A Gap Year Fit for a (Future) Queen

29 04 2011

This morning, I along with millions of viewers from around the globe, tuned in to watch the Royal Wedding.  I can’t help it – I’m a complete sap for beautiful dresses,  royal traditions and ridiculous hats.  As I watched Kate step out of her coach, ready to walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey, I was taken aback at her grace and poise.  But these are just a few of her positive attributes.

Catherine Middleton

The modern role of the monarchy is  about setting a good example and acting as an ambassador for Britain.   To me, Wills and Kate seem like the perfect pair to take up the challenge of serving as role models for their generation and beyond.   One of these reasons is that Kate appears to be a very intelligent, well-rounded person.  A young woman who looks as poised in a pair of hot pants on roller skates as she does in a conservative dress suit and feathered hat.

Wills and Kate both took gap years after finishing high school.   While I’m not about to claim that Kate gained her composure and grace while on her gap year, organizers of her Chile trip gushed about her.  I think it is safe to say that the word “gap year’ has been in the press quite a bit lately thanks to them.  And that is a great thing.

Kate spent her gap year in Chile, Florence, Italy and working aboard a yacht.   In Chile, Kate volunteered and traveled in Patagonia with Raleigh International, a British-based gap year organization.   Prince William attended the same program the fall before her.

Prince William in Chile, via Raleigh.co.uk

In Florence, Kate studied Italian and Art History through the British Institute, a culture center founded in 1917 to nurture a love of the arts.  According to an article by The Telegraph:

” Kate Middleton’s Italian lessons took place in the Palazzo dello Strozzino, a princely palace built in 1458, with four mammoth entrances and four floors of heavily rusticated stone in traditional Florentine style, each separated by delicate classical cornices and sheltered by deep eaves.”

  You can read that entire article here.

Kate went on to major in Art History at St. Andrews University in Scotland.  No doubt her background in art will come in handy while strolling down the corridors of Buckingham Palace!

A Royal Wedding may seem frivolous for fun, but any joyous occasion that brings people together is fine by me!  Have a great weekend and congrats to Will and Kate!


Peace Corps Gap Year Program?

12 04 2011

A group of Georgetown students have received national backing to develop a pilot program of the Peace Corps specifically designed for matriculating high school seniors.

Hallelujah!  I was so excited when I read this article.  The proposal aims to democratize the gap year by subsidizing the costs of international travel.  The 9-month scheme would include training, shadowing a Peace  Corps volunteer and working on an independent development project.

The program is still in the planning stages and requires final approval, but it’s a step in the right direction!

Read more here

The Endurance

3 04 2011
This essay was written by my partner, Tom, for our personal blog.  It’s a beautiful summary of what we experienced on our travels:

I’ve always found Ernest Shackleton’s famous want ad inspiring. He was looking for men to join him on his ship “The Endurance” on what was to be an ill-fated attempt to cross the Antarctic. Despite the fact that Julia and I have not spent the last year on a ship stuck in sea ice, our trip has been in many ways an exercise in endurance.


