The Gap Year

Mind the Gap please!

Why should students have all the fun? Gap years should be for those who have earned it and what is more who are old enough to appreciate it.  Right! that has upset all of you who have decided to go and see a piece of the world before getting stuck into several years of study at university having just escaped the struggle of our education system from the age of 5 to 18.

I don’t mean to upset anyone, I just think that if students believe they have earned the right to a gap year just you wait until you have graduated and then joined the JOB market.  Working the statutory 40 hour week for the just over minimum wage.  We enlightened souls, who work for themselves; smugly call the JOB market the “Just Over Broke” market because employers will never pay you more than they have to, object if you want to knock off early or even if you spend too long in the loo.  But that is another hobby horse that I am not riding today.

To return to the subject of worked out, wage slaves, deserving a Gap Year equally with the student getting off of the gravy train somewhere on the route between GCSE’s, ‘A’ levels, University and job.  So let us all plan to have a Gap Year whether we are 18 or 80.

Everyone would benefit from a Gap Year or even Gap Three Months.  Does it matter if you are going to work for 43 years or 44 years whether you take time out to re-charge your batteries at the beginning, the end or even in the middle?

There is always a worry about taking time out and wasting time – At eighteen it will be parents worried about the dreadful things that could happen to their little darling and they will be trying delicately to suggest that you really should keep the momentum going until after you have graduated.  Quote the anecdotal facts that fewer people drop out after year one if they took a Gap Year than those who didn’t (It must be true! Say’s so in the scriptures, don’t it?)

Once you have graduated, qualified or whatever – the advice (cold water) will come again from parents, who will have enlisted the battalion of grandparents who will all ignore the fact that they do not know what they are talking about and the fact that you are not sure in what direction you want to go yourself, right at this minute.  Tell them this time that you need something more than Nursery School, Primary School, Secondary, Comprehensive, Grammar School,  Sixth Form College and University to fill in all of those blank bits on the CV and the application forms.  By this time you will have lost them, so quote me – You need a break – It must be true! Say’s so in the scriptures, don’t it?  (In case you are wondering, that quote is from Sergeant Hakeswell in Bernard Cornwall’s, ‘Sharpe’ novels.)

Then when, “To old to die young!”, you are tired out, worn out, battered by life at the JOB, having done your job as a wage slave for 40 hours every week plus commuting and to put it politely having seen better days.  Now you have the time and inclination to take time out.  You will find that all the negative advice will be coming from all of your family. – Grown up kids, your grandchildren, all of them telling you that you need to put your feet up not to be thinking of offering your services and all of your hard learned skills to some Romanian orphanage.

Believe me their concern is mostly about you spending their inheritance while you are away and “Who is going to look after your cat?” – Quote me – You need a break not a rest – Say’s so in the scriptures, don’t it?  As for someone to look after the cat, you could always put a hyperlink between those who kindly took care of Tom and your Last Will and Testament.

So who am I to be giving all this friendly advice and waving you Bon Voyage as you step into the unknown?   I didn’t get to University or even Sixth Form College – I left Naval College at 15+ to travel twice around the world on a cargo boat.  Some Gap Year! actually my first voyage took 15 months which was followed by two years before the mast on a luxury liner plying the South African route and then into the Royal Navy.  What is it they say when singing the praises of taking a Gap Year?  “There is a world out there .. go and see it .. and live life to the full.”  I saw the world, I saw the sea and I lived life to the full and when the time came to settle down, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.

I came ashore, tried working at a JOB as a wage slave, picking up a wife and two kids on the way together with a mortgage and all the accoutrements that go with them.  I then came to my senses and took on board the fact that I was not born to be a wage slave and didn’t like the JOB factor, in fact I was unemployable because I didn’t like being bossed around.  So. I have been my own boss since before most of you were born and since 1986 was the Managing Director of a travel company and after taking early retirement have been a freelance travel writer and my researches have taken me even further than my seafaring or my travel agency.

