Taking A Gap Year: It’s OK To Be Scared

by DIWYY · 2 comments

Thursday 7th March,

“The last six months here have been fantastic, I’ve seen and done so much and I hope that in years to come I remember all the promises I’ve made to myself while I’ve been out here…I want to always go that little bit further than I’m comfortable with and never let being scared stop me from doing things.”

My gap year might have ended in a philosophical manner, but it certainly didn’t begin that way. In fact it started with two solid hours of crying at Manchester airport in an uncontrollable bout of pre-emptive homesickness. I was eighteen and, escorted by my father, about to make the 11,271 mile trip from the UK to New Zealand so I could spend half a year living with a family out there. It was one of those ideas that started off as a vague possibility then seemed to develop a life of it’s own; before I knew it, I had a shiny Working Holiday Visa in my passport and was packing my suitcase. That’s not to say I wasn’t delighted at being offered such an incredible opportunity (turning it down wasn’t ever really an option) but it was strange watching my friends prepare for university while I bought guidebooks and flight socks.

Oddly enough, the tears stopped as soon as I found my seat on the plane – whether it was knowing that I’d reached the point of no return or simple exhaustion, I’m not sure, but from that moment on, I was grimly determined to enjoy myself. We broke the journey up with a stopover in Singapore, my overwhelming memory of which is a mixture of wide-eyed awe at the first place I’d seen outside Europe and intermittent panic at realising how far I was from home. A combination of paternal reassurance, the excitement of exploration and a growing sense of achievement got me through.

By the time our plane descended over ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ and I caught the first glimpse of my home for the next six months, I was feeling quietly confident. Singapore had been a major culture shock, but that was actually my favourite thing about it. I was starting to realise that one of the best things about travel is being thrown into the deep end, and that the only way to respond was by embracing it. Not only was I going to survive this experience, I was going to squeeze every drop from it. Of course there would be times when I felt a bit wobbly – birthdays, Christmas maybe – but they’d be fleeting, and overshadowed by the enormity of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Here’s how I did it:


I was lucky in that I had a travel companion for my first few weeks in a foreign land but even if you don’t, make an effort to familiarise yourself with your new home. It may be tempting to find a base and stay there but learning about a new place is the quickest route to becoming comfortable there. We hired a car and spent a leisurely two weeks travelling through the North Island from Auckland to Wanganui, where my host family lived. Once you’ve gotten to grips with the road signs, drunk a few jugs of local beer and attended a sports match, you’ve gone a long way towards assimilating with the culture.

Finding Work

If you’ve gone somewhere with the intention of finding work, actually making it happen can be quite a daunting prospect. Depending on where you go, there are a number of typical ‘backpacker’ employments like fruit picking, au pairing and bar work. If these aren’t available or you don’t fancy them, don’t be afraid to cast the net a little wider. I made money in a whole host of ways while I was in New Zealand, from ironing clothes to painting and decorating to putting end of year school reports together. Eventually I secured a regular position working in a local children’s nursery. Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs advertised in the local paper or to place ads offering your services – you never know what might turn up.

Meet People

My career as an odd-jobber might have been short-lived, but it did provide a useful way of meeting people – It’s difficult not to bond with someone when you’ve spent all day painting radiators with them. My host ‘parents’ were teachers so introduced me to a few of their pupils to get me started but if you don’t have that luxury, there are plenty of other ways. There may be an ex-pat community that you can get involved with, or (better yet) join some local clubs or classes. It’s also worth scouting round a few traveller’s message boards, such as TravellersPoint, before you go – there may be other people looking for a companion in the same area.

Keep Pushing Yourself

When I read back through my travel diaries I’m astounded by some of the things I did. Travel seemed to give me a confidence that I never felt back at school – it was partly down to the opportunity to reinvent myself with a new group of people, but partly just from feeling proud about being there. Take advantage of the chances that come your way – you’ve already conquered the most difficult one by leaving home in the first place. Before I left NZ, I did a two week Kiwi Experience tour around the South Island. The first 24 hours on a bus where everyone already knew each other were pretty unnerving but once I got chatting to a few people I had an absolute ball – it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

I met a great number of people during my six months living abroad, many of whom are now just names without faces in my diary, but others have stayed with me over the last ten years. Two of them unknowingly provided the mantras that I live by, even now: ‘you’re always learning when you travel’ and ‘you never really travel alone’. If I hadn’t taken my gap year, I’d never have met those interesting strangers, nor have benefited from their wisdom. These are just two tiny examples of how travel has shaped me into the person I am today and no doubt the journeys I’ve made since have created a thousand more, but it all started with that first big adventure.

So… what are you waiting for?

Poppy Helm is a freelance Business Analyst and fledgling travel writer from the UK. When not busy planning her next big trip, or writing about the last one, she enjoys analog photography, swimming and trying to make the perfect mojito. Follow her on Twitter.

Sarah 1

Great article; provides a simple how to do it checklist that is tried and tested. A great encouragement to travel for all us scaredy cats!

Poppy 2

Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed it. I still get the odd flash of pre-trip nerves but I’ve learnt that they’re well worth enduring for the opportunity to explore somewhere new!

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