[Skip to Content]

A Life Changing Decision

Real Gap Year For Grown Ups - Career Break in India

A television executive changes her career after a break with Real Gap Year for Grown Ups

Name: Natasha Swanson
Dates of travel: Oct-Nov 2006 & July-Aug 2007
Programme: Rajasthan Desert & Monkey Rehabilitation
Occupation: Freelance writer

What was your motivation to take a break and go travelling?
I guess in a nutshell I’d come to a point where I realised that I was living life according to other people’s expectations rather than my own. What I mean is that I’d gone from school to university and from there straight into a broadcasting career; I was getting paid & promoted well enough and the next step was to get a mortgage and buy a house. As ungrateful as it sounds, the prospect of continuing onwards and upwards on the same path left me feeling a bit flat. I was especially disillusioned with the constant pursuit of commerce that defined my job, and to a large extent, life in London. So after much agonising I bought a round the world ticket and begun planning a trip with the intention of combining travel with voluntary work.  Sorry, that was quite a big nutshell!!

How long had you been thinking about going travelling?
I’d been thinking about travelling for about 2 years before I actually bit the bullet. An inspiring friend of mine had taken a gap year before university and he spoke about his experiences with such passion. In fact, when I plotted my route I deliberately went to some of the places he recommended.

Had you ever done anything like this before?
Abandoning my career and stepping into the unknown is without a doubt the scariest thing I've ever done. It’s actually quite out of character because instinctively I always crave security.

I think it was an experience I had at work that provided the final push I needed. I was involved in the acquisition of a TV drama about human trafficking. Having viewed the programme I was deeply affected by the whole issue. Consequently, I got in contact with the Metropolitan Police and an anti-trafficking charity; together we put together a campaign around the TV show. The campaign was successful in raising awareness and funds for the cause. This experience really taught me the satisfaction of working towards something more significant than my salary.

Why did you choose to travel with Real Gap?
My friends, Ben & Rachael, had the Real Gap catalogue in their living room. On many a wine-fuelled evening we’d pour over it, planning elaborate global escapes. So when I did decide to volunteer abroad, Real Gap was naturally the first place I turned.

What did you have to organise for your trip? (House, pets, car, finances, family).
I took a month’s ‘preparation time’ between finishing work and my first flight. In that time I spent three weeks indulging in numerous boozy farewells with family & friends, and one week madly cramming in injections, visas, currency, cancelling direct debits, failing to sell my car, packing, unpacking and repacking the backpack…I was so exhausted that on the first day of the project in Rajasthan I fell asleep during the introduction. Shame!

Had you taken a break from a career?
I intended to take a one year break from my career in the TV business. It’s now two years later and the break has turned into a full-stop. I don’t even own a TV!

What did your family and friends think of your plans?
Happily, all my family and friends fully supported my decision to travel the world. I know my mum was terribly anxious at first, but she’s a cool cucumber and only ever showed encouragement. I’m very grateful for that.
Now that I’ve decided against returning to London and committed to living in South Africa instead, some of my family think I've totally lost the plot. I expect they're right.

How did you feel on the last day of your programme?
On the last day of the India project I was sorry to leave the camp and the people there, however I’d buddied-up with a fabulous friend, Debbie, and together we’d decided to head south to Goa & Kerala for some serious beach exploration. Whilst I was feeling sad to go, I was also very excited about the next step of the adventure.

The Monkey-Rehab project in South Africa was a wonderful experience, but by the end of the month I was so deliriously in love with my new boyfriend (now fiancé) that I wasn’t all that fussed about leaving, as it meant spending more time with him. (I'm a shallow, fickle air-head I know)  

How did Gap Year For Grown Ups compare with your expectations?
Before I went travelling my experience of GYFGU was limited to the friendly booking service and the exotic photographs in the brochure.

I was still mentally clinging to these glossy images when I arrived into the dirty madness of India and at first it was a real shock to the system. A part of me had naively expected something slicker & more polished but, of course, in reality it wasn’t like that.

India is a chaotic place where almost all our western concepts of normality are turned upside-down.  I soon learnt that being taken out of my comfort zone was not a failing of GYFGU but actually its greatest asset: You really get to live this other life and still have the safety-net of a solid support system behind you, should you need it.

What do you think you accomplished during your trip?
I hope that through my voluntary work in India and South Africa I made a positive difference to the lives of the local children and environment.  Looking back I sometimes wonder if I could have put more energy into each project; worked harder and absorbed more. But I guess that’s the glory of hind-sight!

How have you benefited from your experience? How have you changed?
Wondering "How has this experience changed me?" is an inevitable part of doing something out of the ordinary. When I first returned to London I kept asking friends (rather conceitedly!!) this very question.
Funnily enough, how I felt and the answer I got was the same: "Not really changed at all".  It wasn’t until quite a bit of time had passed that I was able to identify subtle differences. For example, I think I was quick to judge before, but now (I hope) I’m more laid-back. I expect this comes from having seen the many different ways people choose to live their lives.

Additionally, I used to think my fast car, designer make-up and nice jewellery were an integral part of me. Now they’re gone I do miss them, but strangely not half as much as I imagined I would.  So, for me it was not so much about huge changes, but a small shift in values.

What advice could you offer to someone considering this programme?
In India I really struggled to come to terms with the desperate poverty and, if I’m honest, I was initially alarmed by the limited facilities provided for the volunteers. So I’d have to say this to anybody considering the Rajasthan project: Be prepared to be physically and mentally uncomfortable, and don’t do it because you feel you ought to, for the CV or anything like that, only do it because you really want to. Otherwise it might be a better idea to simply give some money to charity and enjoy a more luxurious holiday. (I know from my diary that I wrote “I wish I’d gone to California instead” on the second day!!)

On the other hand, if its something you feel drawn to then I’d say go for it! Pack light and be ready to experience incredible people & places that will stay in your heart forever.

Do you plan to travel/volunteer again in the future?
I would love to volunteer abroad again. Just now my priorities are all about creating a happy home with my fiancé as our baby is due very soon, but when the time is right I’d love to go again… maybe something in the rainforests of South America…? That’d be incredible.

If you were asked to sum up what you got out of your experience – what three words would you use?
Awakening, Fun, Satisfying