Gap Year with a Difference

By Matt Showering

The Ganges
When I arrived at university to study film in September 2000, having turned 18 only 2 months previously, I expected to be one of the younger students on my course; I did not, however, expect to be one of only a very small number of people to have come straight from college or sixth-form. Thus was I introduced to the phenomenon of gap year travel, for a great many of my fellow students had taken years out between further & higher education, invariably travelling Australia - in some cases sandwiched between South-East Asia and the Americas.

Although a few people at college had mentioned Australia as a holiday destination, the concept of a gap year took me completely by surprise. Immediately, people I spoke to strongly urged me to take one myself after university, also fairly common practice. Throughout the first and second years, my attitude towards the possibility of extensive travel wavered somewhat: for a long period, I was so concerned about student debt that I didn't think travelling would be practical for years; then followed a brief period when, my finances under control, I seriously considered the idea. Ultimately, however, once I had firmly decided upon my career path and to that end gained a place on a prestigious postgraduate course in film archiving, I put the idea right out of my head and resolved to keep myself on the straight & narrow, undistracted.

I had, throughout my undergraduate years, heard many people exalting the capacity of travel to 'broaden one's horizons,' and some (students & lecturers alike) seemed under the impression that this was essential for anyone seeking to work in a cultural profession as I was. This perspective made some sense; it made me consider the fact that I had never been outside Europe, and certainly needed & wanted to see some far-flung places. The paradox lay in the fact that I have Asperger Syndrome: on the one hand, this meant that my tastes in terms of individual holidays were quite different from those of most of my peers, a problem which combined with the unlikelihood of me raising a family to make my chances of taking regular foreign holidays as a working adult seem scant; on the other hand, it meant that despite all those issues I was ultimately unable to reconcile the idea of devoting a substantial period of time solely to travelling, for I could not see such an activity as anything other than veering 'off the rails' of my career path, I felt that my need for stability & structure would prevent me from enjoying a trip on which one cannot book everything in advance, and above all - having endured substantially life-changing personal problems while studying - I was convinced that my personality was set in stone and could not benefit from the 'cultural insights' of travel.

In addition to my concerns over my condition, and my belief that travel could not 'mould' me as it did others, the issue soon became an ideological one. I had, throughout my later childhood & teenage years, gone through several 'phases' of political belief and attitude towards my Britishness; but by the time I commenced my postgraduate film archiving course at 21, I had found my place as a staunch patriot, fervent monarchist, and firm believer in old Middle English values. Therefore, when it became obvious that the overwhelming majority of the people on my new course (British & foreign alike) were obsessed with travel, I started to look upon the gap year phenomenon more cynically - seeing it as a stormy wave of internationalism sweeping my generation and destroying pride in one's country. What I failed to realise before it was almost too late, was that the death knells of British patriotism had been sounded years before, and that they would ultimately have been made good even if not a single British youngster had ever felt the urge to travel the world to better themselves. At the time, despite many differences of opinion with my postgraduate colleagues, I resolved to keep my head down and continue to shun what I perceived to be this most un-British school of thought. Disaster, as far as my career plans were concerned, lay around the corner in the form of conflict with my residential live-in landlady, an ex-actress from the Indian subcontinent who'd attained local political prominence through her late husband the Lord Mayor, and whose dictatorially-enforced domestic regimes and 'lectures on life' had caused me to become depressed. I had to get away from her, no matter what hurdles she tried to place in my way. This experience made my depression so bad that I lost all interest in a film-related career. I was forced to abandon my course and found myself 'cast adrift' with some money inherited from my grandparents to keep me afloat but no ambitions or goals to drive me on.

The reactions of many of the people I had spoken to in connection with the domestic problem, and their inability to understand why I'd had no choice but to take the measures I had taken in order to get away, were further evidence that I belonged to a dying breed of person living by old English values; furthermore, deep down inside I knew that if I continued to doggedly stick to my guns on this issue then it would ultimately bring me only sorrow & loneliness; but despite the depression, my feelings of defiance remained too strong for me to fully accept this, especially since the problem landlady had herself been one of the most vocal preachers of the "Thou shalt travel the world" doctrine, and I thus resolved to use the money I'd inherited to fund an all-out assault on the job market, supplemented by temporary work where possible. Throughout the 2 years that followed, I managed to experience just about the entire spectrum of what is wrong with 21st Century Britain in my search for a job, most notably: stifling bureaucracy; obsession with charm, spin & je-ne-sais-qois; maddening political correctness; and erosion of civil liberties (the latter affects everybody of course, but the former three are particularly bad news if you're an Autistic Spectrum Disorder sufferer trying to secure satisfactory employment - which is ironic to say the least given the fact that New Labour swept to power vowing to end all discrimination and create equal opportunities for all). My longest period of temp work was a social nightmare, with travel often the only topic of pub conversation. In the end I accepted that the game was up as far as the job front was concerned, and that although most of my money was gone there was only one worthwhile thing to be done with what was left - go travelling. I was all set to book my flights when a shock job offer materialised, and I accepted it because part of me was still clinging to my 'safety zone,' but since it involved working for a home-based sole trader I knew it would offer no social opportunities; and with my lifestyle remaining very solitary despite my best efforts after several months, even while the job itself was going very well, I finally accepted that travelling was something I simply had to do: if I didn't seize the opportunity, I realized I would be forever institutionalised, not only as a rare Middle Englander among my generation, but into a lifestyle of 9-5 work, watching sport & films, reading and little else; in short, if you disregard the fact that I was earning money, I might as well be a 24-year-old single OAP; not willing to let this happen, I wasted no time in booking my tickets to depart after a year in the job. Most of my gap year would be spent in New Zealand, which I had wanted to visit since I saw the first Lord of the Rings film (more on this in later chapters), sandwiched between visits to India (plus a brief stay in Thailand) and Australia (followed by parts of South America) - my three main destinations all former British Colonies, two of them still Commonwealth Realms.

