was holding you back from doing what you want your children to do. It’s like any unexplored life of the parents, you know? Telling your children to do something that you are not willing to do.”    

Karen’s mom, Ruth, recently passed away, just weeks from her 105th birthday. From her, Karen says she learned love, forgiveness, courage, resilience, and so much more. 

“She became intentional in taking every opportunity to tell her family how much she loved and appreciated them, and never knowingly let anyone down, in any way,” says Karen. “Her unconditional love and support never wavered, and her giving was with NO expectations attached. She and I became quite a team. We became role models for each other.”

“She exemplifies the best of human qualities and values with her unconditional love, kindness, compassion, charity, consciousness, dignity, humour and equilibrium in adversity. Her ability to have gratitude for even the simplest of things is quite remarkable. She never judges and manages to see and to bring out the best in everyone. One of her idols was Gandhi. He was on a hunger strike when she was a young girl and she said she would fret and worry that he might die as he was so thin.  Quotes of Gandhi’s were posted on our cupboard.  Her favourite, oft quoted poem was Abou Ben Adem.”

Four generations of world travellers

Four generations of world travellers…Karen, mom, Allie, Sophie

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Travel as an antidote to fear

During the pandemic, Karen felt out of practice from her many years of travel. 

“I was in India before COVID running around Delhi on my own, using the subway system,” she says. “I thought I could do anything, I mean anything.” 

But the pandemic slowed her down, despite many years of solo trips to the Middle East, Europe, and Mexico.  

“I had to get back in the groove again,” she says, so she booked a three-week tour to Mexico. “Each day in San Miguel I was trying to orientate myself. Every day I’d say ‘are you having fun yet?’ I was like ‘no’. And then I would say ‘okay Karen, get rid of your attitude. You’re in Mexico. You’re getting lost. Get up already.” 

“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” she advises. “I’ve got my old self back. It took a few days.”  

However, Karen also knows that travel isn’t for everybody. “I have friends who haven’t traveled and they’re very COVID nervous and they’ll say ‘what do you suggest?’ And I feel like saying ‘stay home’.  Because you meet people who are fearful. They’ve been dragged there by a daughter or a mother or a brother, somewhere and they’re not at ease in the world.”

Karen swimming in a cenote on her most recent trip to Mexico.

What’s next for Karen

Next on Karen’s list? She’s considering the ‘Stans but in the meantime, planning a trip to Nova Scotia for the summer.  

“I want to go to parts of China again, the northern parts like Tibet. I don’t know, anywhere!” she says. 

“I think people who want to travel, travel,” she says.  “Those who want to travel, will travel, those who don’t won’t. It’s a big world. You can send me anywhere.”

“You know what serendipitous is?” she asks. “When someone, like your friend calls you and says ‘do you want to walk the Camino in two weeks?’ When those things just land in your lap. Like my girlfriend who I know from Nairobi days that’s with the high commission, Jeanette. At one point, many decades after Nairobi, she phoned me one day and said Ralph and I and a girl friend are going to Australia and New Zealand. Would you like to come along and be the roommate to my girl friend, Margot? We’re leaving next month. And I said, Australia, New Zealand. Of course, yeah. Didn’t hesitate a second. But it just lands in your lap just like that. Off we went.” 

I think I hear Karen’s phone ringing – is it you?

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As the CEO and Editor of JourneyWoman, Carolyn is a passionate advocate for women's travel and living the life of your dreams. She leads JourneyWoman's team of writers and chairs the JourneyWoman Women's Advisory Council and Women's Speaker's Bureau. She has been featured in the New York Times, Toronto Star and Zoomer as a solo travel expert, and speaks at women's travel conferences around the world. In March 2023, she was named one of the most influential women in travel by TravelPulse and was the recipient of a SATW travel writing award in September 2023. She is the chair of the Canadian chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), a member Women's Travel Leaders and a Herald for the Transformational Travel Council (TTC). Sometimes she sleeps. A bit.


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