An Irish family’s gap year: Next up is Spain and two months at an alternative outdoor school

Fi O’Meara’s family rented out their Cork home and hit the road. Here’s part 2 of their trip

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. Here is the latest instalment of their adventure of a lifetime

We found it hard to leave our lakeside life in Guatemala, but Costa Rica and all its wildlife was calling to our young nature lovers. And so we made Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica our home for the month of February.

Hot, humid and sweaty, where beach meets jungle, this really is an animal lover’s paradise. No sooner had we dropped our bags in our new home, than we saw a sloth fall right into our garden. Toucans in the trees, howler monkeys roaring before sunrise, deadly snakes and poison dart frogs in our garden, our eyes didn’t know where to settle.

We hired bikes for the month, swam, surfed and lived the Pura Vida Costa Rican lifestyle.

March took us to Colombia where our pace of travel really increased - we now became travelling backpackers, spending a few days here and there.

From the wonderfully progressive city of Medellin with its world- class, affordable museums, to horse riding in the hills of the coffee-growing region, to snorkelling the clear waters of the northern coast, Colombia really captured our hearts. However this fast-paced travel is now taking its toll and our kids are tired.

Though my descriptions above sound like an idyllic lifestyle, and it certainly is, life is still life with all its ups and downs.

Dragging the kids home from the sea to do maths, sounds easier than it is

Grumpy moods come and go no matter where we are, only this time no one is heading out to work or school to defuse their mood with other people.

Regular-life activities, such as dentist trips, and school work have to continue.

Homeschooling, whilst relatively straightforward at home during the pandemic with teachers’ support, is much more challenging on the road. Dragging the kids home from the sea to do maths, sounds easier than it is. Plus we are also discovering that nine-year-olds (at least ours) don’t exactly like learning from their parents! We roped in help from primary teacher Auntie Carol and new schooling methods were developed. Spanish and Irish lessons went online thanks to the Duolingo app.

We find and re-find our rhythms many times over, in a constant process of what does and doesn’t work.

This year is about taking a pause, catching our breath and evaluating where we are at in our usually busy lives

Whilst friends were easy to come by during our three months on the lake in Guatemala, the faster pace of travelling in Costa Rica and certainly Colombia has meant friends are harder to make. And there are many times when we feel our now 10 year-old needs company other than his parents.

However what is so heart-warming are the friendships they have forged in unexpected places where age was irrelevant - the wonderful dream-interpreter Isaac who minded the kids one evening giving us our only night out, the gorgeous young German puppy-rescuing women who we co-lived with, the gregarious Norwegian Duke Eric and delighted our boys with sugary treats and the best hikes Also the warm-hearted American birdwatcher Bill, who introduced our boys to the intimate life of bird-watching with his 6am tours around our garden.

They are meeting such a diversity of characters, who live wild, wonderful and alternative lifestyles. We are on a tight budget and our accommodation choices regularly reflect this, but our experiences are priceless.

However as we come to the end of our Central / South American leg of this gap year, the lack of peers for the kids is something we feel we need to address. And so the next part of the adventure takes us back to the south of Spain, to an alternative outdoor school which the boys will attend for May and June.

They are excited about the prospect of advancing their Spanish and making some friends for more than a few days. We are excited about not having to entertain them every minute of the day.

This year is about taking a pause, catching our breath and evaluating where we are at in our usually busy lives.

Inspired by the New York based graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister who famously recommends a "time out" every seven years, we felt it was a good time to throw all the balls in the air and see where they landed.

We know we are undeniably privileged to have the finances saved and the family support to make this possible. And it has not been without its challenges and worries. We’ve spent our life savings, taken career risks, said teary farewells to heartbroken grandparents, and we’ve been unsure on many occasions if we are isolating our kids from their lives at home, or exposing them to too many weird and wild experiences.

However as the year has progressed, and we hear our five-year-old wondering if pelicans breed on Colombia’s northern coast at this time of year or see our 10 year old confidently giving a zoom presentation on the Mayan culture to classmates back home in St Luke’s NS, I feel proud of the choices we’ve made.

Our next challenge is figuring out how we can do it all again.

If you missed the first instalment of Fi O'Meara's gap year with her family, you can read it here

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

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