As the bells and fireworks across the globe hailed in the new year and we all wished each other a happy new year, it is important to reflect on the past year, the good times, the bad times and all times in between. Saying goodbye to 2016 reminded me just how lucky have been in so many respects, and although this year has been truly remarkable – in the truest sense of the word – it is one that contains memories that I will cherish for years to come.
A review of 2016 would not be complete without a nod to the political drama that had manifested itself. Britain voted to leave the EU, the European Refugee Crisis continued to put pressure on European leaders and populations, and the arguably most powerful country in the world elected a big tuft of hair as President of the United States. These events and others have divided the world to an extent rarely before seen in history and while this insight is not in any way groundbreaking, I question whether I should be making my opinion known on a public space like my blog or indeed even on my Facebook or twitter. I am reminded of the saying “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing” which further eerily reminds me of times like the run up to world-war 2. At the same time, platforms like Facebook have not helped discourse either through the natural consequence of their content delivery algorithms, and I would just be adding to the often anger-provoking activity of online discourse. It is much easier to swear at a photo than it is to a person. Indeed, notable events this year for me have been civil discussions between classmates of mine at university, where although we held widely different political views, I was given the chance to understand the opposition’s arguments, which was much more interesting than shouting at someone online. I do not in any way mean to belittle how people choose to share their opinions, but for me, online has had little success.It has been over a year since I last posted and for no particular reason aside that I placed more emphasis on recording the year in my journal rather than on my blog, to let me record more personal thoughts. Regardless of my excuses for the chronic lack of posts, 2016 held some truly unforgettable experiences for me.
After hearing from Cambridge that I was not awarded a place, I made the decision to take a gap year before going to Harvard. That decision was one that I didn’t take lightly: the idea of a gap year truly scared me. I didn’t know what I would be doing, whether I would spend a year gaining a useful skill or just wasting away and whether the stigma of taking a gap year was reflected in the individuals who indeed take gap years. Having been through the experience and having returned from what is probably the best year of my life, I can say with absolute confidence that I couldn’t thank Cambridge enough for rejecting me!
The year began – after working for three months and building the Ardberry buggy in October 2015 – with a ticket to South America, a backpack and butterflies in my stomach. I was going to be going to a country I had never been to before, living with a family I had never met and learning a language I had the faintest clue about. Buenos Aires, Argentina, greeted me with its warm air as I stepped off the aircraft. Over that month, I would come to fall in love with the city and the culture. I reminisce about my time there and the marvellous people I met, and I cannot help but smile. Friday night outings until 7am, walks in the parks, salsa lessons with Argentinians and lunchtime outings on school days. Yet all good things must come to an end, and after an emotional farewell from my housemate at the Airport Terminal, it was off on the next adventure.
One of my best friends and I then flew to the remote town of Coyhaique. Coyhaique’s local airport doesn’t have a fuel supply. We made a stop on the way down from Santiago to refuel enough for the aircraft to make the return journey. That was the first thing I learned about our destination airport, which reminded me that we were truly entering an unfamiliar and remote part of the world. The apprehension was building. Despite the thorough briefing by the Oyster team, the information booklets and the Lonely Planet guide in my hands, I was disembarking the familiar environment of a fuselage and stepping onto the unfamiliar Chilean soil of a town I would be spending the next two months in.
In what one can barely describe as an arrivals hall, the cheery demeanour of Jacqueline Farmer – the Oyster Worldwide (the travel agency that we had organised the experience with) representative – greeted us with what I learned was her trademark enthusiasm. The next few days flew by, and before I knew it, I was sitting on my host family’s kitchen table being interrogated by the youngest daughter in a language in which I only had a month of experience with prior, exchanging music, film and TV recommendations and browsing Spotify together until the parents came home from work. “Bienvenido a nuestra casa!” [welcome to our home] my host dad projected, thrusting his open hand towards me to shake firmly, while my host mother exclaimed “hola mi hijo!” [hello my son] and gave me a welcoming hug, while the daughter stood there giggling at the situation. Being British, I was naturally overwhelmed, remembering how Jacqueline stressed that the volunteers truly become part of the families.
That piece of advise was by no means an exaggeration, and by every measure my favourite aspect of the Chile experience was the evenings and weekends with my wonderful host family. The midnight conversations I had with my host mother, the back and forth with my host sister and the attempted conversations about Chilean football with my host father became the some of my most memorable moments of the entire trip. I recall driving to a local national park for a day hiking the mountains, my Chilean parents rolled down the windows, put on a Chilean pop song and sung at the top of their lungs for whoever could hear them.
That is absolutely not to say that my first experience at teaching young children in a foreign language was by any means not memorable. On the contrary, the challenge of engaging students in learning a foreign language was a unique one, as all the places these kids had visited or intended to work in spoke Spanish. They asked us several times why England didn’t speak Spanish, seeing as everywhere else speaks it. Watching their skills develop was in thus also a uniquely rewarding experience, not to mention the appreciation all the staff showed us at the school.
