9 Travelers on the Trips That Shaped Their Lives

As we begin planning trips again, many of us will be seeking opportunities to explore who we are, how we got here, and what we can learn from those who came before us. That’s the essence of heritage travel, whether you’re tracing your genealogical history or just seeking a more meaningful connection with your family. These experiences are the ones that offered us a new perspective—on life, our families, and ourselves. 

A trip to Japan showed me a side of my mother I’d never seen before

The first time we visited Japan, back in 2008, my Hawaii-born mother and I spent hours wandering the food halls of department stores, gazing at prized muskmelons wrapped in cellophane. We visited galleries dedicated to woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, and celebrated Thanksgiving on the Shinkansen bullet train, happily devouring bento boxes. I gaped in awe the first time I saw her converse in fluent Japanese, somehow persuading the gruff tuna auctioneers at Tsukiji Market to let me stand among the fishmongers instead of with the tourists. Watching her perform Japan’s complex etiquette—nodding, saving face—was also astonishing.

I am a half-Japanese woman, yet I can barely manage a convincing arigato. My American passport lists my birthplace as Manila, but growing up I never lived anywhere longer than four years. My dad’s career in hotel management ping-ponged us around the globe: New York City, Hong Kong, Seattle, Singapore. My family spent a lot of time assimilating into predominantly white expat communities. Ever the self-conscious new kid, I was more concerned with bringing the right kind of sandwiches to school than packing the rice lunches I craved. Embracing my whiteness (my dad descends from the British Isles and northwestern Europe) defined most of my peripatetic youth—that is, until this trip.

As my mom and I parted ways—me heading back to New York and her to Bangkok—I watched her grow ever smaller from my seat on the airport shuttle. In that moment I began to see Irene Oishi as not just my mother, but a whole person—with passions and stories and histories independent of me. I burst into tears.

My mom and I made two subsequent visits to our ancestral home, further exploring the esoteric wonders of Japanese culture. What I was really looking for, I understood, were glimpses of my mother’s identity: details that had been there all along but only surfaced when we were immersed in new surroundings.

Over breakfast one morning in Tokyo, she told me that the miso soup reminded her of the dashi her mother made from scratch in Honolulu. Seeing a crane-covered kimono in an antiques shop sparked a story of how, during World War II, her family hid heirloom silk robes and buried the household chawan for fear of being viewed as anti-American.

Our last trip was in 2014. Two years ago, my mother suffered a stroke. She was fortunate not to lose her cognitive or motor functions, but the experience made me realize how quickly our time was slipping away. I called her and started plotting: We would go back to Japan and follow our bloodline to Hiroshima and Yamaguchi. A DNA test and research on Ancestry.com uncovered an old ship’s registry of her maternal grandmother’s arrival to the United States. Yoshi Otani was 24 years old in 1912. She stood four feet, nine and one-half inches, her only “mark of identification” a mole below her left eye. What was her journey across the ocean like? What wa her hope for this new land, and what did she leave behind?

These are answers we’ll never know, but when we do return to Japan the fourth time, we won’t be seeking archival records. We’ll be looking for a sense of connectedness—one we can only get sitting elbow to elbow, slurping bowls of ramen, or collecting hanko stamp impressions in Buddhist temples, or when she explains to everyone we meet, with a deferential smile, that I am her musume, her daughter, while I patiently wait for my mother to reveal her full self. —Jennifer Flowers

As a third-culture kid, wandering is the only way I feel grounded

“So where’s home?” It doesn’t matter who I meet—as soon as someone detects my accent, they ask me this. I don’t always know how to answer.

I am an ethnic Russian, born in Kazakhstan and raised in Estonia, never fully belonging to either. When my family moved away, I became “the Estonian girl” who visited Kazakhstan in the summers. In Estonia, there was an invisible wall between my Russian community and the Estonians. Tensions over decades of Soviet rule only intensified when the actual Berlin Wall fell. There’s a Soviet film from 1974 called At Home Among Strangers, a Stranger Among His Own. Growing up, I knew the feeling.

At 16, I came to the melting pot of Miami, and my search for belonging gained a new dimension. We were all strangers trying to forge a new life. As I continued to move around the United States, I began to surround myself with people of similar backgrounds: a Pakistani from Dubai who lives in New York; a Hungarian from Romania based in Chicago. Our ethnicities were different, but we felt at ease because of our muddled upbringings and the unspoken camaraderie that comes from being “othered.” This is perhaps America’s greatest paradox: It’s a place where diversity is celebrated yet xenophobia is so profound.

