So it’s finally over. Well it’s been over for almost 5 months now (my bad), but putting this blog posting online seems like the final step in closing the book on the gap year that was, September 27th 2008- May 18th 2009. Sorry for taking so long to finally put this online- summer and college got in the way of my writing plans.
But before I reflect and introspect, allow me to recap the bare bones of my trip first.
Russia- I spent 7 weeks volunteering in a small city 5 hours northeast of Moscow, named Yaroslavl with a program called Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS). I took a weekend trip to St. Petersburg and two trips to Moscow.
South Africa- I spent a couple days in New York with my sister where my parents surprised me, before going to Cape Town for almost 6 weeks and again volunteering with CCS. I also took a weekend trip to Johannesburg, and spent five days in the Eastern Cape hiking along the Transkei’s Wild Coast.
Australia- I came home for about a month around New Year’s, before going off to Australia. I spent a month hanging out at the houses of two family friends in Sydney and Melbourne, and went organic farming for a week on the French Island.
New Zealand- I met college kids on their semester abroad in Auckland and we rented a camper van that we took around the North Island for a week.
India- I toured the country for a month with Rustic Pathways, including a week home-stay with a Tibetan family in Dharmsala, a hike in the foothills of the Himalayas, and tours of Delhi, Kochi, Jaipur and Agra.
China- I finished up my trip with a 6 week stint in Shanghai where I interned at a bilingual lifestyle magazine through Projects-Abroad. My family came to visit and took me to Beijing, and I also went traveling alone for 10 days in the southwest of China after my internship wrapped up.
The First Half
Russia was amazing in the strangest way. I look back and I think of walking the gloomy streets of Yaro after a stretch of a couple of days of not seeing the sun, listening to Lil’ Wayne’s most depressing song off of The Carter III, “Shoot Me Down.” And that may sound like anything but amazing, but I’ve talked it over with Jaime and we agree that it was just a special time in our lives.
At any other point in the trip being in a small, foreign city for almost 2 months with little to no nightlife and only a handful of other volunteers might have been crushingly boring. But maybe because it was our first stop, it wasn’t at all. We read a lot, talked late into the night, woke up early to do our pushups, I studied Russian, we played chess. And it felt completely fulfilling.
Also, by being in the Motherland I was living the dream. I had been a closet Russian history geek since I did a book report on the history of the Soviet Union in 5th grade. During my volunteering with CCS, I got to talk to former proud card-carrying members of the Communist Party. I sat with them after they listened to a lecture on pensioner’s shrinking medical benefits and heard them feebly reminisce about the good ol’ days. Volunteering at a senior center, we had q&a time, where another volunteer and I sat at the front of the room and faced a firing squad of Russian retirees. And with the help of a translator I got to shoot questions back at them. It was an incredible opportunity.
Next up, South Africa stood in bright contrast to Russia. While Russia was all gray, gloomy and centuries of history, South Africa was bright, colorful and dynamic with an eye firmly set on a promising future. Russia was glorious gilded churches and colorful onion domes that looked like they came straight from Disneyland. Zed A (South Africa’s internet country code) was almost entirely focused on the great outdoors; amazing picturesque beaches, Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, and a plethora of outdoor activities like rappelling down a mountain, hang gliding or shark cage diving.
Still, 15 years after the end of apartheid, the black and coloured (mixed-race) townships are one of the first things you see on the drive out of Cape Town International, while some luxurious white communities sit nestled above the City Bowl with amazing views of the Atlantic. Every cab ride became a new discourse on race, with drivers ranging from enlightening and thought provoking to downright racist. But while South Africa’s progress in race relations can be debated, its natural beauty simply cannot be which is one of the reasons, along with Cape Town’s amazing nightlife, that it tops the list of gap year countries I’d like to return to.
Going it Alone
Then there was the call I got from Jaime during our break at home, when he informed me he wouldn’t be coming to Australia or New Zealand. I felt a mix of terror, anxiety and excitement, with a lot of emphasis on the former two. There was even a brief conversation about my possibly staying home, but I never really considered that as a real possibility.
However I also felt liberated, not because traveling with Jaime tied me down in any way, but because going it completely alone for a spell put the onus entirely on me. Despite my anxiety, I tried to go for a little dose of spin control at the time in this space, calling it the “new and improved” second half, when in fact I was all nerves.
The Second Half
Even though I had a really great time in both Australia and New Zealand, I just found them both pretty culturally uninteresting. Sure they both had their natives that they worked hard to oppress, but otherwise I found very little else to hold my attention.
India on the other hand, was a whole different world. The first image that comes to mind is dirt streets with traffic jams consisting of oxen, camels, pedestrians and brightly hand painted cars and trucks, with nobody paying the traffic lights any mind. I remember ubiquitous masala chai, and Indian food every meal for a month straight. I was so used to Indian food being a once a month take-out dinner that we picked up from my family’s favorite place down Ventura, that I could never get my mind around the fact that there’s a place (duh, India) where it’s perfectly normal to not only have it every meal, but on planes and trains too. (Seriously though. When I think plane food, I think of Continental Airlines and some lukewarm vegetables with some indeterminate piece of meat smothered in gravy. But in India, they give you Indian food on planes!)
