Riding the recession out on two wheels


Unemployment and a three-year career break left an Irish family with a choice: what next? They hit the road and haven’t looked back since, writes LINDA de PAOR

FOURTEEN months ago I found myself facing the end of my employment contract in recession-riven Ireland while, at the same time, my husband, Phil, had the opportunity of taking a three-year career break.

I am a solicitor and Phil a librarian. I, along with so many other Irish suffering the same fate, had invested so much of myself into my career and into working hard to make a decent home and life for myself and my family, found the prospect of unemployment overwhelmingly daunting, like scrambling to get a firm footing on quicksand. What to do?

Our almost two-year-old son, Luca, was at a stage where he was literally growing every day but, up to that point, doing so under the weekday care of a creche. As Phil’s career break was incentivised, we were in a position to fund an inexpensive way of life – which clearly meant leaving Ireland. A decision which economic collapse, growing dole queues, ineptitude of Irish governments and relentless banking crises all served to make easier.

Our heads spun when we tried to fix on where we would go and what we would do. In the end, the solution lay in simply focusing on what we enjoyed. Phil and I were keen cyclists and bought Luca a bike seat as soon as he was old enough. We loved holidaying and frequently reminisced about a cycling holiday we’d enjoyed along the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast in Wales in 2007 which seemed to trump all others.

What made it stand apart? The sheer freedom of life on the bikes and pitting ourselves against the elements. We didn’t just see the stunning countryside, we literally travelled on and breathed it. Sensible of every bump on the road, every cross wind, every (rare) ray of Welsh sun and (plentiful) drop of Welsh rain. The end of each day, regardless of hills or hail, brought with it a feeling of immense sastisfaction to ease saddle sores.

And so we began to think about and research cycle touring as a way of seeing some of the world whilst enjoying the privilege of witnessing first hand some of Luca’s pre-school years. The idea grew and took shape. We purchased maps, cycling guides and touring and camping equipment to include a Chariot Cougar trailer for Luca. We decided upon and planned our route. We packed up and stored our belongings. And so it was, thus, that we became “recession revolutionaries” leaving our beloved home, family and friends behind to travel, with our toddler, on two wheels.

Our ongoing journey began in mid-July 2010 when we travelled by ferry, gear and two-year-old in tow, to Roscoff. Family-friendly France, where the designated and mainly off-road and European cycle track, Eurovelo 6, which runs from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, begins, seemed to be the perfect country for easing ourselves into a power pedalled existence.

WE WERE PROVED right. We cycled from Brittany to Alsace, taking in verdant Brittany canals and the fertile, chateaux and vineyard abundant Loire Valley en route. The proliferation of reasonable, amenity-packed campsites, stunning countryside, delectable food and plentiful playgrounds combined to ensure a seamless beginning to our adventures.

We crossed the French border into Germany as autumn set in. Its dramatic bronzes, chestnuts, cooler weather and blankets of leaves under wheel were features which, along with rendering our tent increasingly useless, would form part of our cycling experiences for the rest of our European leg; through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. And would remind us of how autumn gives nature its beautiful due.

While Germany turned up two of our favourite city destinations, Ulm and Regensberg, its countryside really impressed. Cycling it, I couldn’t help but recall small town Kansas depicted in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Wholesome living in close-knit communites where apple pie, or rather apfelstrudel, lay steaming, waiting to cool, on window sills in neat gardens and the laden orchards housed therein. Even the cycle track was apple-strewn rendering it unavoidable to cycle over the windfallen ones at times. Crunch!

Having had our appetites for apples whetted in Germany we finally got an opportunity, in Austria, to sample the tantalising red variety we’d witnessed ripen over the preceeding weeks from the wild apple trees dotted alongside the cycle track traversing this country. The biggest bounty of reachable fresh fruit was to be found in the stunning Wachau wine region where there were tasty wild plums and apples aplenty. The Wachau was, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of our cycle trip along the River Danube. As far as the eye could see were sloping vine terraces and quaint, beautifully preserved villages. It is a destination which promises to please year round but autumn brought the fertile earth there and its keepers’ labours into their own.

We happened to arrive on the first weekend of the grape harvest when every village held a herbst, or autumn, festival; brass bands played, pigs roasted on spits and Sturm – a sweet, cloudy wine made from the first grapes of the season – flowed.

Little old ladies in head scarves peeking over gates, small self-sufficient holdings and old men on bicycles with saws in their baskets, are the images of rural Hungary and Slovakia I recall. The Eurovelo cycle track signage was becoming a little confusing by then – Hungary was the only country in which we got lost – and it was becoming unpleasantly cold. We felt the need for shelter and a base. Especially for Luca.

So upon arriving in Budapest at the end of October we rented an apartment in the old Jewish quarter and soon cobbled together a routine which combined visits to local playgrounds as well as city attractions. An outing to the Szechenyi baths, where we witnessed groups of men play chess poolside, was one of the firm favourites. It was while in Budapest that we made the difficult decision to go back to Ireland to re-group, toilet train Luca and plan our next move. Not before we rented a car and realised an ambition of spending Halloween in Translyvania, Romania though.

WE LANDED BACK to a winter of discontent in an Ireland consumed with the then government’s protracted departure and monetary bailouts. Emboldened by our European trip, maps were once again consulted. Warmer and cheaper climes called. Southeast Asia it was.

We flew, along with all of the original cast save camping equipment, into Kuala Lumpur in March. From the outset we found people so friendly that we felt at ease in the colourful and exotic surroundings. Luca literally walked along the city streets like a celebrity, as warm hearted people shook his hand and high-fived him. This gave us a flavour of what was to come.

We have since spent the last 10 weeks having a truly enchanting, and tasty, time travelling through hot and spicy Malaysia and southern Thailand where we’ve combined cycling with occasional boat and bus journeys to progress in the relentless heat.

The highlight of our Malaysian trip was our stay on Kecil island in the Perhentians, where we languished for over two weeks, in a simple beach bungalow being lulled to sleep at night by the symphony of the ocean mere meters away. It was truly idyllic; white sand, turquoise waters, palm trees with dozey hammocks drooping twixt them and a restaurant which served delicious Malay staples. A place to which I will return, in my mind’s eye, for years to come. Luca may not remember much of it when he is older, admittedly, but we can show him the photos and remind him that it was there he first saw lizards, stroked civet cats and drank from freshly harvested coconuts. The foodie heaven of Georgetown, Penang – which offers cuisine for every taste and pocket from the diverse ethnic groups of Chinese, Malay and Indian which co-exist there, to be enjoyed to the noise of the many mosque’s call to prayer co-minglin in the peppery city air with the aroma of joss sticks wafting from the Buddhist Temples – comes a very close second.

We have adored southern Thailand too but, admittedly, we have encountered a couple of progress hindering impediments. The first being keeping hands on handlebars as we return waves from the charming and child-loving Thai; we feel like star floats in the St Patrick’s Day parade. The other being the seeming endless supply of divine tropical hang-outs to waylay us. If we had to pick our favourite spot to sling a hammock and enjoy the nightly procession of hermit crabs and fireflies it would be Koh Lanta. We plan to continue on to northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City we will be volunteering in Allambie orphanage before hitting the cycling magnet of Highway 1.

Any regrets? Honestly, no. We’re seeing and learning so much. Luca is thriving on it all. And my footing on terra firma is feeling very secure these days.

* You can follow Linda, Phil and Luca’s adventure on aroundtheworldwithluca.com