Martine Whelan is living the dream — she has taken a two-year sabbatical to travel the world with her husband Colm. One might assume that becoming a grandmother would turn someone into more of a home bird, but the opposite was true for Martine. “Becoming a granny gave me a focus on my life that I didn’t have before. It brings with it a certain amount of perspective and made me realise that I am no longer a young woman with a full life ahead of me, but a middle aged woman, and that life is so precious. My grandson Harry lives in Chicago and I knew with a full-time job in Ireland, my lifestyle wasn’t going to allow me to be around him as I want to be,” she says. “When I was trying to convince my husband Colm to join me, I specifically remember saying to him that I didn’t want to reach the end of my days saying ‘I wish I did more with my life’. I want to make a difference and I wanted to have fabulous memories rather than dreams when that time comes for me.”
Colm was working long hours and commuting to Dublin from their home in Tullamore every day and Martine had worked in civil service for 32 years. “We had reached a point where we were like passing ships in the night and our quality of life was limited to a few hours together every week, when we were exhausted and tired,” Martine says. “We were earning decent salaries but having no time to enjoy it. My children are young adults now, living lives of their own, the youngest in college and all three of them love travelling and living in different countries. It was a case of empty nest for most of the time at home.”
They knew that they would have to live minimally, which was a daunting prospect. It is not the lifestyle they were used to, but the experiences they would get would make it all worth it. “It was going to be a big lifestyle change for sure. But Colm said he wouldn’t let me do it alone and he would give up his job and come along with me. When he made up his mind finally he said ‘your Mum did tell me that if I married you, I would never be bored!’” They decided to rent out their home, and completed an online TEFL course so they could earn some money teaching English when their savings ran out. They have managed by choosing to live in shared Airbnbs with cooking facilities to save money.
First on their list was a visit to Chicago to spend time with Harry before taking a train across to the West Coast. They have spent most of the last year living and working in Asia. “Asia was somewhere that we both wanted to explore and we knew would be less expensive than the western world. We also discovered during our chats together when we were planning, that we both had a desire to do some volunteer work where we could.”
They have been flexible with their plan, embracing the freedom that life as a backpacker brings. “We had planned on spending one month in Beijing, Shanghai and Yangshuo in China and moving on to Vietnam to spend another month there. However, we fell in love with Yangshuo in China so much that we wanted to go back there as soon as we could. And lo and behold, two English teaching jobs came up in the Omeida Language Academy in Yangshuo. We certainly hadn’t expected this, and so we shortened our stay in Vietnam to return to Yangshuo to begin teaching. We have been here ever since. However we leave for Laos next week to continue our journey.”
So far China is the place that has stolen her heart. “It is top of my list of recommendations. This country is most definitely one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. It holds the most spectacular scenery and to visit it is just an amazing magical experience.” Being a tourist in China has its novel moments. “People in China running up to us and asking to take photos of us. Many people in China have never seen a Westerner and it’s hilarious to see the reaction of these people when they spot you on the street. It’s almost like being a celebrity!” Seeing commuters in Japan was a remarkable sight to Martine. “I was totally surprised at the total uniformity of Japanese people generally. These gentle, beautiful people are walking and travelling around Tokyo looking like robots in suits, both men and women, standing in silence on the trains and subways. They are so considerate that they are forbidden to talk on their mobile phones on trains and on the subways in case they disturb other passengers. So they sit and stand in perfect silence.” There were of course more difficult scenes to take in, and in particular the poverty in Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam was harrowing. “The poverty that I witnessed there was on a scale that I had never ever seen before in my entire lifetime. It was horrific seeing the poverty and the filth and dirt that children were playing in, going through rubbish bins with rats running around, looking for recyclables to make some money for their families.”
The trip has had a profound impact on Martine. “It has affected me in the most positive way I could have ever imagined. I am doing things that I would never ever have even dreamed of doing, or thought I would be able to do in my early 50s like scuba diving and climbing mountains in sweltering heat! It has also made me realize how lucky I am to live in a country where old people don’t have to work on construction sites, where we have good sanitation and a healthy environment to live in.”
While the vast majority of her friends and family have been supportive of her trip, there were a few naysayers. “There is a preconceived notion that a good mother or father should always remain in the home, waiting for their adult children to show up in between their busy lives. This is not true, and I think I am setting a good example to my children by living life to the full, and they are really proud and happy that I am doing this.” Martine believes age should not deter anyone from travelling. “Don’t underestimate your value in this world! Older people have so much to offer. There are people here in Yangshuo in China in their 60s from Europe teaching kayaking to kids. Older people have knowledge that younger people don’t have and it’s so important to share this knowledge with the young people around the world.”
Follow Martine’s travels at irishgrannyontherun.wordpress.com || Words: Róisín Healy
This article appeared in the November issue of Irish Country Magazine.
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