I Spent My Gap Year Travelling: Here's What I Learnt

Travelling During My Gap Year: Here’s What I Learnt About Life And Everything in Between

It’s more than the Insta-worthy photos or checking destinations off your bucket list!

What is so attractive about taking a gap year? Time and again we’ve heard of university students taking the unconventional route and paving their own way to success. This could mean dropping out of university to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams or a mid-career switch that transformed their lives forever. However, the majority of young adults see themselves going through the motions of Singaporean life: school, university, career and marriage. 

Before we continue, a gap year is known to be a typically-year long break before or after tertiary/university. Instead of just a graduation trip, these gap years usually entail travelling across various regions for a longer duration. Alternatively, individuals can engage in homestay programmes and experience life differently from the comforts of their own home! 

The Singaporean Dream

gap year

Image credit: Tierra Mallorca 

Whether they’re 15, 27 or 63, Singaporeans can relate to the over-emphasised ideals of achieving “The Singaporean Dream”. Some may even spend the rest of their lives pursuing it, chasing this idyllic state of being that sits on an unattainable pedestal. It isn’t just about financial safety or even owning a fully-furnished home by your 20s. 

Image credit: Luis Villasmil

Having grown up here, I speak on behalf of many young adults when I say the pressure is real. If you think a pressure-cooker education system isn’t stressful enough, just wait till you enter university where everyone appears to have their life together. And me? Well, not just yet. Life seems to be an endless rat-race of chasing, achieving and eventually discarding milestones in favour of other seemingly more “desirable” ones. 

Soft truths thanks to travelling during my gap year

Despite the term ‘gap year’ sounding attractive and mysterious altogether, many reacted to this decision with apprehension. The most common concerns? 

“Won’t you be wasting your time?” 

“What about getting a job first?” 

“Can’t you just travel in the future?”

“How are you going to afford your travels?” 

Trust me, the list only gets longer. 

Honestly, deciding to take a gap year was already a shocking decision, let alone taking that year to travel abroad. Nonetheless, I’ve no regrets because, without the opportunity, I wouldn’t have learnt these lessons about myself and life: 

See the world in a different light

gap year

Image credit: Sapan Patel

Literally and metaphorically. Of course, anyone would enjoy travelling to a foreign, exotic space to embrace different cultures and places. The idea of it is rosy, for sure. 

However, there’s a stark difference between visiting a country and actually living in it. Sensationalised tourist attractions are replaced with ordinary, everyday sights. Some of which may be as common as a neighbourhood park, local library and grocery store down the street.

While some may argue that you can see the world through documentaries and books, there’s nothing like soaking in a culture first-hand. Even if it means experiencing the not-so-good parts of the place you live in too. Coming out of a gap year has given me ‘fresh eyes’ to see and feel the world differently. Thanks to that, building connections with people and places didn’t feel transient anymore. 

To thine ownself be true

Tldr: Back during my schooling days, I would take on odd jobs or get myself involved in extra-curricular activities just to beef up my portfolio. I was guilty of forcing myself to do so although, frankly, I knew I didn’t want them. Why did I choose to do it, then? I realised it was because ‘everyone else was doing it’. And since the majority hopped onto the bandwagon, it should be the right thing to do, right? 

Wrong. Not only was it physically exhausting, but the commitments I had took a toll on my mental health and every day felt like an interminable cycle of routines. It wasn’t purposeful nor edifying, and I knew enough was enough.

gap year

Image credit: Wanaporn Yangsiri 

Travelling during my gap year gave me the freedom and headspace to just be who and what I wanted to be. Better yet? Going for solo trips avoided the hassle of burning bridges with friends or forgoing an offbeat path just to satisfy the majority.

In addition, I came to appreciate what truly mattered to me, and my goals and aspirations in life (minus constant nagging from friends and family). Even the simplest things of smelling the flowers and learning to take a deep breath before embarking on any adventure translated to how I saw life upon returning home. There was more that mattered besides a certificate, a job or a relationship. For me, learning who I was was made possible by travelling during my gap year. 

Pick up new skills along the way

Travelling abroad is more than knowing what and how much to pack for your adventure. In fact, going solo requires even more time and effort since you’ll be venturing across regions instead of staying within a specific area. That said, you can hone invaluable skills through these constant travels and even pick up skills you never thought of having! 

gap year

Image credit: Artur Tumasjan 

It’s all fun and games until your flight gets cancelled or if you’re stuck in an awkward ‘lost in translation’ moment with a local. I remembered having to calculate my expenses, plan my flight schedule and pack efficiently when I embarked on my first solo trip. And that was all in two days. But hey, it’s worth a shot at putting my organisational and planning skills on overdrive, lest I miss my flight out and have my plans derailed. Travelling isn’t always smooth-sailing, but at least it’ll make for a good story along the way. 

Live in the moment

Image credit: Jaanus Jagomäg 

“You don’t get to see the aurora borealis everyday. And when you do, you best be taking pictures to prove you were there when its stunning lights appear.”

I’d hear this from people who caught the stunning aurora borealis, and regretted not taking more pictures of it. On my trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada, I was psyched to catch these luminous wonders for the first time in my life. Admittedly, I was psyched to the point that I stood below them, not realising they were actually in motion all the time. 

Fun fact: the aurora borealis you see in photos are thanks to advanced photography and proper lighting. In reality, the lights are barely visible to the naked eye and require your utmost attention to see them dancing in the darkened sky. 

Just like how I got carried away with my expectations of the lights, I found myself caught up in the demands of life. Gearing to jump into a new chapter robbed me of the chance to accept and embrace the one I was in right here, right now. Sure, things may not always be as picture-perfect as I thought they’d be. But there is something to be said for living, as truly and wholly as I can, in the moment that I have. 

What lies ahead after my gap year

gap year

Image credit: Kai Cheng

Of course, every adventure comes to a close. Upon returning home, the hustle of life has swarmed me once again. 

Funnily enough, it wasn’t intimidating or the least bit dreary. I came back with a goal: not just about what I wanted to do with life, but adopting a new headspace free from what I previously thought was ‘right’. 

This time, I chose to live the way I wanted to. Recognising, feeling and being present for myself were now my priorities. And not chasing qualifications, status or a 9-5 job that seemed socially desirable. This gap year spent travelling wasn’t a “waste of time” like they used to think. Rather, it was just the start of a new adventure that awaits me! 


WP & FB featured image credit: Drif Riadh

About Author

Sarah Jane Lee
Sarah Jane Lee

Sarah strongly believes that much like sunflowers, she draws her energy from basking in the sunshine. She believes that detours, chance encounters and stories shared by strangers at a bus stop are part of what makes adventure beautiful. Apart from being a sports enthusiast (current fix: Muay Thai), Sarah enjoys soaking up the afternoon sun with a book in hand.

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