Gap year tales: Backpacks, beer and beauty queens

Today, as students collect their A Level results and contemplate their futures, The Independent’s writers share their gap year experiences

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I’d like to claim that in going to Northern India for a few months and pretending to teach in a rural primary school, before riding on the roofs of buses and acquiring a necklace and a shit beard as I backpacked and boasted about staying in rank guesthouses for 50p a night, I was ironically subverting the “gap yah” cliché by buying into it, knowingly and fully. But I wasn’t - I was just another privileged white kid on tour with the self-awareness of a street cow. Yes, it was still the best time of my life, so perhaps I shouldn’t wince to recall it, but I kind of do.
Simon Usborne, feature writer

In the summer of 2000, aged 19, I spent two months backpacking alone from Istanbul to Israel, via Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. At the time, the region was at peace. People told me to be careful in Syria, but they were wrong: I drank a beer at TE Lawrence’s favourite Aleppo hotel, marvelled at the desert ruins of Palmyra and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and met some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I’ve yet encountered. It’s a journey no gap year kid could safely make now.
Tim Walker, Los Angeles correspondent

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On my gap year I volunteered in Khao Lak, southern Thailand, around six months after the Tsunami had hit. We were housed in bungalows near a nature reserve that had previously pulled in tourists, and I helped to clean debris from beaches before joining a big team that was laying the foundations of new houses. It was a tough experience and my contribution didn't compare to those who had been helping for months, but I met some brilliant people and, as clichéd as it sounds, learned a lot.
Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith, online reporter

I took a gap year back in 1978. I worked for some months in London to get the cash to travel and then headed off for Israel to work on a kibbutz. The politics were very different then; it was quite an idealistic thing to do. I arrived at Ben Gurion in the middle of Passover; there were no buses into Tel Aviv, so I took a taxi which cost me about a month’s spending money (I was ripped off). At the hostel, still naive, I left my toiletries out so someone could steal the lot. Day one was not great but things did look up – I met a Dutch girl in the Jordan Valley, we fell in love, and later wedlock, and we are married still. Our children are now older than we were then.
David Ryan, chief sub editor (Independent on Sunday)

My plan was always to take a break and go travelling after I  graduated, but I wanted to do something that felt more worthwhile than just lying on a beach for a year. After cold-calling a few international newspapers, I managed to land myself an internship writing for an ex-pat paper in Mexico. After three months of piecing together some dodgy Spanish, I travelled down through Central America and on to Cuba – where I still made time for plenty of beaches.
Rachael Pells, editorial assistant

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When I was 16, we had an assembly at school where a member of the local Rotary Club came in to tell us about their exchange programme. One year later, sold on the prospect of free travel, I was on a plane to Quebec City. I spent the winter taking a yellow school bus to school in -40 degrees and picking up the French language (with bonus Quebecois accent). By the time the summer came round I was fluent and very sad to leave.
Hazel Sheffield, senior business reporter (digital)

In January 1978 I travelled overland to a job teaching English in Srinagar in the Kashmir valley for a salary of £10 per month. I crossed Iran in the months before the fall of the Shah and Afghanistan six weeks before Soviet tanks rolled in. At the school I helped run a boarding house for Ladakhi children who later invited me back to their homes in the summer holidays. Weekends were often spent climbing obscure Himalayan peaks with borrowed equipment.
Tim Alden, art director

After university, I travelled to a small town on a southern Japanese island where I taught English at six schools nestled among rice fields, and unintentionally became a beauty queen. I moved to Tokyo to study Japanese and worked in local government. Four years later, I travelled back to the UK, via Arizona and Mexico where I spent three months living on a beach as a dive master. A few months later, my first job in journalism was for NHK, the Japanese version of the BBC, in London.
Karen Attwood, news and features journalist

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Karen Attwood as a beauty queen in Japan

“We can't find anyone to go to the West Indies to cover the Australian cricket tour. Can you go?” It was that phone call from Reuters’ Sydney office, received while staying on a mate's floor in Melbourne, that confirmed a gap year was the right decision. The difference was I did it in my mid-20s, when I had earned enough cash to enjoy it, and gained enough experience to find career-related work, instead of collecting empties in a bar. Go at 18 by all means (I had neither the confidence nor the funds) but go again at 25.
Glenn Moore, football editor

I took six months out after quitting my first job (1994-1995) to travel through India, Nepal, Thailand, China, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. This was partly simply a very long holiday, but I was also “working” as a researcher for a book. We kept bumping into the same people along the way, like a far less fragrant version of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time books, though I suppose that was slightly inevitable given that most people treated their Lonely Planet guides as all-knowing oracles and rarely seemed to go anywhere that wasn’t mentioned by them. Remarkably, six months of being my companion 24 hours a day did not put my girlfriend off me, and she is now my wife.
Alex Johnson, online sub editor

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