For almost a year now, we haven’t slept in the same bed more than a few nights at a time, and we frequently haven’t slept in a bed at all. We walk into a store and can’t remember if we’re supposed to say hola or merhaba or sawadee to the shopkeeper, whether we need to pay 45 rupees to the dollar or 19,645 dong. (Messing up a currency conversion caused me to accidentally stroll into Bangkok with $700 cash in my pocket in Thai bhat.)  And the animals begging at our feet have gone from the stray dogs of Central America to the cats of Turkey to the monkeys of India to the birds of New Zealand.
The fact is, it’s a big world out there. Only part way through the trip did Julia and I admit to each other that we sometimes wondered if we were actually going to see our friends and family again or if we would ever make it back to the country we call home. The road can sometimes be a scary and lonely place. Once in a while, I would do things to trick myself into thinking that I was back home, like listening to Americana music or staring out the window on long bus rides and picturing myself on a friend’s lawn on a summer night. After a while you start to miss things, things you wouldn’t think you’d miss like singing along loudly to music while driving, cooking for yourself, putting the autumn quilt on your bed or the excitement of the first snowfall of the year.
Our seasons have been all screwed up over the last year –we left in early summer, went to the ‘wet season’ to the ‘hot season’ to the start of the ‘dry season’ back into summer and now we’re entering autumn. And when we arrive home in a few days it will be spring! We’ve been experiencing vivid dreams at night throughout the trip, dreams of our youth or old friends we haven’t seen in years, as our subconscious struggles to put our current day-to-day life into context with the rest of our years.
According to Mark Twain, travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” but I frequently question whether I’ve become more open minded or less so. We’ve seen societies that are highly functional and societies that are frustratingly dysfunctional in many ways. It also seems that our trip has been a tour of failed U.S. foreign policy. We hear over and over again, “Everything was going okay until the Americans began carpet bombing /funding a guerilla campaign /economic sanctions /arming the rebels…” The only place where we didn’t hear that was in India, mostly because the UK beat us to it (thanks for making us look good by comparison, old chums!) And yet everywhere we go, people welcome us with open arms, seemingly able to separate the actions of our government with the will of our people.
The single biggest lesson that I’ve learned from our travels is that a nation functions best when women are completely equal members of society. Educating and empowering women seems almost to be a cure-all for improving a nation’s health and happiness, generating economic prosperity, solving environmental issues, slowing rampant population growth, and improving overall quality of life. While clearly I’ve always believed entirely in gender equality, I only now understand the far-reaching effects that empowering women has.
We’ve awoken to monkeys howling in the jungle and an infestation of bugs crawling on us and the gentle ring of yak bells high in the Himilayas. We’ve been cheated and hustled and been shown incredible generosity. We’ve seen countries still reeling from the atrocities of war and genocide. We’ve watched one nation struggling with a devastating flood and another with a devastating earthquake. We’ve seen crushing poverty and lavish wealth, and we have likewise felt very poor and very wealthy ourselves at various times. We’ve met a king, herded goats, rode elephants, and swam with sharks. We’ve visited mosques and monasteries, temples and churches, danced to the celebration of Ramadan and broken bread for Shabbat.  We’ve tasted fine wine and exotic foods and things that made us sick to our stomachs.  We’ve watched the sun rise on the Taj Mahal and the sun set on the Blue Mosque.  We’ve drifted down gentle rivers through the rainforest and we’ve dodged the endless traffic of Asian cities.
One night in a dusty hotel room, we caught the end of the Curious Case of Benjamin Button on a scratchy TV.  One of the final scenes caught my attention because it struck me how much it reflected on how we feel about our trip.
Now, as we board a plane to cross the Pacific Ocean, we too are starting over.  We’re moving to a new community, in a new state.  Soon, we’ll be getting married.  Sometimes, I do get afraid about starting over.  I worry that we’ll be lonely without friends around or that I’ll have trouble finding work.  But mostly, I’m excited for everything that lies ahead for the two of us.


For all that we’ve seen and done in the last 10 months, it has been the people we’ve met along the way that have made the trip the most special.  We’ve met some of the most incredible people on this trip, from locals to fellow travelers, old friends and even some friends of friends.  Some have taken us in, showed us a helping hand, or just shared an interesting conversation with us in a cafe.  For the people we’ve met and the things we’ve seen and done, we will remain forever grateful for the memories we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.


The world is a beautiful place.

Organic Farming in New Zealand

31 01 2011

Oamaru, New Zealand
Living off your own land involves a lot of skills, some of which I have but many of which I lack.  WWOOF, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, offers people like me the opportunity to learn first-hand on a working farm.  The organization matches farmers (the hosts) with WWOOFers (travelers like me).  In exchange for 4-5 hours of farm help per day, the hosts provide room and board.  This arrangement offers plenty of time for relaxing and seeing the local sites.  First stop: Oamaru, New Zealand.


Fields of sunflowers outside of Oamaru, New Zealand


Gail and I work on the farm, with help from Goldie and Blaze

Our hosts were Gail and Zim, American expats who uprooted their suburban life in Denver to start a farm in New Zealand three years ago.  It was quite the transition for them but luckily they are smart, resourceful people.   In just three years they have transformed their land into a fertile permaculture farm.  They have big plans for the future that include native plant restoration and building their own earthship home!

In terms of learning new skills, our first farmstay in New Zealand did not disappoint.  It was like 4 years of farming college condensed into 10 days.  During our stay, we helped while Gail and Zim made homemade butter, cream cheese, mozzarella, ice cream, juice, two different types of bread, beer and wine.  We helped milk the cows, feed the chickens, ducks, and turkeys, strung electric wire paddocks for the horses, herded the sheep, stacked hay, moved stone, potted plants, harvested vegetables, and repaired the chicken coup.  And we were able to learn something from even mundane activities like stacking wood, weeding the gardens, and composting.

They may have gotten a bit of work from us, but we learned a whole lot from them!


