Why I swapped Cork for a life in the Caribbean during Covid

Mum Emma O’Brien decided to swap Cork for the Caribbean when the pandemic hit. ISABEL CONWAY talks to her and to two other women who also used the Covid crisis to implement major positive changes to their lives
Why I swapped Cork for a life in the Caribbean during Covid

SWITCH: Emma O’Brien and her son Jack on the beach near Holetown, Barbados, where she now is based

WHEN the Covid-19 lockdown hit last March, Emma O’Brien, from Ovens, used it to take stock of her life.

She was working remotely from home as senior Finance Manager for the EMA software company and, in common with other separated parents, the change presented big challenges, including that of home schooling her 11-year-old son Jack.

“We live in an older estate with very few kids so filling the day for Jack was a challenge unless I had pre-organised play dates,” said Emma. “He ended up spending way more time on screens than I would have liked.”

Then, whilst on parental leave in the summer, Emma read online that the Caribbean island of Barbados had introduced a ‘welcome stamp’ to attract remote workers to relocate there for up to 12 months.

The visa waiver scheme was designed to boost the country’s economy, giving digital nomads from around the world the chance to stay and enjoy the renowned Caribbean laidback lifestyle, the spectacular beaches, glorious weather, and an exotic friendly culture.

“At first it seemed a mad idea for someone like myself who had never lived outside of Cork but everything easily fell into place once I started investigating the move.”

“Jack has asthma and in winter generally picks up any colds and flu, and I wasn’t sure how much he was going to be able to go to school once they reopened after the summer.”

Emma made the move, helped by the fact that Barbados has an excellent school system, an abundance of accommodation options, co-working spaces and good internet connections.

The ‘welcome stamp’ was available to remote workers who were earning a minimum of US$50,000 in their home countries annually, and led to a surge of worldwide interest.

More than 2,500 remote workers, including over 40 from Ireland, have already had their applications processed.

Emma admits there have been challenges since her move. The cost of living on Barbados, a favourite haunt of the rich and famous, isn’t cheap. She researches everything she buys including groceries, clothes, etc, and leases a small car to get around.

“As so much is imported, you have to really look out for the local brands rather than the ones from home you know and love because they will be expensive,” she points out.

Local markets deliver inexpensive island fruit, vegetables and locally caught fish.

Emma’s main concern was to find the right school for Jack. After contacting several international options, she chose Lockerbie College, which has an average class size of 6-8 children in each subject, placing much emphasis on assignments and personal responsibility.

“He gets to study subjects like agricultural science, coding & robotics, IT, integrated science, and Spanish, subjects he wouldn’t have done before at home.

“We settled in really quickly and Jack made great friends within a short time, loving the school, which was such a relief.”

Working from home — a rented apartment overlooking a stretch of cream coloured beach and azure sea — Emma pops out into the sun for a break from digital work, zoom meetings and webinars. It is impossible to get stressed out here, she says, enjoying the stunning views over the bay and taking a run or a stroll around the quaint little nearby streets of Holetown to break up the working day.

At weekends, Jack and his friends are out on their stand-up paddle boards and kayaks “pretty much living on the beach”.

 Together, mother and son have been learning to surf and exploring the island’s beautiful coastline and lush interior. Barbecues with families whose children attend the school pave the way for lasting friendships and Emma has had the opportunity to meet locals thanks to a family friend, Bajan, who has been “fantastic, showing me the ropes and helping to settle us in”.

Had the pandemic not struck, there is no way in the world she could have imagined life taking them all the way to sunny Barbados, admits Emma, but it is proving a great change.

Barbados has recorded only seven deaths from Covid-19 out of several hundred cases, and with no local transmissions thanks to its strict testing and quarantine protocols.

BIG CHANGES: Tara Saunders overlooking Kinsale harbour.
BIG CHANGES: Tara Saunders overlooking Kinsale harbour.

Tara Saunders

“Irish people are great entrepreneurs and I’m convinced some amazing ideas will have come out of this period and new opportunities will continue post the pandemic”, says Tara, who has changed career several times, upping her skills and exploring her creativity in different directions.

Admitting she is a rolling stone who gathers no moss, here is an avid traveller who has notched up journeys to every continent.

After the first lockdown ended in late June, Tara decided to follow her heart — a love of surfing she learnt whilst living in Sligo and Donegal and developing her artistic creativity. So she packed up all her belongings and moved to Kinsale. She arrived in a cavalcade of cars and vans assisted by friends in midsummer.

