“They don’t really want to see the world, warts and all – just the beaches, surfers and youth hostels where they are kept safely away from the locals”. That is unfortunately what many people think of gap year students.

This stereotype is encapsulated in the story of two British gap year “travellers” that recently appeared in the media. Shanti Andrews and Rebecca Turner commited insurance fraud in Rio de Janiero, Brazil and were reported to have sobbed their hearts out when sentenced to serve 16 months community service; cleaning favelas, teaching English and reading to children in orphanages.

The horror displayed at having to mingle with the locals has been used by some to back up this stereotype of lazy, middle-class backpackers that set out claiming they’re off to “see the real world” but are actually just avoiding the real world – of work, that is. Rather than getting involved in other cultures it is said their priorities lie with meeting others their age, while drinking alcohol and improving their tans.

However, interactions with native societies are the most captivating and memorable experiences that most young people will have when traveling.

One particular experience which stood out for me was when I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to stay with a family in Armanti, off Lake Titicaca in Peru.The indigenous peoples that live on the island are descendants of the Incas.

Before we even set out to the island we were given a basic lesson in the local language Quechua so we could greet the families in their native tongue. When we arrived we met our ‘Mama’ for the night who gave us traditional hats that they had knitted themselves so that they could tell us apart. In return we gave them gifts, mainly consisting of fresh produce from the mainland and colouring pencils for the children (no sweets as there is no access to dental care on the islands).

We were taken to our houses for the night to meet the rest of our families. Our family had two lovely little boys who were running around playing football and the sweetest little girl who was obviously very excited to meet the new guests.

We then went to the only football pitch on the island to play a five-a-side match of football against the locals. Needless to say we lost – because of the altitude (obviously it had nothing to do with our lack of stamina). Lake Titicaca is 3,855 metres above sea level, the highest navigable lake in the world, and the opposition doing their best not to giggle at how out of breath we found ourselves!

As it got dark we went home for the dinner that our Mama had cooked for us; a traditional dish of Quinoa soup and rice. This was when we got the chance to talk to our families.

Although the only common language was basic Spanish we managed to talk about everything from our lives at homes to our plans for the future. It’s surprising how much we could understand each other without the use of verbal communication.

Although the little girl couldn’t follow as much of the conversation she still contributed by singing us a song she had learnt at school. Then our Mama took us outside to show us her garden, which she was obviously very proud of.

After dinner we were dressed in traditional costumes for dancing in the community hall. All the clothes were hand made and we put on a shirt embroidered with colourful flowers, two full skirts and a waistband (which was tied so tightly it felt like a corset), followed by a black shawl to show that we were unmarried. The little girl even plaited our hair so we matched her.

We all struggled on our way up the hill to the hall with our tight bands and skirts while our Mama managed much more easily than us, despite being three times our age.

It was definitely worth the walk as the party was so much fun! We spent the whole night dancing with all the villagers while a group of the men played traditional music. We all enjoyed the chance to swirl around in our colourful skirts and learn some of the local dance moves!

The next morning our Mama woke us up with a bowl of hot water to wash with, as there is no running water on the island. We were served pancakes and jam for breakfast with cocoa tea (which is supposed to help with altitude sickness).

This opportunity to learn more about other societies and to actually live it, even if only for a short time is one that is unparalleled and a priveldge to have had. So in reply to the journalist who asked “Why should anyone feel sorry for these spoilt, stupid girls?” when writing about Shanti and Rebecca, I do as they clearly
have no idea what they missed out on.

About the Author: Helen Chapman is part of the PASSION for the PLANET team.

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