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I had many new experiences during my gap year, I lived on my own for the first time, I took college courses in Spanish, I met new people and tried new things, but the takeaway that I will carry with me for the rest of my life is the importance of taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. Last summer, my plan was to live in Spain from late August until April. I was going to play hockey and take classes. By December however, I was a different person who wanted different things. I changed my original plan as new opportunities came up. I missed class to travel to Milan, Zurich, and the Canary Islands. Before I left for these trips, I often considered that I could just go some other time in order to not miss class and stick to my plan. These small adjustments had prepared me for the most consequential change to my plan that I made, the decision to forgo the rest of the hockey season and another semester of classes in order to go on a NOLS trip to Patagonia. Again though, I nearly didn’t do it. I felt like I was abandoning my original plan, like I was giving up, like I was failing. Even after I put down the deposit for the trip, I still felt like I had failed. It actually wasn’t until I was in Patagonia that I realized that it is not failure to change plans. I had grown over my gap year, and as a result I was ready to experience new things. I found an opportunity and I went with it, and as a result I had one of the best months of my life.
If you are planning to take a gap year, I guess what I am trying to say is that it is hard to tell who you will be 6 months from now, especially during a such time of personal growth and change that a gap year is. So, if you are part way into a plan that you made months ago and you begin craving something different, you should go with it. You haven’t failed or by changing your plan, you have actually grown to the point where you are ready for new experiences. This growth is much more meaningful than putting your head down and sticking to a plan that you made back when you were a different person.
If you are taking a gap year and enjoy the outdoors, you should definitely go on a NOLS trip. I went on the NOLS Patagonia cultural expedition which was probably the highlight of my gap year. Having spent the previous 4 months in Spain, not only was I able to enjoy the wilderness, I was able to form deeper connections with the community along the way. These people included Chilean border patrol stationed on a lake that crossed over into Argentina, gauchos (Chilean cowboys), and pobladores (people who settled Patagonia). Not only did I learn about the current culture of Patagonia, but I also learned about the history, and the parallels between the Chilean/Argentinian settlement of Patagonia and the settlement of the American west.
This may sound a bit cliché, but the trip was a reset for me. I was with completely new people in a completely different place without my phone, which usually ties me to the world I know. Going into the trip I reasoned that anyone who wanted to spend 30 days in the Patagonian wilderness was someone I wanted to know, and I could have not been more right. I made friends from all over the country and world, some who I would have certainly seen more of if it weren’t for the pandemic.
If I boil down what really made this experience so fantastic it really comes down to the sheer number of experiences that the trip presented. I had not spent a full month without my phone since 8th grade. I learned just about everything there is to know about backpacking, and even earned a Leave No Trace Trainer certificate. I learned the proper way to make and serve maté, the unofficial official drink of Patagonia. helped a poblador named Oscar lasso a lamb, then watched him slaughter it and cook it over a fire to make the a traditional Patagonian asado. This experience was an especially fascinating one for me because it really made me think about eating meat. The way Oscar killed the lamb was the most humane way imaginable, which has made me more conscious about where the meat I eat came from and how it was raised and killed. It was also fascinating purely because of how unexpected it was. Finally, spending all that time and sharing these experiences with a group of strangers who all became friends makes me really excited for college. I grew up in a small town, so I haven’t really met anyone new since elementary school. I know almost no one going to Duke next year, but I can’t wait to share the experience of college with everyone.
It’s a bit odd that I haven’t written much about the hiking or the camping, but I think that is because those activities, while they take up the majority of your time, are really just a back drop for the rest of the experiences you have on a NOLS trip, so seriously, if you like the outdoors, there is nothing I can recommend more that you do on your gap year.
It occurs to me though, that a prospective NOLS student may be curious about the actual hiking and camping experience, so I will now share. The course lasted 31 days. Over the course of 28 days we hiked approximately 120 miles. On the first two days of the course, we looked at our route, packed up the provisions that we would eat over the next month, learned how to pack our packs, and then drove about 9 hours in a van to our starting point.
