The Great Gap Year Stigma


Anyone on flight EZY8894 to Gatwick Airport would have been forgiven for judging me as a returning troop from the lad’s tour. The indefinable tone of pink that permeated my skin from head to, well… neck, the inexplicable henna tattoo of the Arabic alphabet on my right arm (which a baffled woman points out to me ends at the letter ‘n’) and the ambiguous stains on my last surviving pair of trousers, which I conclude to be the subject of an intense family debate in the adjacent aisle. Alas, my point of departure however was not Magaluf but Marrakech, fresh (not so) from three weeks of volunteering in Morocco. Quickly. Have I earned your disdain already?

Well, I haven’t returned with an orphan, I haven’t begun lecturing my friends and family on the emptiness of their corporate lives or berated them on the inadequacy of their charitable donations. I’ve even turned a blind eye to water wastages in the Ice Bucket Challenge. But as I hover over this great mosaic city and its jutted skyline, quickly abandoning the excesses of African summer, guaranteed diarrhoea and poorly resourced cancer wards, it dawned on me that I wasn’t yet ready to trade the unrelenting adrenaline rush one gets from just being in Morocco, from the first siren of morning prayers, till falling asleep on the roof of your riad amidst a sea of lights and cacophony of noise.

Had I learnt anything? I’d learnt how not to cradle a baby too fast over your shoulder, unless you enjoy touring Marrakech in regurgitated milk. I’d learnt that eating street salad was a sure-fire way to irreversibly soil your favourite cricket shorts and that factor 50 sun cream is produced with good reason. Maybe a better question is whether I’d learnt something useful. I’d learnt how to entertain a child with severe autism, how to teach the present perfect tense to a fourteen-year-old girl who dreams of being a heart surgeon, and how to be help rather than a hindrance to a nurse, as well as the tragically bittersweet sensation of making a terminally ill child happy for a few hours.

But I also understand why I’m mockingly accused of ‘saving the world’. Three weeks doesn’t exactly compare to a lifetime’s work in any of the wards we worked in, and I highly doubt that the nurses are given weekends off to explore the Ouzoud Waterfalls. Having also spent a year before university volunteering around Africa and South America, I guess I’ve really embraced the ‘gap yah’ label and all that it entails, making more use of episodic references to it in conversation than your average episode of Family Guy.

If you’re comfortable in the knowledge that you are not Gandhi, and avoid trying to convince others that you are, you’re going to do some real tangible good wherever you volunteer, feel really good about it, have a lot of fun, and not be afflicted by douchebagitis. And that’s why I’ll be returning to Marrakech next summer with Riad 9 Volunteering to do it all over again. Only next summer, with a new hostel, it’s going to be bigger and better, filled with students across the UK looking to share in all that Morocco can offer you.

Sunday evening is when everything gets organised. We’d all sit in our open courtyard, the buzz of Marrakech momentarily heard and not seen. Projects for the week are run through. Monday projects get the ball rolling. “Who wants to do Babies’ Orphanage?” Majority of hands are raised to care, feed, change and play with babies who are ill in the King Mohammed VI Hospital. “ABI Teaching?” A band of committed teachers book themselves in to teach an extremely talented and largely self-taught group of aspirational teenagers. We go through the motions. Thursday. “Oudaya Women?” Everyone wants to help single mothers and their children.

Then we sort out trips for the weekend. Everyone is doing something different. A group of six are staying overnight in the Rastafarian Café at the foot of the Ouzoud Waterfalls, where they’ll jump off waterfalls and sunbathe for a couple of days. A group are off to the Sahara, where they’ll ride camels into a Berber camp for an overnight stay amongst the stars. Some have decided that they need a break from the relentless heat of Marrakech, so they’re jumping onto a bus to Agadir, where they’ll relax on the beach by the breezier coast. Others decide that they’ll stay so they can do Bird’s Dreams on Sunday, a charity project that makes arts and crafts with terminally ill children. They can always go to Agadir next week. Wednesday evening we’ll go to the ‘new town’ for a night out and I’ve promised to make a quiz for Monday evening. And so we get started.

Tired of being ripped off and let down on volunteering projects, R9V was set up by Miles Walbank and Rachel Henwood to give students an affordable way to volunteer, for as long or as little as they wanted. Miles and Rachel experienced this disappointment when they first volunteered in Morocco, which inspired them to create an organisation of their own. It’s grown year on year and next summer will be moving to a newly refurbished hostel, complete with air conditioning and rooftop bar. They can provide you with workplace references and opportunities as R9V reps at your universities, or even as project coordinators in Morocco itself.

As my skin peels and henna fades, I’m starting to get back into my usual routine at home, and it’s nice. Nice to be cool, clean and at liberty to eat pork, but I’m in doubt that I’ll be back. Gastroenteritis aside, the only other bug I’ve caught is the travelling one.