Clare Barnard on how finding yourself isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be On entering my interview, bottom had not acquainted itself with chair before I was impatiently probed: ‘So you’ve applied for deferred entry, will you come in 2006?’ Utterly unprepared for this question, I managed a stubborn ‘No’ as I dropped into the crusty armchair. I’d always wanted that gap year. You know, the one that everyone talks about, the one that’s ‘Soooooo amazing!’ whether it’s spent digging a well in Africa or lying on a Thai beach. As a matter of fact, I did have a week on a Thai island, and for the duration of my stay I seemed to be magnetically adhered to my beach towel; I was never to be found in my beachside hut. Despite how awe-inspiringly beautiful Thai beaches are, this was largely due to our toilet being blocked and the resulting smell being amplified by the 40C heat. But that’s not the angle I usually give when people ask ‘So, how was your gap year?’ with such fervour. Once you’ve experienced the pleasures and pains of travel, you’re unavoidably caught in a tricky dilemma when answering this question. My experience in foreign lands last year was the best experience of my life to date, but it did include many blocked toilets, mild illness, and suddenly being evicted when working abroad.
With this in mind, I shall now attempt to give an accurate portrayal of what my gap year really entailed. I’ll begin with the office job I did for six months in order to fund my explorations. This may seem a banal detail but it needs to be said that the casual work required to raise the necessary £5000 is painfully dull. Yet each hour, I calculated, financed me for a day in India, and thus the trade off was definitely worthwhile.
With funds raised, we can start on the packing. It may seem obvious that this is not in the slightest bit glamorous (although I did manage to find a gorgeous pink Karrimor rucksack to transport my life in), but the extent to which what you pack matters cannot be overlooked. Although weight is an obvious issue, packing light really hits home when you’re struggling along the gutter of a Malaysian road in ninety percent plus humidity and you’re fully aware that it’s at least another mile to your hostel.
The first thing to be noticed upon reaching your initial destination is that everyone is staring at you. Constantly. You realise it’s not going to stop; have you suddenly become a voluntary zoo exhibit? In some cases yes; on a beach in Thailand no, as you would be one of over fourteen million tourists that swarm around the beaches of Bangkok and Chiang Mai each year. Where the stares do not cease, you quickly learn to ignore them. This becomes hard, however, when locals insist on running ahead of you in the street and taking photos as you walk you by. This happened to me in both China and Thailand. Ultimately you have to take to heart that stoic British saying, ‘It’s all part of the fun!’ as you fix your eyes back on the pavement.
As well as being an object for fixated eyes, being alien to a land means you’re subjected to much stereotyping. These prejudices change from country to country, and you must acquaint yourself quickly with what is expected of you whenever you border hop. In Hanoi, Vietnam, you’re dubbed as an outsider pretty quickly and therefore sitting down at that street stall for coffee might not be too easy. In China, this is complemented by the likelihood of being offered toilet paper whenever you try to communicate with hospitality staff or shopkeepers. Problems occur closer to home too, and in Southern Spain, where I spent my Summer living and working, I felt quite uncomfortable being so close to ‘MarbeL-LA’, and my compatriots holidaying there. It was at times hard to get across that although I am English, I don’t follow football or drink copious amounts of lager.
In many ways, my time in Spain was the toughest part of my travels, but there were many other adventures along the way. Having my debit swallowed by an ATM on arrival in Hong Kong at 2am wasn’t great, but arguing with a man at a Chinese bank was nothing compared to finding a new home and job in a foreign land. Rural Andalucia became my home, in a little village where all the families gathered together to chat in the central square. It was delightful. Being evicted with less than 48 hours notice was not delightful. Nor was being obliged to walk away from a job thanks to it being potentially very dangerous. With these disastrous events, a culmination of the various factors of alienation occurred: I couldn’t speak the language fluently, I didn’t understand the social or workplace conventions, and I had no clue what had made me think this was a good idea!
Confidence in my decision to travel returned gradually, first with meeting two new flatmates, a Spaniard and an Argentinean. The night I moved in, we had the first of many evening meals together, where each of us would prepare a dish as a contribution to what often became a feast. Then slowly I also learnt how to express my emotions more in Spanish. Being able to swear effectively was especially useful. But psychologically, not being understood by most of people around you, potentially for months, takes its toll. In Spain, as I looked over the orange grove every morning, waiting to catch my bus out of Tesorillo, I realised I was beginning to develop many of the things I felt I was lacking in all those months of backpacking; the interaction, the integration and the dissolving of isolation.
And there I was. The place I had always wanted to be. I remember lying on top of a wall, which dropped down into the sea, having reached the top of Malaysia, and wishing I was at the stage where I could say I’d done it. I visualised recounting stories: people would laugh, and the mental grappling with the isolation and the unknown would be long gone. This is something a lot of travellers refuse to admit; idealising is necessary to commit to travel, but those contrived scenarios simply don’t materialise as you expect. I had replayed my departing flight over and over again in my head before I left – the profound thoughts and feelings I would experience as the wheels lifted from the runway, breaking my habitation with England for ten months! Instead, as the plane heaved itself into the sky, I was being offered crackers and being talked at in Gujarati by the elderly couple hemming me into the window seat. They were very thoughtful but didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t understand Gujarati; I was going to be hearing it for the duration of the flight regardless. What now seems a great story – my introduction to India being an intense eight hours of unintelligible jabbering – was, at the time, hopelessly painful. Truly, this is the traveller’s mantra: ‘No pain, no gain.’