A special kind of classroom. Photo: DJ Struntz
When I was 19, I went to South Africa by myself in the summer to surf. Curbside in Cape Town — definitively J-O-J — I flagged down a van cab, pointed to the hostel in my Lonely Planet guidebook and said, “Here, please.” He took me there, it was the middle of the night, and when I go to open the sliding door, the handle breaks off in my hand. What’d you do? he asked (much to quickly). A classic setup. I told him the handle was already broken but he demanded that I pay to fix it. 300 USD, he demanded. I refused and then he pulled out a knife. After a pretty groundless argument on my side, we settled on a hundred and he took me to the nearest ATM to kindly withdraw. Then he drops me back off at the hostel and gives me his business card, you know, in case I needed a driver in the future. Other than that speed bump, the rest of the trip went swimmingly. That very first day, though, the world taught me a valuable lesson about fairness. That, and let the driver get the door for you.
While on a semester abroad in Chile, I awoke in my host family’s spare room to realize that I had undoubtedly shit the bed. A classic combination of giardia and flatulence gone awry, the sheets needed a-changing. However in Chile, laundry isn’t done by the men and my host mother insisted that she handle whatever it was I was attempting when she caught me fiddling with the washer knobs. She asked why she couldn’t just do it for me, and in broken Spanish I tried to explain the situation. That I wasn’t actually a 21 year old man that just pooped his pants, but rather, I passed gas and… That day, the world taught me a valuable lesson about humility.
The following year on a surf trip to Tahiti a friend of mine and I literally paddled one mile out to a wave off an outer reef that we could barely see from shore. We paddled for over a half an hour through multiple shades of blue and arrived at a perfect, head-high, draining right that wrapped dreamily around a reef pass. No one was out and a mere 20 yards from the peak a boat carrying three locals zips in out of nowhere and the leader of the pack not-so-kindly ordered us to get the f–k out. It was a long and pitiful mile back to shore but that day the world taught me a thing or two about ownership.
On an overland (but mostly over water) trip to the Mentawai Islands, a few friends and I crossed an open-ocean strait on an overnight passenger ferry carrying around 60 Indonesians (and us) that decided to leave in the middle of a storm. Halfway through the crossing, the waves and weather got so bad that the captain started to turn the ship around deciding whether or not we should return home or stay course. We kept going though, and after hours of intermittent vomiting into the wind and rain, after waves had hit us and washed over the rails and into the main deck, everyone just surrendered to the seasickness and exhaustion and sprawled out in a clump of defeated humanity. Deliriously ill, I vaguely remember a small child wrapping his body around my foot for warmth. Sometime the next day, however, we pulled into Lance’s Right and it was firing. But that early morning, the world taught me a thing or two about local transportation.
Louis C.K. once said, “A 55 year old garbage man is a million times smarter than a 28 year old with three PhDs. Especially smarter than him because this idiot has been thinking about three things for the last 15 years. He’s worthless. The garbage man is 55, he’s had some experiences, things have happened to him…” And while we’re in no way encouraging you not to go to college (because you totally should), we do recommend taking a year off to travel before or during it. Like the 55 year old garbage man, earn yourself an experience. Earn yourself a story. And not just a that time I saw Arcade Fire at Coachella-story, but a that time I saw a woman in the Port Moresby airport breastfeeding a piglet in public-story. It is these experiences, these stories that will shape you. That will teach you and inspire you. Define you, even. Indeed, the world is a gracious mentor and there is no excuse why you shouldn’t attend any one of her courses. Each lesson is valuable, as all experience is, from humility to fairness to patience and compassion.
Yes. Let the world take the podium and impart. At least for a year. A gap-year, perhaps — between high school and college, or college and the rest of your life. Universities like Harvard and Princeton have actually found that: gap-year students earn higher GPAs than their similarly ranked classmates who didn’t take time off. And that: 75 percent of former gap-year students are more satisfied with their post-graduate careers. And that: organizations like American Gap Association provided $2.5 million in scholarships and grants to gap-year students. No shit.
At some point during your gap year you will feel completely helpless. You will actually rub your eyes at the beauty of something. You will get robbed, taste something extravagant, smell something foreign, figure it out, bribe a corrupt cop. You’ll learn to have cigarettes on you at all times (but won’t smoke) and offer one to agitated border officers. You will understand the thrill of loneliness and fall in love with someone you’ll never see again. Fortunately for you, the greatest stories are usually on the way to great surf.
There is a strong chance that you’ll have taken a rental car out onto a beach, driving through the sand to some distant peak in Ecuador. (Even in Ecuador, it always looks better down the beach). And you may break down, not far from the shoreline, and have no idea if the tide’s going high or low, but a local man and his son will pop out from nowhere on horseback, help you wedge some driftwood beneath your tires for traction, and then gallop away from where they came. And that day, you will have learned a thing or two from the world about compassion.
There is also a strong chance that you will meet a beautiful Brazilian girl on the beach near Padang Padang. And although she may not speak any English and you may not speak any Portuguese, you may both know just a little bit of Spanish and the two of you will make it happen. And that day the world will have taught you a thing or two about communication.
And there is also a strong chance that you’ll wander into some village that has a wave off its shores, somewhere in the South Pacific. You might inquire who’s in charge and ask permission to camp and the person in charge will insist you stay with their family. The wind might be wrong for a week or two straight and the world will teach you a thing or two about patience. But in the meantime, you may be taken in, and subsequently brought along to some pretty weird shit like Vanuatan circumcision rituals or coconut crab hunts, and by the end of it you might see a grown man weep when you’ve left because crying isn’t shameful. And the world will have taught you a thing or two about hospitality.
School will make you smart, the world will make you wise. Have fun and pack light. —Beau Flemister