Tuktuks and Tourists

A roundtrip tuk tuk ride to the Cambodian Landmine Museum for the seven of us, which will need to include two carts and takes about an hour each way, costs eighteen dollars total. The leather on the seat is cracking and worn, but comfortable. Our tuk tuk drivers speak enough English to negotiate prices, but not to answer any questions that we have about the ride there. We don’t even know enough Khmer to say “thank you” yet, so we resort to smiles and grip the hanging handrails as we begin the journey. My tuk tuk pulls ahead slightly when the second has to pull over to get gas, a process which involves pouring something close to gasoline out of an old Fanta litre bottle into the fuel tank. Gas pumps are few and far between outside the city.

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View of the road outside the Landmine Museum | Photo By: Paris Geolas

We weave through the streets of Siem Reap, and I can’t keep my eyes in one place. Half the drivers are on motorbikes, some with up to two other passengers casually perched on the back. Most of the motorbike drivers are Cambodian, ranging from kids on their way back from school in their white and navy uniform, to people in street clothes, which consists of solid colored pants and shirts. The only people in tank tops and shorts are tourists. They, like us, are lounging in the backs of tuk tuks, hiding behind pairs of Ray-Bans and shielded from the heat. Tuk tuks and motorbikes make up most of the vehicles on the road, but there are a few cars and buses in between.

The traffic patterns remind me of being a kid and dropping a chip on the ground and slowly watching ants engulf and extirpate it. It’s a system, but impossible to understand as an outsider. To my ignorant eyes, it seems like utter chaos. Lanes are nonexistent, everyone drives like they own the road. Even at a standstill, motorbikes swerve in between cars and tuk tuks to be the first to turn. I have yet to see a single traffic light. Yet there is a method, and they do own the road. The drivers look disinterested in what is just their daily commute, as I am completely engrossed.

As we head out of the center of Siem Reap the shops and buildings begin to thin out, and road stands take their place. They boast of discounted brand apparel, mostly knockoff Supreme and Adidas. Huge Chinese lantern stands gleam red and gold, almost spilling into the street. The dirt from the road turns from a gray brown to orange the further out we get. I initially try to move my hair out of my face, but eventually give up completely. The strands of dirty blonde flying in front of my eyes add to the experience. Nicole sits in front of me, her red backpack strap wrapped around her ankle. Motorbikes have been known to fly by tuk tuks and snatch bags. We yell to each other to be heard over the motor, but I don’t have much to say.

Now twenty minutes outside the city, road stands have snacks and piles of simple button down shirts and the infamous “elephant pants”, loose enough to fend off sweat stains, respectful enough to wear to temples, and trendy enough to pull off, all for only a couple dollars. These stands are made for tourists. There are also huge pots sitting low to the ground with billowing smoke. When we ask what they are, James buys us a sample of the contents, palm sugar drops. He tells us they also make palm wine, something that we shouldn’t try in our time here because there’s no way we have the alcohol tolerance. The palm sugar drops are smokey sweet with a grainy texture. I don’t want to eat any more but I can imagine that it would taste great wedged between the back of my cheek and my molars, laying underneath the sun in a hammock staring up at the leaves, as I see a lot of the people we pass are doing. We pass rice fields being burned to bring back the nutrients, one of the reasons that the sky is perpetually gray. It makes the palm trees look even more green. A shirtless teenage boy stands in a puddle a few feet deep with a fishing net. The kids on the side of the road smile and wave to us. We wave back.

When we reach the Landmine Museum, it’s tough to walk around. Founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier during the Khmer Rouge, the museum doubles as a safehouse for children seeking an education. There are rooms full of the children’s paintings right next to the rooms full of thousands of disabled landmines. It makes you feel something you can’t quite describe, but it’s nothing different from what you felt on the tuk tuk drive over. After spending a few hours at the museum, we walk to the shake stand next door and drink out of coconuts. You can even get an Angkor (the local beer) if you want. I sit there watching, and something in the road catches my attention.

