Why Everyone Needs a Gap Year to See the World

How travel helps you find that "magic moment" on the road.  
Matheran Maharashtra
Matheran’s many look-out points create an ideal setting for existential reflection. Photo: Rishi S/Flickr/Getty Images

I was 17 when Helen, a young Brit who was on a gap year, stayed with my family for a few days. At the time, I had no idea what a gap year was, and when she explained that she was taking a year off to travel around the world, I was surprised. And terribly envious. The thought of withdrawing from everyday routine and travelling from place to place at whim seemed very exciting to me. It still does.

In India we tend to frown on the concept of a gap year. Students who manage to break the mould and take time off to travel are secretly talked of as lazy, unambitious wastrels. When my friend Zaheer was selected to participate in a Raleigh International expedition to Belize for ten weeks, it took months to convince his parents to let him go, as he would miss a year of college. The same college whose classes he never attended, the same college outside which he sat on a motorcycle chatting with friends until it was time to go home. Luckily, he went. Needless to say, he returned with experiences to last him a lifetime. Another friend Kathy spent one year as an American Peace Corps volunteer teaching at a school in rural Nepal where the only food available every day for every meal was dal, rice and boiled potatoes. I learnt from her that you don’t need a lot of money to have a gap year—it can be in a quiet hill station working to earn your keep or volunteering in a school.

Travel is about discovery. But more than seeing new places, travel is about discovering something about yourself, about epiphanies, finding “aha” moments, when you feel connected with your surroundings, when life makes perfect sense.

A few months after Helen’s visit the monsoon was in full swing. I made a trip to Matheran, a car-free, pedestrian-only hill station close to Mumbai, with a few friends. Back then the town would completely shut down during the monsoon. Every hotel would board up their buildings, shops were closed, the train service suspended, and you were lucky to find a store to buy essentials. We were staying in an old colonial house with a tin roof, and the sound of the rain on the roof was always deafening. Whenever the rain eased up we would take long walks. We saw no other humans. At Echo Point one day we sat quietly on the edge of the hill. The mist rolled over us, then cleared, then came back thick again. No one exchanged any words. Sitting there seemed to be enough. I felt connected with the place, the deep red soil, the pestering monkeys, the endless rain. At this place, in that moment, my world made sense. It was probably my first travel epiphany. I thought of Helen, and envied her even more. But I also knew that I would feel that way again, at another time, in another place.

On a Himalayan peak, in the jungles of Ranthambore, or even in the swimming pool of a fancy hotel, if I manage to disengage with routine, with expectations, with the baggage I carry, I experience that precious moment. Sometimes this magic lasts a few minutes, sometimes I feel it for days. But every single time, it makes the trip more meaningful. If I were in charge of the planet, a gap year would be mandatory for students, and most adults too.

Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Magic Moment”.

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    Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.

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