Carmel England, Isle of Skye, Scotland.Photo: Courtesy of Carmel England
Wouldn't it be great to wave farewell to your everyday life and set sail for a year of endless possibility? The stereotype for taking a "gap year" is for kids who've just finished high school, but you don't have to be 18 to have a break.
"There has been a growing trend within the last five years of people taking delayed 'grown-up' gap years," says Andrea Robinson, from STA Travel. It's now "not at all uncommon" among adults in the corporate world, she says.
Going on a gap year when you're older makes sense, says psychologist Jocelyn Brewer. Not only are you more likely to be financially secure, you're also more likely to have a greater sense of identity: perfect ingredients for doing more with a big break than simply boozing your way through Europe.
"Gap years can be a great way to reset an emotional or career compass, and get clarity on your 'true north' and sense of purpose and perspective," says Brewer. We often end up stuck in a life we didn't necessarily plan; taking a year away from our daily grind therefore provides much-needed space to "percolate ideas and decompress".
It's not just about ticking places off your bucket list. It's also about expanding your horizons, gaining fresh perspective, and giving yourself the space to work out what you want out of life.
CARMEL ENGLAND, 35
USA, South America and Europe
"I've had one job or another since I was 13 years old, and had allowed my working life to dominate at the expense of personal and creative growth. I finally decided I needed some head space, a break and a change.
"I quit my job [as a senior manager in the arts] in January 2014, packed the contents of my lovely little flat into a storage unit, and reduced my life to a 50-litre backpack. I wanted to embrace the unknown, meet new people and learn more about myself, the world, and what I wanted to do with my life. During my year off, I planned to read books, go to art galleries, have conversations with strangers, write, drive down huge highways singing Dolly Parton songs, and capture the romance of travel.
"I studied American literature at university, so I really wanted to visit the places I'd read about through my favourite authors – Steinbeck's California, Twain's Mississippi. I'm also a huge fan of country, blues and bluegrass music, so I wanted to visit the Deep South. I road-tripped in the USA for four months, then spent another four amazing months in South America before travelling round Europe.
"I definitely took myself out of my comfort zone. I travelled solo for much of the time, meeting new people or enjoying my solitude – a week alone in a hut in the Smoky Mountains is good for the soul! My mum came and road-tripped with me from San Francisco to LA, providing some long-overdue mother-daughter time.
"I wouldn't say I had a 'lightbulb moment', more a series of 'fairy lights'; I've learnt little things which will guide me over the next few years. I decided I don't want to have children, that I'm happy being child-free and 'Auntie Carmel' to all the fab children of my friends. I discovered how much I enjoy solitude and how I need it to balance myself, although I'm an incredibly social person.
"Before I left, so many people – especially women – said they were jealous of me and wished they had the courage [to take a gap year]. But I just said to them, 'Do it! You'll never regret it.' In this day and age, it's not as though you're 'taking a year out' of your career; taking a year off enriches everything you do personally and professionally from then onwards. It gives you a fresh perspective on life – and yourself – which is priceless."
LORENE ROBERTS, 53
USA, Europe, Siberia and Mongolia
"Deciding to take a gap year was easy. My marriage of 30 years had ended, my children were all grown up, and my mother had just passed away. I was feeling very lost, alone and confused as to where my life was going. I wanted to find myself, to learn what I actually liked and what turned me on as a person, rather than as a wife and mother.
"I wanted my gap year to be all about making memories. I'd been with my ex all of my adult life and he was part of all my memories, so I needed to have things I could reminisce about that were my memories alone. It was my time to give back to myself and do all the things I had always wanted to do; to be totally self-indulgent.
"My initial intention was to go around the world, though I had no idea how I was going to do this. I first travelled around America, then to Ireland, and did a bus tour of Europe.
Then I did a trans-Mongolian train ride. There were days I had no one to talk to, the food car had a menu that only had words – no pictures – and the lovely women who worked there spoke no English either. So I walked around the food car, pointing at what others had in order to choose my meals!
"I got off the train at Irkutsk [eastern Siberia] in the snow at -27°C and joined a walking tour, which was a fantastic experience. I next got off the train in Ulaanbaatar and met a nomadic lady who invited us into her ger [a circular house made of very thick felt]. She very proudly showed me shoes, coats, clothes and quilts she had made herself, offered me delicacies such as dried whey and shared her way of life with me. These are the memories I cherish most; the personal experiences, interactions and human connection I shared with different people.
I have spoken to some amazing people, had unbelievable experiences and seen incredible sights. It gives you a different perspective on life and the way others live. I have also grown as a person immensely. Without this gap year, it would have taken so much longer for me to find the real me and appreciate who I really am."
RAKHEE GHELANI, 41
"When I was 38, I leapt at the opportunity to take a redundancy package from my demanding job as a senior manager at a bank. On paper my life was successful; I had a great job, supportive family and friends, and owned my own house. But I felt I needed to do something drastic with my life. I packed up my house, rented it out and backpacked across India alone.
"I grew up in Victoria but I'm Indian by origin, and spending more time in India was something I'd always wanted to do. I spent the first few weeks [of my gap year] with family in India, getting things sorted. After that, my plans were very fluid. I went with the flow and just kept exploring. I'd usually plan a week or so in advance, but had enough flexibility to change my plans if I wanted.
"For example, I went to Rishikesh in northern India for a few days, and ended up staying for almost a month and learning yoga. I talked to other travellers and read up on other things I wanted to see and experience. Highlights included the Tantric temples of Khajuraho, the serenity of Chilika Lake in Odisha, and the backpacker mecca Hampi, famous for its ancient Hindu temples and bewitching landscape.
"I didn't really have any set goals for my year, except to see as much of the country as I could. I certainly achieved that! I explored 16 states and visited over 70 towns and cities. Each state in India is like a different country, with its own culture, food and customs.
"India taught me humility, patience and acceptance. I'm so grateful for everything I have. Travelling alone in a tough country made me a lot more self-aware, tough and resilient. I'm now much more independent and trust my own intuition. It also opened up my eyes not only to new cultures, but new careers. I now run a content business and am a freelance writer. It's certainly a long way from the corporate career path I followed for nearly 20 years.
"As a 'mature' person, I think I saw the world so differently than I would have had I done this when I was younger. It felt like a gift, having the luxury to take time out of the rat race and go on a long adventure."