Throughout the coming months I was given several further demonstrations of old Middle England's demise, including quarrels with banks (professionally as well as personally since I was working for a financial adviser) & retailers exposing the total absence of not only the old system of common law, but indeed common sense itself, in modern society; but the single moment when I knew not only how fortunate I was to be getting away, but that if given the opportunity (i.e. work permit sponsorship) I must stay in New Zealand, was when Tony Blair ended his premiership by signing up to the new EU treaty, thus setting in motion the final surrender of Britain's sovereignty to an unelected bureaucracy, without even so much as a murmuring of discontent from the public which had - 4 years previously - staged the largest protest marches the country has ever witnessed in order to voice its vehement opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

India: Reflections on the Raj
I chose India as my first port of call mainly because I have long held a certain fascination with Indian history & culture (not to mention a great love of Indian food) and because - in order to break me out of my 'institutionalised' lifestyle - I felt I needed to spend some time away from the West. Some of my old friends from university told me that the culture shock would be simply too strong for me to cope with; that the lack of certain home comforts, sight of widespread poverty, health hazards, and constant invasion of personal space by beggars, would cause me at best to come home or at worst to create a diplomatic incident. While I knew there to be some very basic truth in those warnings, there was never any doubt in my mind that the extremity of them was based on an ultra-cynical stereotypical view of subcontinental culture, and that if I took the necessary health & safety precautions and found a high-quality tour operator then my time in India could be whatever I made of it; this ethos seemed to perfectly match that of Intrepid Travel, so I booked myself onto their 'Unforgettable India' tour, which enables Western travellers to experience a wide cultural repertoire and a taste of subcontinental living without withdrawing all the amenities of home. Nevertheless, I was highly conscious of the fact that I would be visiting the land over which my not-too-distant ancestors once ruled with an iron fist, although when I booked my tickets I did not realize that I would be arriving in Delhi just a few weeks after the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of India's independence.

India Gate
While being driven from Indira Gandhi International Airport to my hotel in New Delhi, I was quickly subjected to many of the expected yet (to the uninitiated) completely new sights associated with India: long lines of homeless people sleeping along the roadsides; some instead knocking on the car windows to beg for money; cows freely roaming the streets; road stalls selling paraphernalia all over the place; people urinating in drains. When, after recovering from my journey, I ventured out into the city centre, I had to get used to the endless succession of people asking if I needed help in the hope of extracting money from me. Yet I soon found myself able to take all this in my stride, knowing that as a tourist in India for 3 weeks I was making a reasonable personal contribution to the economy and - furthermore - having seen many of these strange sights much closer to home, at Glastonbury Music Festival (which I have attended 3 times). Indeed, after a week in Delhi (just before the Intrepid tour through the central north-eastern regions began) I considered my first visit to Glastonbury, just before I turned 18, to have been a far bigger culture shock than my time in India thus far, for it had completely overwhelmed my senses (and deprived me of my home comforts) when I had not yet witnessed an event truly epic in scale; India was most certainly overwhelming but, 7 years later, not as great a shock to the system since it was - like Glastonbury - overwhelming in a positive way, and thus it proved throughout the tour. True, in every town and village we drove through there were fragile, makeshift homesteads lining the entrance, while people without adequate clothing and/or food & water were to be seen everywhere; but these disturbing sites were, to me and I think to my fellow travellers in the touring party, overwhelmed by the architectural and natural beauty on offer - from the majestic Taj Mahal to the steamy temple of the Karma Sutra, from the pleasant stillness of Pannah National Park to the warm glow of sunrise on the sacred river Ganges. This is not, however, to say that I chose to forget about the poverty; far from it, I sought to put it into perspective. Our tour leader repeatedly reminded us that India is a country with no welfare system, "where you always have to fight for your life," yet he was also keen to stress that many not-so-wealthy Indians are very happy and indeed healthy in leading lives which, by Western standards, are impoverished - and we saw many examples of this in the people we met. With regards to the issue of serious poverty, and in terms of prompting me to remember the colonial exploits of my ancestors, my Western 'comfort zone' & indeed the decline of the England I love, two moments were particularly evocative.

