Gap Year resources

When I was doing my A-Levels my school had lots of leaflets and resources available to us from companies who organise gap year projects.  "Great!" we all thought, and some people signed up for such projects.  Teaching in India, trekking in the Andes, conservation projects in Borneo - awesome experiences.  

I am not trying to suggest getting involved in those companies are a "bad" idea - they are great projects, you get a bit more support and peace of mind knowing that in theory someone is responsible for you, and I would like to think they only take on projects which have decent ethics and sustainability.  

But in reality, a lot of them are far from the cheapest option.  The people I knew who went on organised trips ended up working at least half of their gap year in some dead end boring job here in order to finance it.  To me - you want to be spending as much of your gap year as is humanly possible actually out there having fun!  After all, it might the only chance in your whole life you get to experience that kind of freedom.  

Companies like this seem to charge at least £1000 for a 2 week project, though they do seem to be better value if you go for a lot longer. But there are in fact a lot of far far cheaper, or even free options out there.  Here are some of the resources I have either used, or intend to use on my future travels.

Project options (Im sure there are loads more sites like these out there...get looking!)

Camp America ... read more about my experience here

Accommodation options

I spent 7 months travelling on my gap year...and I spent less than £4000 including flights.  And if I had wanted to, I could probably have done just as much fun stuff for half the price if I had chosen cheaper countries and spent more time doing voluntary work.

Camp America...such fun!
So the moral of the story is, dont just blindly trust that the options you are given at school are necessarily the "only" options...or even the "best".  You have the freedom to completely choose your own path, probably for the first time in your life.  Use it wisely!

When every breath is precious

Sally is my love.  She is beyond precious.  I know she is "just a dog", I respect her as a wolf-sister, and I dont treat her as if she were human.  But she is my love above and beyond all others.  I dont expect anyone who has never owned a dog to understand.  She is worth the world to me.  No human has ever, will ever, or could ever give me the kind of love she offers.

There is never a judgement, never an angry thought, never a let-down, never a betrayal, never even indifference.  She is simply incapable of anything but sweet dependence.  I know she doesnt love me as a conscious decision, nor out of some noble inner goodness.  It is simply how she has evolved, how she has been bred, how she has been taught to behave.  But that doesnt matter.  Her love is enough.  She is enough.  Although she is not beautiful, nor intelligent, nor valuable, she is enough.  When she pushes her head into my chest when I hug her, hides her eyes from the world in the safety of my arms, that is more love than my heart can hold.

But she is so mortal.  I watch her slowly ageing, track each grey hair, each stiff stretch in the morning, and it terrifies me.  The thought of life without her makes me cry every single time it crosses my mind.  Just writing it down brings tears to my eyes.  She is my best friend, my comfort and my joy.  She is the reason I get out of bed each morning.  The bond we have is unbreakable, trying to verbalise my love for her makes me feel as if my very soul is being torn in two.  And yet she will not be here forever.

At night she sleeps on my bed.  I wrap myself around her in the dark, she relaxes and begins to dream.  I lie awake, feeling her heart beating through her warm fur, listening to her breathe, feeling her ribcage rise and fall with every precious breath.  Every breath, every heartbeat, every moment, I try to engrave into my consciousness to sustain me for the future.

When every breath is precious, love is heartbreak.

Strangers in the moment

Royal Crescent, Bath
I love it when a total stranger makes my day.

I was driving down to Bath, it was my birthday, it was way too hot in the car.  I had just stopped at a service station on the M6 and I was about to pull back out onto the motorway, when I saw him.  A hitchhiker.  Early forties, tall, tanned, floppy sun-bleached hair and less baggage than most people would take on a trip to the supermarket.  He looked like he belonged on an Aussie beach not hitching his way out of a dingy service station.

As a girl on my own, there is always the mental calculation of "Is this person a thief" to be gone through before picking up a hitchhiker.  All to be done at lightning speed before you have driven past the hitchhiker.  No-one has ever failed my calculation, and I have yet to pick up anyone who was either a rapist, murderer or a car thief.  Although sometimes I have taken so long to make the decision that I have then had to turn around to go back for the hitchhiker!

So I picked him up, his name was Ben.  He was an ex-pat who renovated property in France (hence the tan), he had also lived in Hong Kong and various other awesome places.  He was also in the process of looking for a van to buy to take back to France with him to convert into a camper.  I literally would have created an identical person if I was in the business of genetically engineering myself a random car journey companion.

Between the combination of our rather sketchy knowledge of English Geography, my sat nav and a few phonecalls to his sister, we worked out that my destination of Bath was only about 20 miles away from where he was trying to get to.  Pretty perfect for him really!  

So we drove and chatted for hours.  He was charming, funny, interesting, sweet and full of great stories and useful advice.  We swapped life stories, travel tips and van dreams.  I was genuinely sad to see him go when I dropped him off in the centre of Bath.  

I didnt get his number, his email address, or even his second name.  I will never see him again.  But that doesnt matter.  He was the perfect stranger.  He made my day.


