How to Not Waste Time on Your Gap Year Part 2: Expat Edition

Cecilia Haynes

Cecilia has lived in China, India, the U.S., the Philippines, and Turkey. After saving money by working as an English instructor in Hong Kong for a year, she backpacked around the Tibetan Plateau, western China, and northern India.

Family in IndiaPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

You've taken a look at our "How to Not Waste Time On Your Gap Year Part 1: Travel Edition," but you're wondering how to make the most of your gap year should you decide to spend it (or prolonged periods of it) in one location, immersing yourself in the excitement and adventures of one culture, developing a great local community with friends you've made through your settlement, and proclaiming this new place your home away from home. If any of this describes you - or if it doesn't but still intrigues you - this settler's edition of "How to Not Waste Time On Your Gap Year" is for those who seek to "travel slowly" and adopt a more settled, expat-lifestyle while traveling abroad.

1. Make Friends with the Locals

It may be very tempting for you to want to escape into familiarity as soon as you are surrounded by constant newness. Finding fellow travelers from your own country or other expats might be a comfortable place to start when exploring your new home, but this habit becomes a crutch all too easily. You may find at the end of your trip that you never once formed a meaningful relationship with the culture around you. Break out of that cocoon and rustle up a local buddy. You might want to try language exchange or even explore local groups that share your interests. Find some volunteers nearby or even take a class in order to expand your friendships.

You might be feeling anxious about how to maximize the time that you have. Do not worry...There is no single roadmap for how to make the most of this gap year experience.

Peruvian FoodPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

2. Eat Everything, Question Nothing

No matter where you are, food is one of the essential components of any culture. It is beyond rude to be openly picky or finicky. Throw yourself into the local food scene (cautiously…no one wants Delhi Belly/Montezuma’s Revenge/Turkey Trots) and learn to control that gag reflex. If you are vegetarian, make this very clear from the onset and try your best not to offend. If you are in a vegan/vegetarian culture, then no excuses!

3. Jack/Jill of All Trades

Start a blog, take a ton of photographs, or even sketch. Record EVERYTHING and try your hand at improving your pre-existing talents. If you are on a grand adventure, then you will really want to be able to look back and reminisce fondly. Documenting your gap year has the added benefit of creating a portfolio or a piece of work that you can show to future employers. Seek professional development opportunities or do an activity that proves you did more than just bum on the beach. Consider volunteering with an organization or teaching english to children. You also might be able to really pad that resume with a list of all the various activities that you participated in. Make yourself desirable with this gap year.

4. Network

I know networking sounds like a boring corporate, nine-to-five, cubicle-ly word, but it can actually be very exciting when you are on your gap year. Think of the network of friends, colleagues, and random locals who will continue to impact your life in the future. They may help you find a job in a place you were not expecting. You might even be able to help a fellow traveler by setting them up with a few buddies that you made while abroad. Try to meet as many people as you can and keep up those contacts.

Think of the network of friends, colleagues, and random locals who will continue to impact your life in the future. They may help you find a job in a place you were not expecting.

Colored PowderPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

5. Research

Research can be thorough or superficial, it is up to you. However, wherever you end up, make sure to learn a bit about where you will be living, including the health standards and local customs. The element of surprise is a lot of fun, but it can be even better when you are exploring with a solid foundation of knowledge. If you hit the ground running, then who is to say where you will end up by the end of your trip?

6. Side Trips

If you are living in one place for the full year, then you need to take the time to explore outside of your home city. See the rest of the country or go even further afield and visit a new culture. Weekend getaways are a must during your gap year, especially if you are spending the year rooted.

7. Language

Try to >pick up the language. I know it is hard, but you will win so many points with the locals if you just try. Learn “hello” or “thank you” and watch as people light up with happiness and pride that you would take the time to try. Reiterating point number one, this will help you make friends. Plus, it is a healthy lesson in how to laugh at yourself whenever you make a mistake.

Great options to look into are programs through companies that are listed here. So take a Portuguese course in Brazil or take a fancy to taking a French course in the South of France.

Learn “hello” or “thank you” and watch as people light up with happiness and pride that you would take the time to try.

Guy with SnakePhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

8. Do Something that Scares You

Do not go into an unlit alley in the middle of the night in a shady part of the city. What I mean is find an activity that challenges you. No one ever comes home after being abroad raving about their ability to fall asleep at 8PM every night. Go into a cage and swim with sharks. Hurl yourself off a bridge attached to a bungee cord. Stand in front of a crowd and belt out those Karaoke skills. Whatever you decide, you will be stronger for it.

9. Embrace Nature

Too often we hole ourselves up with technology in the comfort of our homes. Make an effort to get outside, preferably in some place with greenery, water, and/or rocks. There are plenty of opportunities around the world to go on a trek/safari/snowboarding/pirate ship extravaganza. Take advantage.

10. Celebrate

Every culture has their unique quirky holidays and festivals. Get out there and hurl tomatoes, soak people with water guns, and/or toss colored powder at strangers. Participating in these local festivals will give you a whole new appreciation for the people that you are living amongst and you might just come out with some fantastic stories/photographs. This is also a great way to immerse yourself and even find points of contact with other travelers who have had similar experiences.

Last Words of Advice

No matter what happens you are going to have a fantastic time. I hope that this list gives you a starting point from which to launch fully into your gap year. It will not always be an easy experience and you might feel a little lost at sea, but you will return aching to go back.

And if you're wondering how our tips change should you decide to go traveling instead of settling down, make sure to read our article on "How to Not Waste Time On Your Gap Year: Travel Edition." You won't regret it!