I had been thinking about taking a gap year for some time, beginning, I believe, in my junior year of high school, when I found myself up to my ears in school work and stressed out of my mind.
Following another year of the same with the added anxiety of visiting and applying to colleges, I knew there was no way I could continue on to a higher education without some sort of a break.
I had reached a point where the pressure to get good grades made school a very unpleasant place for me. I had always loved learning for the sake of learning, but I found myself dreading my classes. I wanted a break so that I could return to a place where I looked forward to learning new things.
So, while my classmates and friends were preparing to head off to college, I was working to make money and planning for a trip abroad.
When it came to deciding what I wanted to do with my gap year, I knew that I wanted to travel and was also hoping to put my four years of Spanish classes from high school to good use. Also, I did not want this trip to be a vacation. I wanted my year off to mean something.
It seemed that this experience should be an accomplishment that I could look back on and know that I had made a positive impact in some way for the host country I was visiting.
So I began searching for volunteer programs in South American countries. There are many organizations that will take you on fully planned year abroad for approximately the cost of a year at college, but since I was going to be paying for this trip with my own money, this was far too expensive to be a viable option. I worked for six months before leaving in order to find the most economic options. After some research, I found two great organizations which both work to match volunteers up with programs based in the country they would like to travel in.
One of the great things about working with volunteer organizations when you travel is that they often provide lodging and food for a considerably lower price than it would be to stay in a hotel or hostel and purchase your own meals.
The links to the two organizations I worked with are:
International Volunteer Headquarters – www.volunteerhq.org
UBELONG – www.ubelong.org
I planned the trip with a friend that I had graduated with who also wanted to take a gap year. We settled on Ecuador because it has such a diverse environment in a relatively small country, and thus would be fairly easy and inexpensive to travel around. After working and saving for six months, we were ready to go in mid-November, 2014. After tearfully kissing our parents goodbye, we started our journey.
The trip over took a full day of flying and we arrived at our host family’s house around 3:00 a.m. The first ten weeks of the trip we spent in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, volunteering with street children. This was the first time I had ever been away from home for more than a week. The program we were working with provided a sort of day-care/afterschool service for children whose ages ranged from 6 months to 14 or 15 years old. These children all had parents who worked in the markets to make a living, and often the kids themselves could not go to school because they had to help their parents in order to make enough money to survive. We did our best to provide them with a little bit of education, affection, and time to just play and be children.
Each week there was a different theme, such as the importance of good hygiene or gender equality, and an activity to go with it. Each day of the week we would go to a different market in the city and play and read with the children, and teach them how to best wash their hands, brush their teeth and work on the activity of the week with them. These were basic life skills that many of us take for granted in our country.
The best thing was feeling like I was really making a difference with these children. On my very first day on the project, I was sitting awkwardly off to one side, not sure what to do, and a child ran over with a book, plopped down in my lap, and asked me to read to them. These spirited kids made me feel so welcome in a matter of minutes, it was amazing.
After ten weeks of this my travel companion and I moved on, spending a month exploring pretty much wherever we wanted in Ecuador. Bus rides through the country are rather unpleasant, but they are cheap and you can go from one side of Ecuador to the other in about 13 hours. We spent a week on a jungle tour, deep in the Amazon. Another week we were swimming in what felt like clear bath water on the coast. We also spent part of the month working at a hostel in the Andes for our keep.
After our adventure month, we temporarily parted ways. My travel companion went to Cuzco, Peru to teach English in a volunteer program, and I headed back to the Amazon to volunteer with a program rehabilitating wild animals that had been kept as pets so they could be released back into the wild.
I was really, really looking forward to this program and getting to work so closely with monkeys etc., but unfortunately I had to change plans. My first night there I fell ill, and since the program was pretty isolated from any major cities or towns, I made the decision to return to a city about an hour away where I had access to pharmacies and flushing toilets in order to recover. After a miserable week, I joined another program in the Amazon. This new opportunity focused more on nature conservation than the rehabilitation of animals.
While I was disappointed that I would not get to work with animals, I did get to feed the capybara that lived on the reserve. When I wasn’t working in the nursery planting seedlings, using a machete to cut down fallen trees, or attempting to clear the weeds away from the pineapple plants, I was able to spend time relaxing and reading in hammocks back at the lodge. After 6 weeks there, I flew to Cusco, Peru, where I met up with my friend.
My mother was able to take time off work at this point, and flew down to join us. Together we spent about ten days exploring Cusco and some of the nearby Incan ruins before visiting Machu Picchu. If you ever get the chance to visit there, I absolutely recommend you go. It was one of the most enchanting places I have ever been in my entire life.
