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


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.

Finally, last November, the big day came, and we headed off on the long journey to Central America. Twenty-four hours after leaving Dublin on a cold winter’s day, we were eating pancakes for breakfast in the bright Granadian sunshine. Despite our tiredness, we were already thinking “this isn’t too bad”.

As it was important to us to have a base for the greater part of the trip, we spent the biggest portion of our time in Granada, which charmed its way into our hearts. Although some visitors find the gaily painted colonial buildings all a bit too far from the real Nicaragua, it suited us.

It’s a good size, but everywhere’s accessible by foot, or by buggy, though we came a cropper on more than one occasion, thanks to the cracks and holes that pockmark the pavements. One day two of the children fell into the same three-foot hole, though not at the same time.

The children were able to get stuck in to Nicaraguan life straight away and within days of arriving, the three of them were attending the local international school. We felt guilty when we met other parents on sabbaticals who had spent months planning and researching their trip and had chosen Granada because of the school. Whereas we haphazardly sailed into town, bumped into people who were associated with the school and casually signed up.

It was fun to compare transatlantic school experiences. The school nativity play was a case in point, where Máire agus Iosef and Little Donkey were replaced by Maria y Jose and the Burrito de Belen. The proud parents turned up to the event held in the local open air theatre on a balmy, starry night, a drink in one hand, mosquito repellent in the other. All the usual pre-show nerves, relentless singing of Christmas songs and panic about costumes applied, just as it would have at home.

Meanwhile, we tried to follow the curriculum at home through home-schooling, which was probably more instructive for the adults than their offspring. The children would probably say neither of their parents missed a teaching vocation.

At the very remote home we rented in the hills of western Costa Rica, they went to the local school, which had one teacher and just one student.

The teacher, Santiago, looked perfectly happy to have his headcount increased by 400 per cent, with our three and their visiting friend bent on buying the acceptance of their classmate with Skittles. It will probably be the only time in their lives they can arrive to school by horse – yes, all four on the same one.

Outside of school, they went to art and Spanish classes. They swam in swimming pools the size of bathtubs, waterfalls, lakes, volcanic lagoons and the Pacific, from the phosphorescent green snorkel-friendly waters of Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica, to the mighty churning surf of Playa Peneloya in Nicaragua. Each of the girls wore three swimsuits to flitters during our stay.

The baby was admired, even adored in Nicaragua. We got used to walking into a cafe or shop, only to have him whipped from our grip by one of the staff, exclaiming “que precioso, que bonito”. He still grins from ear to ear when he hears it. In the towns of the north, where gringoes are an exotic species, we ground to a halt as the buggy was mobbed in the streets.

Babies are often good ice-breakers, but ours ensured us the warmest of welcomes, everywhere we went. And that welcome and our interaction with the people we met, in Nicaragua in particular, was the undisputed highlight of the trip for all of us. But it was a trip of highlights, new experiences and an insight into a very different way of life.

We became more at home with wildlife. We learned not to run screaming when an enormous grasshopper jumped into one of our dinners at an outdoor restaurant. We learned to love the mosquito-munching geckos. We never did learn how to outsmart the cute, but mischievous, and occasionally thieving, monkeys and raccoons. Somewhere on a beach in western Costa Rica, a capuchin monkey is still sporting one of our girls’ purple sandals.

We adjusted as the pace of life slowed, especially in Nicaragua, where, like many developing countries, people are focused on the basics. Most people cook over open fires, and many do without appliances and facilities we think of as essential, such as fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, or running hot water.

The carriages pulled by teams of skinny horses are an essential means of transport, and not just for the tourists. The push-carts in which rubbish is collected have wooden wheels, while bicycles are used to transport entire families.

And while people don’t go hungry, their lives are hard. It’s far from a picnic to do manual work all day in hot weather, earning $1 or $1.50 an hour. And for sure, as visitors we benefited from the low price of labour. But what a relief for us to be so far removed from consumer culture, with nothing to buy bar fresh food for the next meal. There are no shopping malls, chain stores, branches of McDonalds or virtually any multinational. People buy their groceries from family-run corner stores, and they eat out at street stalls manned by casual vendors.

Christmas was of the Santa-lite variety and we were happy to spend the day swimming and kayaking, sunning ourselves and enjoying a barbecue, which we didn’t have to cook. We relished the wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables that grow everywhere in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the flavour enhanced by the micro distance from farm to fork. Pineapples, papayas, melons, bananas, passion fruit, lemons, oranges and avocados will never taste the same again. How could they, when they are picked for export to countries like Ireland before they’re ripe?

Learning a new language was part of the adventure. For the adults, it wasn’t easy, but we came away with the somewhat halting basics of Spanish while the girls developed an affection for the language and an enviable playground-acquired accent.

One of the things we will miss most is the backing track of Central American nightlife; the cacophony of dogs, monkeys, birds insects and geckos, the calls of street sellers and the disconcerting sound of cats and lizards scuttling across the roof overhead. We won’t miss the firecrackers that ricocheted through the streets of Granada nightly in the run up to Christmas.

We learned a few lessons about travelling with young children. Our dependence on distractions – games, toys and electronic devices – reduced as time went on. Maybe the children learned to look about them a bit more as we travelled. Or maybe they realised they could use each other as a diversion, even if only for a scrap.

We brought far too much with us, to the point where we were almost rendered immobile. So we ditched clothes, toys and books everywhere we went, where almost everyone we met had more use for them than we did. By the return journey we had dropped a couple of bags and the remaining ones were only half full.

We eventually caught on enough to relax about cleanliness and safety for the children by adopting the “it’ll probably be all right” mantra. We realised the extent to which we try to control our environment in our “normal” lives and then we realised how little we need to. We learned never, but never, to directly answer the question “are we nearly there yet?”.

So here we are, back in Ireland after 15,000 miles by air and road, six rental houses, 10 hotels and several hundred mosquito bites. Most people think our travel itch has been well and truly scratched at this stage. But maybe it’s just given us a taste for more.

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