Twenty years into my relationship with the U.S., I still can’t pinpoint a city I can call my home. But I’ve made peace with the ambiguity. For me, home does not exist in one place.

I have felt like a traveler ever since I left Kazakhstan, spending weeks or months at a time in places like Afghanistan, Morocco, and Japan. Home is the feeling I get when I ride a motorbike for two days to drink rice wine with villagers in Vietnam. It’s when I stay up late talking to a refugee-rights activist in Istanbul. It’s sharing sage tea with my Bedouin friends in Jordan. Traveling connects me to others in a deep and universal way. By revealing the tapestry of our world, it helps me find my place within it. —Yulia Denisyuk

In Jakarta, learning to love a city that isn’t as I remember it 

I was lost and a little nervous, but I wasn’t ready to admit it. “Just a little farther,” I said to my partner, Maggie, as we dodged a passing motorcycle and narrowly avoided an open gutter. I lit a cigarette, hoping that would make it look like I belonged here.

And I did, in a way. I had lived in Jakarta, Indonesia’s teeming capital, as a teenager. It was one in a string of homes around the world, as my Indian father and Colombian mother hopped from country to country with three children in tow. It had been almost 15 years since I had been in Jakarta, and this time I brought Maggie. She had heard me tell stories of my upbringing: the plates of hot satay eaten street side; the reckless nights, barhopping with all the cluelessness of the most insufferable expat brat; the afternoons spent watching rain fall in sheets as the call to prayer ricocheted across the city. What we were doing now—huffing exhaust fumes as we made our way toward a dreary overpass—was not in the stories.

I was looking for Sunda Kelapa, the centuries-old fishing port where colorful schooners are loaded up with lumber and rice. It was a place I had been to exactly once, on an eighth grade field trip to Kota Tua, the Old Town, where the remnants of Dutch colonialism can be seen in canals and squares. Like an untrained pilot coming in for landing, I had overshot my destination and now found myself leading Maggie not toward the quaint port I remembered but to one of the city’s main shipping hubs. Jenga towers of metal containers blocked our path as dockworkers stared at us in bemusement.

Ever gracious, Maggie did not question where I had taken her, but instead proposed we find a place to grab a drink. A drink? Here?

The whole trip had been like this. When I asked an old friend about the bar we used to frequent, the one that inexplicably shared real estate with a paintball field, she laughed. Why go there when there were hipper, more grown-up rooftop bars on the other end of the city, far from the gated international school that had been the center of my universe? When I went searching for my favorite restaurants, the run-down spots where the food was delicious but the ice was not to be trusted, I found they had been bulldozed to make room for more fast-food chains. It took me three laps around my old neighborhood to identify my street—because the buildings had changed, my memories had faded, or both. Cities, especially ones that grow with the ferocity of Jakarta, don’t wait for you.

Occasionally, the nostalgia hit. I noticed it riding in a taxi, serenaded by the endless chorus of motorcycle horns. Or when I walked the grounds of my school. Or when I saw familiar faces, the few friends who had stuck around all this time. But as the days went on and I “showed” Maggie “my” city, I noticed another feeling.

It appeared when I stopped looking for what I remembered, like during that dreadful walk through the shipyard. We eventually found our way out of the port and, miraculously, to a bar. It was a three-story building, thickly carpeted in luxurious reds and golds—the kind of venue designed with weddings in mind. An army of waiters held out laminated menus as we approached. We were the only ones there and we sat on aluminum chairs by the water, sipping Bintang beers and watching tankers float into the Java Sea. I hadn’t been here before, but what I felt was recognizable. It had nothing to do with what I already knew of Jakarta. It was, I realized, the excitement of getting to know a place for the very first time. —Sebastian Modak

Discovering relatives in Brazil turned a layover into a chance to connect

I whipped my head back and forth, trying to make sense of the animated conversation around me. I had just arrived in São Paulo and was the only person in the car who couldn’t speak Portuguese. But I could tell from the hand gestures that some serious strategizing was underway. The women chattering to my left and right weren’t tour guides, though—they were my newfound family, and we were headed to São Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the world’s largest neo-Gothic sanctuaries. They wanted to find the very best vantage point, where swells of sightseers wouldn’t distract from the structure’s impressive twin towers and seafoam green dome.

