For starters — Don’t pass up fried roadside spiders.
And don’t take pictures like this…
Okay, now we have our vitals covered, let’s get to some trivial topics…
Don’t try and save the world
Once in Cambodia, I remember getting off a bus, and heading to an orphanage for a day with some fellow backpackers. We had a blast playing with the kids, singing songs, throwing them around like rag-dolls; Disney stuff, really. Only later did I find out that those children weren’t even orphans — they were simply sent from the next village over, and essentially pimped out by their parents, in order to make money for their families. GULP.
You’re not going to be able to save the world. And quite honestly, that’s not the point. It’s not even worth learning the hard way on this one, so trust me — no matter how many orphans you hug, you’re not going to fundamentally change the structural and systemic power dynamics that created the conditions that created that child’s life experience. That might sound harsh, I know; does that mean not to spread your love with everyone and all that you meet? NOOOOO!!!! Simply put — there are larger factors at play than you realize, and it’s a more valuable investment of time and energy, and considerably less ethically problematic when you decide to learn with the people you are serving rather than looking down on other folk and saying, “wow, these people really need help!” Sadly, that’s a lot of what today’s voluntourism culture proffers.
On the flip side, nothing feels worse than getting to a place and realizing that they just wanted your money — people are exploiting this western notion of ‘community service’ in leaps and bounds, and ethical volunteering can be hard to come by unless you know what to look for. Now, that being said, I volunteered with such an organization, and still had an amazing experience, complete with everything that could have gone wrong (fights at the orphanage? Ex-street kids dealing drugs? You name it…). Many American students try to hammer out a certain number of service hours in order to pad their college resumes. If your heart isn’t in this, then you’re better off simply backpacking, taking language courses, or doing nature conservation work.
If you do want to volunteer, I would highly recommend teaching. Teaching will give you an appreciation for your own education that you’ll carry to the grave, and will place you in a position of authority; how you react in that position will teach you a great deal about yourself.
Don’t just do the things that you’re already good at
Gap Years provide the perfect opportunity to stretch yourself a bit, in all directions — both horizontally and externally (out, and into the world), as well as ‘vertically,’ and internally (getting to know your depths). To grow the most, try picking up a new skill — maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to play guitar, or to how garden, or to how build a house, or you wanted sing in a choir; pick something that lights you up, and commit to pursuing it on your gap year (shameless plug: Winterline is THE MacDaddy at this!). This is your time to explore and challenge yourself — a time to really test your human potential. If you fail — great learning experience. Most likely though, you’ll discover parts of yourself that will amaze you 🙂
Don’t NOT play with every baby that you see
So cute! Until they….
Commit for an extended period of time
Moving quickly from one place to another is important, and fun, and wildly stimulating, and will teach you some critical life lessons, but really digging into a culture, place, and people requires a longer commitment. That’s why Peace Corps does two years. Think long-term relationship vs. one-night stand — which is more fulfilling? Which matters? Which truly has an impact? Exactly. So try to stay in one place for half a year — you’ll come to understand the people and develop deep relationships, while also coming up against the inevitable conflicts that occur while living in a community (and have to face them without having the option to just book it the next day).
[caption: How are monks and waterfalls different? One rushes, the other doesn’t HAHAHHAHHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAH ]
Don’t run when things become difficult
Working in an all boys orphanage in Nepal, there were times when it seemed like everything was falling apart. My roommate, a Dutch fellow, who — atypically for Dutch folk, in my experience — was more interested in complaining and whining about everything than actually getting on with what we were there to do (work with the children), and it was a testosterone hive — the boys were between 8-14, and mass fights were constantly breaking out. They were largely unsupervised, and had no real role models or structures, other than school (which was laughable when I visited). It was complete chaos.
[caption: okay, okay — complete chaos, and wicked fun]
I became a bit more in touch as a human being — these were kids, after all! Most interesting was to watch my reaction to want to leave the situation as soon as it became difficult. I highly recommend that when the going gets rough, you ask yourself whether you feel unsafe, or whether you just feel uncomfortable. More often, it’s the latter. And if you lean into that discomfort, you’ll grow in leaps and bounds — which is kinda what the whole gap year thing is about.
Stay off the internet
Your favorite shows will all be there when you get back; Kathmandu will not. Similarly, save the google search → buzzfeed articles → pictures of cute kittens progression for a rainy day at home. Unplug from your electronic devices in general — constantly toting your smartphone so that you can ‘take pictures’ is an excuse; if you want to really take pictures, invest in a DSLR. The point isn’t punishment, it’s if you’re constantly sharing pictures of the delicious tapas that you’re eating in Spain, you’re not going to be savoring the taste, which is what you’ll ultimately remember the most — not the stylish photo.
Don’t just let your journey fade into the ether upon return…
During your Gap Year, you’re going to be transitioning from home to independence, high school to college, and adolescence into adulthood — –undergoing all three massive and pivotal transformations at the same time. It’s unlike any other period of your life, offering the unique potential for a true rite of passage (hate to break it to you, but that’s something that college generally doesn’t offer you). Traveling will stretch your comfort zone and sense of the world and yourself like a hot air balloon, and coming back home can be a rather deflating experience (Really? Lame dad pun? #sorrynotsorry).
But don’t just let your experiences fade after sharing with friends and family — set up a talk at your school to share what you learned about other cultures, the world, and yourself. Share stories that will help people detect their own biases and the stereotypes that they are prone to making about the other parts of the world. Helpful would be to have a specific theme to your presentation — say you’re into archaeology and want to share a comparison between the bones in Mongolia, Africa, and Germany, and how that relates to mankind’s history, etc. Get creative! Apply to do a TEDx talk in your town! This will not only show college’s & /future employers that you take initiative and are a go-getter, but in working to articulate your experiences, you’re going to process your journey in a way that simply isn’t possible by writing about it or chatting with friends.
[caption: I solemnly swear, to share my story upon return.]
Most importantly though…
Don’t let naysayers talk you out of going
I remember when I told most people what I was doing, hearing things like, “Oh, you’ll never go to college — that’s a terrible choice.” Hmm. Well… maybe I’ll just do it anyway, I thought. GOOD BOY — 90% of students who take a Gap Year return to college within a year. That’s almost 30 percentage points higher than the national average. The Gap Year has attracted a mythological skepticism bred from irrational fear. Don’t let other people get in the way of you making a decision to radically alter the quality of your life — let the haters hate, and go for it. Because if you don’t, chances are you’ll never look like this…
Which is clearly what we all want out of life, am I right, or am I right?
Okay, MOST most importantly — this has been a lot of “don’ts.” What about the “Do’s”? Well there’s only one on that list..
DO let any and all monkey’s into your pants
Have a wonderful journey 🙂