Gap years get a lot of stick, as do school or college-organised expeditions. Frankly though, outright dismissing this kind of travelling as ‘not counting’ is short-sighted. Yes, people talk about these trips at length, and yes they usually follow the trekking plus ‘voluntourism’ model, hardly providing the same freedoms available during solo endeavours. But these are all features which make ‘the gap year’ or ‘the school trip’ neither better or worse, but instead a good starting point.
Between finishing my A levels and starting here at York, I undertook my own college organised trip to Bolivia. It followed the structure previously outlined and in theory then, according to the many critics of the “gap yah”, it was not really travel, or rather a highly generic month. However, this trip felt anything but ordinary.
Bolivia is a country with a highly diverse climate and landscape. La Paz is situated in an urban basin, complete with cable cars, an overpopulated stray dog community, street vendors selling bread by the bagful and incredibly steep and sloping streets. It has the highest altitude capital in the world – walking up the stairs in our hostel was enough to leave you winded. Never far from eyesight, despite the main environment of housing, shops and concrete, you find Illimani, the highest of the Cordillera Real mountain range.
During our five-day trek we were exposed to snow, rock faces, lakes, and then jungle. There were rope bridges and llamas a-plenty. A month felt like a lifetime, mainly as we managed to see so much, and Bolivia has such variety in its appearance, wealth, and weather.
The experience of the trip makes me reluctant to denounce gap years or organised expeditions, because really they are never as organised as they might seem. One memorable moment was when I experienced a severe allergic reaction after swimming in a volcanic spring, mid-way through the supposedly easier acclimatisation trek. The reaction was unpleasant to say the least, my face swelling overnight to nearly twice the size. I felt embarrassed and ugly, and guilty for being so vain. But after a week of looking like a chipmunk I definitely felt humbled – like the unwilling participant in some odd fable.
The bad aura given to these trips is misdirected. It’s not the trip that’s annoying you, it’s the continual talking about how much it changed that individual, how profound the experience was, how eye-opening: “You weren’t there man, you just wouldn’t understand.” Perhaps in some cases it’s worth the mockery, but when people talk about their experiences on these types of trips it’s usually the first long-term project they’ve gone on, the first time they’ve really been physically and mentally challenged, the first time they’ve been inundated with another culture. Obviously they are going to refer to it with reverence. Waking up with a transformed face and getting four rounds of anti-histamine IV injections in a Bolivian hospital, physically slapping myself in the face in a desperate attempt to motivate myself up the last bit of the peak, seeing stars so vivid the Milky Way was visible… they aren’t things I’m going to quickly forget.
Gap years are an important starting point for an appreciation of travel beyond mere tourism. Obviously the highly structured nature of these trips doesn’t appeal to everyone, and there’s a question of how useful some of the volunteering projects actually are in the long-term. However, these trips give unmatchable experiences, both for better and worse. Our continual referring to them mightbe annoying, but if you had been there… well you’d know what I mean.