The hiking was broken up into 3 sections: 12 days, 9 days, then 7 days. We had to make our way to pre-determined re-ration points, where we would meet up with gauchos who would deliver our food and fuel for the next ration. A 12 day ration is long, so when we started out, my pack weighed about 68 pounds, the majority of it being food. Throughout the first ration, the instructors really acted as teachers. They taught us how to navigate using a map, compass, and GPS, how to choose a campsite, and most importantly how to get creative with the limited ingredients that we had brought. As the days passed, they gradually handed most of the responsibilities over to us. We would determine how far we would hike in a day and when we would start, as well as split our group of 15 into 3 self-sufficient hiking groups, which meant that if we got separated by night fall each group would have everything they needed, which happens more than you would think. In fact, the day before the first re-ration, 2 groups couldn’t find the trail, decided to bushwhack, and it took 4 days before my group of 5 met back up with them.
The rest of the expedition went much more smoothly. No one got lost and we started independent student group travel, where we would hike without the instructors. At this point we had learned so much about trail finding and map reading that it really was no problem at all. The next two re-rations were also much more cultural, as a I wrote about above. We met gauchos and pobladores, and shared many cups maté and stories. When we weren’t with the locals, the typical daily routine was wake up, make breakfast, hike for 6-10 hours, make camp and dinner, relax, then go to bed. But trust me, even though that takes up a lot of time, it goes by fast. Hiking really is one of the best times to have a conversation, and when you’re with a group of people that you just met a few weeks ago it if difficult to run out of topics. NOLS runs trips all over the world, so this experience defiantly won’t be identical to any others. So again, if you like the outdoors, a NOLS trip is one of the best ways to see a place you travel to, so I hope you will consider one during your gap year.
Back in the end of December I made what was a very difficult decision. I was going to leave Spain. I had originally planned on staying in Spain until April, but I was having more difficulty in Spain than I imagined. Of course there were incredible successes too. Every day I could feel my Spanish improving. I no longer had any trouble understanding anything that was said to me, could easily respond, and was even beginning to understand random conversations that I heard on the street. I was learning a lot at my Spanish classes at Universidad Nebrija, and having fun playing hockey for S.A.D. Majadahonda, the local club.
Despite this I was feeling lonely, and actually a little bit trapped. I was going to school with juniors in college who traveled every weekend while I stayed in Spain to play hockey, so I was never able to make any close friendships with any of them, and the guys who I was playing hockey with were very nice to me, but it seemed like we were always a bit separated by the knowledge that I would be leaving in April. That meant that none of us ever put a lot of effort into getting that close. I also had a big logistical problem: My classes ended at two, and hockey didn’t start until eight or nine, leaving me with six to seven hours of awkward time, not enough free time to do anything I really wanted to do like travel, and too much time to spend reading at a cafe or watching Netflix every day. Basically I had a lot of free time, but it didn’t ever line up in ways that I could use very well. On top of all this I was not as comfortable living in a city as I thought I was going to be. I have lived in a tiny town in New Hampshire all my life, so Madrid was a big change.
I was completing my goal of becoming fluent in Spanish, but I really didn’t feel like I was enjoying myself as much as I should be on my gap year. So, I started looking into programs in Spanish speaking countries I that I could do. I knew that I was interested in a program because I realized that it was realistically a mistake to try to do everything on my own in Spain. Since I was on my own, I didn’t really share the same experience as anyone else, but on a program everyone is on their own so I figured it would be easier to make strong connections. Pretty soon I was drawn to NOLS Patagonia. They ran a cultural expedition through the Chilean Patagonia that promised 31 days of backpacking and cultural interactions. This sounded perfect, the outdoors, speaking Spanish with locals, getting to meet new people, it checked everything off on the list of things that I wanted. But even then I was not totally sure if I wanted to leave. As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” I started to realize that I actually had grown closer with my Spanish hockey team than I had realized. The idea of telling them I was leaving was daunting. After. Several days of mulling it over I finally decided to sign up for the NOLS course, and to leave Spain in late December. Telling people that I was leaving early was certainly not the most enjoyable experience, but I knew that I wanted to make a change, so I did it anyway.
None of this is to say that I didn’t have an amazing experience in Spain, I would not trade what I learned for anything. Did I make mistakes? Of course, but the ability to speak to people that I never would have been able to before makes every mistake I made worth it 10 times over. I do want to help others learn from the mistakes I made though. If you are reading this blog and trying to plan a gap year the two biggest questions I would ask you are as follows:
What will your day to day life look like? and Who will your friends be?
