Is There Anything Wrong with Shunning Society?
Yesterday, a friend of mine, who has recently spent time travelling, was asked when he would return to the real world. The question provoked a response similar to what mine have been when I've been asked the same question - how do you define the "real world"?
Mass society in the west appears to have the wool firmly pulled over its eyes. What the person asking this question doesn't understand is the "real world" is exactly what each individual makes it, not what the ruling classes deem we "should” do. The real world is an incredibly subjective concept. From one person, who completes school, graduates university, and then gets a career, to the other, who jacks in everything to explore. Both are real. In fact, you could argue that the person shunning the job and stable existence for an uncertain life on the road is experiencing more "real" life than the person coming home at 5pm to the same TV show every night and to the same pub every weekend. They're merely existing, not living.
I understand the concept of planning for tomorrow. You want a comfortable life, a guaranteed income, a house with a garden, some chrysanthemums, and a family car. You want to financially plan, you want to know where you'll be in ten years' time. For me, I'd rather have enough cash to get to the next destination, and to stand at the side of the road with the sun on my face, my thumb out and the biggest grin I can muster, waiting for the next kind soul to pick me up. I'd prefer to go where the wind takes me rather than wondering where the 5:05pm bus is because it's three minutes late.
And another thing. I might get hit by the 5:05pm bus tomorrow. I might get flattened by a speeding taxi or succumb to a horrific accident snowboarding. Anything could happen. I don't want to miss out on my opportunities to see the world, or just a piece of it, at the very least.
Discovering through experiences
In a few days, it will be a full year since I left Vancouver on a bicycle. Can you honestly tell me that travelling over 20,000 kilometres overland, being welcomed by people from all walks of life, sleeping in forests, on rooftops, in half-built gas stations, in fields, and coming to appreciate the full extent of a civil war that's killed over 70,000 people is less "real" than the monotonous daily commute? I've lived with those people for the past few months - beautiful, selfless, friendly, people from Syria who have been directly affected by the war. These people, who have lost friends my own age, friends who have recently graduated with hopes and dreams like you and me. These people have lost everything they ever knew and have to start again. These people, with nothing, have welcomed me into their homes.
The real world is whatever you make it. I have every respect for people who want to get on the career ladder as soon as possible. You want a house when you're 22, that's fine - all power to you. It's comfortable, you can create a home, know when your holidays are coming, always know what you're doing. Uncertainty is difficult. Not knowing where the next pay cheque is means you live frugally. You can't be lavish too often. And that's fine by me.
Recently, I've been managing a bar in Beirut, Lebanon. It's another job provided another short-term income - for a while at least. I'd prefer to do this for a short period before moving on rather than knowing that I'll be working the same job for years, with only weekends and perhaps two weeks' vacation to unwind, and, if I'm lucky, relax. Who wants to work 50 weeks a year for the next 40 years anyway? Not me.
I've seen some amazing things this past year. I've learned more about myself and the world than I did in my previous 26 years. I've visited places the UK foreign office website deems too dangerous to go, because of "terrorism" or kidnapping, or perhaps because those places political standpoint differ from my country. There, I've come up against nothing but goodness. Of people welcoming me to their country, asking if I had everything I needed, if I wanted help - even just a cup of tea if I had the time.
We, the people, are all the same
I've put faith in strangers many times. I've hitchhiked more than 100 vehicles this year, without one bad incident. And I'm told that hitchhiking is dangerous. Hell, these instances have been some of the most memorable of my trip. One girl I met in Turkey even told me quite condescendingly I was going to die because I planned to hitchhike across her country. So, I was astonished when I didn't die. I successfully hitched across the country, and six months later I did it again, and then once more just for good measure. And then in January I hitchhiked the 1,800 kilometres back to where I was told I was going to die. Surely - oh surely - my luck wouldn't hold. This time I would die for sure. Fortunately I survived, but had to deal with the horror of the best fried fish I've ever eaten with a group of truckers on the sunny coastline of the Black Sea. Along the way I was given places to sleep, more meals, and made many new friends. And this was all by having trust.
Yes, strangely enough, people are all like you and me. Indeed, in the news we hear about how dangerous everywhere else in the world is. Scaremongering seems to be a way of controlling people. Don't go to Mexico, I was told, before going. Mexico was far friendlier than the USA where I was warned Mexico is a war-zone. The staff of the German Embassy in Yerevan warned me not to visit Iran. It was too dangerous and they'd see me online, getting my head hacked off with a razor blade. I went anyway, huge camera in hand, and discovered the most welcoming country I've ever visited. On arriving back in Armenia I was astonished by how unfriendly their border guards were compared to the laughing, jovial Iranians. And I was living in Armenia at the time. Drat. My brother is currently in Iran and surprisingly he hasn't been diced up and served as a kebab either. Fancy that. In fact, his wife is from Tehran and she's one of the sweetest people I've ever met.
This year, I've learned to trust people. Everybody wants the same thing after all; friends, warmth, food, and family. Yes, a few extremists around may be evil, but you'd be incredibly, incredibly unlucky to meet them. In fact, I'm sure I'm more likely to meet my sticky end in England or Canada than in Iran. And Iran is a hive of terrorism and hates everyone, apparently. It made me sad, standing on the roadside in Bakersfield, California, for hours, taking in the scowls of people who wouldn't give me a ride to San Francisco. And these were the same middle class types who would tell me that Mexicans were bad. The same people of Mexico who gave me rides the length of the Baja Peninsula and back, asking for nothing more than companionship in return. But, because I looked slightly unkempt, and was a stranger asking for somebody’s help, I was bad. Suddenly, I was a dangerous vagabond who would probably murder the driver and his family given the opportunity. Or perhaps I was actually brought up in middle class England, have a degree, have friends, a family, just like the scowling drivers. Which one was true?
Time wasted, or time cherished?
So, this past year I haven't been living in reality. My journey has obviously been a waste of time. I should be locked away in a job I hate. While sitting in a cafe in Bandon, Oregon, I shouldn’t have written that politely worded email to the university I was due to study my MA in, and turning down the place I'd worked hard to get. I'd decided to take the life experience rather than extra letters after my name. Obviously, I should have taken my place, and gone with the flow. Maybe one day I will - but not yet.
Yes, one day I might want more certainty, but I don't want to be tied down without any hope of being free to explore the world and immerse myself in new cultures. Why wait until you're 65 and your hips don't work before you retire. Something else might have killed us by then. Why do we need to amass so much "stuff". I've lived out of a bag for the past 12 months and been absolutely fine. I'm surprised now about how much I've got stored in a friends' basement in West Vancouver, and even that is barely anything compared to a lot of my friends. One day I might buy a house, yes. But currently I have no need for one. Owning means you are tied down, you can't say "fuck it" and let go. You can't pack up and discover the real world. You can't experience a few of the 200 other countries in which billions of people call home. Who knows - one of those billions of people might be your best friend. You just haven't met them yet. But one day I will have my own chrysanthemums. For now, that day can wait.
Also, make sure you read our article 'What Can a Gap Year Really do for You?' to see whether it matters if a gap year doesn't boost your CV.
And finally, take the debate to the message boards and talk to your fellow gappers about it all. It's already getting heated!
About the Author
Ben Allen is a freelance writer from Northamptonshire, England. In 2008 he relocated to Vancouver, Canada, after wanting to make a change in his life. Not happy being in one place, Ben has just been on the road undertaking a hitchhiking trip around the Middle East. Now he's returned to North America where he's thinking about the next step. You can follow him on Twitter @ballenuk and read more about his adventures at www.benallen.ca.