Midday Drill
In the small town of Chanderi, we were taken by our local guide to the school where his children are educated. It was midday as we watched all the schoolchildren being given their daily drill; and in addition to awareness of the sad fact that many Indian families cannot afford the 10 Rupees (about 15p) per month necessary to educate their children, one of my first impressions was that some of these children - the very small ones - should not be subjected to the routine of standing still and solemnly for such a considerable period of time. Yet upon reflection, the 2 songs being sung were extremely telling: first the Indian National Anthem, a poignant reminder that gone are the days when British State Schools strove to foster respect for Queen & Country; followed by the classic protest song, 'We Shall Overcome,' recalling the struggles and sacrifices endured by Indians to achieve independence from the British - while Britain today stands on the brink of absorption into a different kind of empire, the European Superstate, as the masses sit quietly and apathetically back in the belief that it is only socially acceptable for them to wear their hearts on their sleeves - to fly the flag and sing the anthem - during international sports matches, a belief that is surely due in no small part to their lack of patriotic schooling.

John Galvin's Tomb
Fiercely patriotic though I am, I make no attempt to whitewash the atrocities committed by my colonial forebears entrusted with the task of governing 'the Jewel in the Crown'. I do, however, believe that instead of using the less savoury aspects of our past to discourage pride in Britain and Britishness - much less to encourage youngsters to feel guilty about such things, an indoctrination which appeared to be the aim of the teachers at my school - we should attempt to see the greater picture of how both Britain and India have developed since the latter attained independence from the former. Nowhere did this issue ring truer than on the platform at Varanasi train station (as the touring party waited for an overnight train back to Delhi), where a beggar with a severe deformity - forcing him to walk on all fours - was doing the rounds of passengers asking for money. On the one hand, it was achingly poignant to know that had that man been born in Britain, he would've been taken into care at birth and given all medical treatment possible to try and alleviate his condition, and that he would be given benefits for his family in childhood & for himself in adulthood if unable to work. On the other hand, it was equally poignant to remember that, as commentators have recently pointed out, 60 years ago Clement Attlee's Labour Government was so busy creating our beloved National Health Service and Welfare State using borrowed American money, it was distracted from the darkly delicate matter of partitioning the soon-to-be independent India - no small contributory factor in the mass bloodshed that followed, and there is no telling how different India might have been today were it not for that gross mismanagement leading up to the transfer of power.

Since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, a succession of Indian leaders have vowed - and failed - to finally achieve his ultimate goal of eliminating widespread poverty, without there having been any serious move towards free healthcare or a benefits system. That being the case, a good starting point would seem to be the abolition of school fees for those whose families cannot afford them, for this would enable even very poor children to be educated and - in the long run - would ensure that many more physically- and psychologically-equipped people had the skills needed to work. Getting all who can work into work is a commendable initiative, but the question of how effective this could be as a long-term solution is somewhat vexed.

The Raj Ghat
The Raj Ghat, the sight in Delhi where the Mahatma was cremated before his ashes were scattered on the Ganges, is part of a complex of Ghats (cremation sights) where the mortal remains of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his offspring, the ruling Gandhi family, were also burned (the name here derives from the Mahatma's formal adoption of Feroze, the fiance of Nehru's daughter Indira, which circumvented the Hindu custom preventing Indira from marrying the Parsee Feroze). The slab marking the cremation spot of Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as Prime Minister and was later assassinated as she had been, reminds visitors of his speech in which he vowed to end poverty by making the country economically prosperous: it is true that economic prosperity is essential if poverty is to be eliminated, and therefore, the mass injection of skills into the workforce which would result from free schooling could - on the surface - boost the economy sufficiently for the Indian government to start implementing a welfare system for those genuinely unable to work; but the problem is that, even as I write, India is already enjoying an economic boom, with poverty still rife and showing no sign of abating. Why is this? In no small part, the boom is due to the grossly uneven distribution of wealth - which has worsened in recent years rather than improved - as is the case with China, the other big emerging economy.

In the final analysis, at least at this early stage of my travels, I will not seek (despite my reservations about India's chances of becoming socially developed) to pass judgement on a socio-economic system I cannot fully understand; instead I will just be glad that I was given the opportunity to witness & participate in a rich ancient culture, and to meet so many friendly & hardworking people who take such immense pride - in their work, in their families, and above all in their country.

Chapter 2: Arrival in New Zealand

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