Also on my CV is the fact that I did a lot of survival training in the Navy. I did Arctic warfare training and then put it to good use in the heat of the Middle East.  I have eaten weevils, earthworms and witchity grubs.  In my youth I was a keen rock climber and a sailor and have taught outdoor pursuits at an Outward Bound School in the North of Scotland.  I possess a qualification in mountain leadership from Plas Y Brenan and a Board of Trade Yacht masters Certificate.  So as the lovely Gloria Gaynor tells us “I will survive”

I now travel at leisure, for pleasure, with my much loved and long suffering wife.  My two married kids have added two grandchildren who are now teenagers.  Because I have always been somewhat of a free spirit – I believe my granddaughter calls it being a loose cannon – We get no grief when we decide to – Just Go! – And my lovely daughter looks after William my Burmese cat.  He being an adventurous spirit like his butler (me) and likes a change, sometimes packs his bags and takes himself off to stay with my sister for his gap year/week/month.

Anyway that is my CV – A much travelled wrinkly, nearly a crinkly, much researched travel writer who has been there and done that and had all of the corners knocked off on the journey.

Do you have to have a reason?

Why do you want to travel? If you are doing it for any other reason than because you want to – maybe you want to see the world before it’s too late. Maybe you want to see life, Maybe you want to appreciate how the rest of the world lives or maybe you need to “find yourself”, any other reason, don’t do it.  It must be your decision, it’s your life, and so do it for yourself – NO OTHER REASON.

Deciding to take a period of time out and then deciding how to spend it may not be as momentous as some other life decisions like getting married, having babies, choosing or changing careers, but it is still a big decision.  It certainly takes guts and that is an essential ingredient in achieving a break in your lifestyle.  The hardest part is the summoning up the determination to JUST DO IT!  No book can make the decision for you.  All outsiders, even someone who knows the ropes, can do is set out the possibilities and see if any take your fancy.  Do as much research as possible.  Ask yourself if you can imagine yourself trekking through a Costa Rican rainforest or teaching in a Tanzanian village or studying art in Florence?  The next thing to ask yourself is, do you have the energy to make the dream come true?

There has never been a better time to travel around the world.  No matter what your age is or where you are bound there are literally hundreds of people doing the same thing.  If you think about it you probably know someone who is doing it and if you know someone and everyone that you know, knows someone else who is off into the wide blue yonder, can you imagine the number of backpackers out there?  It is easy for me to say and to imagine as I’ve been there, done that and seen towns literally full of backpackers.  If you imagine that you are going off into the unknown, completely on your own out there you can forget it.  This is simply not the case.

You couldn’t make this up!

I have a chum who went to get away from it all to Ulan Bator in
Outer Mongolia and found that the place was full of backpackers.  I met someone from the next village to mine when I was half-way up a mountain in Whistler, British Columbia, and my hairdresser bumped into one of his customers in a Souk in Beirut in the Lebanon.  The world has become a very much smaller place and there has never been a cheaper time to travel, it’s not only budgies that go cheep!

No time like the Present

Seriously with the increase in demand, prices for flights and travel in general are coming down the whole time and it has never been cheaper to travel.  As a result of this increased demand it has also never been easier to travel, with youth travel companies, help the aged travel companies (I just made that one up), tour operators, coach routes and even internet cafes everywhere, all making it easier for everyone to JUST GO, or as Nike say JUST DO IT.

If you stagger off the plane in Sydney you will find that you have landed in the number one destination for backpackers.  You will be surrounded by them – hundreds of them, all doing exactly the same as you.  You will find that there are buses continuously running up and down the coast from Sydney to Cairns.  You don’t even have to thumb it, just get on a bus and get off at the next town where you will be met by a representative who has a free mini bus to take you to the hostel that someone on the plane told you about.  Australian joke “How do you know which is the plane that has come from Heathrow? – It’s the jet that is still whining after the pilot has switched the engines off”.

When you are ready to move on, the rep with the mini bus will take you to the bus station to jump on yet another bus to take you to the next town where you will be met by another rep with another mini bus to take you to another recommended hostel.  It’s tough out there in the bush – Have you ridden in those mini buses?

I feel another anecdote coming on – My wife and I were staying in a small town called Zakapane in Poland at the foot of the Tatra Mountains and decided to make our own way up to the starting point of a locally renowned, 8 kilometre uphill trek through the forests to a restaurant with stunning views.

Following a locals’ advice who told us, when he discovered that we intended to walk the route, that it was a “damn long vay” – Under his guidance we duly found a mini bus which ran from the town centre to our setting off point – the 16 seater mini bus gradually filled up and then the courier/rep/conductor walked up the aisle to the back of the bus carrying wooden planks which he placed under the bottoms of those seated passengers, across the aisle and hey presto! Eight more seats for eight extra passengers.

As we lurched along in our now 24 seater mini bus the said courier/rep/conductor made sure that we were aware that the forest we were about to trek through, was the home of some of Poland’s much loved black bears and wild boar and that in this enlightened age they were protected by new and rigid laws. – I know that his English was rather broken unlike my Polish which is totally non-existent – but I believe the message he tried to get across was that Bear and Boar are protected – rubber-necking tourists were not.  We were not to protect ourselves if we were attacked by wild animals.

All you have to do is Find A Man Who Does

I digress – All over the world not just Australia there is a well –trodden backpacker trail and everyone you meet will be on it or have been on it.  Every time that you meet up with someone you will find yourself swapping traveller’s tales and ideas over a beer or two.  Have a look which is the brainchild of an American and veteran backpacker Kaaryn Hendrickson, this site is a gem for any young person about to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe.

Even before you leave, the best advice comes from someone who has already done it.  They will have learned the hard way, so talk to your friends and acquaintances who have hit the road or the volunteer trail abroad.  Make use of the internet to locate travellers who have gone before.  Have a look at – You could even find a pub in Earls Court and chat to a few Aussies going walkabout.  You then must sit back and cherry-pick all the good and bad advice and try to make sense of what makes sense to you.  You will have to filter advice based on prejudice on one hand and bravado on the other.  All of the advice in the world is useless unless you make a personal approach to every particular situation.

It is amazing how far the English language can take you in even the remotest corners of the world.  However it is a gesture of respect to learn at least a few local words and phrases even it only to ask the location of a WC – I found the phrase “Where’s the bloody dunny mate?” extremely useful when in the outback beyond Cairns.

The Spanish I learned from watching Westerns in my youth served me well when I was travelling on a stagecoach from Durango to Mazatlan in Mexico – someone actually began a question to me with the words “Hey Gringo”, but now that I am older and wiser I take a relevant phrase book and a mini-dictionary.  Plus I make sure that I am able to ask the location of a Vegetarian Restaurant so that my wife is not left to starve.

The Volunteer Trail

I have no intention for this to be a guide to suitable organisations whose aim in life is to recruit volunteers to build mission schools in darkest Africa or to muck out orphans in Bucharest.  These charitable organisations are brilliant at recruiting helpers and if this is your bag then they will take you under their wing and will in all probability arrange your flight and accommodation albeit in some cases somewhat meagre.  Some of them will even pay you some sort of subsistence allowance and feed you.  I feel that you should avoid any temptation to become an aid worker in Iraq at this particular time.  I will however float a few ideas that I have picked along the way, especially with the more mature traveller in mind who will have life skills to offer.

My son’s father-in-law, a country town GP took a sabbatical from his practice and took off for Afghanistan to give his services as a medic with the land-mine trust to the Mujahadin and anyone else who needed his help.  This was before Osama bin Laden, just after the U.S.S.Rs trial run at empire building.  The country hasn’t been the same since his visit!

It cannot be emphasised enough that commitment, no matter how fervent, is not enough to work in an aid project in the developing world.  You must normally be able to offer some kind of useful training or skill plus have overseas experience already, unless that is you are prepared to fund yourself and don’t mind that your efforts will be more a token than of any lasting benefit.  The main operational aid agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF, World Health Organisation, UNHCR, Department for International Development, Care International, International Rescue Committee and Handicap International do not use untrained volunteers.

What agencies are looking for in first-time volunteers are:

  • A serious and proven professional track record
  • Good skills with people management and development
  • Specific technical or other hard skills
  • Ability to provide training and technical supervision in the above areas
  • A knowledge of a foreign language is a further advantage

This probably sounds very daunting and off putting but don’t be discouraged a lot of the same agencies offer fee-paying volunteers the chance to experience life at the sharp end in developing countries by working alongside skilled aid workers and local people for a short period.

I wholly commend this sort of Gap Year.  You will gain more from it than you give, in fact the more that you give, the more you will gain.  I however have not done it or even researched it.  These are professional charities who know more about organising aid volunteers and I would not deem to give any more advice or even point you towards such organisations other than to suggest a good search engine such – seek and you will find.  Start by typing in Peace Corps, a good starting place.

You’re Going Where?

It is not my intention either, that this should be a gazetteer of suitable destinations; other than as a passing reference.  What I do intend, is for this to be an experienced old travel writer helping you to avoid possible mistakes, pass on tips and give as much helpful guidance as possible.