Coyhaique was ideally positioned for us to organise several unforgettable weekend trips to bathe in the springs of Puyuhuapi, walk the bridges the “Enchanted Forest”, visit the magical marble caves and hike a glacier. In fact, on the glacier my once sturdy walking boots breached, resulting in very wet feet upon returning, but that was all part of the experience! Along with the trips, hanging out with the students from the local university was another great way to get to see the town in a completely different light; South American night clubs offer no comparison to what the UK has to offer.
Leaving Coyhaique was almost harder then leaving Buenos Aires. My host family had welcomed me with such affection and had showed me just how much fun two people can still have with each other even after years of marriage that I had a knot in my throat as the car taking us to the airport slowly pulled away. It is hard to describe how transformative those two months were for both me and my friend. The weekend trips to the most stunning landscapes, the experience of teaching children for the first time, but most importantly (and again, this is a common theme!) the people I met there, all made rural Coyhaique just as vibrant as metropolitan Buenos Aires.
With that began the final two-month leg from Santiago to Lima. We explored Santiago for a week as my friend needed to get a work visa from the US embassy as he was going to work at a summer camp in Maine once we finished out romp around South America. We were also travelling with my teaching partner from Coyhaique and a friend of mine also about to start at Harvard with me that August. We traveled exclusively by long-distance bus. After visiting Valparaiso and La Serena, we saw the stunning scenery of the Atacama desert at San Pedro de Atacama, which required a 17 hour overnight bus trip from La Serena. While we were there, we went cycling in the desert, playing the Indiana Jones theme song to fit with the style of the adventurer!
We took a three-day jeep trip across the Atacama desert, reaching a peak altitude of 5000m, where we overnighted in sub-zero temperatures while suffering from altitude sickness. It was completely worth it, however, as – along with the remarkable geysers and rock formations – we saw the awe inspiring sunrise over the Bolivian salt flats, followed by hours of taking those silly but incredible perspective photos!
After spending a few days in Sucre and La Paz, we spent a day hiking on Isla del Sol and made our way to Peru. In Arequipa we met some more travellers and spent a few days with them exploring the city and learning about its history. In Ica we explored the sand dunes at the.
Oasis called Huacachina, where we treated ourselves to a roller coaster of a dune buggy ride. While there, we also visited a Peruvian hospital! My friend had an allergic reaction, which gradually got worse and worse before he needed hospital care. After the initial shock of the ordeal, we took a few good photos of him “dying” in his hospital bed, sent them to his parents, and laughed at how great of a story we now had to tell! In Paracas, we enjoyed a very cold beach break, capsizing a catamaran which broke my phone and paragliding for the first time.
This brings us to Lima, out final destination. By this stage, it had returned to just me and my friend traveling together and we spent a few days in Lima exploring the sights and experiencing the night life with some of the people from our hostel before coming to the realisation that we had a flight back to London. Boarding the plane, we looked back on the past five months with fondness and a complete lack of regret. We both knew that it would be a while until we ever attempted such a trip again, but as the saying goes, “don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”, and I couldn’t agree more.
What did I learn from the trip of a lifetime? It’s hard to pin those things down exactly. I know that the whole year – my work, the trip and the months in London – changed me in some way intangible way (I mean, I decided to grow a beard for some strange reason, for example!). One thing I will absolutely say to any students toying around with the idea of a gap year is that it is thoroughly worth it!
After a family holiday and a few months in London preparing for Harvard, the 19th of August came around, which meant that my trip to the US was about to begin! Marching into the terminal at Heathrow – where I obviously packed my big suitcase to the extent that it was illegally overweight so that I needed to repack into a new suitcase I bought next to check-in – I breezed through security and boarded my Virgin Atlantic flight to Boston!
From this point on, opening days at Harvard and the entire semester were just a whirlwind! I started off with the international program, where I learned about the American way of greeting one another and the mystical American art of “grinding”! The upperclassmen who were responsible for me (my ‘parents’) are now some of my best friends on campus. Indeed it is through one of my parents that I fell into the Harvard Model United Nations group. Now, this is something that I never thought I would have ever done in my entire life! Through it, I traveled to New York, made some of my best friends and even met my girlfriend!
I have also gotten involved with the engineering groups though the Robotics societies, and am on the road to getting a startup off the ground. I must say though that the American system has begun to rub off on me. While American culture may still baffle me even to this day, I do not one bit regret the decisions I have made this year.
With that, we welcome the new year 2017. I cannot even begin to make predictions as I have naïvely in the past, but life will go on! Here is to an equally remarkable – in the truest sense of the word – year.