As I read about Magellan’s first circumnavigation in 1522 and “Around the World in 80 Days” at my Van Pelt carrel, I reminisced upon my globe-hopping gap year. During that year, the kaleidoscope of spectacles and spices impregnated every morning with magical possibilities.
I was a farmer at an Israeli kibbutz, a monk at an Indian ashram, a peddler at Spanish festivals, an activist at the G-8 rally in London, a social worker at the Mother Teresa House, a pilgrim at Mount Sinai, an English teacher in rural China and a writer in Korea.
I slept next to Kiwis blanketed by the stars of the Southern Cross in New Zealand, next to a Tibetan village chief atop sacred peaks in the clouds, next to dumpster-diving artists in an Amsterdam squatter and next to the homes of Kate Moss and Paul McCartney in a posh Abbey Road mansion.
Class, race, gender, sexuality, ideology and nationality didn’t matter. I felt free and fluid. Although my “Grand Tour” was built on my economic privilege, I met countless college-age Europeans working to fund their own journeys. The price tag for my hands-on education? Half of Penn’s annual tuition.
As I pack my Penn life into my backpack for the road ahead, I leave these travel tips as my Christmas gift to you. A humanities major with “The History of Travel” and a travel literature class under my belt, I may not understand jobs. But I do understand travel.
Before you embark, know that travel is not cozy tourism. My management professor, who founded a travel company, told me some of his customers came back without everything they left with. In between the revelry and revelations, you will see Murphy’s Law in action. Homesickness will shadow you as well. But despite these blues on the road, “travelling is [still] best done alone,” as travel writer Paul Theroux said.
I learned how to fly solo with a summer and gap year program called “Where There Be Dragons.” It offers a fun medley of local home stay, nature exploration, service and language and culture study. Although taking classes on a cruise may sound unbearably bourgeois, Semester at Sea also provides an introduction to traveling off the beaten path in addition to course credit (though not from Penn).
If you can afford postponing your American dream for a year, Oneworld Alliance offers a cheap bundle of airplane tickets. In 2008, I purchased 16 flights for $5,000. If you enjoy biking or building houses with Habitat for Humanity, Bike & Build is an awesome organization with whom I biked from New Hampshire to Vancouver.
If you don’t like exercising, Vipassana Meditation centers around the world allow you to meditate 10 hours daily for 10 days for free. For the tree huggers, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms offers free room and board in exchange for your labor on organic farms around the world.
Couchsurfing is a great way to save dollars while meeting local denizens. Although the idea of crashing on a stranger’s couch may seem strange, this global organization with over 3 million members has layers of safety measures. I’ve couchsurfed and hosted couchsurfers dozens of times. So far, I’ve had no negative experiences, but instead I’ve discovered a cornucopia of love and friendship.
I also recommend playing some football (no, not the American “armadillo” version). If you can talk tiki-taka tactics of FC Barcelona or just play a pickup game, you will gain instant trust and respect wherever you go. Or you can also pick up a guitar. Though cliche, “music is the universal language of mankind,” as Henry Longfellow said. If you can sing as merrily as a child, you will win hearts around the world. Lastly, God may be dead, but keeping an open mind to the religions and spirituality of your destinations will also enrich your travels.
Although we fear staying in college for more than four years and falling behind, I invite you to consider taking time out for yourself.
Wherever your itinerary takes you, at the end of the path, you may live the words of T.S. Eliot as I did: “The end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
JY Lee is a College and Wharton senior from Gangnam, South Korea. His email address is email@example.com. “Wandering Curious Lee” usually appears every other Tuesday. Follow him @junyoubius.