I’ll also remember India for its unflappably polite culture, terrifying drivers and amazing temples. And I left India with one of my favorite memories from the entire trip.
It was the first night of our trek in the Himalayan foothills and I was sharing a tent with our American guide and my friend Michael from Florida. We didn’t feel like going to bed so we wandered around rice paddies outside following the sound of drums in the distance. We eventually made our way to some sort of celebration for one of the local villager’s first-born sons. There was a full brass section in addition to the drums, and old drunk Indian men were dancing near a fire along to the rhythm. They immediately stopped when we arrived and without a word offered us three chairs closest to the fire.
As we warmed up, and the celebrants warmed up to our unexpected arrival, the music and dancing resumed again, and we decided to make fools of ourselves and join in. Soon a rainbow of saris assembled on the far porch with curious eyes burning out of dark faces at the three white intruders. We stayed long enough to see the completion of some sort of ceremonial grain pyramid, find an English-speaking friend who tried to explain some of what was going on, see a dinner of daal (lentils) and rice served on massive fig leafs to young and old alike who all made certain to eat with their right hands (the left was unclean). And we left only after the grand finale, the sacrificing of a braying, all-too-prescient goat.
I’ll remember China, the country that brought you the “one country, two systems” policy, as showing many different cultural faces. There was the local market outside my apartment where you could see your dinner slaughtered in front of you, be it turtle, fish, eel, or even brain if you were feeling frisky. The street market and the park in front of my flat, which I’ve already written extensively about, both felt distinctly Chinese.
But just a stone’s throw away, on the same walk home from my metro stop were massage parlors with Chinese girls beckoning from the windows. And if these weren’t as sketchy as they seemed, they could just as well stand in for some of the other places that I heard about, representing the seedy, sexually repressed, and more generally black-market, bootleg culture that China tries so hard to hide from the world. Finally, there was the nightlife scene, which consisted of certain posh bars that were so whitewashed that by the end of the night you forgot you were in Asia. The bars and clubs, some expat hangouts, others more local, seemed to come from a whole different world than the life of the everyday Chinese who dried their laundry out on the street and who went to lunch locales that provided a full businessman’s meal for a tenth of the price of my gin and tonic.
While home I got lots of questions about college- if I feel I’ll be a step behind in the classroom after a year off, if it’ll be weird to be in a grade with people a year younger than I am, among other things, if it’ll be hard to get reacquainted with the daily grind of school.
First, I’ll give you my political answer that I wrote over the summer. I think if anything, the gap year has made me more prepared for college life. By interacting with people who could never imagine the tremendous opportunity that an American university education really is, I feel more prepared to take advantage of it. And in meeting people over and over again this past year, I feel much more confident heading into college. Also, it’ll be nice to make friends who will be around for more than a couple weeks.
The truth is it has been a little bit hard to get back into the groove of the academic side of things. And whether it’s my own procrastinator tendencies, or the social skills I refined while traveling, I find myself able to put off work for hours in pursuit of mindless conversation with hallmates. But ever the eternal optimist, I think soon enough I’ll hit my stride and get back into the swing of things.
And I owe it to more than me to do my absolute best, too. During the gap year, I got to meet, work and live with people who could never dream of what a tremendous opportunity an American college education is. It would be a tremendous waste, and a dishonor to them, to not work up to my potential.
The gap year also prepared me wonderfully for college dorm life. After living in some pretty squalid conditions at some points last year, I realized how little my physical living conditions have to do with my overall well-being. That realization helps me shrug off the occasional cockroach and mouse that much easier.
The most challenging and rewarding part of my trip was probably my time in New Zealand and the southwest of China. I came to both Auckland and Chengdu in the Sichuan province with nothing more than a hostel reservation for two nights and a flight out.
I went from a month in Australia and the comfort, safety and warmth of staying in the homes of two friends to landing in Auckland, where I was hit with the pretty lonely and scary realization that I didn’t know a soul in the entire country. Wandering around for just the first few hours felt oppressively lonely. Luckily, I met fun people in my hostel that night to go out to a bar with, and the Wash U study abroad kids the next day and I was off seeing the North Island shortly thereafter.
Likewise, I left my own apartment in Shanghai and a large social circle and landed in a Chinese province without knowing a single friendly face. I spent my first day moping in the hostel under the guise of using their free Internet, but I was mainly scared about how I was going to find anything to do or anyone to hang with for 10 days. I told the first person I met, a freakishly intense Dutch guy, that I’d accompany him on a 3 day mountain trek because of a lack of other options. Thankfully, while at the panda reserve the next morning I was able to convince two less intense Dutch girls, Cindy and Malou, to rescue me from their fearsome countryman.