As an American born to Taiwanese immigrants, I’d always thought my ancestral tree was rooted in the United States and Asia. So I was shocked to learn from my mom, weeks before my trip to South America, that my dad had a cousin with two daughters around my age living in Brazil. Before I knew it, we were on a group call with my long-lost relatives. When I told them I had an eight-hour layover in São Paulo coming up, they dropped everything to roll out a bespoke city tour. We shared no common tongue but bonded the moment my auntie handed me a photo album documenting my late grandparents’ visit to Brazil several decades earlier.

As my new kinfolk shuttled me along the lushly canopied pathways of Trianon Park, down bustling Paulista Avenue, and over to the imposing Monumento às Bandeiras, pointing out little details only a Paulistano would notice, I snapped hundreds of photos, hoping that would adequately convey my appreciation for their every untranslated word. At the end of the whirlwind tour, I climbed out of my auntie’s car at the airport and realized what we had done—spent the day together, writing the next chapter of our family album. —Rachel Chang

Why I’m still in search of the Ponza my mother imagined

Wherever we were, if there was a map of Italy lying around, my mother would look for Ponza, the birthplace of her father. I remember sitting in a booth at our local pizzeria, where the paper placemats were printed with the boot of Italy, drawing in the island myself with crayons. “It’s there,” my mother said hypnotically, tapping her French-manicured fingertip in the Tyrrhenian Sea. “That’s your heritage, baby.”

I have traveled to Ponza half a dozen times—once with my mom, when I was 14, but mostly in the years following her early death from colorectal cancer. The bumpy ferry ride from outside Rome takes about two hours. The five-and-a-half-mile-long island, formed by an ancient volcano, was abandoned for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. It has about 3,000 residents now—although, as my mother would point out, plenty of in-the-know Italians vacation there in summertime. Maybe it was the U.S. history teacher in her, but she liked to focus on Ponza’s Cinderella story: Once a land of impoverished fishermen like her father, who left to find a better life in the Bronx, now an insider secret, celebrated for its eternal beauty and excellent scungilli.

It’s just the sort of place where you’d think you could bend space and time—swimming through the same grottoes where Emperor Augustus’s people farmed moray eels and drinking the local Biancolella on rocky beaches. I’ve trekked the steep path up to my grandfather’s crumbling childhood home, which may not be the highest point of the island, as my mother used to brag, but still looks down on the crystalline sea from a thousand feet up. My husband and I took pictures there on our honeymoon, and we’ve returned for nearly every vacation since.

He never knew my mother, but he could get to know Ponza. I could too. And I’ve tried so hard—I even thought I might write a book about it, and for research I finagled interviews with everyone from Ponza’s mayor to its most notable part-time resident, designer Anna Fendi. I marched on carnation-strewn cobblestones in the San Silverio festival, celebrating the island’s patron saint. I hired a translator to help me talk to my cousins on the island: Ornella, who owns the alimentari down the hill from a spectacular array of sheer tuff cliffs, and Maria Rita, whose husband is the fourth generation to run one of two restaurants in the port.

And yet, I don’t feel I’ve filled any void by examining Ponza up close. Part of me wonders if that’s because the actual Ponza could never measure up to my mother’s rendering of it. It’s a place she preferred to appreciate from afar—and made certain the reality would never infringe upon the mythology. Her sole visit, with me in 1996, was for just three nights, and the whole time she was desperate for air-conditioning. When she went to Ornella’s grocery to introduce herself, Ornella didn’t even offer her something cold to drink; she was too busy tending to her high-season customers. My mom went back to Italy twice before she died but never to Ponza.

Maybe some places are better kept to the imagination. My mother was raised among Ponzesi and Ponzesi-blooded children who spoke the dialect fluently and attended their own San Silverio. For her, there was plenty of Ponza right here in America. And me? I’ve come to know the real Ponza better than my mom ever did—although I’m still not sure I really know it at all. —Jessica Silvester

Learning about myself in the place my grandparents left behind

It’s a golden afternoon in mid-September and I’m wading through thick bramble in a cluttered cemetery on the outskirts of Bacău, Romania. There are more than 6,000 graves crammed into an area the size of a soccer field, and navigating them is tricky—the land is hopelessly overgrown. My guide, a toothless, sun-baked gravedigger named Ben, smiles as he pulls back some weeds to reveal yet another stone that bears my last name: Schechter.

Bacău is a small industrial city on the Bistrița River, four hours north of Bucharest. It’s unremarkable in every way, except to me: This is the birthplace of my Jewish grandfather’s parents, and I have come looking for evidence of their past. Earlier in the day, I had contacted Izu Butnaru, the nonagenarian president of Comunităţii Evreilor din Bacău, the local Jewish community center. After directing me to the city’s old Jewish cemetery, he’d agreed to meet me at the Grain Merchants’ Synagogue, one of two prewar temples still standing in Bacău.

