By: Gaby Alemán
For many reasons, the world seems much larger and more intimidating than it really is. We look at the globe and we’re hesitant to take a step out of our neighborhood for fear of the unknown— but you know what? That fear of the unknown is exactly what pushed me to leave. Maybe fear isn’t the correct word… Curiosity seems more appropriate. It was with a surging curiosity that I set out last September on my gap year, fresh outta high school, to travel to Asia for eight months.
I was, and am, part of a fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill called the Global Gap Year Fellowship, which gives incoming freshmen the ability to defer their enrollment and gives them scholarship money in order to pursue a volunteer based gap year. With the encouragement of my university and an oversized backpack clumsily strapped to my back, I headed off to Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Indonesia.
Now, you can guess that traveling alone internationally at 18 is nerve wracking; heck, it still is for people twice my age. But what I realized when I found myself crossing from the domestic flights section at the JFK airport to the Etihad airlines gate, where I was so clearly the only young backpacker in a line of colorfully ethnic women in saris and men in traditional robes and turbans, was that I wasn’t actually alone. Everyone I asked, for the most part, helped me in whatever I needed; they answered my questions and calmed my nerves. When you open yourself to the chance of being approached, when you’re cautious, but still willing to smile at people, you’d be amazed at the help you can receive and the people you cross paths with.
Traveling from country to country was a breeze after the first initial dive into the chaos of airports and immigration. My time in Sri Lanka served as a time of reflection; I was thrown into a mix of the Sinhalese and Tamil cultures, along with exposure to Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, in an unfamiliar place with a language I couldn’t decipher. I worked alongside volunteers at an orphanage where I learned that true love and dedication are fickle things; things that needed to be extended fairly to all of the orphans, even the ones that pull your hair and splash around in puddles of pee. My time there challenged me and showed me what I was made of, but also liberated me from myself. I’ve lived my life walking a tightrope, self-conscious of my decisions and actions and cowering in fear at the thought of messing up. Sri Lanka made me look down and realize I was scared of a tightrope a foot above the ground. I saw that if I fell, I could get right back up and keep moving forward with more experience and a lesson learned.
Singapore, in contrast, was a wakeup call: I had been traveling around a third world country, taking cold showers and dreaming under mosquito nets, catching rides on roaring, packed buses and haggling tooth and nail in the markets; now I was thrown into the hustle and bustle I had known so well what seemed like a lifetime ago, aka three months. Chic malls towered over me and mocked my flowing hippie skirt and battered sandals during my exploration of the small city-country for a week while I awaited my Indonesian visa. Sure, I’ll admit I missed hot water and toasted bread, but all of this luxury? It was disorienting; even when I was toured around by some passionate Singaporean friends did I lack the enthusiasm for this clean and orderly society. Don’t get me wrong— Singapore is a proud sight to behold… But it wasn’t for me.
This strange disdain bled into my first month in Bali, Indonesia, which I spent in Ubud. For the month of December I rolled my eyes at tourists paying for overly priced meals and thinking they were spiritual because they attended a yoga course given by a westerner. January could not come quickly enough when I found myself transported to my definition of paradise: a small rural village in the northern region of Karangasem. I lived with a fluctuating number of volunteers in a small school where we taught English, next to the family that founded it, for four months. And I flourished. I found a home where previously I had considered myself nomadic; I learned to love the hard working, wonderful kids who brightened my day, every day, with a simple laugh or hug; I found spirituality surrounded by a people so dedicated to their beautiful religion, bowing my head and praying in my sarong for the first time in months. I marveled at the transparency of a smile, the way it communicates in any and every language and helped me connect with those I couldn’t understand verbally. I shared stories and emotions and laughter with people from all over the world; I cared about the locals and they graciously welcomed me into their community.
Here’s the thing I learned about traveling and volunteering— it’s a selfish thing. It’s the best and healthiest selfishness in the world. Sure, I was there to teach English. And considering the school’s students depended on the tourism industry to live successful futures, I’d say I was contributing. But that wasn’t the point, not completely. Traveling and experiencing another country and culture first hand— it made me aware. It exposed me to human mindfulness and the wonderful feats that humanity is capable of. I was surrounded with so much love and joy that every morning my eyes flew open with a gratitude for being alive; for having been able to experience what I did.
I am no savior and I am not special for what I did. It is not a difficult thing to do, really. At 18 years old, I had no special skill to offer; all I had was my positivity and perspective and enthusiasm. Now, I’m back in the US with a completely new way of looking at and appreciating life, one that I hope will carry me through my ambitions and goals in life. And I’m more than sure it will.
Gaby Alemán is a UniversalGiving Ambassador.