After this we went to the Galapagos Islands where my brother and father were able to join us for two weeks volunteering on a nature preserve on the island of San Cristobal. On the weekends we snorkeled with sea lions and sharks. After three weeks in the Galapagos, we headed home. Although I was sad to leave all my new friends, I was ready to go home and share my adventures.
This was a very condensed version of my gap year. After some reflection, I have taken note of what I believe to be the nine most important benefits of taking a gap year:
- You learn that in the grand scheme of things, material possessions are not nearly as important as the memories you make, the experiences you have, and the friends you meet throughout life. You actually need far less than you think you do to get by, even in a foreign country. For this trip I had a 65 liter backpack, in which I had to pack for 6 months away from home.
- You learn to appreciate the simple things. When you only have three pairs of pants total, clean laundry becomes one of the most amazing things in the world. Similarly, when you’ve been showering in ice-cold river water for 6 weeks, a hot shower is pretty much heaven on earth.
- You learn you are far more independent and capable than you once thought.
- You will meet amazing people. While traveling, you will meet people from all walks of life. I made lifelong friends throughout my trip, from the other volunteers in my programs to random strangers I shared rooms with in hostels. But by far the people who had the greatest impact on my experience were the members of the host family I stayed with while volunteering with street children in Quito, Ecuador. If given the opportunity to room with a host family while traveling, I would absolutely recommend it. My host mom her two sons, aged 11 and 9, and their hyperactive schnauzer Alice, were the most welcoming and caring host family I could have asked for. To feel like I belonged somewhere and had people looking out for me really made the first part of my trip, when I was the most homesick, much more bearable. My travel partner and I spent many afternoons engaging in light saber battles and pillow fights with our little host brothers. The boys were truly a delight, and they were more than happy to help us practice our Spanish, although as they spoke almost no English, we didn’t really have much of a choice.
- You learn that you can make a difference. I highly recommend volunteering during a trip. Not only is it often a much cheaper way to travel, you engage with the culture in a way you would never get to as a normal tourist, and being able to see yourself making a tangible difference in someone’s life is one of the most rewarding things in the world.
- Broadening your world view. Experiencing a new culture is one of the best ways to expand your mind and learn important life lessons. It is also likely to make you more grateful for the privileges you have been given in life. To see poverty and suffering first hand is profoundly moving, and it will make you look at your own life experiences in a new light.
- If, like me, you work hard and save enough money to fund a trip like this yourself, you will most likely have a better understanding of the importance of a college degree. Most jobs available to teenagers are not particularly interesting or gratifying. Often they involve manual labor, long hours, and minimum wage. It certainly made me consider that life without a college degree or learned skill set would likely be less than satisfactory.
- You will learn to appreciate what you leave behind. Although I was very excited to be embarking on this grand adventure all by myself, I found myself missing the little things about home that I had taken for granted. For example, I missed petting my dog, or sitting beside her on the couch while I played video games. I missed hugs from my mom and political conversations with my dad. I missed hanging out with my friends and spending lazy Saturdays reading in my bed. One thing that I don’t believe ever changes, no matter how old you are, is that you will always want your mom when you are sick. While I was in the Amazon I got very, very sick. I was in a very remote area where there was no electricity or internet, and cell service was extremely spotty. I had just arrived at the program and didn’t really know anyone. I felt awful, and I realized that more than anything, I just wanted my mom to come hug me and tell me everything was going to be alright.
- Finally, you’ll have the opportunity to face and overcome some of your fears. Spiders, for instance. Before I left for my trip, spiders weren’t exactly my favorite creatures. However, after spending 6 weeks in the Amazon jungle, spiders, at least the normal sized ones found in Massachusetts, really don’t bother me anymore. One of the most amazing things about the rainforest is that everything happens very quickly. That was true of the speed at which spiders wove new webs across the paths on the reserves. Every morning I would walk face first through at least 5 new spider webs just trying to get from my cabin to the dining hall. And these aren’t your typical wolf spiders, these are big, some as large as your hand, and often much more colorful. Eventually, you sort of just get used to it. When you know tarantulas live in the corners of the shower stalls, you must make a decision– live in your own filth, or face your fears. To be honest, it wasn’t really that bad. Tarantulas pretty much mind their own business if you leave them alone. It’s the giant Conga ants you have to be careful of.
I even came to appreciate the beauty of some spiders. There was a university student living at the reserve at the time I visited there who was doing research for his thesis on the different web formations of spiders. Listening to the reverent way he talked about arachnids certainly gave me a different perspective on things. While I’m still not a huge fan of spiders, I am no longer afraid of them. I’ve even become the designated spider-remover for my college dorm. This is not a job I would have taken on a year ago.