‘What the hell are we doing?’ One Irish family’s gap year to travel the world

Fi O’Meara’s family rented out their Cork home, raided their life savings and hit the road

Fi O’Meara, a physiotherapist from Cork, her husband Sam Russell, head of Product Design in NCAD Dublin and their sons Corin and Daithí Russell packed up their home, jobs and school in Cork city last August for a year’s travel in Spain, Central and South America. They are planning on returning home later next summer. Here is a snapshot of their adventure of a lifetime so far

"What the hell are we doing?" were the words that gnawed at the back of my mind on that transatlantic flight from Spain to Guatemala last October as we embarked on the Central American leg of our family "gap year".

Outwardly I was all smiles and positivity, inwardly I was seriously questioning the wisdom of our travel decisions. Anxiety, hope and trust were awash inside me in equal measure, my mothering intuitions not knowing which one to cling to.

We had left Ireland in our campervan two months previously at the end of August 2021. We spent two leisurely months meandering through France and Spain, fully equipped for hiking, climbing, swimming and mountain biking. This was comfortable territory, as we are seasoned Francophile campers. Our campervan is now parked up in storage for the winter in the south of Spain and we have jetted off to sunnier climes, making that familiarity feel very distant.

This was a notion dreamed up many moons ago between my husband Sam and I over wintery pints during rainy weekends where no one could get out to play. What if we took a year out and travel the world with the kids, we wondered. Sam is head of the Product Design Department in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin and I am a paediatric physiotherapist at Barefoot Physio in Cork.

Home is St Luke’s in Cork city where our boys Corin and Daithí go to school. Extracting ourselves from our lives wasn’t exactly easy. Sam applied and was granted a year’s career break and I would be saying farewell to my little clients and their families, leaving them in the very capable hands of my colleagues, with the promise that I’d return.

The teachers at the boys’ school, St Luke’s National School, were wonderfully supportive, offering educational suggestions and school work content for when we were on the road. Like so many parents worldwide during the pandemic, we had become savvy in the ways of homeschooling, which took some of the apprehension out of that part, at least.

Embarking on a year's travel with my young family, brought with it a strong degree of trepidation

Our original date for departure was summer 2020. Then we would go to Asia and New Zealand. But sure we all know what happened to those plans. And so fast forward a year and out came our plans again, this time with different destinations.

Our home now rented out to friends, our beloved dog and hens packed off to the west Cork grandparents and our life savings raided, it seemed like this notion was becoming a reality.

However embarking on a year’s travel with my young family, brought with it a strong degree of trepidation. Being very much of the mindset, “It takes a village to raise a child” I relied heavily on my extended family for parenting advice. Neighbours became firm friends for their drop the kids in whenever attitude and the daily banter.

How would we cope if we removed our children from our village?

Arriving into Guatemala city late on that first evening into the heat, the city smog, our beat-up taxi dragging the undercarriage of the car along the road, the total chaos hit us instantly. Our destination was Lago Atitlan - a caldera lake in Central Guatemala with little villages rich in Mayan culture dotted all along its edges.

Home became the tiny charming village of Jaibalito. With very little road access, our main method of transport were boat taxis - lanchas. I know it is clichéd to say, but life in this little Mayan village, nestled between mountains and water, seeped into our souls. Days of swims and paddleboarding, interspersed with Spanish lessons, climbing lessons, hikes and lazy chats, ran into each other and the months slipped by.

There were unforgettable trips to visit the ancient Mayan temples of Tikal in northern Guatemala. We planted mangroves on the pacific coast while learning about their important role in the precious eco-systems. We went to weaving classes with beautiful Mayan women. We also observed some of the harsher sides of life - poverty, hand-to-mouth living and also seeing children as young as Corin working rather than attending school sadly. Our boys’ education took many diverse forms; this immense privilege was not lost on us.

The boys were living their best lives here.

Lake Atitlan is well known on the backpacker trail and plenty of English-speaking families have chosen it as their home. So making friends was never a problem.

Our children got fitter and the hiking distances got longer

As a paediatric physiotherapist, it made my heart sing to see our boys physically thriving. Life was active and outdoors - our daily commute to our outdoor Spanish school was a mountain hike along the lake, with squirrels and humming birds for company on the journey. Stuff of dreams really.

Our children got fitter and the hiking distances got longer.

They really proved their worth with an epic climb of Acatenango volcano on New Year’s Eve. Acatenango is a 3976m high volcano -thankfully now dormant, but it sits beside the very active Fuego volcano.

And so we spent NYE 2021 with friends visiting from home, watching the most amazing live fireworks display as Fuego spewed magma into the air all night. Seeing Daithí happily ride a horse to base camp and Corin storm with excited determination to the very summit of that volcano was one of those reassuring moments where I knew all those months of planning and anxiety was worth it.

However our three-month visas were coming to an end and we had decisions to make….

Find out what happened next in Irish Times Abroad next week

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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