Feed the world and get a tan

12th August 2005 at 01:00
From Malawi to Siberia, exotic destinations are crying out for gap-yearers with worthy intentions, writes Matthew Holehouse

Filling in my Ucas application online, I think I'm finished when the final page catches me out. Do I want to defer my entry, it asks. My cursor hovers over the check-box. Tough question. Do I?

I click on the yes, pushed by an aversion to missing out, and head filled with images of Motorcycle Diaries-style adventures in the great unknown.

I think that as a concept the gap year is pretty good. We're in school for 14 years, followed by at least three more at university. While it's probably easier to stay focused if you haven't spent the past 14 months on a Thai beach, it makes sense to take a long break from institutionalised living. School life can be fairly prescriptive, and the sudden freedom of being able to live without thinking about homework or arranging life around school hours seems like a healthy change.

And if your course deals with understanding the "real world" - a subject such as law, history or sociology - then I suppose a year getting experience of life with all its responsibilities and difficulties outside the parental and loco parental bubble can't do any harm.

So, once your friends have left town, what to do for the year? After a couple of months of long hours stacking shelves, see the world, of course.

Where to? Take your pick. Travel companies make it surprisingly easy to fly out, sometimes within days of booking, to the most and least exotic places on Earth. Alongside atolls and rainforests, several websites offer three-month stays in Siberian mining towns. Evidently the gulags can't have been that bad after all. Another offers trips to farmsteads in Zimbabwe.

Hmm. A rural conservation project in Bavaria for pound;50, plus flights, sounds attractive, until closer reading reveals that it's an unwaged road-building project.

Gap-yearing is indicative, I think, of our generation's wholesome, non-radical intentions for the world, cultured on a diet of Comic Relief and Live8. Most programmes offer some form of volunteering in undeveloped countries, be it teaching, conservation or nursing, with the opportunity to pour cash earned at Asda into the local bead-bracelet industry. If we come back more aware of global issues, and can manage to re-immerse ourselves in study when we go to university, then it can only be a good thing.

However, when development work and holiday are blended together (feed the world and get a great tan!) I think we ought to be careful. Volunteers should not have to adopt an enforced sincerity when they visit poor communities. At the same time, there's a danger of using the world beyond Europe as a poverty playground, and to enjoy pretending to be Bob Geldof without having any real desire to make a difference. Prince Harry's photo shoot in Malawi, with tabloids salivating over how much like his mother he looked, Aids orphan in arms, was charity turned commodity at its worst; more GAP than gap. The assumption that we are just what the developing world needs has echoes of an earlier age. If only Hackett made pith helmets. "Mr Windsor, I presume?"

Harry's adventures aside, I still think gap year travel is great. It'll never shake off its reputation of middle-class, world's-your-oyster chirpiness, mostly because you need money to travel, and bags of youthful courage to get on the plane having read the leaflets on tropical diseases.

Perhaps, after reading up on dengue fever, a summer resurfacing the Munich autobahn won't seem such a bad idea.

Matthew Holehouse has just finished Year 12 at Harrogate grammar school.

His column is running throughout the summer

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