Having re-trained as a scientist several years ago, a ten-month contract working in drugs safety with a branch of Abbot pharmaceuticals had finished. Before the pandemic she had grown weary of the daily two hour commute to work between her home in Dunboyne, Co Meath — “much of that time sitting in traffic jams” — and the laboratory.

The Covid crisis was her wake up call to “get out and save my sanity after living in my €1,200 per month converted garage”.

The shutdown of overseas tourism had freed up accommodation previously rented out as airBnB, increasing her options. Tara found a lovely apartment in Kinsale around the corner from the Yacht Club.

“I knew nobody at all in the town but I strategically based myself here because I could do more surfing at Garretstown and there were pharma companies in the region with opportunities for work.”

Tara, who trained initially in fashion technical design and worked for years with top fashion names in London including Katherine Hamnett and the global fashion label Reiss, took a short job with Dunnes Stores, Carrigaline, whilst awaiting a call up for her current job in the HSE’s Covid contact tracing administration.

Tara, who is in her forties, and her mother, still working away in her early 80s in their home town of Drogheda, are talented seamstresses. The HatsBytara label (www.facebook.com/hats.bytara ) she developed has turned heads at various race meetings, winning best millinery awards. She wants to keep designing hats as well as doing more painting (acrylics these days). Her tip on changing direction is to keep an open mind, be flexible, have plenty of curiosity and “be willing to have conversations with people wherever you are”.

Her move to Kinsale was pretty easy for someone who had lived for several years in New Zealand, in the UK and also in Florida.

“My life has always taken new directions and checking out new opportunities; I love new places, getting to know new people and fresh surroundings. It’s a bit of an addiction now, Kinsale feels right for me and it has been easy to fit into the life of the town.”

Jeanette Taylor at her desk.
Jeanette Taylor at her desk.

Jeanette Taylor

Shortly before the virus arrived in March, Jeanette Taylor left one of Ireland’s best known tour operators, Sunway Holidays, after 16 years, to plunge into the unknown… the insurance business.

“I went into it blind, all I knew was you had to have health, fire and motor insurance, and of course holiday cover,” said Cork-based Jeanette.

She had been approached by Blue Insurance, Ireland’s award-winning holiday insurance specialists, to take over as Agency Sales and Service manager nationwide.

Her timing was uncanny as international travel would grind almost instantly to a halt whilst the whole question of proper insurance from coronavirus cover and other medical expenses, repatriation and cancellation would gain new vital momentum for the consumer and future traveller.

Jeanette had been Ireland sales manager for family-owned Sunway Holidays, building up a broad network of travel industry contacts.

A familiar figure in travel trade publications, events and shows, she came third in the Miss Ireland contest back in the day. The runner-up statue sits on a shelf behind her head during a constant stream of zoom calls and webinars, part and parcel of her working day now in the world of insurance.

“It is there as a conversation piece to lighten up those first minutes of a new meeting, but recently one person took it for a religious statue and the words ‘bible basher’ were used about me,” she laughs.

“I am really enjoying working in another side of the industry now. Switching career lanes in a pandemic was a new challenge for me, and it was exciting to take on something else. It’s adding to my skills as well and I’m learning about a new product.

“If you are thinking of changing career or circumstances have brought you to a crossroads, I would say go for it. There’s nothing like a challenge to invigorate you, especially in mid-life.”

Her routine starts at 8.30am for a daily team chat to run through the day’s goals. Beforehand, Jeanette slips down to a beach near Summercove in Kinsale where she lives for an invigorating daily year round swim.

During the pandemic she has stayed connected with clients through virtual meets, zoom calls and the mobile.

The most vital lesson Jeanette has learnt in her career, she says, is the importance of lasting business relationships and the personal touch to win customers and keep them.

Blue Insurance has been impacted significantly by Covid as the majority of its business is travel-related. During the summer months Jeanette and her colleagues were assisting customers with queries and developing extra Covid-related cover to policies for those travelling to Green List countries. They also launched StaycationInsurance.ie, a new product for consumers.

“Travel must be allowed to open up again,” she stresses, “the pandemic has been disastrous for many friends and colleagues but there’s light at the end of the tunnel now with the arrival of the vaccine and improved testing facilities so 2021 is looking much brighter.”

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