'I wanted to achieve something'

Emma Prest arranged her own year out in Belize, on an archaeological and conservation project
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The Independent Online

I spent four years dreaming about my gap year. The idea that I could take a year out of academic study and travel the world seemed fantastic. The fact that my parents encouraged me was even better. Yet when it came to researching and planning my year out, none of the projects run by gap year organisations was quite right for me.

I spent four years dreaming about my gap year. The idea that I could take a year out of academic study and travel the world seemed fantastic. The fact that my parents encouraged me was even better. Yet when it came to researching and planning my year out, none of the projects run by gap year organisations was quite right for me.

Some of the companies provide language courses as part of the package. As I had Spanish A-level, I decided this wasn't necessary. The majority of projects involved teaching English, but the thought of standing up in front of a class of rowdy children appalled me. Other projects involved homestays, which I didn't fancy, although for many of my friends, living with a host family turned out to be one of the most rewarding parts of their travels. Finally, I was very suspicious about the amount some organisations charged: £3,000 for three months in a developing country did not seem like value for money.

I knew I wanted to travel in Central or South America to practise my Spanish. And I knew I wanted to spend a reasonable amount of time in one place, getting to know the locals and their culture. More important, I knew I wanted to achieve something. I spent hours on the internet looking at conservation projects from turtle monitoring in Mexico to counting tree species in the Amazon, neither of which seemed like the life-altering experiences I was after.

Growing up in the US, I had spent summer holidays in Mexico and I remember visiting archaeological sites. So, working in ancient Maya temples uncovering artefacts no one had laid eyes on for centuries appealed. I sent off for a book listing archaeological digs. I found the website of the American Archaeological Association and discovered the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve in Belize, Central America. The description of this project mentioned archaeology, conservation, eco-tourism and sustainable development - you name it, it seemed to do it.

Arranging the placement was a straightforward, if lengthy, process. I emailed the director of the project, an academic at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and agreed to spend a month in California working in her office and three months in Belize doing fieldwork. After this I hoped to travel for a month around Central America and Cuba with a friend who was going to be out there at the same time. At the end of the five months I was to fly to Washington DC, where I used to live, to spend one month with old friends there. Unsurprisingly, all did not go to plan.

My month in Santa Barbara was fun, but uneventful. I stayed in a flat with two American students next to the university campus and my days were spent working for the director of the project in a small office doing administrative jobs. It was not the most exciting four weeks. So, I was happy to leave the air-conditioning and Western comforts for the harsher life in Belize.

I was staying in a Benedictine monastery outside a decent-sized town. When I arrived, I didn't understand what the archaeological site was about, nor did I know what I would be doing. But by the end of my three months I had grasped some of the debates about how the ancient Maya lived and started to understand the difficulties that development projects face.

I had mistakenly thought that the volunteers would be students from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Two of them were - one a middle-aged married woman retraining as an archaeologist and the other a 21-year-old girl, with whom I had shared a flat in Santa Barbara. In addition there was a French engineering student who spoke little English, and a German guy.

It was a bizarre assortment of people. I was the only gap-year student, the youngest, and the only one who was not training in archaeology. That is probably one of the key differences between doing your gap year through an organisation and doing your own thing. In an organisation you will be among people who are at the same stage in life as you and want similar things out of the experience.

All the El Pilar volunteers were there for a particular purpose and had distinct jobs to do, but I was simply there for the experience and got given a strange variety of assignments. The most valuable one was spending a week with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) from Washington DC called Counterpart International, which was involved in community development. My work involved taking minutes of meetings and helping the director of El Pilar. I travelled around with the group and sat in on all the meetings with local grassroots organisations and even met the Prime Minister of Belize! It was undoubtedly one of the most educational experiences of my gap year.

It was very hard work. We woke at 6.30 every morning and worked six days a week. The heat was intense and when we weren't busy in the monastery we were hiking through the oppressive heat of the jungle. I did tasks as diverse as reorganising the gift shop and commissioning local craftsmen to create new products, counting species of plants with a group of biology students, painting signposts, writing articles for the local newspaper and creating an entire tourist trail guide. While my friends in Thailand bumped into one another at full moon parties, I was sound asleep by 10pm. There was little time for going out and we were relatively unaware of all the other archaeological students in the area. Was I envious of my friends in Thailand? Of course. Should I have spent my year out differently? No.

My friends who travelled with organisations became very close to the other gappers with whom they were travelling. I became good friends with my fellow volunteers, but had little in common with them. I befriended the cooks in the kitchen and it was they who educated me in Belizean culture.

Other highlights were riding the horses in the fields around the monastery and travelling the area. We visited numerous archaeological sites in Belize and Guatemala. Touring with professional archaeologists meant we had access to sites the public was unaware of. I gained a completely different insight into the temples and lifestyle of the ancient Maya than I would have had I not been with archaeologists.

After Belize, my plans for travelling with a friend fell through and I spent the rest of my time in Washington DC. In some respects maybe I did lose out by not using a gap year organisation. I didn't form strong friendships and I didn't trek through a desert or climb a glacier. But I would never change my experience for the world.