Choosing to take a gap year
My first gap year took everyone by surprise, not least of all me.
It started at the end of November 1994, in the final year of my A-levels. My parents had decided to go on holiday for two weeks. They clearly weren’t worried that I might hold a party – I was a phenomenally shy teenager who viewed the world through a thick fringe of dark hair – so the only warning they left was to make sure I got my UCAS form in by the deadline.
I made promises, which I fully intended to keep, about working hard to get myself on a math or engineering degree starting the next autumn.
The day after they left the country I attended an assembly given by former pupils who had returned to spread the word about life after A-levels, and my future shifted.
I don’t remember the name of the person who stood up and talked about her gap year. I can’t remember what she looked like. All I remember is that at the end of a series of stunning, exotic photos one of our teachers stood up and said that there was a fund that we could apply to for sponsorship if we wanted to work with a charity abroad.
Daydreams of adventures had often drifted through my brain. I’d always enjoyed films and books packed with action and even before I’d been old enough to actually fancy Harrison Ford, I’d still been obsessed with Indiana Jones. By the time my parents were back in the country I’d deferred university, applied for and been accepted on a programme to teach English to children in Nepal.
Travelling to Nepal
Just over a year later, half of which had been spent holding down a job as a phone monkey at the local water company, hoarding every penny towards flights and kit, I sat in the back of my parents' car on the drive to Gatwick. I can still remember the terror pains in my stomach; sat there wishing I’d skipped the assembly.
People mock gap years for many reasons. I've also laughed, somewhat self- consciously, at the Gap Yah! video clips. But that January day was the moment that the apron strings snapped. I was talking about this with my mother recently and she commented, as always, on the "brave purple fleece, striding through customs, refusing to look back."
I had no idea of the friends, adventures, mountains, daal bhat, diarrhoea, rivers, sloth bears and elephants that lay ahead. But every one of those things shaped what has followed and the person that I am today.
Volunteering in Nepal
I grew up in southern England, sheltered and protected from the recession of the early 90s. I had friends who had far more than I did (horses, fancy clothes etc.) and occasionally that grated. I didn’t learn to truly be grateful for what I had until I saw what others didn’t.
There were 16 other British teenagers on the project I was enrolled on. I was paired with a Nepali on an experimental, environmental programme. We moved around the country, sometimes staying in hostels, sometimes with families. These weren’t the poorest people by any means but they lived simply and we knew that the meat they cooked especially for us was a rare treat for their children.
We learnt how to build pit latrines and pass the knowledge on. We spoke to children in schools about what would today be called ‘Ecosystems services’ – the valuable assets we gain by protecting the environment.
I like to think that by helping our saathi (I hope that means friends - very little of the language remains) to improve their English and CVs, we may have helped 17 young Nepalis on their first steps to better careers – hopefully making a difference to their lives and perhaps a bigger contribution to their country.
As for me, after five months working with the charity and six weeks travelling around India – hot and shocking after Nepal – my money ran out and I reluctantly returned home. Still an introvert, but with a little bit more confidence in my own abilities to survive in the world and a long list of places that I wanted to explore as soon as I’d saved up more cash.
After my gap year
Over the years my Nepalese adventure has played an important part on my CV. My new found interests turned my studies towards geography and anthropology. My experience of communicating environmental issues helped me swing a dream job at the Natural History Museum, which eventually got me to where I am now - working for a National Park.
I’ll never know where I would be today if I had skipped that assembly, but I know that I’ll never regret taking my gap year – despite the long-term digestive traumas a severe giardia infestation can lead to…
Thinking about all of the big decisions that I’ve had to make over the past twenty years, I wonder how I would have found the confidence to make them if I had taken the easy path and just gone straight to university.
Why I gave up a great job to fulfil a dream
You’ve never felt truly alone until you’ve arrived by yourself in a distant country, fighting off the flu, jet-lagged from a 15-hour journey, barely able to make yourself understood and terrified to put your bag down in case somebody runs off with it. Somewhere inside a voice points out that nobody made you do this. It’s entirely your decision to put yourself here, alone, in Santiago.
And that was before I’d got myself stranded in a desert, fallen for two of the most obvious cons known to man, snogged an Argentinian at 7am on Christmas day or been seduced by a geologist.
Although it felt adventurous at the time, my first gap year in Nepal was safely cushioned by the security of an organised charity, with contacts and accommodation sorted well in advance and a native-speaker on hand to buy tickets and place them securely in our sweaty little hands.
By contrast my second gap year, aged 31, was a solo assault on a continent, with no plans further than:
- Learn the language (if a one old can do it, how hard can it be?)
- Find a job then travel, or travel then find job
- In the event of failure, return home with tail between legs
Saving for South America
South America had been nagging at the back of my mind since my heart was stolen, aged 11, by the cartoon with the best theme tune of all time – The Mysterious Cities of Gold. All through my 20s I dreamt of wandering through Inca ruins, getting lost in cloud forests and following ancient trails across passes between snow-capped mountains.
I kept a postcard of Torres del Paine on my desk at work. Every time friends – usually couples – announced that they were going travelling I’d sigh and wish that I had someone to tour the world with.
At 30, finding myself unattached, without a mortgage and unsatisfied with my job, I suddenly realised that all the things about my life that were seen as failures in London could be turned into an asset. With no boyfriend, debt or career to tie me down I was free to live my dream. But even then I didn’t do a sudden flight. I was methodical and calculating.
For an entire year I discovered a new level of economy. Why take the tube when you can catch a bus? Why catch a bus when you can walk? Why eat out when you can cook at home? Why buy full price food when there’s a reduced-to-clear aisle? Why enjoy a gin and tonic when you can drink soda water and imagination?
Within six months I’d paid off my student loan and saved enough for a TEFL course. After a year I had a plane ticket and a significant sum in the bank, but I still didn’t really believe I was actually going.
It all became real the day I quit my well paid, secure job in PR - a job that so many others wanted. I knew I’d never find a job in a more interesting place, or with funnier colleagues, but I also knew that it’s just that kind of attitude that leaves you looking back at your life and wondering “What if I’d just…”
And guess what? The risk was worth it.
Within a week of landing in Santiago, Chile, I had found a job. After six months of dedicated hard work I could speak enough Spanish to hold my own in a conversation, eavesdrop on a bus and persuade kindly old people that I was just an innocent hitchhiker and not a threat to their lives.
Then I set off to explore the rest of the continent – sometimes alone, sometimes with people I met on the way. I wandered through Inca ruins, got lost in cloud forests, followed ancient trails over passes between snow-capped mountains and had a hundred other unexpected adventures, big and small. But most important of all, I discovered the exhilarating feeling that only comes from taking a big risk and making your daydream a reality.
Joanna Glyde is a hiker, mountaineer, general out-door lover and PR officer making her first tentative steps into a writing career. Read her blog indianajoversusthelist.wordpress.com.
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. To find out more about what you can expect from this project we encourage you to speak to one of our friendly staff.