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.
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.
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.