Travels in Laos

21 12 2010
December, 2010

Laos is a great place to travel, but it is also one of the twenty poorest nations in the world.  While we were in Luang Prabang, we bought a bunch of children’s books from an NGO that distributes books to children in rural villages called Big Brother Mouse.  The Lao children who are lucky enough to learn to read in school do so with a chalkboard and few of them have ever flipped through a book before, let alone owned one.  According to the Big Brother Mouse, many of the children don’t know how to turn the pages of their new book and are amazed to learn they can do it over and over.  We bought several of the duel English/Laos language books and have given them out to children over the last several weeks.   The children all giggle and squirm when they are presented with the new book, and reading to them, even in English, always attracts a crowd.  It has been one of the most satisfying parts of our visit here.

Tom reading to eager Hmong children

Luang Prabang is an amazing colonial town right on the Mekong River.  It is ridicuously photogenic, as i will try to demonstrate here:

Buddhist Wat

Luang Prabang at night

During our last day in Laos, Tom and I took a tour of the caves along the Vietnam border that the Lao people hid in during the bombing raids.  Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history.  For nine years from 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped a B-52 load of bombs on Laos on average every 8 minutes, totaling 260 million bombs.  That works out to 542 pounds of bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country at the time.  The United States dropped more bombs on Laos than all of the bombs dropped in Europe in World War II.

Lao Countryside

It’s estimated that about a third of the 260 million bombs did not explode and are still out in the countryside.  These bombs, called unexploded ordinance or UXO, still blow the legs off farmers or kill children playing in the forest four decades after the war has ended.  In fact, an average of one person a day is killed in Laos from UXO, most of whom are children.
The results of the war are still visible among the older generation; we witnessed an old man with missing legs hobbling through a village and the guy driving a boat was missing an arm.  Our guide for the cave tour witnessed his parents and grandparents killed by bombs and he showed us scars on his legs from shrapnel.  Pieces of bombs are using in building homes and furniture as scrap metal.  It is heartbreaking to lean about these things, but important nonetheless.
Just like many other counties that have seen immense hardship, Laos has a people that are resilient and warm-hearted.  The country is beautiful, safe and laid-back.  A perfect gap year destination if you ask me!

Taking on Thailand!

21 12 2010

Chiang Mai, Thailand

November 2010

It’s hard to dislike Thailand – it’s got it all: rich culture, beautiful beaches and forest and wonderful people!  I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in the north of Thailand exploring new programs and opportunties.

Gearing up for the festival of lights, "Loi Krathong"

My first site visit was to a volunteer program in Chiang Mai focusing on art education.  The organization works with everyone from ethnic minorities to children coping with cerebral palsy.  Workshops are designed and executed to expand creativity and introduce new mediums for expression.

Next I visited a working permaculture farm near the hippie-town of Pai.  The energetic Thai owner has toiled happily for the past 6 years to build his property into a homestay farm for anyone interested in learning natural building skills, permaculture practices and Thai culture.

Tom and I stayed in a traditional thatched hut and spent our days learning about natural building, helping transport bamboo shafts to the farm, cooking and other duties.  Staying on a successful farm surrounded by intelligent, enthusiastic people gets me really excited for our farm stays in New Zealand.

Learning how to weave baskets

Bike-powered washing machine!

More Volunteer Site Visits and Meetings in Nepal!

5 11 2010

Kathmandu, Nepal, November 2010

Nepal has been a busy country for site visits.  It isn’t surprising many organizations decide to invite volunteers to Nepal: it’s a safe, beautiful country full of hospitable people that treat their guests like gods – literally! Guests are seen as reincarnations from the heavens, so hosts spoil them rotten.

In addition, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with obstacles especially great for women and children.  The Maoist movement of 2005 further disturbed Nepal’s growth – scaring away tourists and disrupting the country’s infrastructure for several years.  It should be noted that tourists were never targeted during the disturbance.

With peace restored, there is great need in Nepal for teachers, aid workers and other volunteers willing to lend a hand.  There is no shortage of organizations to volunteer with, but if you are planning a volunteer trip to Nepal, make sure to choose your organization wisely.  There are many for-profit orphanages and other short-term projects set up specifically to target well-meaning tourists.  Choosing a reputable organization is essential to working towards sustainable change.

School children dancing during ceremony

I am working hard on this trip evaluating international organizations in order to encourage students to volunteer with projects that are contributing to real, meaningful improvements in their communities.  From teaching English to women’s empowerment to medical placements, this is a variety of programs on offer to the willing volunteer.  The warm Nepali friends you make during your travels will be ever thankful for your contribution!