5 Big lessons I’m taking away from our Gap Year
The conventional, very rooted way of life we’ve set up in North America – filled with lots of material stuff isn’t the only, or most rewarding way that one can lead their life. Experience is essential to a meaningful life. And wine.
1. HOW LITTLE WE ACTUALLY NEED. Carrying your life around on your back for 10 months is a pretty humbling experience. Forget online shopping and consumerism. Suddenly, you’re shopping for shampoo in some mini-mart in Bali and all you give a shit about is finding the smallest bottle. And all those and lip-glosses and eyebrow tweezers I packed were jettisoned after the first day. (Not all of us learned this lesson unfortunately; my daughter still seemed to be carrying around her entire stuffie collection.)
We were always thinking about how to make our packs lighter. Do I really need this sixth pair of underwear?We need to finish this stupid Harry Potter book- it’s too heavy. Who knew wine out of a plastic bag could be so good?
Back home, I’m always tempted to buy stuff. This past year, I’m constantly evaluating how to get rid of things. My sanity and my spine depended on it. Lesson learned.
2. PEOPLE HUSTLE REALLY HARD ALL OVER THE WORLD JUST TO SURVIVE. We’ve visited 15 countries this year – 11 of which I’d consider developing. One thing that will stick me for a long time to come is how hard people have to work just to scrape by.
In Bolivia, men shine shoes in the blazing heat with knit balaclavas over their heads because it’s considered such a shameful job. I’ve seen people selling everything from soda pop to mismatched pairs of used runners. Earlier today, traveling through Colombia, when the bus stopped for a bathroom break, a guy hopped on and gave the most heartfelt pitch for toothbrushes he was peddling. Of course, no one bought any. There always seems to be someone hustling hard to sell something, and it’s not just to make a bigger buck, but to survive. Should have bought a toothbrush.
At the start of the trip I used to love bargaining and getting a good deal, but after months of seeing people work so hard just to get by, bargaining lost its appeal. Fifty cents is nothing to me, but it’s a lot to someone who lives in a country where the daily wage is eight dollars. In whittling down prices, it started to feel like I was fucking with people’s livelihoods. I appreciate where I was born. Not only do I not have to struggle so relentlessly everyday just to survive, but also I get to do what I love – and, occasionally, I even get paid for it! I’m about to embark on obtaining a Masters degree. It’ll be my third university degree. This feels a bit superfluous in a world where people walk around for 14 hours a day selling cups of chopped mango. I am very, very lucky. (And I still can’t cut a mango properly.)
3. RESPECT FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHERS. After road-schooling my kids for the better part of a year, I have a new respect for elementary school teachers. The level of patience, imagination and lack of fear they must possess just to walk into the classroom every day is inspiring. I’m pretty sure they don’t say the things that fly out of my mouth. Siddown and do your damn work. What do you mean you don’t understand? This isn’t that hard. No, you can’t go to the bathroom. If you ask one more time, you’re getting a catheter.
Our "classroom" in Colombia.
It’s actually been rewarding teaching my son prime numbers and magical watching my daughter learn to read, but I think I’ll be more than okay handing them back over to the public education system, into the loving hands of their teachers for a while. I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual on the part of my kids.
4. YOU DON’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO LIVE A CONVENTIONALLIFE. Before we left on this trip, it seemed like such a radical thing that we were doing. Packing up and renting out our house, selling off our car and many of our belongings— it all seemed a little crazy.
But since we’ve been on the road, we’ve met all sorts of people leading intriguing lives. Software developers working from the road, teachers working in international schools, couples house sitting around the world, people who’ve sold off all their possessions to travel indefinitely, seniors rewarding themselves with a life of adventure after working for thirty years, and young people traveling the world before embarking on their careers.
I’m certainly ready to come home to a drawer full of 20 pairs of clean, underwear that aren't falling apart, to not having to worry about whether I’ll get dengue every time I get bit by a mosquito, to not having to do currency exchange every time I buy a pack of Dentine. But, my eyes certainly have been opened up to the fact that the conventional, very rooted way of life we’ve set up in North America – filled with lots of material stuff isn’t the only, or most rewarding way that one can lead their life. Experience is essential to a meaningful life.
5. THE SOMETIMES TOXIC AND OTHER TIMES BEAUTIFUL RELATIONSHIP WE HAVE WITH THE PLANET. It’s been really fascinating to see how the world once was and how it is now. One week we’re hiking through some of the world’s densest, oldest rain forests, and the following week, we’re biking through a maze of congested, overpopulated streets in Bangkok.
We spent four days at Chalalan Eco Lodge in the Amazon where we witnessed a moving demonstration of how symbiotic the relationship between people and the planet can be. Twenty years ago, the indigenous Bolivian Amazon community of San José de Uchupiamonas, who have rights to the land, were faced with a choice. They could start logging and cutting down the Amazon to support their community. Instead, they opted to start an ecotourism project whereby they built Chalalan Eco Lodge; they bring tourists deep into the jungle to experience the world as it once was- to wake up to Toucans singing, macaws soaring and howler monkeys jumping in the trees. In doing this, they have protected many species from becoming extinct. Locals from the community study biology and ecology, learn various languages and become knowledgeable guides, while others run the lodge. With profits from the Eco Lodge they have built a medical clinic and school within their community. One of the best experiences of our trip was spent in this remote area. Both the Amazon and the community thrive from this relationship. It was such a brilliant example of people and the planet working together for growth and sustainability.
Last spring, we visited a beautiful waterfall in Samoa. We were jumping off the cliffs and splashing around when a group of about eight local women came to the waterfall. They pulled out beer and flipped their caps into the water. Like everyone else they were chatting and laughing and having a good time. When they left an hour later, there were a dozen beer bottles floating in the water at the base of the waterfall. We were sort of stunned as we collected the bottles.
We saw many examples of blatant disregard for the planet, both on the part of locals and tourists. I know that this exists back at home in Canada too, but somehow in your own environment you become complacent and blind to it. Sometimes you even participate. Damn, I forgot my re-usable bags again. It’s too cold or too far to walk. (And I’m well aware of the footprint we have left traveling around the planet. We have tried to use local transport and not behave like tourists whenever possible. My kids will gladly share tales of puking on 50 hour high altitude bus rides through the Andes when they would have preferred to have flown!)
Bus in Samoa
Witnessing, firsthand, the relationship between humans and the planet and how it can either be positive and symbiotic, or how it can be careless and destructive has been enlightening to me. It’s really made me think about my role and attitude.
I obviously learned many lessons throughout this trip and I think many more won’t surface until I get home and haul into the wine and writing.
Some Final Thoughts & Thanks:
Next week: Each of us will highlight what we believe are the most special places and/or experiences amongst the 4 continents and 15 countries we visited. Apparently, Isla's stuffies will be contributing thoughts on this subject.
As our trip winds down in a few days (WHAAAAA), I’d like to genuinely thank you for reading and following this blog, for commenting, for sharing it out, and for direct messaging me. I cannot tell you how much it means to me when someone told me I read your blog, or I love your blog. It sustained me while away from home, family and friends for almost a year.
Rob and I are working on (or supposed to be working on) a comic memoir about our journey that will be published by Turnstone Press in 2017. We are super excited about this project. Stay tuned! In the meantime, I'm trying to figure out how we can do this again!
Much Love & Safe Travels Wherever Life May Lead You!