While it definitely wasn’t easy, I think what I’m proudest of during the gap year, was my ability, through a lot of luck and a little gumption, to make something out of nothing these two instances.
It’s hard to detail exactly what I gained over the course of the gap year. While I already considered myself a relatively self-confident person, I gained even more confidence in myself, and my ability to meet people. Simultaneously, in getting to know completely foreign people and places, I gained an appreciation for my own smallness in the general scheme of life. I became both more independent and more experienced. There’s also clearly a lot I still have to learn, as evidenced by the fact that I got tube after tube of toothpaste, (four in all), confiscated by airport security from my carry-ons during the second half.
I believe I gained a lot in both independence and experience. Even though I can't specifically qualify or explain what I mean by that, I hope that I continue to grow through my memories and lessons of my travels.
Highs and Lows
There were the good times like the Goldfish concert in Cape Town at a venue overlooking the beach, dripping sweat in a screaming crowd chanting for an encore, packed so tight I couldn’t move, where the only thought flitting through my head was “I have no idea what led me to choose the path that got me to this moment, but thank God I did.”
There were the bad times like my first night on the French Island, where I mistakenly let a whole fleet of moths into my room, and had to go to sleep with them crawling all over my body, that left me thinking, “what the hell am I getting myself into?”
And there were the times I’m not going to talk about like when I fell into the eastern toilet at KFC in China.
At it’s hardest, the gap year shook me in completely unexpected ways. In setting off for the trip, I wanted to be challenged. I was leaving in order to broaden my worldview, culture myself, see the sites, meet the people and everything else fit for the travel brochures.
But the gap year had other plans for me. It rocked me in the places I had previously felt most secure. At times, (possibly due to a contractual dispute- asking for too much time in the spotlight) it felt like I had been written out of the TV show that had previously been my life.
All my friends started building new lives in colleges scattered across the country, and the people I left at home adjusted to life in LA without me. I felt like I was on an 8 month trek of transience constantly meeting and meeting people and experiencing things but not living anything with any real degree of permanence.
But as good ol’ Nietzsche once so famously wrote, “what does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
My heart’s still beating, Friedrich, so I must be stronger. And I feel it. I weathered a fair few storms. And out of that is born a new resiliency, a new confidence to know that because I made it through some of my toughest trials to date, I’ll triumph over whatever comes next.
Last but not least
Now before I go, let me leave you with a few snapshots from the trip.
Quite literally stumbling accidentally into ladies’ night at a club in the basement of Yaroslavl’s circus with Jaime, which was fun and normal until the 14 year old stripper took the stage and Jaime and I decided to leave…
The hike on the Wild Coast of South Africa, when we watched a few black kids playing a game of catch with a little white boy- over a fence, while the latter’s parents stood guard...
Getting preached to by either one of the craziest or smartest man I’ve ever met, probably both, while watering his pumpkin patch on a farm on the French Island, Australia…
Trying to joke to mask my fear before my bungee jump in New Zealand, until finally the operators told me that I had 5 seconds to jump- or they would push me…
Being woken up by my Tibetan home-stay mother saying “hello, hello breakfast” in McLeod Ganj, India with a steaming mug of sweet, spiced masala chai, and japahtti with mango jam…
Strolling through the massive park outside my flat in Shanghai filled like it was Labor Day with old people doing tai chi, fathers and sons flying kites, and couples picnicking in tents on a random weekday April morning…
Finally, a great many thanks is in order. To Jaime, I owe you so much for everything this past year. It took us a few weeks to get in the hang of it but it meant the world to have you as a best friend first and a travel partner second. I laughed harder with you than I have at any other point in my life. Thank you for always being by my side, both figuratively and literally, like the stretch in Russia where we pretty much were never further than 10 feet away 24/7 for 7 weeks straight. And I never got sick of you! At the risk of getting too sappy, our friendship really approached something more like a brotherhood by the end and I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that.
To two schools I also owe thanks, first Harvard-Westlake for being such a strong proponent of the gap year and introducing the idea to me in the first place. Secondly, the College of William & Mary for allowing me to defer my admission and have this experience with the safety and security of having my spot in college assured the following fall.
To my family, my parents for funding what was once a pipe dream with some major financial and emotional capital. I first broached the idea of a gap year almost two years before my flight to Russia. Still it’s amazing to consider that my mom, the same person who couldn’t get a proper night’s sleep until I texted her that I was home safe and sound while in LA, let me go off in the world and be completely and totally out of touch for days at a time. And my father for helping to ground me whenever traveling got me a little topsy-turvy. To my sisters,my grandparents and to all my other family and friends- thanks for being so understanding when I was hard to get in touch with, or went too long without getting in touch with any of you.
And finally, to all my faithful readers thanks for taking the trip with me. While it was nice to record my memories for posterity’s sake, it was even more rewarding when I got a new comment on a post or saw an uptick in the hits. This was one of the most important years of my life and I'm fortunate I could share it with all of you.