Mind the Gap please!
I have divided my Podcast into two parts because even edited from my original article it is still rather long; my throat can only go for so long without a breather and I would hate for you to get bored and lose interest.
It is amazing how far the English language can take you in even the remotest corners of the world. However it is a gesture of respect to learn at least a few local words and phrases even it only to ask the location of a WC – I found the phrase “Where’s the bloody dunny mate?” extremely useful when in the outback beyond Cairns.
The Spanish I learned from watching Westerns in my youth served me well when I was travelling on a stagecoach from Durango to Mazatlan in Mexico – someone actually began a question to me with the words “Hey Gringo”, but now that I am older and wiser I take a relevant phrase book and a mini-dictionary. Plus I practice sentences in the local language so that I am able to ask the location of a Vegetarian Restaurant so that my wife is not left to starve.
The Volunteer Trail
I have no intention for this to be a guide to suitable organisations whose aim in life is to recruit volunteers to build mission schools in darkest Africa or to muck out orphans in Bucharest. These charitable organisations are brilliant at recruiting helpers and if this is your bag then they will take you under their wing and will in all probability arrange your flight and accommodation albeit in some cases somewhat meagre. Some of them will even pay you some sort of subsistence allowance and feed you. I feel that you should avoid any temptation to become an aid worker in Iraq at this particular time. I will however float a few ideas that I have picked along the way, especially with the more mature traveller in mind who will have life skills to offer.
My son’s father-in-law, a country town GP took a sabbatical from his practice and took off for Afghanistan to give his services as a medic with the land-mine trust to the Mujahadin and anyone else who needed his help. This was before Osama bin Laden, just after the U.S.S.Rs trial run at empire building. The country hasn’t been the same since his visit!
It cannot be emphasised enough that commitment, no matter how fervent, is not enough to work in an aid project in the developing world. You must normally be able to offer some kind of useful training or skill plus have overseas experience already, unless that is you are prepared to fund yourself and don’t mind that your efforts will be more a token than of any lasting benefit. The main operational aid agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF, World Health Organisation, UNHCR, Department for International Development, Care International, International Rescue Committee and Handicap International do not use untrained volunteers.
What agencies are looking for in first-time volunteers are:
A serious and proven professional track record
Good skills with people management and development
Specific technical or other hard skills
Ability to provide training and technical supervision in the above areas
A knowledge of a foreign language is a further advantage
This probably sounds very daunting and off putting but don’t be discouraged a lot of the same agencies offer fee-paying volunteers the chance to experience life at the sharp end in developing countries by working alongside skilled aid workers and local people for a short period.
I wholly commend this sort of Gap Year. You will gain more from it than you give, in fact the more that you give, the more you will gain. I however have not done it or even researched it. These are professional charities who know more about organising aid volunteers and I would not deem to give any more advice or even point you towards such organisations. Google it!
You’re Going Where?
It is not my intention either, that this should be a gazetteer of suitable destinations; other than as a passing reference. What I do intend, is for this to be an experienced old travel writer helping you to avoid possible mistakes, pass on tips and give as much helpful guidance as possible.
Whether you are 18 or 55 you are going to learn quite a lot about yourself. Yes, even those of you who are like me ‘too old to die young’. You will learn independence and self reliance and will learn to appreciate the people and things all around you. That cannot be bad, just so long as you remember that there also will be dragons out there. Maybe a few black bears and wild boars too!
You will have to look after yourself when you are ill. You will have to live out of your back pack. You will also have to face up to every problem and decision that confronts you. However life is like that anyway, a series of highs and lows so why should travelling the world for your Gap Year be any different?
Without doubt, you are going to learn a lot about the world, no matter where or how far you go but even more certain is that you are going to learn even more about yourself. You might even find that you like your new self. Make no mistake however old or young you are, wherever you go to or how far you go, this will be a life changing experience.
I believe it was Billy Connolly who said “We pass this way but once. There is no normal, and there’s no such thing as normal. There is you, and there’s the rest. There’s now and there’s forever. Do as you damn well please!” He may or may not have written it but for a change he certainly wasn’t joking
Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance
Have you decided where to go? If you still haven’t decided, you need to do a lot of homework. Travel Agents, Library, look at pictures, take some brochures home, and get a flavour of what’s in store. Look at photos of rapids, deserts, mountains, crocodiles, elephants, camels, Sydney Opera House, Graceland and the Grand Old Oprey in Nashville. Have a look at pictures of Table Mountain, Ayres Rock, the Rockies and the Grand Canyon, Route 66 and the Great Divide, the Taj Mahal and Mount Everest. Surround yourself with pictures of the Inca trails, paradise, and people having fun. Don’t forget to look at Bangkok, Beijing and Sumatra. It really is big wide world out there and the choice is yours. However only you can decide where to go. Get the adrenaline going because; as the walrus said “the time has come”. It’s make your mind up time.
Special Forces have a mantra that is worth adopting – Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, they call it Pea Picking and I commend it to you. Ten minutes of prior study can make such a difference to a well-planned trip. At this stage you should know where you are going, when you are leaving and how. You should have a good idea of how much it is going to cost. You will also have so many other things buzzing around in your head. It is now time to get out your notebook again it’s more Pea Picking for you.
Always looking for a Bargain!
While carrying out your planning it might be good to do some research to see how far your cash will go in any particular country. I have just heard that cash in Rio de Janeiro is inflating quicker than a dead dog in the sun – a colourful description but an obvious flag for the crafty traveller – The Dollar or Stirling in your pocket is going to buy you a lot more in Brazil and there are many countries whose economies are worth serious consideration when you are Pea Picking but also consider that muggers and bandits thrive where the economy is poor and they can target rich westerners. Compared with some, even an impecunious western traveller will appear rich. I think that it was the travel writer P.J. O’Rourke who quoted somebody who said “I thought that I was poor because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”. You have shoes even if they are smelly trainers.
I read an absolutely brilliant wheeze – so good it could have come from Billy Connolly. On your way home somewhere between the luggage carousel and the arrivals lounge – stop at a washroom and spray dye your hair magenta or similar outrageous colour, strip down to a sleeveless vest and cover your arms and neck with several fake tattoos and some fake rings for your nose, ears and eyebrows. Your family will love the joke once your father has revived your mother from her faint. It would be even funnier if it were your 40 year old daughter and your son-in-law who both burst into tears when they spotted you.
However everything that you have heard here are my thoughts from my research and experiences. Certainly some of my suggestions have not been tried and tested by me so perhaps I should urge you to take them with a pinch of salt. The idea was to give you a flavour of taking time out from the daily grind. Any decisions that you make should be of your own free will. If you choose to fall off a cliff, marry a lap-dancer or step under a bus during your travels I take no responsibility for your actions. When you get back please don’t forget – hair dyed magenta – fake tattoos – fake nuts bolts and earrings all over your body. This will cheer up your relatives no end.
Thanks for listening!