Gap year: Travels with my daughter

Not many single mothers would spend a gap year working with the world's poor. But Nicola McClement and her nine-year-old, Beth, have never looked back

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:13

Once we had decided, that was it: our minds were made up. My daughter Bethan would be nine, about to start in year five, and I wanted to teach her that there are people all over the world who don't have what we have. I had been thinking about taking a year out from life in England to travel for so long that, when we finally bought our tickets, I knew it was the right decision.

I had Beth when I was 20, so she was around when I was going to University. After graduating, I had visited South Africa and I really wanted to go back there and take her with me. Seeing as I had recently become engaged, it felt like it was now or never. This would be Beth's and my independent thing before I settled down and had more children.

We planned to start off in South Africa, then to move on to Australia, and from there head up to travel around Asia. It was brilliant, researching the trip together. We would sit down and read all the books, and plan exactly where we wanted to go. Of course there were concerns: I was worried about taking Beth out of school, and she was anxious that her group of friends might move on. But I spoke to her teacher, who assured me that if there was ever a time to do this it was year five, before things got too serious. And of course, Beth's friends didn't move on – they were right there when she got back.

I worked three jobs, trying to make ends meet, while we saved up the money for a round-the-world ticket. Before we left, all our friends and family got together in the local pub. I'm from a very close-knit family but I didn't want a big send-off at the airport. Once we hit the road, I wanted that to be it: the start of our journey.

Our first stop was in Cape Town. I was determined not to do the typical tourist thing and stay in a big hotel at the Waterfront. Instead we decided to stay with a family in Khayelitsha, a nearby township. The amazing thing was that, even though it was all so different, Beth seemed to settle in straight away. No sooner had we arrived than she was off playing with the local children, learning clapping games. It struck me that even though they live miles apart, there is this universal language of play.

After Khayelitsha, we headed up the garden route to Port Elizabeth where we worked in an orphanage in return for board. For Beth this was really important: she had a full-time job to do. While I looked after the older orphans, helping prepare them for when they left for the outside world, she was taking care of the littlest boys. It was tiring but she didn't complain. It was quite a revelation to me. I knew that she worked hard at school, but I was blown away by the way she got her head down and did things.

The next leg of our trip took us to Johannesburg and then to Australia. Because our budget was tight – £10,000 in total – I had done a lot of research into couch-surfing and work stays. In Australia I worked on a farm in return for board, and Beth went to a local school for a while. There were only about 30 people, and just a few in her class – it was a totally different experience from what she was used to.

It was good for Beth to go back to school for a while – after all, she was taking a year out – but it wasn't as though she was lacking an education for the rest of the trip. I was careful to make sure she learned about the places we went – about the culture and the history. I would often put her in charge of our budget for the day, so she had to work out what we could afford. And, of course, she was learning so much in terms of the experience.

In fact, possibly the most eye-opening bit – for both of us – came next, when we travelled from Australia to Thailand. I had a very preconceived idea of the place, and wasn't expecting to love it. But it completely surprised me. We both loved it. We had arranged to live with a very remote tribe in the village of Ban La Up. In return for accommodation, we taught English in the local school. One of the best things about it was that we got to learn a bit of basic Thai so we could at least communicate a little bit.

Thailand really was such a highlight that it was difficult to imagine it getting any better. I really felt that the lesson I wanted to give Beth – about how it is possible to be happy without all the material things we think we need – had been accomplished. When it came to the time to move on, we were both very sad to say goodbye.

From there it became a kind of downward spiral. We went to Indonesia, arriving in Medan, which we found totally overwhelming. A huge metropolis, it was a real culture shock after what we had been experiencing. For the first time, we felt vulnerable, a little threatened. Single mothers travelling around aren't a common sight, and we were made very aware of that.

It was at this point that I started to question the purpose of continuing. We went on travelling, though when we were about to move onto the final leg of our journey, in India, we discovered that our visa had been delayed due to a series of public holidays. It was a matter of hanging around waiting. I would have loved to see India, but it was also approaching the beginning of the school year. Having Beth go back then would be so much less disruptive than if she went back later on. I called her headteacher to discuss it and she agreed. Eventually, fed up with visa hassles and with one eye to Beth's schoolwork, we decided to go home.

For Beth, returning home was straightforward. She slotted right back into her core group of friends, and soon got used to the routine of school. It was harder for me. I realised that my engagement wasn't meant to be. I don't feel ready to settle. I also can't think about work in the same way I did. I was working relentlessly, trying to provide as much for Beth as I could. Now I realise it is more important to have a balance. I often regret the fact that we didn't go to India – though that is our future project; the next thing to do during the school holidays.

There is no doubt in my mind that going away did wonderful things for Beth. There is the fact that, every now and then, she will come home and mention some new thing that everyone at school has, and I'll remind her of the wonderful times we had in Thailand. It has made her a stronger, more confident person. She recently signed up to go on an expedition with a group of young people she doesn't know – something I can't imagine the pre-gap year Beth doing.

Beth's view

Before the trip, I had only ever been to France so I was really excited and nervous. I was a little bit worried about what might happen to my friends if I left. I didn't know if they would still want to be friends or if they would have moved forward.

When we arrived in South Africa, it was really, really hot. I was tired from the flight but also so excited. Before we left for Australia we went to the Kruger National Park, which was amazing. We saw all kinds of wild animals that, at home, you would only ever see in the zoo. The thing is I didn't really think about being homesick because I was busy dealing with so much knowledge.

It was great when Mum gave me the budget. I got to be in control. Maths has always been my favourite subject. Going back to school was weird at first but I got used to it after the first couple of days. I definitely gained a lot through the whole experience. I think I've changed. I definitely want to travel more.

Interview by Alice-Azania Jarvis

See Nicola and Beths' story in 'My Family's Crazy Gap Year', 7pm Saturday on Channel 4

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments