In early 2012, I decided I wanted to take a year-long break from life – a gap year. I had finally gotten my parents on board, my friends had already given me their blessings. All that was left to do was make the actual move, and I no longer had anything holding me back.
I wish I could say that I had just packed my bags and kissed my old life goodbye with spunk and spontaneity. But alas, years of cautious decision-making had conditioned me to plan and thoroughly evaluate any course of action ahead of time. This was the most reckless thing I was about to do and I needed to bring some structure to it. I had no idea where to start, what to look for or how to map things out. How was I, who had never done anything out of the norm, supposed to take that leap of faith and just go?
I spent a good week or so just thinking about what I wanted to accomplish during this year off. Yes, I wanted to grow, learn and explore. But I needed some more specific goals, which led me to delve deeper and further question myself.
1. What were some things I’d always wanted to do but never had the time or ability to pursue before?
2. How could I use the year to explore areas I was curious and passionate about while still gaining tangible skills that could help me in the future and keep me marketable career-wise even after the year was over?
I wasn’t interested in traveling just for the sake of traveling. I had already had enough exposure to the backpacking scene during my college years to know that I wasn’t looking for a year of hostel-hopping and partying. I wanted something less superficial and more meaningful.
I allowed my mind to go wild with the brainstorming. From yoga certifications to WWOOF-ing, I considered everything under the sun. And after mulling over different ideas and possibilities, I finally narrowed it down to two main interest areas: Spanish and development work. Obsessed with Latin American music, dance and culture, I had always wanted to master the beautifully romantic language native to the region. And after 2 years of corporate work catering to the 1%, I was itching to do something more hands-on at the grassroots level in the developing world.
Once I was done with the introspection, it was time for some online research. I had my goals, but I still needed to figure out where to go. The whole world was my oyster and the possibilities endless. So choosing specific places depended on my personal interests.
1. What were some geographic areas that were unknown to me? Areas I had never lived in or traveled to?
2. What regions of the world would I enjoy exploring?
3. Where would I best be able to accomplish my objectives?
4. And where would my money last longest?
For Spanish, the answer was simple – I had never travelled to South America and this was the perfect excuse to set foot in an area I was dying to explore. The main question was which country to settle on? My Indian passport restricted me from traveling freely within the region, as I’d need separate (and often costly) visas for each country. So I had to be selective. Google revealed that the whole continent was teeming with Spanish language programs, all offering similar options. As a female traveling alone, safety was an important factor and became an additional filter in my search process. I gave preference to big cities over remote areas and read online travel forums on sites such as Trip Advisor, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet to learn more about specific places.
In the end, I settled on Buenos Aires. One of the most popular and fun Latin American cities, the capital of Argentina seemed to offer it all – a plethora of affordable Spanish schools, great food and nightlife, tango classes to fulfill my dance obsession and a tolerable degree of safety. Moreover, a 3-month tourist visa was free for Indian citizens and as a country, Argentina had enough natural wonders, from waterfalls to glaciers, to keep me occupied.
For volunteer work, the options were also countless. Whether education or agriculture, healthcare or animal welfare, every part of the developing world wanted volunteer assistance. I realized there was a whole “voluntourism” industry catering to people who wanted to travel while doing something more purposeful. But the concept of paying a third party to organize my volunteering trip didn’t appeal to me and I wanted a more economical solution.
During the search process, I came across several websites that were geared to helping career-breakers find opportunities in different countries. Some websites like Idealist and Escape the City posted international job and volunteer opportunities. Others, like Help X and Workaway, listed short-term volunteer work exchange programs whereby one could volunteer at a hostel/ranch/sailboat, etc., in exchange for free food and accommodation.
The opportunities blew my mind. How had I not known about all these unconventional and incredibly fun ways to travel? I came across blogs and sites of so many people who had left their corporate jobs in search of something else. I realized I was not alone. In fact, I was just one person in a sea of nonconformists.
I applied to various programs in Southeast Asia, targeting that region because of its reputation for safety and affordability. And finally, I heard back from an NGO in Thailand that specialized in English teaching. The program offered me accommodation and a stipend, and was located in the charming northern city of Chiang Mai. I was sold.
So I had my objectives. My timeline. I had my two destinations. But how was I going to pay for it all? It’s easy to make the decision to leave, but once I resigned, I’d be saying goodbye to a steady income stream just as I was about to embark on the most expensive vacation of my life. A cushy job had allowed me to savor financial independence since graduating college, and pride was not going to let me fall back on my parents again. This trip had to be self-funded and I wanted a safety net for emergencies and post-gap-year-life.
I looked into the cost of flights, visas and accommodation. Already quite fond of budget travel, I planned to travel like a backpacker. I enjoyed roughing it out, so extravagant expenditures would not be an issue. Moving out also meant that I could earn some money through the sale of furniture on Craigslist, books on Amazon and clothes to thrift shops like Buffalo Exchange. I put together a budget and made sure my savings would be enough to cover all upcoming expenses.
Finally, the plan was set. After leaving New York, I was going to spend the first two months with family, the longest I’d have spent with them in seven years. Then I’d move to Argentina for 3 months and then onward to Thailand for 3 more months. I decided to leave the remaining 4 months open. Maybe I’d be tired of traveling by then. Maybe I’d run out of money. Or maybe I’d move to Fiji with a new best friend. Who knew? I’d figure it out when the time came.
It took me a good three months to put the plan together. Somewhere in the middle, I gave my two weeks notice and changed my U.S. immigration status from worker to tourist. My coworkers were surprised but supportive. I was walking away from a salary, a green card and all the stability I had built over 6 years of hard work in America.
I’d be lying if I said that during the whole planning process, there weren’t times when I questioned if this year off really was the best idea. It was so easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged. There were too many things to research, too many conflicting sources of information on the Internet, too many ways in which things could go wrong, too many impending cash outflows and too many unknowns. At several points, it suddenly seemed appealing to just take the path of least resistance and stick with the status quo.
But, thanks to my supportive family, encouraging friends, a community of nonconformists, and my inherent TCK wanderlust, on July 25, 2012, I boarded a one-way flight out of New York. I had my plan, I finally felt ready. It was time for the journey to begin.
Featured image courtesy of Jessica Zee.