Whether you are 18 or 55 you are going to learn quite a lot about yourself.  Yes, even those of you who are like me ‘too old to die young’.  You will learn independence and self reliance and will learn to appreciate the people and things all around you.  That cannot be bad, just so long as you remember that there also will be dragons out there.  Maybe a few black bears and wild boars too!

You will have to look after yourself when you are ill.  You will have to live out of your back pack.  You will also have to face up to every problem and decision that confronts you.  However life is like that anyway, a series of highs and lows so why should travelling the world for your Gap Year be any different?

Without doubt, you are going to learn a lot about the world, no matter where or how far you go but even more certain is that you are going to learn even more about yourself.  You might even find that you like your new self.  Make no mistake however old or young you are, wherever you go to or how far you go, this will be a life changing experience.

I believe it was Billy Connolly who said “We pass this way but once.  There is no normal, and there’s no such thing as normal.  There is you, and there’s the rest.  There’s now and there’s forever. Do as you damn well please!”  He may or may not have written it but for a change he certainly wasn’t joking

Proper Planning Prevents P*ss Poor Performance

Have you decided where to go? If you still haven’t decided, you need to do a lot of homework.  Travel Agents, Library, look at pictures, take some brochures home, and get a flavour of what’s in store.  Look at photos of rapids, deserts, mountains, crocodiles, elephants, camels, Sydney Opera House, Graceland and the Grand Old Oprey in Nashville.  Have a look at pictures of Table Mountain, Ayres Rock, the Rockies and the Grand Canyon, Route 66 and the Great Divide, the Taj Mahal and Mount Everest.  Surround yourself with pictures of the Inca trails, paradise, and people having fun.  Don’t forget to look at Bangkok, Beijing and Sumatra.  It really is big wide world out there and the choice is yours.  However only you can decide where to go.  Get the adrenaline going because; as the walrus said “the time has come”.  Its make your mind up time.

Special Forces have a mantra that is worth adopting – Proper Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance, they call it Pea Picking and I commend it to you.  Ten minutes of prior study can make such a difference to a well-planned trip.

At this stage you should know where you are going, when you are leaving and how.  You should have a good idea of how much it is going to cost.  You will also have so many other things buzzing around in you head.  It is now time to get out your notebook again it’s more PeaPicking for you.

Always looking for a Bargain!

While carrying out your planning it might be good to do some research to see how far your cash will go in any particular country.  I have just heard that cash in Rio de Janeiro is inflating quicker than a dead dog in the sun – a colourful description but an obvious flag for the crafty traveller – The Dollar or Stirling in your pocket is going to buy you a lot more in Brazil and there are many countries whose economies are worth serious consideration when you are Pea Picking but also consider that muggers and bandits thrive where the economy is poor and they can target rich westerners.

Compared with some, even an impecunious western traveller will appear rich.  I think that it was the travel writer P.J. O’Rourke who quoted somebody who said “I thought that I was poor because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”.  You have shoes even if they are smelly trainers.

If you can’t afford to LOSE it DON’T Take It!

Carry on sorting through your intended luggage – divide it into two piles on your bed and return one pile to your wardrobe.  The following is a good recipe for travellers – the rules for packing are simple:

  • If you can’t afford to lose it – Don’t take it
  • If you don’t think you will need it – Don’t take it
  • I you can buy it cheaper overseas – Don’t take it
  • If its bigger than your backpack – Don’t take it
  • If it weighs more than you – Don’t take it
  • Books weigh a lot; you can only read one at a time.  More than one – Don’t take it
  • If your clothing isn’t loose fitting – Don’t take it
  • If you decide to take a tent, look for one with a bendy frame, the ultra light sort that you throw on the ground and it puts itself up – If it doesn’t – Don’t take it

 That pile of stuff on your bed is still much too big and much too heavy.  Go through it again and leave some more behind – Have you got the message yet?  Your aim should be to depart on your journey with a half empty backpack, if possible, because in a years travelling you will collect so many bits and pieces along the way that you are likely to need the space.  I suppose that you could donate most of your kit to some worthy cause prior to your return flight but that would only be on the grounds of “That’s it! I never want to see another **##%& again!”  In practice you will have fallen in love with most of your kit and even if it remains in your loft or garage for your remaining days, you will look at it longingly.