A motorbike rushing by hits one of the street dogs crossing the road. The dog starts howling and the bystanders stand up, some of them rushing to the side of the street. The driver falls, screaming, and the bike skids across the road. The woman who gave us our tickets rushes away from the scene with her now crying child. A couple people rush to help the man up, and he pushes them off and grabs his bike. The dog is nowhere to be seen. He wheels the bike over to the side of the road, dusts himself off, and doesn’t respond to the people shouting at him in Khmer. A couple minutes later, he gets on the bike and drives away. 

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View of truck on the drive | Photo By: Paris Geolas

I used to call myself a driver but now I no longer feel entitled to that name. The tuktuk drive to the Landmine Museum is beautiful, I never for a second wanted to close my eyes. But there is something else that eats away at you, something you do want to close off. It’s the feeling you don’t have a name for, not guilt, not empathy. It hollows you. It would be impossible to travel to a place like Cambodia and not check your privilege. You see it in your hotel mirror, in the thread count of your jeans, in the plastic cards filling up your wallet. The tuktuk drive has left me with orange dirt on my T shirt, a shirt which cost more than the entire drive. I am more thankful for the clothes I wear. I am thankful for the knots in my hair from the wind on the drive.

Lesson #2 from My Gap Year: Try Everything

A follow up of Ben’s first post about his gap year.

A Gap Year is a fantastic way to get some answers. Typically, more important than finding what you want to pursue, is finding out what you absolutely don’t want to pursue. Prospective gap year students should seek the greatest breadth of experiences possible in order to check off potential areas of study, and pursue the short list that remains once in college.

Designing my own gap year is still one of my greatest accomplishments. I take pride in the fact that I turned “I’m not ready for college yet” into one of the most productive years of my life. I hiked the 2,174.6-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, worked in a variety of industries, and taught English in Peru. In looking at potential interests that I pursued, however, I was only able to check off a few. I learned that I didn’t want to work in telemarketing or light fixture manufacturing (no surprise there), data entry, or retail. But these were the jobs that I could get straight out of high school. The good news is this lesson made me really want to get a college degree, so my first semester in college yielded my highest grades yet. The bad news? I still didn’t know what to study.

I came away from my gap year interested in education, but my lack of breadth throughout the year meant my examination of other disciplines was far from over. I started majors in communication, economics, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology. I waited until the last possible day – halfway through sophomore year – to declare my major as international relations. I wandered through more than a third of my college education. J.R.R. Tolkien was right when he wrote that, “Not all who wander are lost” – in fact, I had a pin stating that on my backpack for the entire trail that year – but when the financial stakes are as high as they are in college, it’s best to have focus.

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My advice to you: don’t treat your college tuition money like the entrance to a buffet. Instead, spend your gap year doing as much as possible in as many areas of interest as possible. You will become a well-rounded person, a greater asset to your school and future employer, and a more interesting person!

A skills-based gap year is the best way to ensure that when you step on campus as a freshman, you’ll know what to do next.

A Lesson from My Gap Year: Relax, You’re Awesome.

High school students receive drastically different messaging than I do as someone in the field of experiential education. They’re asked every day what they want to be when they grow up, where they are going two months after they graduate from high school, what they want to study, and what they want to accomplish. Most of the adults who ask that probably don’t even know what they want to be, do, or accomplish, so they’re asking pretty unfair questions.

My favorite thing about getting out of high school and college is that I now hear a completely different philosophy. My colleagues consistently say that there’s no way a high school student should be expected to know what they want to study, let alone what they want to do with their life. My life goal is to make sure high school students receive similar, more supportive messaging.

If you’re thinking about taking a gap year, you’re probably feeling pretty vulnerable. People probably ask you “why?” Because you have guts, that’s why. If something doesn’t quite feel right about going straight to college, listen to your gut, and figure out a responsible plan of action. People will understand – even if it’s after the fact.