No longer an active center of worship, the building now sits behind tall padlocked gates. Butnaru, hunched over and partially deaf, leads me through a yard littered with broken bottles. But as we enter the main prayer hall, a dream world unfolds before me. The walls and columns are painted with robin’s-egg blue and touches of coral pink, like cake frosting. Looking up, I see murals inspired by scenes from the Bible and the zodiac, which depict tigers leaping and crocodiles waiting in marshes. The colors are vibrant, cartoonish, almost psychedelic. Despite this temple’s crumbling exterior, its heart is stunningly alive.

But for how long? With the help of a translator, Butnaru explains that he has tried in vain to get the place listed on the national historic register. Bacău’s Jewish population has sharply declined over the years. A 1930 census counted almost 10,000 Jews, roughly 30 percent of the town’s population then. But after World War II, most moved to Israel. Today, just over 150 Jews remain. The community—much like the temple itself, which must be protected from vandals and squatters—is in danger of disappearing.

When my great-grandparents sailed to New York in 1918, they never looked back. As far as they were concerned, Romania was a distant memory. A century later, it’s up to me to revisit the home they left behind, to stand in the waist-high grass and reassemble these identities, one weed-choked headstone at a time. Because if not me, then who? —Alex Schechter

My family’s vacations to the South African bush helped shape my life

Riding shotgun was never something my siblings and I fought over. The front seat of Elsa, my dad’s rickety old Land Rover Defender, was considered the worst seat in the house—with a floor that got so hot, we joked you could keep a meat pie warm until dinner.

So when my dad announced that we were taking a family vacation in Elsa from Cape Town to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, my sisters and I responded with eye rolls. “It’s one of the most iconic parks in the country,” he protested. It’s also one of the hottest, dustiest places in South Africa. At 13, the last thing I wanted to do was drive through a giant desert in an old car with my family. Like any teenager, I preferred to go to the beach or hang out at the mall.

As kids, traveling to the bush was an annual affair. Kruger National Park was our Yosemite, a road trip destination for many South Africans. We’d chug past lions lazing on the road and surly crocodiles pinned to riverbanks—oblivious to the fact that foreigners spent thousands of dollars to see those very creatures. Sometimes we’d find ourselves in hairier situations, like when we accidentally wedged our car between a baby elephant and its mother, who furiously waved her trunk at us. (To this day, my sister is terrified of elephants.)

Despite the Kgalagadi’s endless empty spaces, going there is not a dull affair. The ancient landscape is part of the Kalahari Desert, which stretches from South Africa to Botswana and Namibia and encompasses approximately 360,000 square miles. It’s where 80,000 nomadic Indigenous San people still live, alongside endemic animals like meerkats. It tops many travelers’ lists, for good reason.

Here’s what I remember from that trip: a lot of bickering over the back seat, eating toasted cheese sandwiches beside the campfire, and riding past gargantuan stretches of ocher-colored land that appeared to roll on forever. It was so different from the grasses and baobab trees in the parks I was used to, and a reminder of just how diverse South Africa’s landscapes are. I never would have guessed it at the time, but I’d find myself pining for this place well into adulthood and long after I moved from South Africa.

I returned to the Kalahari for work two decades later, only this time I visited neighboring Botswana’s Makgadikgadi salt pans. It wasn’t my first experience traveling to the bush as an adult; I’d visited places like the Serengeti and Okavango Delta, which easily impress visitors with their abundance of animals. But there was something about returning to a terrain teenage me had once labeled “boring” that made this trip profoundly different—and not just because I was staying in a baroque bedouin tent with a four-poster bed at Jack’s Camp, one of the most iconic and glamorous safari lodges in the region.

When I set foot onto the millennia-old salt pans—where the only sound was the crunching beneath my shoes, as if I were treading on potato chips—I was finally able to truly appreciate places like this. Solitary stretches that had once seemed lonely and lifeless felt peaceful and calming, especially after flying in from New York. More poignant still was the realization that all those trips I endlessly moaned about when I was growing up had created in me a profound adoration of the bush, a place inextricably linked to family and home. —Mary Holland

A visit to my dad’s ancestral home helped me connect with my heritage

In the mid-1800s, the oldest known ancestor on my dad’s side, Ramkishen Das, set off on a long journey in a bullock cart from what is now West Bengal to Uttar Pradesh. Legend has it that an astrologer told him his family would not survive unless he moved—so he did. And it was there, in the town of Vrindavan, 834 miles from his birthplace, that he made a home. One hundred and fifty years later, just as I was entering high school, I got the chance to visit.

