Hurling and camogie

Antrim hurler Neil McManus in awe of the GAA's power abroad

Cushendall club-mates Neil McManus and Arron Graffin on the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam

“The wings of youth fly away and never come back. Fly, man, fly.” Alberto Granado in conversation with his friend Ernesto ‘Che' Guevara in ‘Motorcycle Diaries'

WITHIN an hour of returning home from his travels, Neil McManus was on the training field with his Ruairi Og team-mates.

Feeling the grass under his feet, it felt good to be home.

In 2016, the Antrim hurler did something that he'd promised to do for several years: hang up his inter-county hurl for a season and go travelling.

McManus and Aileen Martin – his wife-to-be in April – set off on a journey of a life-time.

From South East Aisia to San Francisco, where McManus played for senior hurling club Na Fianna, before making a surprise return home just nine days ago – perfect timing ahead of Cushendall's Championship defence.

Thailand, Bangkok, Cambodia and the islands off its mainland were just some of the the places they discovered.

But Vietnam was the place that left an indelible mark on the pair.

“Vietnam was special,” says McManus.

“We actually met up with Arron Graffin [Cushendall and Antrim team-mate] and his fiancée Sarah-Louise Carr and we did a bit of trekking up through the mountains in a place called Sapa.

“It's close to the Chinese border – northern Vietnam, southern China.

“It's farming country, rice fields, it's something you would imagine Ireland being like in the 1800s.

“The people there have so little and yet they're so content. If you're anything from 10-years-old upwards you're out in the rice fields working.

“They work for no monetary gain, it's just for the sustenance of the community – to feed the babies and to feed the elderly. It's a remarkable way of life.”

One story illustrates just how far from home they were when Aileen, McManus's fiancée, offered some food to a little boy.

“One of the days we were trekking, Aileen gave a packet of food to a kid of about six years of age, and the first thing he did before opening it was run to his brothers or cousins – I'm not sure who they were - and he gave them all something first before he took anything himself.

“And we were laughing: ‘Imagine that at home.'"

McManus adds: “Sapa is a beautiful, beautiful place. I don't think too many tourists venture up there. It makes you so grateful for what you have at home whenever you see what they're living off and how happy they are. They're getting water out of the mountain and living off the land. It's incredible to see it.”

During their five-day trek along Sapa they stayed in barn houses where they were provided with a “mattress and a mosquito net”.

“Obviously, rice is the staple for every meal – pork, chicken, even the food from street vendors was good. There are no artificial flavourings that they put into our food here. It's literally a bit of chicken or a bit of pork and you put it on a barbecue and have rice with it.

“One of the best things we did was take motorbikes from Hoi Ann to Hu?. That trip alone was something I'll never forget.

“They just gave us a motorbike each and said: ‘Leave that off when you get there'. It's hilarious how laid-back things are.

“You could be driving along and you'd see two lorry-loads of pigs at the side of the road so the driver can water them because it was so warm. You'd pass a wee shack, 30 miles from no-where, and an elderly man trying to sell stuff out his front.

“At the top of Sapa you can see to your left the city of Hu? and on the other side you can see Dà Nang strand.

“We were sitting looking at the view from a hairpin bend and thinking: ‘We'll never see this again.'

Suffice to say, nobody in Sapa had heard of hurling or the Liam McCarthy Cup or the Christy Ring final fiasco – a game McManus watched on his fiancée's ipad, courtesy of GAA.GO, in the middle of the night in Chiangnai.

McManus spent the last two months of his travails in San Francisco.

It was there he felt the true value of the GAA.

In between playing five Championship games with Na Fianna, swinging a few clubs at the luxurious Spyglass golf course down in Peeble Beach and taking in Conor McGregor's rematch with Nate Diaz in Vegas, McManus did a bit of carpentry work thanks to a GAA friend – Benny Higgins from Glenravel (DBH Construction).

“Na Fianna were great lads. They looked after us so well, and you become attached to them too. I'll be visiting Clashmore in Waterford, where a lot of them are from, the next time they're home.

“Isn't that what the GAA is about? It's unbelievable the connections you make through the GAA whenever you're away.

“The GAA has such a pull and has probably grown because of the decline of the Church. We're so, so lucky to have it.

“I was so well looked after in San Francisco… People get jobs around the world because of their GAA connections and who they know at home. The Irish look after each other wherever they go in the world, and that's a brilliant thing.”

McManus was an unused substitute in Cushendall's opening Championship win over Creggan in Ballymena last weekend - and he'll be putting his shoulder to the wheel again with Antrim in 2017.

But the rugged terrain and the people of the Sapa mountains will stay with him forever - and the GAA's beating heart of San Francisco...

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Hurling and camogie