Originally written for The Huffington Post.
An update: After writing this I received quite a bit of feedback from people who had been on gap years themselves. Some felt I had rather unfairly lumped all their experiences together. I thought that this was a fair criticism. The article was aimed at the kind of gap years I am most familiar with, but didn’t make this clear. Apologies to those who felt unfairly treated by the piece.
A little over three years ago, I was sat by a fireplace in a cramp, dimly lit, yet charming pub in east Reading. An old friend of mine, much to my displeasure, was regaling me with tales of his year abroad. Once he had explained just how marvellous travelling around the world to see sights and/or build schools was, he suddenly transformed from storyteller to salesman. “You must have least considered it?” Without so much as a blink of acknowledgement on my part he stepped up the patter and moved into fifth-gear, “At this age, people like me and you have an amazing opportunity it would be ridiculous to pass up. The world is our oyster and we should make the most of it.”
At that point, my boredom gave way to a peculiar sense of unease. Something wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. Some years later I was able to reflect on what had been happening that evening.
Two white, relatively wealthy, British men were sat with pints of ale taking a superficial interest in the values and customs of exotic and unknown cultures. One was telling the other about the various ways in which he could enrich himself by embarking some sort of pseudo-spiritual journey. For anyone looking on and listening in, it was obvious that in this context, the value of Thai or Peruvian culture was directly derived from what it could provide these men with. A ‘rejuvenation’, a ‘new perspective’, or even just an interesting opening line for an otherwise unimaginative CV.
If I had taken up the great gap year challenge, it would not be the first time a boring British man had paid as little as possible to extract as much as he could from a poor country with interesting individuals, tastes and traditions. I did want to escape and it would be a lie to say I wasn’t tempted by the excitement of exploring a foreign locale. It would also be something of stretch to say I abandoned the idea as some sort of political protest – I just wanted to get to university as soon as possible.
Back in the pub, an assumption had (correctly) been made that if I really wanted to go, funding for the expedition would have been made available to me. If times were tough in the Evans household, my friend suggested, I could even ask for the trip as, “a joint birthday and Christmas present”. It wasn’t a gift that most of the world could hope to find in their stockings.
Such an opportunity was derived from a background that prolific colonialist Cecil Rhodes once likened to, ‘winning first prize in the lottery of life’. My descent from a country with average incomes several times higher than those of a place like China would buy me service from locals with a much stronger work ethic than my own. Whether this would come in the form of their accommodation, serving me food, or providing me with a somewhat Disneyfied experience of international development would be entirely my call.
In the UK, gap years are sold as an experiential delicacy that one can purchase from a company that has offices in India and headquarters in closer to home. A product that is sold at low price thanks to the ‘simple lives’ (low wages) of workers in the former. On one level, one can’t help but imagine the pioneers of the East India Company looking on approvingly.
Perhaps labelling all gap years ‘colonialist’ is a little harsh. Some will argue that the trips are important to economic growth in developing countries. Others will maintain they provide Westerners with perspective and set them up to do good in the world. It is also important to note that there are huge variations in gap years and the stated intentions of those taking them. Some really do want to make the world a better place. However, I’m still uneasy with the historic parallels. I can’t shake an anxiety derived from the economic disparity that makes them possible.
Maybe I’m being far too cynical. I am now in my final year at university. Post-graduation, maybe I need to get away from it all. Friends tell me that Fiji is such a beautiful country and that you can get an amazing massage for next to nothing …