I would ask you to think about these two questions hard, because these two questions are the root of where I went wrong. As I was planning my gap year I would have said I will spend my days learning Spanish and playing hockey and my friends will be my classmates and hockey teammates. But I didn’t consider how these two things would affect each other. Since I had hockey every nearly every night and every weekend it was difficult to spend time with my classmates outside of class, and since I didn’t go to school with any of my teammates it was difficult to spend time with them outside the rink. Having a game every weekend for hockey was also difficult, because while I love hockey it made traveling, which is pretty much synonymous with being in Europe, pretty difficult to arrange. So, make sure you think about these questions so that you don’t do what I did, make yourself simultaneously too busy and not busy enough.
So, reader who may be considering taking a gap year, should any of this make you reconsider? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I now want to talk about some of the many amazing things times I had living in Spain with some pictures.
Playing hockey in Spain:
Playing hockey for S.A.D. Majadahonda was definitely one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. As anyone who has played a sport knows, communication with your teammates is key, and I had to communicate in Spanish. This forced me to get good at listening to people and being able to respond quickly. It also gave me the opportunity to travel throughout Spain with Spaniards. Every weekend that we had an away game we would leave the night before on a bus, play a game, and then have at least 6 hours to explore the city. Experiencing Spain with Spanish hockey players was probably one of the most unique experiences I had.
My Host Family:
My host family were probably the nicest people I had ever met. They were the real reason that leaving Spain was so difficult. They brought me to their summer home up north, I want to their grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. They treated me like I was their son. I will be forever grateful to them.
Classes at Universidad Nebrija:
I am actually amazed at how much I learned in 4 months. I started off with a pretty solid foundation, but wow, I honestly never imagined that I would understand Spanish as well as I do now. When I started out, speaking was easier than understanding, but now I can understand everything so speaking is definitely the harder part.
I was lucky to have three close friends from home in Europe at the same time I was there. One in Salamanca, Spain, just a few hours north of me in Madrid, one in Switzerland, and one in London. I traveled the most with the one in Salamanca, and the friends that he had made on his first semester at Colby College that he spent in Spain. We went to Barceonla (my friend in England actually came on that trip too) and Milan together. I also went to visit both friends in Switzerland and London.
So, am I glad I spent 4 months in Spain? Yes I am. Am I happy I left when I did to pursue other things? Yes I am. Would I change some things? Yes. Would I trade my experience for anything? Absolutely not!
At my high school graduation, my philosophy teacher Mr. Concilio gave a piece of life advice that has really stuck with me through my first week in Spain. The simple version of the advice that he gave is that when you have two different life choices, make the decision that allows you to tell the better story later in life. I think about this advice because this August I had the choice of either matriculating at the university that’s been my dream since I first set foot on campus, or I could live in Spain for seven months. I chose the latter, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Every day I think about if I had chosen to begin my freshman year at Duke and how much easier it would have been logistically. I wouldn’t have to open a Spanish bank account, change my phone plan to a Spanish one, or fight for an appointment with the police to get my application for residence officially approved.
Of course, if I had chosen to begin my freshman year, then I wouldn’t have gotten to see a castle built on top of a boulder (a scene of Game of Thrones was filmed there!). I also probably would never have known about the region that it’s located in, Alto Tajo, which combines the classic plains of Southern France and Spain with the wind beaten rocks of Arizona. Nor would I have gotten to know my incredible host family, and had the privilege of meeting their incredible friends, who so far include a talented Spanish chef, and a man who raises most of the bulls that are fought in Spain. I also, most obviously, wouldn’t have the incredible opportunity to become fluent in Spanish, which would let me talk to 450 million more people than I already can in English.
Day to day I am having an incredible time. But the fact that I am going to be in Spain for the next seven months constantly looms over me; it’s scary. Whenever I start having doubts and thinking that I just want to go home I try to remember what Mr. Concilio said. Next summer, when I am getting ready to start my freshman year at Duke, I am going to be so happy that I took a gap year. I will have incredible stories to tell and I am going to be much more prepared for life as a college student. After all, if I can live a year in Madrid, Durham should be a piece of cake!