How taking a gap year can change your life

Everybody should leave, just to realize what it means to come back home

Oh, that gap year! It’s a beautiful experience. Better than going off to college. After all, in this case you don’t have any commitments. What’s more, anything you learn, be it about the geography of Europe, or the ladyboys of Thailand, you learn from experience rather than from dusty books in dark libraries (you can see it’s been a while since I went to university).

I did my gap year when it wasn’t yet the “thing to do”. Back when Thailand was still affordable and Colombia was dangerous. It wasn’t even meant to be a year. I was only going for three months. I didn’t have any more money than that. I did mine after I’d finished my bachelors and that meant I was living on a shoestring.

Tasting the dream

I travelled up the coast of Thailand and absolutely loved it. When I was younger I always struggled to make that initial contact. I’m an introvert and back then that was very much still a dirty word. That trip I tried to change that (not that it was a dirty word, the other bit). And for those months I succeeded.

And oh, how I loved that. I was hip, I was cool, I could talk to everybody and everybody talked to me. It didn’t matter that I had to drink to be that way. Out there booze was cheap and I was young enough that the morning-after consequences weren’t that severe. Besides, a hangover is a far more manageable thing in the shade of a palm tree and with the wide open sea laid out before you.

I made a lot of friends out there and ended up in the party scene. There was always room for another crazy guy to help organize another party. And so I started to make a bit of money. And the days became weeks, the weeks months, and eventually I had a decision to make.

Should I go back home? What was there back there for me but grey skies and a crappy apartment? Why would I choose that over beautiful beaches and fantastic friends? And so I ripped up my ticket (which was a big deal in those days when you couldn’t just print out another), and I called up my flatmates back home to tell them they could have my stuff. I was free and living the dream.

And down the rabbit hole I went.

Cockroaches in paradise

And in the beginning it was awesome. We organized parties at night and went riding down the coast on our bikes during the day. We were young and we were stupid and we knew everything and everyone. How could you not love that as a young guy?

But then, as months faded into years, something started to change. Exuberance started giving way to acceptance. And enthusiasm slowly became awareness. Now, that’s not to say it wasn’t still amazing. It was absolutely phenomenal, living on the beaches and being a guide to all the people moving through who wanted to taste every aspect of paradise. We laughed, we travelled, we slept under the stars, the sea was our bath and we lived free and wild. There was weeks when we didn’t bother changing out of our swimming trunks.

The thing was, I couldn’t help but realize on those days where there was nothing to do that there was another side to all this. The one people who were just passing through couldn’t notice.

That’s because the other side was hidden away in the back yards of the long stays – those people who’d been out here for decades, trying to live the dream even as they slowly watched it crumble into a nightmare. They’d gotten stuck and because they’d been out of the life back home for so long, they couldn’t go back. They didn’t have the education, they didn’t have the skills, and they didn’t have the drive to make it back home.

And yet they weren’t happy out here either. You could see it in their eyes, you could hear it in their complaints, you could see it in how they began to drink at ten in the morning. They weren’t happy because they’d worn out the hedonism (I promise you, eventually you do) and discovered there wasn’t anything else for them out here. They weren’t being challenged, nobody asked them for their opinions and they didn’t know where to go. They were unhappy and they were stuck.

I realized that I didn’t want to end up like them. I didn’t want to be a cockroach in paradise.

The return

And so I came back and went back to uni to get that dreaded masters degree. And you know what? I worked harder than you can believe so that I could find a decent job and – more importantly – have options. And in doing that, I went from being an average student to somebody who could hold down a job and still graduate with honors.

And now most days I leave the parties to other people. Instead I prefer doing my own thing, with my friends, my folks or even by myself (I’m still an introvert – now I just accept that I am). And you know what the crazy thing is? I write now and I could easily once again leave home. After all, writing can be done from anywhere. But I have no desire to do so. I’m happy right here, in this place called home, with its grey skies and plain food.

And so I say, everybody should do a gap year, just to realize what it means to come back home.

Georgia Tech