(CNN) — When I sent DNA samples to genetic testing services in search of my biological family last year, I had no idea that I would be embarking on an adventure across three continents.
In 1961 I was adopted at birth in California. Over the years, I have searched for my birth family from time to time, but have always come across sealed records and secretive officials. In the last decade, however, home DNA tests and easy online access to official records have changed things.
I spat into plastic tubes (one for each of the two biggest companies in the industry in the United States: 23andMe and Ancestry.com), put them in the post, and waited anxiously for the results. When the email arrived, I was shocked.
After a lifetime of believing that I was a basic white American, I learned that it was only half true. My biological mother was born in Iowa. But it turned out that my father came from North Africa.
I contacted anonymous DNA matches through the 23andMe and Ancestry messaging systems, but no one responded. So I spent weeks digging through Ancestry.com and various public record databases until I was able to identify my parents and find contact information for some of their close relatives.
I found out that my biological father had been born in the mid-thirties in Casablanca. Romantic visions of Bogart and Bergman escaping (fictionally) from the Nazis came to my mind.
According to records, he immigrated to the United States in 1959, ending up in San Francisco. My mother had grown up in San Diego and she, too, moved to San Francisco after high school. But why had she left Morocco? What brought her to San Francisco? She had to know more.
After days of imagining the best and the worst, I wrote scripts about what to say to genetically close relatives who most likely had no idea I existed. Then, apprehensively, I got in touch.
Much to my relief, both my mother’s and father’s families welcomed me with open arms, despite their surprise to discover I existed.
I soon learned that my birth parents had died and was deeply disappointed that I had lost the chance to meet them forever. Would things have been different if he had searched harder earlier?
But I was delighted to know that all his siblings were still alive.
Starting with my new family, I sketched out my parents’ story: on opposite ends of the world, both had faced difficult parents and left home at the first opportunity. Both ended up in one of the most free-thinking places on Earth: San Francisco.
He worked as a floorer in the North Beach neighborhood, where she was a waitress and a dancer. I figured they met while he was installing flooring at a nightclub where she worked.
According to what they say, it must have been a very brief romance. My father lived with a girlfriend, and my mother’s sister says that she never once heard my mother speak of my father in any way. Apart from her sister and her mother, no one else in her family was told that she was pregnant. My father’s family says they are 100% sure they never told him either.
There were other big surprises: I was told that my mother never had a child again—not even a serious boyfriend—in her entire life. On my father’s side, I was surprised to learn that he had a half-brother and half-sister and dozens of cousins in France and Morocco.
They invited me to visit them. I booked a trip to meet my father’s huge and welcoming family.
In Paris, a cousin threw me an exuberant party at her sunny suburban home, where I was warmly welcomed by the entire French branch of the family. They gave me advice tailored to my interests on where to go and what to see outside the usual tourist spots.
On his recommendation, I spent an afternoon in a huge and beautiful park in eastern Paris called the Buttes-Chaumont. I had dinner at Julien, the French equivalent of a working-class restaurant (a bouillon, named for the broth). It was the third time I had visited Paris, but now I saw it with different eyes and imagined myself as an honorary son of the city.
Morocco was another world. She had never traveled to a Muslim country, nor to any other outside of Europe or America. The experience was a rare and magical combination of foreign adventure and comfortable travel, cushioned by a caring family.
I spent the first six days in the coastal town of Dar Bouazza, about 45 minutes from Casablanca, where my large Moroccan family owns a collection of summer houses a few meters from the beach. The houses are built on property my grandfather bought nearly a century ago (back when land was thought to be worthless) to escape the summer heat.
French is the main language of the family, and my uncles do not speak English. A younger cousin was often on hand to translate, but group conversations at the table or on the back terrace were always in French, making it impossible for me to participate. I decided to learn conversational French for my next visit.
Despite the language gap, I got to know them all—the stern uncle, the maternal aunts, the wisecracking cousin—and recognized many of their personality traits and quirks—how loud, curious, and cunning they are—in myself.
I spent almost a week devouring delicious and authentic Moroccan dishes, such as the tajine of lamb (steam roasted with vegetables in a ceramic dish of the same name) and the tablet (spiced shredded chicken or game bird wrapped in filo pastry), cooked and served on terraces by the sea by the small domestic staff common in middle-class Moroccan homes.
explore a new homeland
But I wanted to see more of my father’s homeland, so I went on an excursion to Fez and Marrakech organized by a cousin and her husband, owners of a luxury travel company.
The two cities were beautiful and awe-inspiring, strange yet strangely familiar. I experienced them in a unique and very personal way thanks to my DNA journey: as a son only a generation away from his father’s homeland.
Professional guides created personalized tours based on my interests and my newfound family culture and history, right down to a visit to my family’s ancestral mausoleum in Fez.
I saw the things my father might have seen walking through the colorful medinas (markets) of the cities, where the guides introduced me to the merchants with my new last name. I saw magnificent mosques and unexpected places like the largest Jewish temple in Marrakech, the Lazama Synagogue. I watched the artisans at work, making pottery, leather goods, and cloth as they have been done for centuries.
The highlight of the trip was an excursion to the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, between Fez and Rabat, the Moroccan capital. The city was abandoned by Rome around the 3rd century and was not excavated until the beginning of the 20th. For a history buff like me, it was a magnificent experience to see well-preserved walls, foundations, and mosaics, something you can’t see in America.
The tour culminated in a hike through the High Atlas Mountains to spend the afternoon with a local family who gave me a Berber-style cooking class, teaching me how to cook lamb and vegetables in a traditional Moroccan tagine.
The patriarch even lent me a djellabaa traditional Moroccan robe, for me to wear to take a photo, which I found strange and strangely comforting at the same time, a perfect summary of the whole trip.
Be careful what DNA can show
Taking a DNA test at home can launch you on your own great adventure… intended or not.
Former CNN correspondent Samuel Burke created an entire series of podcasts in collaboration with CNN Philippines, “Suddenly Family,” about the surprises — good and bad — that can come from DNA testing. “DNA testing can open a Pandora’s box that no one in the DNA industry talks about,” he says.
According to Burke, some people just want to know what genetic diseases they carry. Many more just want to know more about their ethnicity, “how Irish, Jewish, Native American they are.” But he said few realize that analytics services will put them in touch with other people, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Whether you don’t know anything about your family history or think you know everything, you’re likely in for a surprise. Among them, Burke lists discovering that one of your parents was unfaithful or that you are the product of artificial insemination. Or you might discover that you are not biologically related to one of your parents.
Burke says being prepared is key to avoiding some of the pitfalls.
“Count on finding out something unexpected.” And he adds that if you suspect something wrong, you can choose not to share your results. Burke adds that the best advice she’s heard while reporting on DNA is to “slow down.” Don’t “hope to solve the mysteries” and share your results as soon as possible.
Whether or not your DNA tests come up with unexpected results, they can inspire fascinating journeys across the country or, as in my case, around the world.
What I learned on my adventure, however, is that the best thing—even more than the places you visit—is the people you interact with, your new family that is just like you, but also very different.
Tim Curran is a copyeditor and staff writer for CNN’s “Early Start.”