What do slaughtering chickens in Nepal and hitchhiking in New Zealand have in common? For Rebecca Waxman ’16 and Aviva Hirsch ’16, these were among their experiences during their respective gap years.
Gap years, sometimes regarded as thinly veiled ploys to party in countries with lower drinking ages, have much more to offer than this undeserved reputation suggests. Students take gap years for athletics, medical reasons, or simply because they want to learn about the world (and themselves) before they hit the books.
Hirsch and Waxman belong to the last group. Both freshmen are approaching Wesleyan with one more year of maturity, knowledge, and self-discovery than their classmates. Just what did they do on these mystical, all-encompassing gap years? And why should the rest of us forever regret not taking one?
For Waxman, whose diverse experiences ranged from participating in Oxford academia to preparing an American Thanksgiving in rural Nepal, taking a gap year irrevocably changed her perspective on the world.
The Argus: Where did you go?
Rebecca Waxman: Nepal and England!
A: Wow! Those are very different places. What did you do there?
RW: So much, it’s hard to figure out where to begin. I spent three months in Nepal with a gap-year program called Where There Be Dragons. I did a six-week long homestay in Kathmandu, during which I lived with a Nepali family, learned the Nepali language, and did a project on the Nepali music scene. I participated in a ten-day retreat at a Buddhist monastery. I stayed in a two-room house with a family in a rural village in the Helambu region. I did two separate treks through the Himalayas, one of which was cut short after our whole group got sick, and we watched a huge landslide occur a few miles ahead.
In England, I studied at the Oxford Advanced Studies Program. Far less exciting than my experience in Nepal, I studied creative writing and philosophy while living in Oxford for three months. However, I did get to take a few weekend excursions to London and spend a week in Edinburgh, Scotland.
A: What did you learn from your experience?
RW: Again, so much. I learned a lot of “things”—I learned how to speak Nepali, about Nepali history and culture, how to write better, and about continental philosophy in European literature, all of which is important knowledge that I value. But more than that, I learned a new way to see the world. I learned Buddhism and Hinduism and Shamanism. I learned Eastern culture and thought and custom. I learned the unfailing caring of my homestay mother, the unadulterated love for life of my homestay sister, the modest lifestyle of the villagers, the global citizenship of my instructors, and the individualism and passion of my peers. I already feel super cheesy, but it’s true, and it’s important, and I can’t help but talk about it when I talk about my gap year.
A: Any crazy stories?
RW: Yes! There are so many but this is probably the craziest. Our second trek was a 16-day excursion through the Helambu region, that ultimately led us over a 15,000-foot pass to the sacred Gosaikunda lakes. [American] Thanksgiving Day fell about 10 days into this trek, and it happened to be a rest day. We were staying at Phedi, a tiny teahouse at about 12,000 feet elevation, a few hours walk from any other rest stops and days from any proper villages. This teahouse, run by two teenage Nepali boys, contained a few rooms in which we slept, a kitchen, and an outdoor area with two picnic tables and three chickens running around. By the time we left, there was only one chicken. We paid the boys—how much I can’t remember anymore—for two of the chickens, and they helped us catch them, slaughter them, and cook them for our Thanksgiving meal. With their help and guidance, we contained the chickens struggling against our hold, held back the wings, one leg, and the head in one hand and used the other hand to slit the neck, only lightly, and then drop the chicken in the bucket, where it rolled around for a few seconds until it lost enough blood. We then placed the chickens in vats of boiling water and used our bare hands to remove all the feathers, gut the animals, and then cook them. A few hours later, we were eating mashed potatoes, apple pie, and the chickens we slaughtered that morning as our Thanksgiving meal.
While Hirsch did not have the privilege of slitting a chicken’s throat, she nonetheless embarked on eye-opening adventures of her own, hitchhiking around the New Zealand countryside and camping alone with nothing but extra granola bars, a deck of cards, and some fashion magazines.
The Argus: What did you do in New Zealand?
Aviva Hirsch: I basically hitchhiked around. I spent some time volunteering on organic farms through a program called WWOOFing [World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms], although the majority of my time was spent traveling around and learning to appreciate my own company. I stayed with random people who were distantly connected through friends of friends. Sometimes very distant. Example: A woman from Maine interviewed me over the phone about a radio story I produced. I told her I was traveling to New Zealand, and she said that she went on exchange in New Zealand as a junior in high school and would try to get me in touch with an old friend she hadn’t talked to in years. In the end, I stayed with the New Zealand friend’s girlfriend’s sister’s family. And people were so nice!
A: What do you think you learned from hitchhiking?
AH: To be honest, it was a challenging time for me. I met so many interesting, amazing people and had crazy adventures. In the end, the biggest things I learned were how to stay true to myself and communicate my needs to others. Every day I had to put a lot of effort into where I would sleep that night and what I would eat. Sometimes entertaining myself was difficult because I wasn’t willing to pay hundreds of dollars to go on pathetic two-hour tours, and I had to rely on my legs and thumb as transportation.
A: Any crazy stories?
AH: The more risks I took, the more I was willing to take. One day I decided to go on a camping trip by myself. I packed extra granola bars and started walking through a pasture of black cows supposedly toward a waterfall. Basically, I sat there reading old New Zealand fashion magazines, playing card games by myself, looking at the stars, and cuddling in my sleeping bag by myself. I woke up and went skinny-dipping in the freezing waterfall, then packed my bag and headed toward the road (where there were cars and people who would take me to my next destination).