Monday, August 8, 2016

Gap Year - A World Rocked

“So, how was your year abroad?”

It’s a loaded question, and one that I still – three months after landing back in New Orleans – struggle to answer adequately.  I haven’t given up, though; whenever it comes up, I sing the year’s praises as loudly as possible. “It was absolutely phenomenal.  I’d recommend it to anyone.  Complete game-changer.  The greatest year of my life.” 

But really - how do you describe an experience like this?  How do you describe the size of the universe?  Sometimes I’ll gesticulate wildly, throwing hands everywhere to drive my lofty statements home; I’ll spend awkward seconds searching for high-magnitude words, and, in certain moments, invoke profanity.  People get it – “Sounds awesome,” they say, nodding - but I can tell it’s still falling a little short. No matter how [darn] incredible I say this year was, it’ll always mean more to me than I can actually get across.

What to do with such an inexpressibly positive experience?  I can’t just sit on it – the gap year's the type of experience that changes every life it touches – but, at the same time, it’s not an easy idea to sell.  Although "world travel" does hold a certain element of mass appeal, the gap year is inherently a risk.  It's nonessential.  It’s different.  Gap years are often expensive, sometimes dangerous, and always time-consuming.  It’s costly and uncomfortable, and we Americans tend to be both comfortable and cost-averse.  The result is usually a quick dismissal of the idea.
So I’m not, at this point in time, attempting to persuade the masses to consider the gap year.  That’s a pretty grand endeavor.  But in the next few hundred words, I'd like to explain what I actually got - what I'm getting - from the whole experience.

Telling people about the journey, to the point that they really understand it, is difficult.  (That’s one reason it’s taken me three months to get around to finishing this blog.)  I can’t just place people on the clay footpath in the village of Igoda, inviting them into another riotous game of street football as the sun sets below the Tanzanian foothills.  I can’t bring everyone beneath the cosmic sky of the otherworldly Peruvian highlands, where the light spots outnumber the dark and the campesinos’ alpaca shift and sputter in their stables.  What does it feel like to sit in the Swing at the Edge of the World?  “Awesome?” “Incredible?” Yes – indescribably so.  You have to go to the Arequipa Food Festival to taste the culture, the music, the empanadas and morocho, and so on.  You can’t just hear about it.  It’s that exclusivity that makes memories so valuable.

South America Group Semester takes Machu Picchu
Cruz del Condor, Cañón del Colca, Peru
But in the end, this wasn’t a trip about "memories".  Great memories can be made anywhere.  I told a friend a few days ago that, all these weeks later, the impact of this journey is just beginning to become apparent to me – long after the scenic views have been taken in and the bucket list entries have been checked off. 

It’s the intangible side of the adventure that sticks: the broadened perspective, the personal clarity, the happy-go-anywhere confidence of a traveler.  When you travel (not just “visit”, but travel – there’s a difference), the mundane becomes magical. Watch a Tanzanian woman weave a basket.  It’ll blow your mind, and you’ll discover new appreciation for materials, for culture, and for the individual struggles of a billion Third World families.  It stays with you.  In such a profoundly new space, simple stuff can become challenging– try making your way across Peru by bus – even as the world’s complications and complexities seem to dissolve before your eyes.  What if we all appreciated life as much as Mufindi’s villagers, who mostly live without electricity, running water, healthcare access, or more than a few dollars a day, but still find the time to laugh, play, and love each other?  What if our priorities could be more like theirs?  I believe that everyone should, at some point, attend a Lutheran church service in Swahili. Everyone could benefit from a morning bucket shower in a cornfield. (Ask me how much I appreciate hot water now.) It's all about perspective.  Perspective.  Perspective.  If more people would just go – go to a strange land, simply to do strange things, in strange ways, with complete strangers – the world would become more content, more productive, and more understanding.
Women of Mufindi, Tanzania | Credit goes to my friend Aimi Duong, Photographers Without Borders
After Igoda Children's Village "Spring Break Camp"
I was truly fortunate to get my first taste of the world at large before going off to college.  The benefits of the post-high school gap year are limitless.  Academic burnout is a distant memory.  I’m more self-aware than ever before.  I became fluent in a second language while abroad, and am well on my way to learning a third.  I learned what it feels like to (attempt to) teach kids English, to administer life-saving medical treatment, and to sit a the head of a traditional Kihehe farewell ceremony.  I’ve made friends from across the country (amazing, adventurous American travellers who I’m beyond blessed to call close friends) and from across the world (host families, language teachers, doctors, dentists, nonprofit leaders, villages full of kids, and fellow explorers). Priorities have evolved.  I’ve progressed in my relationships with family, friends, career, and routine.  And at this point I’d feel comfortable living in nearly any city or country in the world - which is fortunate, since they’re pretty much all on my list.

My mom wouldn't allow a final blog post without baby Noelle. Contact me if you're interested in adopting!
Mufindi's HIV prevalence rate is around 35%.  It's not all rainbows and butterflies

Cusco, Peru, by night
If the year itself was incredible, its long-term impact is utterly astonishing.  The trip was a force multiplier, a yearlong dose of unadulterated perspective that will shape every event of the rest of my life.  I'm seeing things differently.  I'm doing things differently.  Everything is different - and, truthfully, that can be painful at times.  But in the vast majority of situations the difference is overwhelmingly positive. This was among the greatest opportunities I've ever been given and is definitely, to date, the greatest decision I've made.

According to Saint Augustine, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." I'm only a couple of chapters in, but it's definitely a really, really good book.

Long exposure / Tena, Ecuador / No edit necessary
Gap year data and benefits:
Accredited list of gap year organizations:

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