The gap-year gamble

The Ecuador tragedy has raised concerns about this rite of passage. Simon Calder looks at the issues, while students share their memories

National Service for the soul: that is the basic idea of the gap year. And from almost every point of view, Ecuador is perfect territory for a gap-year adventure.

For the visitor with time, the South American nation offers a wide variety of experiences, from the rainforest of the Amazon basin via the High Andes to a glorious Pacific coastline. The capital, Quito, has long been an excellent place for young British travellers to learn Spanish.

Ecuador is poor, even by Latin American standards. So the benefits of inbound tourism for the local people – coupled with the donation of time, labour and expertise by gap year volunteers – are considerable. And on a practical level, the cost of living and travelling is very low, enabling "Gappers" to eke out the cash they have saved for the trip of a lifetime. But as anywhere in the developing world, the value put on life – as expressed by investment in good roads and effective patrolling – is far lower than in Britain.

The families of each of the five young British women killed in a crash on the highway west of Quito are preparing to bring home the bodies of their beloved. But a new crop of "Gappers", now more than 40,000 a year, are soon to spread their wings. Will the tragedy in Ecuador intensify fears for their safety?

Charlotte Hindle, who writes The Gap Year Book for Lonely Planet, thinks it unlikely. "I don't envisage that parents will be more worried, simply because they will already be profoundly anxious about their children, particularly if they are still teenagers, leaving home for the first time."

The concept of imposing a pause in the educational continuum developed in the 1970s. The causes were diverse: increasing disposable income coupled with the declining cost of travel; many more people entering tertiary education as a result of the expansion of academia over the previous decade; a growing belief among educationalists and employers that a break between school and university could provide young people with useful experience of real life, and perhaps stimulate their appetite for study; and the start of the "Lonely Planet generation" of travellers keen to experience different cultures and explore the world.

Initially, the 15-month gap between A-levels and university was largely filled with work in Britain, punctuated by bursts of travelling to Europe and the East. But in 1983 the first book devoted to expanding the horizons of the working traveller was published, Work Your Way Around the World. "In the early days, there was nothing comparable," says the author, Susan Griffith. "Eighteen-year-olds needed this book to tell them they could find work picking fruit in Australia. There were no specialist companies to tell them, and people were far less affluent."

The concept of a year on a mix of toil and indulgence took root, and the gap year has now expanded to become a sizeable industry. "Now, people tend not to have 'DIY' gap years," says Ms Griffith. "Either they just go travelling or they delegate the job of fixing up a programme of volunteering and adventure."

The typical interlude between school and college involves a period of volunteering, anything from teaching English to conserving crocodiles, as well as a portfolio of experiences, the like of which previous generations could only dream about. The group from VentureCo in the weekend crash were to finish their four-month trip at Machu Picchu, the Inca ceremonial site in Peru.

The costs in signing with a reputable company can be considerable. "A three-month programme involving a mix of studying, travelling and volunteering costs £3,000 or £4,000," says Charlotte Hindle, author of The Gap Year Book. "Every gap year student should have some skills training to help them travel in a more sensible and informed way. There are very few things in life that we expect to go off and do with no training, so why do we assume that travelling in the developing world can be achieved without preparation?"

Some specialist companies organise courses that deal with everything from avoiding scams to personal safety. Ms Hindle also advises parents to "make sure your children study travel guidebooks so they know about the risks within the country, such as the dreadful roads in parts of Africa and Latin America."

Ms Griffith, now working on the 14th edition of Work Your Way Around the World, has an 18-year-old son, David, about to set off on his own gap year. "He's saved £4,000 working in a restaurant," she says. "The difference is that in 1983 people left with £27 and plenty of hope."

And she is still convinced of the great value of a gap year for young people. "It gives them a year to grow up a little bit. They take responsibility for their laundry and their budget. They drink with Slovenians and have romances with Brazilians. It shakes them up, and that's a good thing." She says she is not unduly worried about her son's impending departure. "I'm happy, because I did this myself, so I know. But then I'm an optimist by nature."

'Teaching in Malawi was the best decision I made'

Last year, Tim Hughes, 20, volunteered at a school in Malawi for three months with the organisation Africa Venture. He says he knew the risks involved in working in a developing country, but felt it was easily worth it.

"It's the best decision I ever made," he said. "I learnt a huge amount about myself by getting away from UKsociety. The teaching meantI had to be far more disciplined, and I got so much out of it."

He was teaching science, maths, PE and music to primary school children, and he says what struck him most was how enthusiastic his pupils were.

"Seeing children so keen to learn was incredible after being in a British school. They were all so resourceful: they didn't have footballs so they made them by melting plastic bags and sticking them together."

