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Travel: Gap Year - Pass Goa and collect experience

Diving for pearls or digging for bones - a gap year broadens your horizon. By Susan Griffith
Have you ever come across an oyster clinging to a sea cliff and tried to prise it open? When I had a go, on an island off the coast of Queensland, Australia, I broke the blade of my (imitation) Swiss army knife. So why are students always being told the world is their oyster? Sometimes it can seem more like a tightly shut clam, denying access to all the marvellous opportunities everyone is talking about.

Those who have just sat their A-levels have either four or 16 months of freedom looming and are probably longing to pitch all those files, folders and felt-tips overboard, preferably from a ferry bound for somewhere exotic. Far-sighted school-leavers will have fixed their summer or gap- year plans a long time ago, but plenty of options remain open for the drifters and the wafters of this world.

Assuming that the argument for taking a gap year has been won but no plans have been put in place, the next question is how to make it happen. Few will be able to afford to wander the globe free of cares for more than a small part of the year. Finding some kind of employment, whether paid or voluntary, is the way that most students make their gap year happen. A grim spell of local shelf-stocking, shoe-selling or table-waiting may make it possible to join an expedition to Guyana, a watersport instructor's course on the Mediterranean or a work-for-keep arrangement on a New Zealand farm or Costa Rican eco-lodge.

A wide range of packaged possibilities is available, and many programmes still have places unfilled: you could consider staying on a kibbutz in Israel this summer (before they're all privatised); working in an Estonian orphanage for six months; joining a dolphin conservation project in Tenerife for pounds 75 a week; or the no-longer-quite-as-popular-as-it-used-to-be year spent looking after children for an American family.

Some placements are straightforward to arrange and require little more than phoning a London partner agency, filling out some forms and paying a fee. And there's the rub. Pre-arranged placements are seldom self-financing, with some commercial organisations charging up-front fees of pounds 2,000 plus for, say, a three-month attachment to a village school in Ghana where you are paid less than a pound a day.

In a very few cases, outside funding is available; for instance the EU's European Voluntary Service provides free training, flights, board and lodging for six-month voluntary placements in social projects in Eastern and Central Europe starting in September.

Relying on footwork and local enquiries can be a different means to the same end, and much cheaper than using the services of a mediating organisation. The trouble is that not every 18-year-old has the confidence and maturity to arrive cold (or, rather, very hot) in Sri Lanka, Kenya or Mexico and locate a school, orphanage or other project willing to provide housing in exchange for their help. Nor is every parent willing to let them try.

Australia is less daunting, since the whole country is seething with young Brits doing casual and seasonal jobs in order to fund that trip to Kakadu National Park or scuba-diving course in Cairns. (Some are even working in the pearling industry centre in Broome, Western Australia, opening you-know-whats.) Throughout Australia, job-hunting backpackers are targeted by hostels, employment agencies, even bus companies that have devised routes through fruit-picking regions, all of which makes pre-arranging a job superfluous.

But red tape is a potential source of problems. For example, the attractions of working in North America can be sampled only by those eligible to participate in an official student work exchange programme, which usually involves struggling to control groups of rambunctious American kids at summer camps. It is too late to join for this summer, so instead why not drive coast to coast in a driveaway vehicle - a trip that will cost you no more than the petrol and accommodation?

Those with an eye to their marketability may want to choose a job which will enhance their CV or, if they plan to apply to university post-A level, help them to wow admissions tutors. Au pairing in Berlin or Madrid, for example, is an obvious option for linguists; joining a dig at a mediaeval abbey in France or Belgium a good choice if planning to study history or archaeology; a summer project run by the Palestinian Birzeit University an eye-opener for anyone interested in international relations, and so on.

Students wishing to pursue environmental studies can choose from a vast number of "green" projects which welcome volunteers, mostly for short periods, for example to protect nesting turtles in Greece or Baja, California, carry out surveys of reef damage, or construct nature trails in Ireland. At a very rough estimate, expect to pay at least pounds 100 a week plus all travel expenses for the chance to get some hands-on conservation experience.

Even the most inventive CV-writer will find it hard to dress up days spent packing videos in a Sydney warehouse, or selling ice-cream in a New Jersey resort, followed by nights of partying. But a lot depends on presentation: any evidence of initiative and organisational abilities will help. If you travel alone you can boast of your independence; if you travel with friends you can claim to have learned about co-operation and teamwork.

In an Australian novel which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize a few years ago, Tim Winton's hero Scully does odd-jobs on a Greek island and gets to know the expats, whom his wife admires because "they were not boys and girls who had followed their parents' dreary instructions and closed off all possibility of spontaneity and ended up as bureaucrats whose jobs bored them rigid". But perhaps they didn't all kick over the traces at the tender age of 18.

Don't worry unduly if nothing is falling into place for a gap year on the grand scale, and do not believe the doom-mongers who warn that there will never be another chance to see the world. Vast numbers of school- leavers are content with a humble Inter-Rail trip before proceeding to university without passing Goa. Gap-year travels can be deferred until after university, just as university entrance can be deferred until after a gap year.

Whenever you go, be sure to look out for jobs as oyster-openers and scallop- splitters (in Tasmania in January and February). But take a proper knife.

Susan Griffith is author of `Work Your Way Around the World', whose ninth edition has just been published by Vacation Work (01865 241978, www.vacationwork.co.uk), price pounds 12.95