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Senior year, students at my high school consistently asked me why I wasn’t going straight to college, and they asked the question with both curiosity and a palpable tone of confusion. A few weeks into my gap year, I was a couple hundred miles into the Appalachian Trail when a Facebook group popped up: “I wish I was Ben Welbourn.” Front and center: a photo of me conquering another mountain. It was created by our class president/football captain/lacrosse captain/resident stud. That was my first positive reinforcement from a peer, and it happened over a year after my decision to defer from college. After that, I got more and more support from high school friends and complete strangers from the college I was yet to attend. Be patient!

A week before graduation, my high school Spanish teacher asked me what my plans were post-high school. When I told her I was about to start a gap year, she told me “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” Initially, I took that as an insult, as if she was telling me, “Yeah, you’re a mess, so you’re probably not ready for college.” I’ve kept in touch with her long enough to know now that she just saw a gap year as a great opportunity for me to find focus.

Stick to your guns, but put in the leg work to make sure that once you do take your gap year, you’ll come out with new skills and experiences that everyone will appreciate.

How a Gap Year Can Add Value to Your Career

While taking a gap year has become an increasingly popular trend among high school seniors for various reasons, there are many benefits to doing so for those who are in the workforce, too. Whether you’re about to don your cap and gown — or already among the employed — taking a gap year offers specific advantages that can positively affect your career.

 

What a Gap Year Is All About

In a recent post by Counseling@NYU, which offers an online masters in school counseling from NYU Steinhardt, titled “Gap Year Basics: How Taking a Year Off Increases the Ceiling for Students,” looks at the dynamics of a gap year. Although some may view such a choice as a luxury, individuals take gap years for various reasons — such as saving for college, working, traveling or for religious purposes. In an interview for the article, Ethan Knight, executive director of the American Gap Association (AGA), noted that serious gappers dig deep to learn more about themselves. He says they: “… confront limits they didn’t know they had, succeed more frequently than they would have thought before, and are exposed to new and different ways to lead this thing called life.”

5 Ways a Gap Year Can Benefit Your Career

There are many advantages to taking a gap year. In addition to the positive results of its own 2015 National Alumni Survey, the AGA highlights data across a variety of studies that show what benefits can result from making this choice. This and other resources demonstrate the advantages that are possible, including the following five:

 

  1. A better sense of self and deeper multicultural understanding — which helps individuals learn how to cope with new challenges in a creative manner.
  2. The acquisition of new skills and knowledge for career enhancement — many of the attributes that employers look for can be gained during gap year activities. Many take a gapyear to learn a new trade, or do a short course that enhances their skills.
  3. Increased job satisfaction and employability — studying abroad during a gap year has been shown to have a big impact on getting both jobs and promotions.
  4. Expanded networking potential — made possible both by extensive travel and the ability to shed the pressures felt back home.

When Your Gap Year Is Over

Although it may seem daunting to re-enter the workforce or school after the gap year is through, there are specific things you can do to ease your transition. If you’re headed to school and your admission has been deferred, be sure to contact the institution involved and let them know you’re ready to hit the books. When it comes to getting back into the workforce, it’s important to let your current employer know you’re back — and to rework your resume if you’re looking for something knew. The AGA offers the following tips for doing so:

  • Communicate the value of your experience clearly.
  • Focus on the skills you acquired, rather than the experiences you enjoyed most.
  • Structure your resume correctly, with gap experience under the right section, like ‘Volunteer Experience’
  • Know your audience and what role you want, and align your resume accordingly.
  • Use specific metrics to be concise and communicate the value of your experiences.
  • Remember that a gap year is seen by many as a choice made by the privileged, which is not always the case. Clearly articulate why you took the gap year and emphasize the well-rounded experience.

Knight expounded further in a recent interview for Fast Company, offering the following recommendations:

  • Treat your experience like a job and include it in your application materials.
  • Be clear about why you took a gap year.
  • Know what the employer is looking for and show how the gap year has helped.

If you plan your gap year strategically, embrace the experience fully, and communicate its benefits clearly — you can enhance your self-growth while adding value to your career.

 

Colleen O’Day is a Digital Marketing Manager at 2U, based out of the Washington DC area. Colleen supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health, and K-12 education programs