Tim's house was very basic. It had a kitchen with no fridge, a hole in the ground for a toilet, and no transport other than clapped-out minibuses he was forced to use. "Nobody can legislate against an accident in any country, and most of the time it's just a case of being careful," he said. "I felt far safer walking in towns at night in Malawi than I do walking in Essex when it's dark."

Now a medical student at Sheffield, Tim has set up a charity called the Chikupira foundation to raise money for the school at which he taught.

'Horrible times, and amazing times'

Gemma Jackson spent her gap year teaching in Sri Lanka with Project Trust. Now 24, she says things would be different had she not gone.

Living in a remote village in what she describes as "the eastern sticks of nowhere", she lived with two local Sri Lankan women, sharing the chores and immersing herself in their way of life.

"We messed in and cooked with them, which was a once in a lifetime opportunity; you can't beat washing by a well and sharing a single bed with a girl you've never met before.

"There were still horrible times as well as amazing times. Sometimes it all seemed too much: it was just too hot, or you got fed up with being stared at or not having your own space, but most of the time it was incredible. Everything was exciting and new.

"There are dangers, but there are dangers in everything. I don't think you can write off gap years because of a road accident; they happen in London all the time."

'It was a massive learning curve'

With time spent in the Alps, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, each of Julia Drake's trips were different, but she says they were all invaluable in preparing her for the real world. "It was a massive learning curve; it really prepared me for real life. .

Her first trip was working as a chalet girl in Meribel. "It was the first time I'd used a washing machine."

After skiing she lived in Japan for several months. "I didn't speak the language or know anyone – I had to learn fast so I could make friends".

But the worst moment was on arrival in New Zealand. "I had signed the immigration form saying I had nothing to declare, but they found two apples in my bag. They charged me $200 for them: $100 for each one. I couldn't believe it."

'He asked if I was into Special K. I thought he meant cereal'

Jessica Ware, 23, went to Isla Mujeres, an island off Cancun, as part of a tour of Latin America with two friends. On the whole, her time was exciting and hugely rewarding. But when she and her friends found themselves on a stranded boat with several Mexicans who were taking drugs, she feared for her life.

"After being invited by the 'wacky' hostel worker, Marc to go on a yacht trip, we thought 'This will be a special gap year experience, why not?'. He had earlier asked me if I was into 'Special K'. I replied yes, not realising that he meant the class A drug [ketamine] rather than the cereal."

Out at sea, she found herself surrounded by intoxicated tourists. "Trance music boomed and Swedes with magic mushrooms and tattoos danced around us. I had sea sickness. We demanded to be taken back.

"Suddenly, the boat was rocking, and a grinding noise was louder. We were caught in shallow water. The boat violently rocked and we were thrown from one side to the other. Tears streamed down our faces."

Hours later, they hailed a fishing boat and jumped aboard. Jessica says the experience, though petrifying, has only whetted her appetite for more travel. "You've got to keep your wits about you, but you're stronger for it."

'Living in fear was compelling experience'

Wallace Rosenberg, 24, is a strategy consultant. He went to Israel in 2001 on a gap-year programme run by the Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY), to work with some of the most disadvantaged children in Israel.

"A week after I got there, 9/11 happened, and the Middle East was again the central focus of global attention, and possibly global terrorism too. The second intifada was intensifying and there were daily bombings. But living in a climate of fear was a compelling experience. Most of the explosions were in highly public areas and that made us constantly vulnerable. But there was a real feeling of solidarity among us."

He says he learnt as much from his gap year as he did from his time at university. "It's such an exciting opportunity."

'It was the first real feeling of freedom'

George Potter, 21, bought a round-the-world ticket in 2005, following the backpacker trail through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Australia, America and Canada with three schoolfriends. He says that experience of life away from home was what made it so great.

"It was the first real feeling of freedom I've ever had, and I felt indestructible," he says. "I went three months after the tsunami, but I didn't feel it was dangerous, it was just an exciting adventure. I did the same route that a lot of people do, so I was surrounded by gap-year tourists my whole way round. It wasn't ever a struggle, it was just fun. I know a lot of people frown on doing that, but I felt I'd earned the money and wanted to have fun.

"The whole experience was probably a lot better because I earned the money, and it felt like a reward for that. If someone else had paid, I don't think I'd have cherished it as much."

George says he will never regret taking the chance to go on a gap year. "A lot of people are committed to working straight out of university, so having the opportunity to travel before is amazing. ."

Now in his final year of a philosophy degree at Bristol University, George says doing a gap year means that he is now ready to work.

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