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The International Writers Magazine
: Taking Gap year? Read this first

A Word in Your Gap Year
Pete Bennett

How cockroaches love moist cardboard...

Backpackers on the trail

The room was unpleasantly hot. Hot, damp and oppressive. The blu-tack that had been holding up the handful of photos of my family and friends had given up trying to operate in such humidity and let go of both the wall and my nearest and dearest. My room mate in the ten by ten foot cell we called home (with whom I was no longer on speaking terms, after an incident involving rum, fists and many, many bad words) was sat with his top off, on his bed, chain smoking and trying not to sweat on the second-hand novel he was reading.

I looked across to the spot where once a working air conditioning unit had proudly plied its trade. That was until the day several weeks before when it had fallen clean out of its housing, taking a sizeable amount of wall with it and fallen into the overgrown undergrowth outside. We’d had to patch the gap up with moist cardboard. How cockroaches love moist cardboard. While I sat reminiscing about the air conditioning unit, the other half of my brain was being racked for educational inspiration. I had to devise some kind of lesson plan for a group of postgraduate students who, for reasons I’d never fully fathomed, needed to speak English in order to complete their qualifications as Agricultural Engineers. None of them much wanted to learn English and, in particular, to be taught English by a skinny eighteen year old barely months out of secondary school. Should I one day become a poet, I doubt very much whether I would ever find the correct language to fully express the feelings that seemed to linger in that room at that moment; or indeed the anger when a few days later I received an email from someone at home telling me that it was ok, because it was all ‘character building’.

Ah, the humble Gap Year. It seems wherever you are in education; someone’s talking about them. Whether you’re just taking your GCSEs or just completing your PhD everyone would appear to be an expert on their relative advantages and flaws. And, once you’ve decided to take the plunge and do one, there then comes the question of how to fill it. Backpacking or shelf stacking? Volunteer work in Belize or hanging on the piste? South East Asia or South America? There seem to be an endless array of choices and considerations. As a returned veteran of two gap years, both very different and daunting experiences, I feel compelled to rinse away some of the sugar coating that encases many people’s conceptions of a year out and offer a liberal dose of cynical hindsight.

Gap Year Hotel - This is your home- love it
As any travel bore will tell you ‘there are no rules on how you spend your year out…man’, but I beg to differ. There generally seems to be a divide between the structured six-month or year long project (often volunteer work) and the extended backpacking and/or working holiday. In my short life I have managed to complete one of each of these, and I often get asked questions regarding the various merits of my two experiences, questions which I invariably answer with clichés or a vague re-hashing of what I think I am expected to say ("It was alright I suppose," Is one of my more emotive responses). But surely it meant more to me than that? Surely there were real motivations that helped drive me on through the experience? And surely it must be possible for me to impart some kind of constructive (and maybe even interesting!) advice from my experience to those toying with the gap year idea?

As far back as I remember I’d always wanted to go to Cuba. As I progressed through my teenage years I became more and more fascinated by the politics, history, and powerful revolutionary imagery I saw in my parent’s books and on the television. And I’m not embarrassed to admit I saw it all through a thick pair of NHS-rose-tinted specs. In my mind it was all sun, senoritas, salsa, cigars and rock-star revolutionaries who drank rum and danced all night, while flippin’-the-bird in the direction of the USA. Having decided I wasn’t keen on progressing directly to University (at seventeen I was less than keen on progressing anywhere) I had an advert from the back of a newspaper thrust in my hands by my mother. The Project Trust Organisation offers year long placements for pre-university students, including positions at several universities around Cuba for volunteer TEFL teachers.

And so began a strange journey of selection processes, fundraising and serious preparation. At least it should have done. I was more preoccupied at the time by the fact that everyone I seemed to meet within the organisation had gone to public school and seemed to be squeezing in a bit of token volunteer work before entering Oxbridge or Bristol, just to add shine to their CVs. "Surely I was betraying my class!" said the red rock star revolutionary in me, as I made an appearance in the local newspaper seeking sponsorship next to a grinning image of myself clutching a copy of the works of Marx. But with the money raised off I went that September with no Spanish, no teaching ability and no idea.