Me in Bath...summer school was awesome!
Im back from my Open University summer school in Bath now - had a great time.  Just had a 14 hour sleep (yes...fourteen) to catch up on some serious sleep deprivation due to rubbish university accommodation and too much fun.

However, this trip, and my recent trip to Turkey and Greece, have got me thinking about how certain elements of my life on the road are most definitely not sustainable long term.  As my master plan is to embark on long term travel, I really need to get these issues resolved before I go.

Beautiful Bath
  1. Diet.  At home I eat super healthily - when Im on the road I eat pretty much anything that is offered to me.  While Im great at not buying rubbish food from supermarkets at home, when Im away I eat food that I would never dream of eating at home.  And so much of it!
  2. Skincare.  I have badly behaved skin, so it is really important that I look after it.  This is partly linked in to item one as my skin likes me to eat well.  But it also involves taking the time to cleanse it properly, do face masks, exfoliate etc etc.  It will forgive my abuse for a couple of weeks...but over a longer time period I need to get this sorted.
  3. Exercise.  At home my workout schedule is pretty much sorted and I am very good at committing to it. On the road...not a chance.  Im not that keen on doing yoga or situps and stuff in front of other people, it can also be hard to find a suitable surface to do things on.  But I rapidly start to notice the difference when I dont work out daily - and its not a great difference.
  4. General girl stuff.  All the normal stuff like doing my nails, shaving my legs, taking makeup off at night, taking vitamins, plucking my eyebrows etc just slowly start to slip... until by the end of a few weeks I do kind of start to look as if I lived under a bush.  Not great.  Especially as I would like to find my future husband out there one day!
The not-so-beautiful Bath university campus
 I guess everyone has things which slip when they are outside their usual schedule, but I know that nailing these sustainability issues will make my long term travel experience a lot easier and help me transition into a nomadic life without losing myself along the way.

Im from Camp Sonshine
Game time!
In 2007, having always wanted to visit America, I participated in the Camp America program.  This is a company which matches you up with an American summer camp, pays for your flights, helps you out with your visas and stuff...and its almost free!  You pay for your visa and police check, and they get to keep the majority (but not all) of your wages from camp.  So basically you get about 3 months in America for free!  And as you have a working visa - you will probably have a couple more months after camp which you can spend doing whatever you like in America.

Getting dirty
 I would recommend this to anyone.  Its not easy, I can honestly say that camp was the hardest thing I have ever done - and I was only at a day camp so I wasnt even on site 24h a day.  But if you get placed at the right camp for you, in the right role for you, it is just the best experience.  I was part of the Wilderness program of a Christian camp in Maryland called Camp Sonshine, with groups of 10 - 11 year old girls.  We ran wild in the woods, built fires, went on awesome trips, did great outdoor activities and just had so much fun!  8 weeks of 6am starts and 14 hour days forced my 18 year old mind and body into new levels of endurance and maturity.  I learnt how to push through exhaustion, smile when all I wanted to do was cry, run in 40 degree heat, and love more than I ever had before.

Me and my girls
The kids were great, I still miss them.  The camp staff were so incredible, I made lifelong friends there.  I had never lived amongst a group of Christians before - it was an unforgettable privilege.  Everyone loved my "accent" and constantly asked me to pronounce words for them.  I vividly remember talking to one girl camper about how far I had travelled to get to Maryland, when she looked at me with wide beautiful blue eyes and said "You must really love us".  That's the moment when I realised that I was touching the lives of these children forever.  My heart broke right there.

I didnt think being a camp counselor would be even half as hard as it was.  But neither did I anticipate how rewarding it would be.  And now...I dont remember the bug bites, the poison ivy wounds, the knife cuts from making bows & arrows that I still have scars from, the heat or the exhaustion.  All I remember is the love.

Thank you Camp Sonshine

If you ever read one book...make it THIS one

I read it for the first time when I was seventeen.  This book changed my life.  This book shaped my mind. This book guides my heart.  This book guards my soul.

It is elegantly simple, innocently human and just absolutely wow.  I can honestly say that there is line after line, paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter that made me stop and completely re-evaluate my life.

This is the gift I give to those I love the most, to those who are hurting and turn to me for help, to those who need guidance in this life, to those who love life.  Rich or poor, adult or child, Christian or non-Christian, hardened cynic or gullible innocent, there are levels of this book that will appeal to anyone.

It is the perfect image of how our relationship with this tattered imperfect world should be.  It is an infinitely purer image of how faith should be than any thousands of years of religion has produced.  It is the wisdom of a child.  An amazing child.  A human child.  Anna.

I urge you - if you ever buy one book again in your life, if you ever borrow one book from a library again in your life, make it this one.  It is life-changing.  It doesnt preach, it doesnt lecture, it is genuinely perfection.  It is love in book form.

And yes, it makes it all the better that my beautiful mother chose to name me Anna because she too had fallen in love with this book, with this child.  She hoped that her redheaded child would at the very least share the love of life her redheaded namesake possessed.