My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, before my sister and I were born. While they tried to teach us about our heritage—cooking Indian food, taking us to see Bollywood movies—we were products of American culture. Trips to India were rare, but the house was my dad’s most tangible connection to home. He spent many summers as a child there, shooting marbles in the courtyard and flying kites on the roof. When his father died, he and his brother were put in charge of the place.

After a three-hour car ride from Delhi, we pulled up to the formidable sandstone structure on a sweltering July day. It was decorated with paisley etchings and bright blue doors that stood out from the pinkish-yellow walls. The courtyard was surrounded by a maze of rooms and staircases, some only connected to a single chamber.

The odd arrangement was the result of gradual construction, as subsequent generations added on to accommodate more family. In my dad’s old room, photos of red sports cars he’d cut out of magazines were still pasted to his closet doors. He told us stories as we wandered—of my grandfather’s nanny, who lived in the house for decades, and of using his allowance to buy rings of syrupy-sweet jalebi, then retreating to his room to devour them in secret.

In the courtyard, we greeted the Hindu priest who had been caring for the house’s temple since my father was nine years old. He recognized my dad immediately. The visit was short; it was too hot to linger. On the drive back, I asked my dad who would take care of the house after he couldn’t. He said he wasn’t sure.

I think about that visit often, and how much time has elapsed since. The priest has passed away. I worry that my connection to India is growing more distant with each passing year. But then I remember how Ramkishen Das rode an oxcart across the country to ensure the continuation of our lineage. One day, it’ll be my responsibility to take care of that house, a living monument to my family. I’ll take my future kids there and maybe we’ll shoot marbles in the courtyard. I’ll tell them stories of those who came before them, and then we’ll create memories of our own. —Priya Krishna

Seeing my sister in Oaxaca brought us closer together than ever before

A potted banana plant stands at the center of Muss, an open-air courtyard café in Oaxaca’s oldest colonial building. It is twice my height and the only object that can rival the scale of the arches lining the square’s perimeter. Visitors sip coffee at a long table and I sit across from my half-sister, Kris, in a painted rattan chair. This is the first time we’ve seen each other since she settled in Mexico at the start of the pandemic. I stare hard at that plant because it reminds me of the Philippines, where we’re from, but also so I don’t have to look at strangers while I try (unsuccessfully) to choke back tears. I’m feeling vulnerable in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time.

We walked 40 minutes here from Kris’s house in the residential San Felipe del Agua to the city’s Centro district, with glimpses of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain range in the background as Kris’s local rescue dog Riful trailed us without a leash. As we reached the city center’s cobblestone streets with its colorful colonial buildings, I was reminded of the more modest yet similarly pastel houses in Bulacan and Cavite, the two provinces in the Philippines where Kris and I were raised. And thinking of the places we’ve lived together, my mind flashed back to the desolate, arid streets of Chino, California, where Kris and I moved to the U.S. as children with a gambling-addicted single mother, who wouldn’t come home for weeks and kept promising to change but never did.

I learned to lose myself in books to keep the chaos of life at bay. Kris, I noticed, also shuts out the world with her work. When we reunited after as adults and shared an apartment in New York, we acted more like roommates than siblings—working in separate spaces and coming together only to discuss professional concerns. We never talked about the fathers who left us as children or the mother from whom we are both estranged.

Yet there’s something about the shift in context at that cafe—of traveling so far to see her, and with such precious little time to bond—that opens the floodgates. When Kris spoke about having trouble keeping up with professional contacts, even ones she liked, I was tempted to discuss the benefits of networking. But instead I found myself admitting that I had trouble staying in touch too, which is part of why we’d hardly talked since we stopped living together. Neither of us could fully trust other people, including each other, since we never knew unconditional love as children and find more comfort in the control of work than in the uncertain company of others.

So we cried. And then we laughed at ourselves for crying. Several days later, after many more long talks, over memelas and tasting menu meals, my sister’s partner arranged for a local pilot to fly us across the Sierra Madres to the coastal town of Puerto Escondido. We ended up at a restaurant high above the ocean, amazed at how far we’ve managed to come. As we watched surfers on Carrizalillo Beach leave land for ocean then return over and over again, we pledged that even though our parents weren’t there for us, we would always be there for each other. —Meredith Talusan

A version of this article appeared in the April 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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