It would be difficult and indeed exceptionally uninteresting for you the reader, if I were to attempt to describe that year’s experience in detail. The episode I described at the start of this piece was one bad day that I occasionally relive at three in the morning accompanied by a cold sweat. I worked at the Agrarian University of Havana for a whole school year. I returned home, entered university and began my studies. I didn’t talk about Cuba. I actively avoided talking about it in fact, so terrified was I that I would become one of those staggeringly dull travel story bores, forever beginning my sentences with that most soporific of phrases, "When I was in Cuba/India/Thailand/Mozambique..." I had found it a very difficult year. I hadn’t felt like I was "building" my character for large parts of the year, more like I was serving some kind of sentence laid down by myself on myself. For the first time in my life I had made a choice I thought was sensible and spent long periods of the next few months questioning my own wisdom. Why would I want to talk about it?

My next year out took place after completing an enjoyable three years at University. Keen once again not to take the next step too quickly I had been making plans to go and live and work with a friend in Vancouver, Canada, in the "Film Business". Several months of work, visa confusion and compromise later, I found myself with an entirely different friend on a plane bound for Australia. It was around the same time that I had finally allowed my year in Cuba to become an acceptable conversation topic. I had slowly developed something, which I couldn’t help noticing bore a remarkable resemblance to a sense of pride in that year away, during my final year at university. Although to this day I am never sure in what it is I am taking pride; my own stamina, in sticking the year out? Or my actual achievements while I was sticking it out?

Australia had never been a destination I was desperate to visit, largely due to its huge popularity, but with a cheap multi-destination ticket from STA it was easy and as it turned out, extremely good fun. The path up and down the East coast of Australia and across to New Zealand is worn ditch deep by the sheer volume of Backpackers that trek up and down it and the legions of British and Irish youngsters that arrive with every flight is staggering. But despite all my cool cynicism regarding the crowds of English beer boys doing the same thing as they do at home here in the Ibiza of the Southern Hemisphere, I had an undeniably good time throughout. I worked, I travelled, I lived in Sydney for a while and I met a huge amount of very pleasant people. When I arrived home just over ten months later I felt refreshed and enthusiastic. I’d arrived home one of the stereotypes I’d always abhorred. So how can I possibly compare these two experiences against each other and against the myriad of gap year opportunities available to young people today? Do I come across as selfish because I enjoyed the pleasurable experience more than the "character building" one? I hope not.

Despite the impression I may have given I am, generally speaking, something of a fan of gap years. However I cannot stress enough the importance of choosing the correct programme or trip for you. There are many good organisations that will help organise work and volunteer programs: GAP, Operation Raleigh, and Project Trust among them. STA are the masters at helping to organise a period of budget travelling whether it’s for two months or two years, but ultimately it is you that must decide what you think is right for you. At eighteen all I knew is that I wanted to go to Cuba. In the end I didn’t relish the challenge as much as someone else in that situation might have. Yet to say I gained nothing from the experience is ridiculous. I was twenty-two years old when I arrived in Australia and with my mind relaxed and open. At eighteen I had been convinced I knew everything about the world, by nineteen I knew I knew nothing, and by twenty-two, I’d accepted it and was willing to learn. I didn’t go to Australia seeking to "Find myself" or "Heal the world" I wanted a good fun few months before I embarked on a lifetime of work. This attitude proved invaluable.

Ultimately the benefits of the gap year experience are intensely personal. Part of the reason I feel there is little need to waffle on incessantly about my travelling tales is that it is surely almost impossible for anyone else to understand the context or relevance of my experience or comprehend the effect these things might have had on me. In between the depths of the difficulties in Cuba were huge highs and vivid memories and characters. I’m not self-obsessed enough to endlessly reel these off in an attempt to prove how worldly wise I am. But I keep them with me. Unfortunately the best way I can think to explain it is to use the analogy of a novel. A fantastic, engaging novel. The relationship you develop with the writer and the plot and characters that linger forever in your mind will be unlike those of anyone else who reads the same novel. You wouldn’t ever give away the plot or reveal how the novel made you feel to someone who hadn’t read it. But you wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to them.

© Pete Bennett March 2004

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