Over thirty years of sailing I must admit that I have often staggered off of a yacht after an ocean race and swore blind “Never again”.  However just the other day one of my son’s friends mentioned that he was tempted to buy a yacht on eBay in America.  “Was I up for the trip to collect it” Was I?

Pack it in!

Going on to your backpack/luggage, I was brutally trained in the forces to carry a Bergen weighing 56 lbs (that’s about 25 kilos I think) together with a really heavy Lee-Enfield rifle.  Out of necessity I learned quickly, exactly how to pack the Bergen so that there were no painful bits sticking in me, and the things that I would need first were readily available at the top.  Every single piece of space was filled with useful bits and everything in it was kept dry, even when we had to take it swimming.

I developed a certain fondness for the Bergen rucksack (I hated the Lee-Enfield), and staggered up mountains, forded streams and crossed through rain-forests with it, but as an expert let me stress, there is no place for one with the modern day traveller passing through busy airports, travelling on crowded underground railways and going through the checkout at passport control.  They are damned near impossible to take off without the help of a comrade and you cannot sit down in the airport lounge while still wearing it.  As for trying to get it back on when your flight is called or your train arrives – forget it.
No, the Bergen does have its place in the Special Forces but they are not a civilised form of luggage for the modern backpacker.  After all you don’t want to spend the rest of your life with a bad back just because you felt that it looked cool.  You should also leave your Dad’s old army greatcoat behind too!  It might look ‘bling’ but it’s also heavy.  Modern day alternatives that convert from a rucksack into a holdall/suitcase are a great invention and were obviously designed with you in mind.  This can be particularly helpful at customs and border crossings where it can be an advantage not look like a backpacker- drug courier – terrorist –suspicious – notwantedhere, person.

A money belt is recommended – I forgot to mention that I am over six feet tall and built like a brick rugby player and highly trained in self defence. . . . I have been mugged twice in my travels.  The first time was in Demerara before it was called Georgetown, which was in what is now Guyana and was then called British something or other. I happily gave my new Rolex watch, my wallet containing every Dollar that I possessed, together with my passport and identity card to this very tall native who looked as though he needed them more than I did.  The fact that he was holding an enormous cane knife under my nose helped to convince me of his greater need.

The second time I was happily travelling up an escalator in Barcelona, when I was tripped up and rolled by a couple of guys and when I picked myself up they were gone and so was my wallet.  I now wear a money belt for my real money and carry a small ‘muggers’ wallet with me with just a small amount of cash in it so that I can happily hand it over to those whose need is greater than mine.  This has already proved to be an invaluable source of cash when suffering from what my wife tells me is my old age, short term memory loss and I left my money belt containing all my Euros and my Credit Cards on the bed in our hotel room.

When engaging with local people follow the golden rule – be guided by your instincts.  You should never accept an invitation to do anything or to go anywhere that makes you feel uncomfortable.  Even if your refusal risks annoying your host.  Bear in mind that a lone foreigner may be viewed as an easy target for some form of exploitation, principally financial..  Follow your instincts.

Don’t lose sight of why you are backpacking.  It will often be hard work and occasionally exhausting.  Even travelling in comfort can be laborious enough, sightseeing is usually a pleasure but it can be  tiring too, so give yourself plenty of time for relaxation whether lounging on a sunny beach, reading in cafes or writing a letter on a tropical veranda.  Take time out.

I read an absolutely brilliant wheeze – so good it could have come from Billy Connolly.  On your way home somewhere between the luggage carousel and the arrivals lounge – stop at a washroom and spray dye your hair magenta or similar outrageous colour, strip down to a sleeveless vest and cover your arms and neck with several fake tattoos and some fake rings for your nose, ears and eyebrows.  Your family will love the joke once your father has revived your mother from her faint.  It would be even funnier if it were your 40 year old daughter and your son-in-law who both burst into tears when they spotted you.

However everything that you have read here is my thoughts from my research and experiences.  Certainly some of my suggestions have not been tried and tested by me so perhaps I should urge you to take them with a pinch of salt.

The idea was to give you a flavour of taking time out from the daily grind.  Any decisions that you make should be of your own free will.  If you choose to fall off a cliff, marry a lap-dancer or step under a bus during your travels I take no responsibility for your actions.  When you get back please don’t forget – hair dyed magenta – fake tattoos – fake nuts bolts and earrings all over your body.  This will cheer up your relatives no end.

James Clark – Freelance article Nov 2008 – Travel Mail and Holiday Watchdog

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