Saturday, January 27, 2007


Advice to travellers

I recently got a very mature and considered email from a cousin. Part of my response to her contained travel advice; I've copied this below for anyone who is considering taking time out to go on a journey.

Regarding Gap Year plans, I think youve done very wisely in taking a year out. You need time to decompress from the A level stress, to make some money, to broaden your perspective, and when you do come back to study, you'll appreciate it a lot more.

One tip: wherever you decide to go, don't start in Freshers' Week by alienating everyone with how you discovered amazingly cheap Thai fisherman's pants, and how the locals were all so spiritual, and that you alone have been Awakened to Cosmic Truths. There will be a ton of people who say that, and they can get pretty annoying, not to mention boring once you've heard the spiel the first 10 times. Get to know people first, then bring up your exotic experiences if they're actually interested! I'm sure that I don't need to tell you this, as you're such a friendly people person, but Gap Year bores do get ruthlessly mocked. is the website for the outfit I went to Romania with, Teaching and Projects Abroad. I think the things Karen and I looked for to help us decide on a project were:

a project we felt strongly about doing that would enable us to use our talents to actually affect people's lives, not just being used as spare pairs of hands;

a country with good transport links so that should anything go wrong, we could get home relatively easily;

the opportunity to live in the community, not just stay with other foreigners;

a language we'd be able to pick up the rudiments of so as to make ourselves understood. Romanian is, as the name suggests, one of the Romance family of languages, along with French and Spanish which I'd studied before. (I really, strongly recommend that you get some audio tapes / CDs and do this, even if it's only the basic greetings, finding toilets, and "Does anyone here speak English?" We found the Berlitz tapes make this much easier than the Teach Yourself tapes, which get unnecessarily grammatical too quickly.)

It was also one of the cheapest projects – we saved more money by taking a cheap flight to Prague, and then working our way down by train, allowing us to acclimatise to travelling, rather than flying straight in to the very busy capital. We knew, however, that our host families were getting well recompensed for housing and feeding us, and that the fee included a donation to the orphanage.

As a bonus, we had the option to extend our stay, or transfer from Care (in the orphanage) to Teaching, Archaeology, Journalism or Wildlife Conservation if we weren't happy - it was good to have that option, although we chose to stay where we were.

The director's wife also taught a language course which was a great advantage – when Karen was suddenly taken ill in the remote Danube Delta, where no-one spoke a word of English, I'm so proud that I was able to commandeer the only car in the village from a wedding to get her to the medical centre and answer all the required questions. One thing about travelling is that it certainly gives you initiative!

Take a little photo album to show people your family, and what home life is like for you. You may want a little autograph book where the interesting people you meet can write you messages and give their email addresses.

Phone home once a week if you can. I do this every Sunday, so Mum and Dad don't worry throughout the week, and if I can't call I'll text or email the next day to reassure them.

One final tip: get yourself a money belt that lies flat against your skin, and if you feel unsafe, go into a toilet cubicle where you can organise your money and passport in privacy. Well, that's if there are toilets and not just holes in the ground. I'm sure your parents are having kittens about this, but from someone who's been there, I can tell you that I look back on Romania as being among the best times of my life. There were huge challenges, there were moments when I couldn't help crying, but it was a unique opportunity and I saw a huge amount of a beautiful and hospitable country, on the cusp of major social change, that very few people visit.

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