I love sharing my name with Anna.  This book transformed me.  Read it.  I beg you.

This week I'm loving...

  1. Scheduled posts!  Ive totally just discovered these when I was writing my recent book review of My Exile Lifestyle...and man do they make blogging life good.  I think they massively increase my writing quality - I do always proof read for spelling and grammar, but with a scheduled post I come back the next day and proof read for ideas as well.  Also if I have already written a scheduled post for the second half of the week - theres none of that "Aargh I need to write!" panic.  And best of all, when Im not around to write (like next week when on my university summer school) - I can relax safe in the knowledge that my posts for that week are already written!  I can see me using this feature a LOT when I am travelling.
  2. Baby badgers!  Stopped on my home from work today to watch a baby badger snuffling around in a field.  Broad daylight, maybe 10 metres away from me, not a care in the world. Awwwwwwwwwwwww.  I love Cumbria.
  3. Summer school! Yay for 10 hour research days and visiting one of the most beautiful cities in England - Bath.  Looking forward to meeting lots of new people.
  4. Gratuitous Sally pictures.  As she is ageing her mortality terrifies me more and more...but her Einstein-style eyebrows are super cute!

Dog days

Summer is lavender picking time!
I am delighting in summer.  These are the days I am madly in love with England and with life.  The land throbs with life and colour and basks under the watery sun stretching itself across the glowing blue sky.

I just love it so.  Picnics in the garden, taking the dogs swimming in the river, soaking my skin in the sun's rays.  Mmm heaven.

Floss doesnt think much of gathering lavender
Today I learnt that yoga is about ten times better outside!  Cant think why I didnt think of this before, but its great!  Its just so much easier to reach that calmed, connected, centred state when you are merging your consciousness with the birdsong and the wind in the trees.  And the feeling of your feet and hands grounded into the soft warm grass is just delightful, suddenly the fact that you are merely an extension of the earth and inextricably bound into the slow spinning passage through time and space becomes blindingly obvious and perfectly satisfying.

Perfect and sweet smelling decorations
If English summers were always like this, instead of the odd pearl of a floating in a sea of grey and rain, then I might even consider staying here.  I know its crazy that I am basing my life plan on the weather...but I just love summer...

My Exile Lifestyle Book Review

Colin of Exile Lifestyle's new book is out today!  I was privileged enough to get my hands on a pre-launch copy as I am one of Colin's trusted inner circle of gurus and confidantes (not really...I'm just on his mailing list).  Having been a fan of Colin's excellent blog for a while, I was keen to get my hands on his latest offering.  And at $2.99 (less than £2)...I thought....why not!  I think his plan to price this book low is a great idea, I am always really reluctant to part with more than £5 for some unknown book.  Doubts like "what if its only 20 pages long?"..."what if its all pictures?"..."what if its utter rubbish?" creep in and stop me from parting with my hard earned cash.  But £2?  Thats's like buying Colin a coffee, and a cheap coffee at that!  And yeah, I would be happy to buy Colin a coffee for the chance to have a chat with him about his awesome life, so I bought the book.

And I wasnt disappointed.  I got 168 pages of new and interesting stories, musings and insights from a person whose lifestyle and attitudes inspire and encourage me in my own "alternative" dreams.  This is a book about Colin and his life, it doesnt directly "teach" or explain "how to" do anything, and it isnt really about business.  It is more like a month's worth of coffees with Colin - these are the answers to the questions you would ask him, the stories he would tell and the conversations you would have!  

Colin is an American nomad...he moves to a new country every 4 months - which is chosen by the readers of his blog!  How awesome is that!  In between all his international travel adventures he manages to find time to run a branding studio, an independent publishing company and various other projects.  This committed enthusiasm to life and all it holds is definitely reflected in his new book.

There are stories about journeys, places, people, events, relationships, moments in time.  And even the odd "aha" moment like...

"Every finish line is a horizon, not an ending."

There are musings on life, love, travel and self.  Insights into who Colin is and why he has chosen the path he has.

And to me, that is really satisfying. By necessity, blogs offer a snapshot into someone's life without often exposing their thought processes, their insecurities, their humanity.  This book takes the Colin from Exile Lifestyle and expands him in your imagination into a more rounded and real person.  It feels like getting to know a new friend.  I like that.

My only criticism would be...there arent enough pictures.  I like pictures - although I appreciate that for less than the price of a coffee Im not going to get a load of unique images.  But Colin is a super talented designer - and he even has his own T-shirt store, so I would have loved to see some of his artwork in there.  And yeah, I admit it, he is pretty cute, so some more gratuitous Colin pictures wouldnt have gone amiss!

If you have never visited Exile Lifestyle, I really recommend you do.  Check out the archives, photo galleries, fall in love with Colin (as in his lifestyle, vision and writing, not literally...that would be weird and stalkerish).  And if you like what you see on there, I guarantee you will love the new My Exile Lifestyle book.

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