An adventurous and go-ahead Waterford family from Crooke, Passage East, has just completed a fabulous year wandering the world in an adventure that many dream of doing but very few actually achieve.
Thanks to their SSIA savings, Caoimhin and Marie (nee Noonan) Condren and their three children, Caoimhe(11), Aonghus(10) and Cormac(8) took a year out from the grind and routine of work and school to travel around the world. They could have bought a new car or had some home improvements done but they opted instead to invest their cash on quality family time spent travelling together in what turned out to be a wonderful, magical journey.
They were fortunate enough to be given leave of absence from their jobs at Bausch & Lomb and the laboratory at Waterford Regional Hospital. And, once the momentous decision was taken, they rented their house, packed their bags, bought some guide books and left last year on July 1 with, in their own words, ‘their suitcases in their hands, their hearts in their mouths and their heads full of dreams!’
Said Marie: “We were a contradictory mass of fear, excitement and exhaustion, eager to go and simultaneously afraid of leaving. Reaction of friends and family was equally varied, oscillating between congratulatory comments on our ‘bravery’ to total incomprehension at our ‘foolishness’. Even we would have been hard pressed to say whether we were completely ‘nuts’ or not!
“We started with a one way ticket to Buenos Aires and vague notions that we would like to spend Christmas in Australia and that we would also like to visit China. We had no big plan – we didn’t want the rigidity of a schedule. We were trying to get away from timetables and a life ruled by the clock! So we opted out of the security of ‘Round the World’ tickets and went for the freedom of the ‘see how it goes’ approach.
“It snowed in Buenos Aires whilst we were there although the first line of our guidebook had assured us that it never snowed in Buenos Aires. Snow in July in a city that hadn’t seen snow in living memory set the tone for our topsy-turvy, incredible year. In Argentina, we went skiing in the Andes, watched tango on the street, ate the best steaks in the world (no disrespect to the Irish Beef Industry) and took Spanish lessons in Salta in Northern Argentina. This was a bit like learning English in Cork – great at the time but we found that our brand of Spanish was incomprehensible to the rest of the continent!
“We spent a week around Iguazu Falls, on the border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. These are waterfalls that make Niagara Falls look like ‘baby’ falls. I think that the beauty and majesty and the sheer power of the water took our collective breaths away – all except Cormac (8) who really didn’t see the point of watching water fall! But we had never even heard of them before going to South America. Either we are unusually ignorant or they are not widely known!
“We travelled overland from Argentina to Bolivia, Peru and on to Chile. Transport varied from luxurious Argentine buses with enormous reclining seats, meals served and nightcaps offered before retiring – a bit like first class air travel – to bum numbing, dusty, dilapidated bone shakers crammed with all sorts of bags and luggage, not all of it inanimate! Bolivia was poor, incredibly diverse and totally fascinating. We spent some spectacular days, touring the Salar de Uyuni, an remarkable, enormous salt ‘lake’ – so vast that it appears limitless, so empty that all sense of perspective is lost, so cold that we slept in all our clothes including hats and jackets and so high that our heads ached from the altitude.
“We searched for anacondas in the baking heat of the Amazonian pampas in northern Bolivia – I must say that I was relieved when we didn’t find any although we were successful in finding tarantulas in the jungles. In Peru, we climbed the fabled Machu Pichu and flew a stomach churning flight over the Nazca Lines – drawings and lines on the desert floor that are still inexplicable to this day. Chile was utterly charming, a long string of a country with great seafood, fantastic wine and reputedly the clearest skies in the world. We did some star gazing in some of the observatories, which has only whetted our appetites to learn more!
“We flew from Santiago, Chile, to New Zealand. We hired a car, bought some tents and camped our way around this spectacularly beautiful country at the end of the earth. We went in search of ‘Lord of the Rings’ locations because we have some committed fans in the party. We went onwards to Australia and spent Christmas in Perth with relatives. We came for a week and stayed for five and a half! Are we the house guests from hell?
“Actually it was brilliant – they have even asked us back again and I think that they were genuinely serious! Perth had the hottest Christmas period on record – superlatives seem to follow us around. The drought that had plagued Queensland for ten years broke whilst we were there. We were so happy for the Aussies but maybe a few weeks later would have been better for us.
“We snorkelled on the Great Barrier Reef, searched for the elusive platypus (an almost David Attenborough experience), watched turtle eggs hatch at midnight and saw the tiny hatchlings run to the sea under a balmy, starlit sky. Australia was the children’s favourite country – English speaking, good food, great fun and cousins to bond with!
“We flew from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, which was certainly an assault on the senses especially as we unwittingly arrived in the middle of the Vietnamese New Year celebrations in February. The roar of the motorbikes, the smell of traffic fumes mingled with garlic and coriander, the good humour and laughter of the people, the colour of the costumes and the humid heat of a tropical night all told us that we had arrived somewhere special.
“Vietnam is vibrant and beautiful and has arguably the best food in the world – spicy, fresh and absolutely delicious. It has beautiful beaches, gorgeous hill villages and great shopping. We spent a few weeks in Laos, mainly in search of elephants – Laos used to be known as the Land of the Million Elephants. We ate sticky rice, saw saffron robed monks begging for alms in the early morning – the giver is honoured to have his donations accepted – and saw the devastation wrought in Laos by the Vietnam War or the American War as it is called in these parts.
“We went overland into China – a country that is astonishingly beautiful in spite of all the bad press that it gets. Initially, we felt that we were struck blind, deaf and dumb! We couldn’t read the writing, we couldn’t understand what anyone was saying and we couldn’t speak an intelligent word. But people were still extraordinary kind to us. We were virtually a tourist attraction because we had three children – China’s one child policy means that three-child families are virtually unheard of.
“We were In Chengdu, eighty kms from the epicentre of the devastating Chinese earthquake – this was certainly a bit close for comfort. The earth moved, the buildings shook and people ran screaming into the streets. It was absolutely terrifying but thankfully we were fine – merely shaken but the aftershocks continued to cause panic for days afterwards and we were horrified to see the death toll rising day by day. ‘Scary but cool’ was how Caoimhe(12) described the experience.
“We travelled eastwards to Beijing, a city where the scale of the demolition/construction and remodelling/painting in preparation for the Olympics was absolutely staggering. A big clock in Tiananmen Square counts down the seconds to the Olympics and not one of them was being wasted whilst we were there!
“We took the Trans Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow – a journey of about 9000kms and six days on a train! We crossed the vastness of Siberia and some mighty rivers -the Yenisey, where icebergs have been known to float far upriver from the Arctic Ocean and the impressive Volga to name but a couple. Amazingly we weren’t bored and we met some really interesting people. We had a few days in Moscow and St Petersburg, and then took an overnight train to Riga. We spent a week or so relaxing in Latvia, a country of medieval castles, forests and lakes and a people with a burning desire to have an economy like the Irish! News of our eminent recession and gloomy forecasts obviously had not filtered that far yet!
Back home safely
“All too soon we were back in Dublin Airport to a summer of rain and a forecast of more heavy skies and dire economic predictions. We may have ‘blown’ our SSIAs but we have lots of warm memories and tales of adventure of our year away to wrap around us and keep us warm in the coming months and years. It is indeed a beautiful world! Are we glad we went? Absolutely!”