A CORK family of five did what most people only dream of – they hopped off the treadmill of life and embarked on a six month travel adventure throughout Central America.
They are the McAuliffes, from Ballyclough, near Mallow - parents Danny and Aideen, and kids Lucyanne (12), Ruadhán (10) and Amelia (8).
Danny runs his own physio practice in Mallow and Aideen runs Centre Stage School, a school of Performing Arts.
The couple met in secondary school and like lots of couples, travelled a little in their twenties, backpacking through south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
“We were actually on Phi Phi island in Thailand in December, 2004, when the tsunami hit the island,” said Danny.
The couple had assumed that once they became parents, their backpacking days were done until the kids were finished college and they retired.
But the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns changed their entire mindset.
“In October, 2020, the return to a level 5 lockdown meant Aideen’s business was effectively shut down until after Christmas,” says Danny.
“In the initial lockdown, she, like many others, had scrambled to transition her classes to an online platform so when, after completely reorganising the flow of children in and out along with several timetable alterations to comply with social distancing in order to open back up again, only to be shut down three weeks later, she decided to close completely until restrictions allowed her to reopen fully.
But rather than start making banana bread like the rest of us, the McAuliffe’s decided on a more original plan of action.
“Rather than look at the four walls and listen to a news cycle which at the time consisted entirely of Covid, Brexit and Donald Trump’s bid for a second term, we made a bold decision to raid the piggy bank, book flights to Costa Rica and spend six weeks in a part of the world that we had only ever seen on nature documentaries,” said Aideen.
They packed school books for the kids, who all attend Baltidaniel National School, got a house sitter to take care of their dog, organised locums for Dany’s clinic, and embarked on what they said was a “really lifechanging six weeks”.
“Firstly, the country of Costa Rica just completely blew us away,” said Danny.
“To wake up every day to a chorus of Howler monkeys, to see sloths outside our door, toucans, poisonous dart frogs, the sublime red eye tree frogs, snakes and so much more was so removed from what we are used to in Ireland.
"The beaches with body temperature water and palm trees loping out over white sand meant that every single day of the six weeks were an adventure that was so much more fulfilling than our partying through Asia in our twenties,” he said.
Their six week jaunt hit deep: “It changed us internally. We are both extremely busy at home, not just with work but with GAA commitments and various other roles that all add up to make the Monday to Sunday treadmill consistently quick. The six weeks spent immersed every day in nature had such a calming effect that we really questioned our reality back home,” said the dad-of three.
As early as the flight home, Aideen floated the idea of doing it again, but for six months this time.
The couple gave themselves until the end of January to see if it would be possible from a work and a financial perspective.
“While walking the snow-covered roads in early January, 2021, we made a concrete decision to go for it.
"We had nine months to prepare, to clear car loans, to find renters for our house and to organise our businesses for six months while we were gone.
“It was a busy, busy nine months but finally, in late October, 2021, all five of us boarded an AirCoach in Cork with one-way flights to the Dominican Republic (DR). We had no other plans, just a random wish list that spanned from Brazil to the Galapagos,” said Danny.
What they had organised though was enrolling the kids in a school called The Hive in a town on the north coast of DR called Cabrera.
“The Hive’s philosophy is rooted in self-directed learning. Each six week term takes on a theme from the UN’s sustainable goals so for our stint there they focused on hunger,” said Aideen.
“The children then decide a project and the teachers facilitate their exploration on this theme.”
What immediately surprised the couple was the benefits they found to communal living.
“In Cabrera, we stayed in Villa Cabofino with six other families and their kids. It was the beginning of a rollercoaster ride in getting to know other people from random parts of the world. The speed at which people connect when thrown together randomly on another side of the world is crazy.
"In terms of meeting new people and fostering friendships with them, it is fifth gear and flat out compared to home. It was a trend that has continued throughout our trip,” said Aideen.
After their positive schooling experience in DR, they decided to hook up with these pop-up world schools wherever they could due to the social benefits they offered.
“We found another ‘pop-up’ World School in Mexico outside Valladolid in Castle KannAc, where again the kids had an absolute blast and we got to mingle with some amazing people with amazing stories and backgrounds. While in Cabrera we became friendly with another lady from Brighton, Beth, who was a teacher at The Hive. She, along with Abi and Jeremiah Kovacs, decided that it would be a great idea to set up a travelling school, picking the coolest locations in Central and South America and spending six to eight weeks in each.
“We jumped on board what has become the ‘Travelling Circus’ and set up base in spectacular Antigua, Guatemala for six weeks. We also attended a world school in San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua,” said Danny.
The couple also complemented the world schools with the traditional Irish curriculum.
“A big bag of school books has accompanied us everywhere!,” said Danny.
Their kids picked up plenty of Spanish on the trip too.
“While in Antigua, we decided not to send our eldest girl to the world school and instead enrolled her for four hours per day of one-to-one Spanish lessons. The speed at which she picked up the new language was nothing short of remarkable due to Antigua being a hub for this form of accelerated learning. So our 12-year-old served as our exclusive translator as we negotiated our way through bus stations, airports and various other interactions with native speakers.
“Our son also did Spanish twice a week so coming home with two kids proficient in a new language, as well as being up to date with English, Irish and Maths, consoles us that rather than suffering from being out of school for six months, they have benefited enormously from the experience.
“Throw in the social development they have experienced from meeting so many new kids from so many parts of the world and we are content that the six months have been a net positive for them,” said Aideen.
The couple said their journey was one of ‘let’s see what happens next’, rather than one where everything was planned in detail. This allowed them the flexibility to talk to fellow travellers and pick places based on their experience and advice, which included DR, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
“There were so many highs, so many moments of sublime magic, that it would be impossible to list them all,” said Danny.
“There have been moments where we have been standing on top of one volcano looking across at another active one billowing out smoke as the sun set, being on a beach with bleached white sand and palm trees, walking the streets of the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Antigua, seeing Cartagena des Indias where my favourite author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, based two of my favourite books, and so many more. But, quite possibly, what both of us will take home will be the personal relationships we have fostered with people that we immediately clicked with. To arrive home with a new set of really good friends has been an unexpected bonus.
“Genuinely, there were few if any,” he said. “Central America is such a massive playground for adults and kids that every day brought a new adventure. It really is a paradise that most Europeans do not realise is there.
“The culture and history of the Mayans and Aztecs as well as the colonial history of most of Latin America provides a rich tapestry of life and colour in all these countries. It is also far, far safer than what the perception may be at home,” said Danny.
The family recently returned home, and their advice to anyone on the brink of booking the plane tickets is to hit the button.
“In terms of any other families wishing to embark on this world schooling odyssey, I would say go for it.
"This planet is so spectacular and varied that it is a shame to spend a whole life and never see it. To do it with your kids, experiencing these things together for the first time, creates a bond of excitement and wonder that will linger for a long time,” said Danny.
“Life is short, get creative and jump off the treadmill. I promise you will not regret it.”
Follow the McAuliffes on Instagram on our_eyes_wide_open and oureyeswideopen.org