Back in April, a group of us boarded a truck, armed to the teeth with water pistols and huge drums of back-up ammunition. Our mission was to spray everyone in sight as part of Thailand´s Songkran, or New Year, celebrations and it was one of the most joyous days of my life. Throughout the whole land, the biggest water fight in the whole world was taking place and it would have been impossible not to get involved.
Suddenly it dawned on me that I had a whole host of new friends on a beautiful island, Ko Lanta, a place which I had approached with a little trepidation as I began the PADI Divemaster course back in early January. Songkran reminded me of the importance of just having FUN for the sake of fun, without any need for alcohol or drugs.
And that was perhaps the dominant theme of my gap year ... to go out and live life to the full, to enjoy experiences such as learning Spanish, working with wonderful young Nicaraguans (for free), or turning the hobby I´ve loved for 12 years into a career or at least a professional qualification.
Along the way, I have met incredible people and renewed my faith in humanity, as well as in myself. On the night before I went to Central America, I had panic attacks and could not sleep. I wanted to cancel the last third of my trip. But facing my fears, and overcoming them, has been hugely rewarding in 2010. There really is nothing to fear but fear itself, as the saying goes.
Anyway, as we face into an uncertain (and what promises to be a less soaky, even in Galway!) New Year, I thought I would compile an A to Z of my wonderful gap year. It´s been a chance of a lifetime and I think I´ve learned that people who pass 40, or 30, or any milestone, should never think it´s too late to get away from ´reality´ and follow their dreams!
A is for ACCEPTANCE ... things don´t always go according to plan, and you have to learn to adapt and accept. Such as when a Skype link fails in a Nicaraguan school or you find yourself deserted on a Caribbean island, due to stormy seas. It´s also for ACCOMMODATION, I really did learn that I can live in a simple beach hut, without creature comforts, and just one rucksack worth of belongings in 2010.
B is for BASQUE COUNTRY ... I was there for the entire World Cup and to say that they didn´t exactly share in Spain´s glory is a bit of an understatement. They showed me how divided Spain is, with a language which was suppressed under Franco just as the Brits tried to kill off An Gaeilge here in Ireland. It´s also for BANGKOK, a city I´ve never liked and which was, sadly, engulfed in flames on the day I left Thailand in May. Another country or city which is deeply divided.
C is for COURAGE ... Such as that shown by my fellow DMT Jane, who decided to leave her safe job and become a diving instructor after successfully battling against cancer. She inspired me in the first few weeks of my gap year, when I wondered what the hell I was doing in Thailand! And I guess I needed a little dollop of courage myself, to leave my home town after 18 years in the same job. It really is never too late to change!
D is for DIVEMASTER ... or living my dream. Working in a gorgeous tropical island paradise, heading out on the Blue Planet boat every day to the world class dive sites of Hin Daeng, Ko Haa, and Ko Bida. I will be dreaming of those dream days when I´m back in my office next month. It was great to learn so much about my hobby over four or five months and to work with such a great team on Ko Lanta.
E is for EAR INFECTION ... which I picked up at the end of the diving season in May. The low point of my year came in Malaysia, when I was sick, reacting badly to antibiotics, and staying in a kip of a hotel in Georgetown. I never felt so low and I wanted to go home. Within a day or two I was trekking through the Cameron Highlands, loving it, and I guess part of the challenge of a gap year is simply facing challenges or obstacles on the road. You can´t be on a high all of the time!
F is for FEAR ... I was afraid I was too old to become a Divemaster, that I wouldn´t fit in, that a year away was too long, that I would feel alone and not make new friends, and, especially, that I would be a victim of all the criminals I had read about in Central America. And, guess what ... I was wrong on all counts! There was no need for such fear at all and the part of the year I feared most, volunteering in Nicaragua, proved to be the most rewarding.
G is for GRATITUDE ... to my employers, the Connacht Tribune, for giving me the chance to take a year off to explore the world; to my close friends and family for encouraging me, or at least recognising that I needed a change, and especially to all the wonderful new people I met in Thailand, Spain, and Nicaragua this year. The world is a fabulous place if you open your heart to the possibilities and cultures out there.
H is for HOME ... I paid two short visits home to break up the year, which were important as I come from a close and loving family. And home was never far from my thoughts during the economic and political crisis which engulfed Ireland late in the year. Funny, too, how I was most fearful about my travels when I was home in the ´safe harbour´of Galway. Once I travelled, the fears disappeared. And the bizarre moment of the year was when a Nicaraguan told me my country was fecked.
I is for the IRISH ... there are a lot of things which drive me crazy about my home country (the weather, bankers, politicians, general gobshites with big necks); but I genuinely loved meeting Irish people on my travels in 2010. The Irish Embassy in Koh Lanta was my local, for God´s sake, as was O´Shea´s in Nicaragua. Great people from a small land, spread out all over the world.
J is for JANE ... and her husband Chris, who inspired me in the first few weeks when I was finding my feet in Thailand. They were older than me and they had the courage to go out and chase their dreams instead of settling for a ´safe´life back in England. Respect!
K is for KNOWLEDGE ... it was so good to learn new things, good and bad, about the diving industry and life in Nicaragua. And of course my Spanish improved no end after lots of classes and seven months in Spanish speaking countries. It really is good to learn.
