Tag Archives: travel

Are gap years (gap yahs) simply an excuse to get pissed and ‘find yourself’?

22 Dec

Gap years have become synonymous with tousled hair, ‘ethnic’ beaded bracelets and late-night beach parties.  Attitudes towards gap years have changed – when I was younger, gap years were almost encouraged as a way of gathering more ‘life’ experience, a way of exploring the world and doing things outside the rigid school curriculum.

In the last few years, though, the ‘student on a gap year’ seems to conjure up images of frightfully posh eighteen year olds, with wads of money from the Bank of Mummy and Daddy who think that getting pissed in a different country means expanding one’s mind and perspective.   There’s a plethora of stuff out there that mocks the average gap yah student for example, this sketch which is pretty spot-on in some respects – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKFjWR7X5dU – and does anyone remember the furore about good old Max Gogarty and his ‘ironic’ journal detailing his travels in the Guardian? http://www.theguardian.com/travel/blog/2008/feb/14/skinsblog

I think it’s a real shame that these caricatures have come to pervade our associations with gap years, and as a person who had a gap year myself, I can safely say that its not all ridiculously posh, rich, vacuous students (debatable…!) looking to sleep around.  My gap year was non-voluntary and came suddenly when I was forced to leave university after a term due to depression and anxiety.  It was entirely unplanned, and initially I found the idea awful.  I saw it more as another year delaying the inevitable while comparing myself with my friends who all seemed to be having so much fun at uni, and there were times when I became very introverted, frustrated and generally disillusioned.  However, for me, it helped to begin the healing process and I managed to get into some sort of structure which is vitally important when you’re down.

Firstly, I needed money.  I ended up working full-time in retail which taught me a lot of things, namely that I didn’t want to work in retail.  I also learnt to curb my expectations.  I think it’s good, no vital, to have dreams and ambitions but many of my dreams were illusions – unobtainable goals.  These only served to make me feel like a failure as I could never achieve the impossible, but working in a monotonous and at times, incredibly boring, job gave me a little perspective about what I should expect for my life.  In a way, by doing something I knew I didn’t want to do, I felt more determined to find something that I did want to do.  Something that would open more opportunities to me and I started looking into courses and universities that I would be better suited to.

Later on in the year, having saved my money for a while, I decided I wanted to travel and engage in the more ‘typical’ gap year experience. Strangely, my good friend was in a very similar position to me and we both decided to do something a bit different.  We booked ourselves onto a volunteering program in Cambodia for a couple of months, where we worked in a school for poor children and an orphanage as English teachers.  At the time, I desperately wanted to escape the tedium of my life, and the malignant thoughts that followed me everywhere.  Yes, I was incredibly self-indulgent but the beauty of my gap year experience was its ability to change my perspective.  I met some of the nicest people I have ever met, and probably will ever meet, who were incredibly strong, kind and genuine despite the fact that they had very little in material terms.  It was refreshing to escape my narrow world of being trapped in my head and I even felt ashamed that I should be so focused on myself.  The picture below shows Indu and I teaching English to a class of the cutest Cambodian children.  Their energy and enthusiasm was incredibly infectious.

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So, even though the notion of ‘finding yourself’ is beyond cheesy, my entire gap year experience (at home and abroad) was vital in making me who I am today.  It also gave me the travelling bug, and since then I’ve done internships and volunteered in a number of countries as it’s addictive to lose yourself in another culture.  It also taught me the value of hard work, the kindness in other people (which I had pretty much given up believing in at that point) and that sometimes you need to realise that it is all in your head.  And the world is far bigger than your head.

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Revealing the character through travel

1 May

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

I have always thought that travelling with a friend enables you to learn so much more about them than you would normally.  Not only this, but travelling reveals a great deal about your own character. You are both somewhat dependent on each other in a foreign environment and such unfamiliarity can lead to all sorts of insecurities coming out.  I find that the people I travel with often see the best and worst of me and vice versa.

The best: being anonymous in a foreign territory is incredibly liberating and leads me to do things I would probably never do (some good, some not so good).  I am there to experience things so I will actively look for new opportunities and people to chat to whereas I can be apathetic and judgemental at home. I become an exaggerated version of myself- basically, I become an over-friendly excited teenager, giddy at the newness of my surroundings.

The worst: in a new place, everything can seem strange which can make me feel threatened or intimidated.  This usually sparks a painful degree of self-consciousness and the critical voice in my mind makes me want to hide myself away, seeking the familiar.  My sensitivities are amplified and I start to view things in extremities; my world becomes black and white and I become blind to the subtleties. 

For example, I have just returned from a weekend trip with a good friend from university and there were instances when my poor attempts at German would, quite understandably, be met with a look of disdain from some impatient locals.  Instead of being able to shake this off, I would physically recoil and want to retreat back to the hotel room.  To me, this clearly signifies that I am definitely not as confident as I aim to be, or indeed thought I was.  Perhaps this sense of contentment and acceptance in the face of criticism will come with time but for now, I have to consciously remind myself that I am fine regardless of what other people may think.

While my travel companion and I have been friends for a couple of years, I had never before travelled with her.  What was interesting was that on a night out during our trip, my friend was able to pick up on my heightened self-consciousness as it is near impossible to hide what you are truly feeling from someone with whom you are in such close proximity.  Seeing a facet of your character that is usually concealed or repressed under normal circumstances can provide a greater character insight and establish a mutual understanding of each other.  In our case, this led to some incredibly meaningful conversations about our insecurities and fears.  In fact, I have probably learnt more about her in those few days than I have in a year. 

Travelling with someone allows you to see how you act in different contexts and you become more aware of your ways of thinking when you compare them with those of your companion.   For example, on one occasion, we found ourselves rather inebriated and in a potentially dangerous situation with some intoxicated (and slightly sexually-aggressive) older men, and I was struck at how responsible and determined our friend was to get us to safety.  In comparison, I was reckless and impulsive which are two traits that have the potential for disaster.  On another occasion, we found ourselves to be in a ‘too cool for school’ club where the bouncers looked us up and down as though we were pieces of meat.  I have always found this type of objectification to be absolutely abhorrent but one of my flaws is that I am unable to let things go easily.  Hours later in the club, I still could not shake the sense of frustration and insecurity at having been looked at in such a derogatory manner.  This then led to my critical voice re-emerging, with the same tired old accusations and insults and I looked around me, comparing myself to all the other ‘beautiful’ people.  My friend, however, refused to let this make her feel insecure and was determined to have a good night.  I realised then that that right there was strength.  It is not that she adopted a non-human stance and didn’t feel anything; rather, she refused to give people with a superiority complex the ability to let her make feel bad about herself.

I am constantly learning that there are many things I need to work on but that’s OK.  Baby steps…

 Not only has this made me appreciate my friend and feel closer to her, I find that I have found my friend to be so many things I never knew she was: optimistic, strong, resilient, caring and persevering – all the qualities I aim to possess.

And that is the magic of travelling with someone.