Things can get real, real fast … and other things I learned in my gap year (part 1)

Leaving on a jet plane

Leaving on a jet plane

Last July, my wife and I began our gap year. Gap years are traditionally taken by incoming college students in the UK and Europe during the year before they start college. I’m a bit older at nearly 40 so we’ve gotten many perplexed and concerned looks over the past year when we told people what we were doing.

Before we started out traveling I made a list of what I hoped to learn. I love making lists. Well, life had other thoughts on what we should learn.

Things can get real, real fast

The most shocking thing I’ve learned is how fast life can go from quietly plodding along to life or death situations and everything in between. The really odd thing is we were not looking for adventure like you see on extreme travel channels. On a sailing trip, one thing led to another and suddenly I found myself on an uninhabited island with a friend passing out from heat stroke. Many months later, a nice evening ended with a friend getting mugged. Shortly after, my wife and I were in a small (thankfully) earthquake in Santiago, Chile one morning while sitting in class at Spanish school. Fortunately, we left southern Chile a few weeks before Volcano Calbuco unexpectedly blew its top covering the volcano-side farmhouse we stayed at with ash.

Perhaps I’ve watched too many movies but I’ve never heard scary music in my ears right before life got real. I have had other sticky situations in my life but I think the difference during the last year is that I became a lot more aware of how fragile our daily tranquility is.

He didn't make it

He didn’t make it.

Travel is better when you are just living

We had taken a few multi-week trips before our gap year but we had never fully experienced just living someplace rather than trying to check off tourist “must-dos”. During our gap year we traveled with an evolving plan. That meant that if we liked someplace then we would stay a while.

When you aren’t in a rush you can just live. You pick up the rhythm of your surroundings. You recognize faces at the coffee shop and they recognize you. You learn when to go grocery shopping and when to get a haircut. You explore places you would probably skip during a quick trip because of time constraints.

We found a house-turned-art museum in Avignon, France that held several Van Gogh paintings we had not seen before. We went to a community fall festival in Schonach, Germany where we were the only non-residents there. We drove out to an enormous, empty beach along the Pacific coast in Chile. Some days we spent the day in the library studying our Spanish, hanging out in a city park, or doing mundane chores. Even back in Birmingham I feel better when I periodically just take it all in.

All is quiet

All is quiet.

Be present

If someone asked me to describe the typical Londoner I would pull out my phone and stare at it while walking down the street. That’s not really fair, though, because, unfortunately, London is certainly not the only home to phone zombies.

We turned our cell phones off while we were away from home. When we got back, several of my apps and all of my email accounts were not working on my phone. It took me about two weeks to finally get around to fixing it. Even now I look at my phone far less than I did before our gap year.

If we are at dinner with friends then we focus on them not our other friends who are texting us or posting photos. Emails, work, and social media are not the problem. It is the blending of focal points that results in a suboptimal result. I’ve learned to be present.

More lessons to come

This is the first part of a series of posts I am writing about the lessons we learned from taking a gap year. While we traveled I started writing in my notebooks quite a bit. I’m now in the process of going through these notebooks to figure out what might be helpful for someone else who wants to simplify, travel long-term, and/or just pick up useful bits.

Please comment below if you have learned any lessons from your own travels or have questions about some of the things I learned. Thanks!


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