Central America, with all the family

Some thought Deirdre Veldon and her husband Paul Cullen were ‘stone mad’ for taking their four children on a five-month sabbatical to Central America, but it was the adventure of a lifetime

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00

W e must have been on a palm-fringed beach when the news came in about Ireland having had the wettest winter on record. We tried to think back when it had last rained with us, but couldn’t. Over the months of our family sabbatical in Central America, it must have rained for no more than 30 minutes.

Getting away from the Irish winter was only part of the motivation for our decision to move to Nicaragua and Costa Rica for nearly five months and lying on beaches had very little to do with it. After almost 50 years of working life between us, we both wanted a brief but defined pause before starting the second half.

We also wanted to spend a prolonged period with our children in a completely different environment before they stopped being children.

We’d both wanted to do this for years but the illness and death of parents, and the arrival of small babies, put paid to our ambitions. But then our fourth and last child was born last July and with one of us on maternity leave, a sense of “now or never” dawned on us.

If we didn’t seize the opportunity, it would be too late, as our children grew and became ever more enmeshed in school, the exam system and their own circles of friends.

With a four-month-old baby, it wasn’t an ideal time to be heading off to the tropics, but there was never going to be an ideal time. In searching for a destination, we sued for compromise, eschewing the more malaria-afflicted zones of the world. The baby was too young for vaccines, so mosquitoes and clean water were key considerations. We were adamant, though, about the need to expose the children to a different culture, and to give them the kind of warm-weather outdoor life they so rarely get in Ireland. If we could widen our own horizons on the trip, all the better.

Money also played a role in the decision process. Accrued holidays and maternity leave softened the financial blow somewhat, but both of us were looking at stretches without any wage-packets coming in. The only way to fund such a long trip was to go somewhere cheap.

We could have ended up in south-east Asia, New Zealand, Argentina, even parts of Africa. But some places were too risky or far away, while others weren’t different enough. Then one day someone mentioned Costa Rica and the light-bulb went off. The flights were reasonably cheap, the health system was good and we could learn Spanish.

We opted to hedge our bets and visit two countries, but flights between Central America and South America – say, Ecuador – were expensive. So we decided to simply cross the land border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua for the second part of the trip.

There was only one problem; we couldn’t find affordable accommodation in the towns in Costa Rica where we wanted to stay. Tourism is huge there and our visit coincided with the beginning of the high season. With the date of our departure bearing down on us, we opted to head for Nicaragua first.

We sourced accommodation suitable for a family in the south-western Nicaraguan town of Granada but with a new baby in the house there was little time for detailed advance planning. No time for proper budgeting either. We reckoned we’d sort out the rest when we got there.

We worried about the reaction of our daughters’ teachers when we announced we were taking the girls out for school for so long. Maybe they were relieved, but they couldn’t have been more helpful. We drew up lists of course areas to be covered in our home-schooling and packed a cross-section of textbooks.

The response of friends and colleagues to our plans was overwhelmingly positive, at least to our faces. So many people said they’d love to do it, you’d wonder why more don’t. Some, we’re sure, consider us stone mad.

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