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Mebbie had a choice to make: “Pick up the pieces or go to pieces”

April, 2011

Come along with me: We’re going to visit with Mebbie Aikens. Hers is a story about those moments when we feel down and out, when life is beating us down.

It began after she and her husband, Eldie, a Presbyterian minister, had just celebrated 43 years of marriage and were entering retirement.

Mebbie returned home from a grocery-store run to find Eldie sprawled on the floor, a victim of a massive and fatal heart attack.

“That happened 19 years ago, and I found myself with no job and no husband,” says the 84-year-old.

After a whirlwind life ministering to a Town of Mount Royal congregation alongside her husband, and after 30 years raising her two children and a collection of seven strayed or adopted kids, Mebbie found herself, for the first time in her life, alone and scared. “I had a choice,” she said. “I could be bitter or I could be busy.” She decided to travel the world as her first step to self-sufficiency and chose China as her first destination: “I needed to go somewhere so far that I couldn’t turn back if I got upset,” she says. “It takes a little grit to get back on your path.”

She came back renewed by her newfound independence and signed up for a creative writing program at Concordia University (then Sir George Williams) where “she wrote herself to death.” She’s never looked back because you either “pick up the pieces or go to pieces.” Her next trip, on Sept. 11, 2001, offered a bit more adventure than she had anticipated. She found herself isolated in Peshawar, Pakistan, on the day terrorists attacked the United States.

She and her two traveling companions had intended to follow Marco Polo’s Silk Road, but when circumstances conspired against them, the three fled Pakistan and raced to Tajikistan, where they boarded a plane for Moscow.

“We were careful not to be too visible,” she says. For Mebbie, traveling opens the mind and heart to other cultures and people. It has led to a realization about how small the world is and how grateful she feels to be Canadian.

“Traveling is a way to make sense of our lives,” she says. Most of her traveling adventures are organized through ElderTreks (, which focuses on exotic destinations for those over 50. They include such places as Mongolia and the Gobi desert, Antarctica and the Arctic, Iran, Africa, the Galapagos and Ecuador as well as Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

Mebbie Aikens with two guides during her tour of Pakistan. Photo courtesy of Mebbie Aikens

Mebbie recalls a thrilling trek through the hinterlands of Burma (now Myanmar) where some women, washing clothes and bathing at the edge of a lake, rushed over to her group, wanting to touch these exotic foreigners.

“They were urging us to come bathe with them … but they were wearing clothes,” she says, giggling.

Her traveling strategy circumscribes small group tours with built-in independence—never more than about 15 people—and she studies the places she intends to visit as much as she can. “One fault I find in those who travel is that they compare everything with what they have in their home country,” she says. “You have to appreciate and learn from what you find.”

A few years ago, Mebbie hopped on a cargo and passenger freighter traveling throughout French Polynesia. Over the last decade, she has journeyed to Botswana and Victoria Falls, Iceland, Antarctica, China and the Yangtze River, Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Her most memorable journey was to Machu Picchu in Peru. “I have never felt so connected to the past as I felt there.” Between adventures, Mebbie has moderated the memoir-writing program at McGill and subscribes to a long list of volunteer activities—including cooking for Meals on Wheels. She gives presentations to groups on her life experiences through the McGill Institute for Learning in Retirement.

Mebbie’s secret throughout her journey though life is clear. “You have to feel positive about life every day, she asserts, “and you have to be connected with other people.”

Elder Trek is the first adventure travel company designed exclusively for the people over 50. Since 1987 it offers exotic journeys to small groups of travelers by both land and sea in over 100 countries. Info:



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