The gap year industry is booming, with more and more people paying their share and heading off to…what? To see the world? To make a difference? To find themselves? While these are popular reasons, you’re unlikely to get a meaningful experience by signing up with a gap year company, tour group or an internship agency. At worst, doing so might actually be damaging to the places you visit. A recent survey by ThinkTank Demos warned that the new wave of British going over to developing countries and helping them build schools and dig wells is just promoting a new kind of colonialism through charity.
But for those who think building schools and teaching English should be left to people who know how to build and teach, meaningful travel isn’t necessarily off the itinerary. Independent travel is still very much a viable option,
giving you the chance to see and do things others won’t, to have a really personal experience, and to find out what a culture really has to offer when it’s not putting on a show for the westerners. Even better, there are still opportunities for you to wander round the world and still be useful.
My favourite example is through stuffyourrucksack.com. This simple concept does still rely on charity and gifts from developed to undeveloped countries, but it’s small scale and makes sure people are getting what they need. Charity and grassroots NGOs around the world put up a wish list of items they need and can’t get hold of, either through supply issues or lack of finance, and if you can get hold of them, you can take them out. Just have a browse who wants what in the neighbourhood of your next holiday – whether that’s gloves for Latvia, blue tack for Vanuatu or weather monitoring equipment for Brazil. And if you do stumble across a worthy cause on your travels, you can share the details on the website when you get back. By stuffing your rucksack, not only is the right help going to the right people, but you can go and meet the people running these charities and the people benefiting from them. You can always offer to help out while you’re there.
In a similar vein, but without even the help of a unifying website, is the simple idea of approaching a small charity, school or business directly. Many organisations now have some form of contact details around on the internet, however isolated they are, which is a good method if you want to plan ahead. Bear in mind, even those with email addresses probably can’t check them often – a call or even an old fashioned letter is probably better.
However, the real joy of travel often comes from the unexpected. Plan a route or destination, head off and then explore. There will be plenty of organisations you can approach once there, and while you may get rebuffed, you might start a great new adventure.
A final word to the wise – if you’re travelling independently, to remote and often overlooked areas, you may not like what you find. You might be uncomfortable in a hotel no one ever visits, get stared at by people suspicious of foreigners, hate the food which is always a million miles from the national cuisine exported abroad and feel very lonely and isolated if your language skills
aren’t up to scratch. However, it’s in these circumstances that your perseverance, ingenuity and problem solving skills really come to the fore. Travelling without a safety net, and without taking your own bit of Britain with you in the form of companions and mentors, is a daunting task and not all those who do it manage to thrive on it. Those who can are those who can really show they have something worth offering a business.