Mind the gap
Give yourself a break, says Aaron Aquilina as he meets two students who went on a gap year.
We all hear about it. We gape as the more exotic individuals from our circle of friends tell us about their journeys to lands strange and unknown. And somehow, we know that spending a couple of hours touring on Google Earth will not satisfy our wanderlust. We need to get on the plane, train, boat or camel and explore this vast home of ours. These two modern Marco Polos did just that, and on an affordable budget too.
On the road
Andrew Ricca is another individual with a passion for travelling – he went on his gap year as soon as he graduated. Though he has now started a postgraduate course, he too wanted a break in between work in order to, in his own words, “Find himself in the beyond.” He adds, laughing, that he has no idea what that might mean.
His gap year was dedicated solely to travelling. He spent several months on one long trip, the recounting of which never gets old.
Taking off to Western Europe first, Andrew visited Scotland, England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Berlin was the point of departure for the next leg of the journey into Eastern Europe, where he wandered around Poland, Latvia, Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine, Romania, Georgia and Armenia. Once in Armenia, he legged it to Turkey and explored the Middle East – Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. He flew to India from there and went up to China, from where he took the very long trans-Siberian train ride from Beijing to Moscow.
How could one manage to afford such a trip, so reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg?
“I CouchSurfed along the trip, occasionally camping out with temporary travelling companions or staying overnight at cheap hostels,” he says.
Because he travelled mostly by land, only flying rarely, the costs did not add up too much and in the end it was startlingly affordable. Andrew is not one for clothes or souvenir shopping either.
Since he chose to travel overland, Andrew tells me, it was more a case of devising an interesting route rather than choosing any particular place to visit. The only place he did make sure to visit was the Middle Eastern region.
“It’s always in the news,” he tells me, “and I wanted to see it for myself.”
The place that remains closest to his heart is Syria – it is a beautiful country and the Syrians are extremely friendly people. Andrew is sad at Syria’s politically complicated position, and he informs me that he is very worried about friends of his, local to Syria, who welcomed Andrew with open arms.
Did Andrew emerge changed from such a trip?
He tells me that he had many new experiences with both the locals and the world. Though he admits he had to deal with a huge culture shock when travelling through India, what amazes him to this day is how clearly everything is connected. Since Andrew travelled overland and rarely left the road, what remains a wonder to him is how he could, quite literally, see the world change before his eyes as he sat next to a window, looking out, on one of those long and propelling train rides.
Elsa Fiott, who is in her final year at university, had decided to take her gap year before starting a course. We meet at a café outside the university campus, where she tells me that her choice had been made, partly, to defer her studies. At that point in her life, she had not yet decided what academic path to pursue. It was also, she says, a self-granted break from her studies in order to allow herself to do other things. Apart from travelling, Elsa also got her diploma in music during that gap year.
But travel she did, and lots of it. During her three-month tour, she visited the cities of Pisa, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Berlin, Sigulda, Prague, Krakow, Riga, Dublin, Drogheda, Stockholm, Barcelona, The Hague, Leiden and Utrecht. Why these particular places, I ask. What about the renowned cities of Paris or London? She answers with a laugh – Ryanair! Though she would have loved to visit Paris in particular, those were the places reachable through cheap flight paths. As a pre-university student with only the odd part-time money in her piggy-bank, such reasoning is very understandable. She informs me that there were also friends of hers abroad who could host her, and whom she had wanted to visit.
For Elsa, CouchSurfing also came in handy. She tells me that people are unnecessarily suspicious of the benevolence of mankind. People who create an account on the CouchSurfing website are more than willing to host travelers, for free, in return for a quasi-mystic sharing of cross-cultural experiences. Many CouchSurfers are able to host from two to three people at a time, and gladly point out the best shops, landmarks, and conveniences around. To reply in kind, Maltese people who get hosted could always present their newly-acquired friends with some Bajtra Liquor, frozen pastizzi or some other small trinkets emblematic of our culture.
What outcome did all this travelling culminate to? She replies that she wasn’t really sure. What she does know is that she would recommend it to almost anyone – travelling and giving yourself time to do so is, in her opinion, essential.
As we part ways, she voices her final opinion.
“As long as it remains a gap, it will definitely widen your horizons. If it is extended to a lifestyle, although enjoyable, it will most probably turn into something counter-productive, which restricts you into set habits, rather than opening your mind to different experiences. Good words, indeed.