I am a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz recently returned from a gap year abroad. It was a wonderful decision and I highly recommend considering a gap year.
I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to travel and work over my year away.
I started out with leaving my home of 18 years, Los Angeles. That first step was probably the most difficult. The anticipation leading up to my flight nearly killed me. I lay awake at night worrying about what could happen when I left, running through every possible horrible scenario, ticking off the list of things I was bringing with me, making sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. To counteract your own feelings of doubt and worry I suggest making a list of things that are worrying you and talking them over with someone you respect and/or trust. Most likely s/he will be able to give you a different, more calming perspective on your worries. When I finally got on the plane, my emotions did not erupt into ridiculous sobs and wails; my parents did not die in a car crash on the way home; everything I needed was safely stowed below me and whatever I had forgotten was not inaccessible where I was going. By the time I arrived in Australia, you would never know that this was my first time away from home alone.
I landed in Brisbane, Australia as the sun was rising and sat shivering and alone at the train station, waiting for the metro that would take me to Gold Coast. Some extended family of mine lives out there and, in a recent reconnection, invited me to visit while on my travels. I didn’t have a phone or any way to contact them, but I had faith that they would watch the train’s timetable and pick me up when I arrived. Faith and hope are two principles to hang onto while travelling; without them, you may as well have stayed home. My faith stood me in good stead and my family was there waiting for me with open arms. This is another principle to keep in mind if travelling: if you have friends or family where you are going, REACH OUT to them! Chances are they’ll be more than happy to welcome you into their home. Plus you get (hopefully) free food and a room, better than any hotel.
I travelled from Australia to New Zealand, following the same model by staying with good friends. It was in New Zealand that I learned another good tip: when given the option to choose between doing nothing and doing anything else, ALWAYS DO SOMETHING. This is a good rule to live by at any time in your life, but especially during your gap year. The purpose of a gap year is to learn, experience and discover, not to sit around on Twitter or binge on movies. Many of my favourite stories blossom from my spontaneous decision to do something adventurous, even if it was just going out to buy cream. By doing this I was also able to meet new friends, make new connections and learn about different lifestyles. The fun part (if you can call any part of my trip more fun than any other) is that I got to SEE so much. Being a Lord of the Rings fan, I was able to experience the majesty of WETA Workshops and the idyllic nature of Hobbiton. I was also given the opportunity to relax in natural hot springs, see fields so green your eyes hurt and water so blue it looked like a bath tub. If you can travel, use any means to experience your surroundings and always, always take the opportunity to do something!
My final flights from New Zealand to Cape Town, South Africa took me close to three days in total (including time changes and layovers). But once again, I was able to take advantage of my welcoming — and large extended — family. A cousin met me in Johannesburg and gave me a chance to have a hot shower and cup of tea before boarding my final flight. My best friend and cousin, Jason Basel, met me at Cape Town International, took me home and allowed me to sleep for the next 24 hours.
Ten days after my arrival I was due to start my new job and this is where my journey gains its interest and purpose. For years leading up to my year off I’d heard about a program called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). In the months leading up to my departure I’d joined the website and acquired the list of farms near enough to my family base in South Africa that I could get to them quickly if I ever needed help. From this list I found my future boss and friend, Edmund Oettle of Upland Organic Estate or Fisantekuil, an organic wine and spirits farm in Wellington, SA. However, I didn’t know who he was as a person except for a few short emails and phone calls, so of course I was nervous. I’d also managed to get an old VW Golf (later nicknamed “The Beast”); the problem was it was manual transmission and here in California, nearly everyone drives automatic. Plenty of stresses had already arisen and it was just my first week in my new city! But my grandparents came down from Durban to visit me and Jason with my little Beast and our grandfather taught me the basics of driving a manual car. Our grandparents drove with me up to my new farm the day of and met Edmund to “suss” him out. It’s never a bad thing to be cautious, but I soon learned I had no reason to be worried. Edmund and his wife Elsie welcomed me into the farm lifestyle happily and their son and daughter adopted me as a sort of sister. Even today, about a year since my arrival and four months since my departure, we keep in constant contact.
After my grandparents saw I was unpacked and settled, they left me to meditate on my situation and to acclimatize to my new life. That evening another WWOOFer was due to arrive and yet another that Sunday. In the following weeks we made fast friends, learned the ropes of the farm together and explored the beautiful wine lands of Wellington. I got to practice my driving — getting better at not stalling every day — and I soon forgot all the worries I’d carried with me; I hardly even contacted my parents, although that was partially due to not having an unlocked cell phone (I used an old Blackberry my first few weeks). Eventually I ironed out all the kinks that come with moving to a new house/city/country/continent; I got my phone working, I mastered the Beast, I began to understand some Afrikaans. In my eight months on the farm, more than 20 volunteers from about 6 different countries came to work for various periods of time. They’d found the farm through other websites such as Help Exchange and spoke of websites like Couchsurfing, which they’d used throughout their travels. Most people were between the ages of 18 and mid-20s, but all ages came through the farm; some we’re also taking a gap year, maybe between high school and university, maybe between university and graduate school; others were taking a break from life. Nearly all were on a journey to learn more about what they wanted out of life. One woman found love on the farm and is now engaged, another was an architecture student on a break from building houses in Khayalitsha, and one couple is working and travelling through Africa and South East Asia for two years! All of these beautiful people have different stories to tell and experiences to share. They offered me advice on many different subjects and I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for their kindness and wisdom.
I am now settling into my life as a student and have such a different perspective and attitude from my peers. I feel self- assured and happy, and I have memories from my gap year that will last a lifetime.