L is for LANTA ... still my favourite tropical island, after living there for four months. It´s also for LA ESPERANZA GRANADA, the organization I worked with for ten weeks in Nicaragua. Thanks to LEG I met wonderful volunteers from all over the world as well as the incredibly welcoming local staff. It´s also for love. Maybe I didn´t meet the woman of my dreams, but I sure as hell fell back in love with life and the world!
MALAYSIA ... I spent a few weeks there, doing visa runs from Thailand, and loved the people. It was great to explore this new country and especially to meet like-minded solo travellers in the Cameron Highlands just after my bout of the blues. That place really lifted my soul!
NICARAGUA ... What can I say about the land of volcanoes, lakes, and wonderful (but extremely poor) people? Well, I love the place, and hope to go back some day.
ONE DOLLAR ... If I had a dollar for every time I was asked for one on the streets of Granada, I really would be a millionaire or wouldn´t need to go back to work in 2011. Poverty is a fact of life in Nicaragua and you do have to steel yourself in the face of it.
PUBLIC ENEMY ... Fifteen years after I saw them rock Dublin, I caught up with the US hip-hoppers again on an incredible night in Vigo. I went out on my own, but had a fabulous weekend at an amazing festival. P is also for silly PANIC ATTACKS, such as when I missed my ferry on the Corn Islands, and PEOPLE. I met some truly wonderful people in 2010. I also loved my four weeks in PANAMA, a gentle (but wet) introduction to Central America.
QUALITY ... I was cynical and tired when I left Ireland in January, but such was the quality of the people I met through my travels, including my fellow DMs in Thailand, the language students in San Sebastian, and the volunteers, staff, and kids in Nicaragua that I´ve a whole new appreciation for people in the world. Strangers are only ´strange´ until you chat to them and open your heart to new experiences and conversations.
REVOLUTION ... the heroes of the 1970s mean a lot more to the poor people of Nicaragua than the Irish martyrs who fought to get the British Empire out of our land. Perhaps, as I´m hearing since I came home, Ireland needs another revolution. R is also for REAL SOCIEDAD, whose promotion gave pride back to an entire city in June, and RAFAEL in Panama. A lovely man who lost his wife tragically this year, who can´t face moving back home with his seven year old daughter, and who dared to share his life with me over a few beers. There is pain everywhere, and wonderful people everywhere too.
S is for SAN SEBASTIAN ... my home for five weeks, while I studied Spanish at the Lacunza school. It´s one of the nicest cities in the world, with fantastic beaches, bars, and old streets. It´s also for SPANISH, a language I loved learning this year, and SANDINISTAS, who deserve admiration for standing up to the imperialism of Uncle Sam.
T could only be for THAILAND ... it might be a tropical paradise, but it is also a land of troubles and divisions. While we dived and enjoyed a peaceful life down in Ko Lanta, 16 hours north people were being killed in the dispute between the Government and the Red Shirts. I love the place, but don´t know if I could live in a country which does not have a high opinion of foreigners.
UNDERSTANDING ... or the lack of. It was incredible to hear the expats in Nicaragua, many of whom could not speak a word of Spanish, moan so much about the locals. No wonder people hate other races when they make no effort to understand each other.
VIGO ... I loved this city, which had a hip-hop, heavy metal, skateboarding, and pirates´festival when I arrived. I had been on a downer, all panicky about what lay ahead of me in Central America, and the people of this ´rough and ready´city in Galicia, in NW Spain, reminded me of the value of fun and not taking life too seriously. It´s also for VOLUNTEERING, my ten weeks in Granada which proved to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
W is for WRITING ... I´m a journalist, I can´t get away from it, and I wrote for magazines in Thailand and Nicaragua throughout the year. This blog was a great way of sharing my experiences with friends and family all over the place and thanks so much to people who gave me positive feedback, especially on the few ´down´times. Thanks for reading my rantings! ... It´s also for the WORLD CUP, which meant little to the Basques. Strange, I lived in Spain when they won it for the first time, but nobody around me wanted to celebrate. Instead, we went mental over Real Sociedad.
X is for X-MAS ... and the synchronicity of coming home to snow and ice, just as I found it so tough to leave Ireland in January, when I was stranded in Dublin for 48 hours. It´s good to see old friends and family again, even if I´m not thrilled to be back in Galway. But the year ended in a natural cycle.
Y is for YEARNING ... a few months into my gap year, I realised that it all made perfect sense. I had been yearning for a change in my life for years and only had headaches and a pain in my heart because I didn´t listen to my heart. It really is important to change when you feel a need to change, to try out new things if you feel ´stuck´in a rut. If you are true to yourself, incredible things happen every day.
Z is for ZEST FOR LIFE ... I regained it in 2010, when I was in danger of becoming a weary cynic. To work as a Divemaster, to learn Spanish in three different countries, and to help the poorest of the poor kids in Nicaragua brought me fulfillment beyond my wildest dreams.
Thanks everyone for reading my rantings and a very happy 2011. Muchas gracias a todos!
Find my website at http://ciarantierney.com
Check out my 2016 blog: http://ciarantierney.blogspot.ie/
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