Taking my Time

A young woman who longed to travel after high school and wasn’t quite ready for post-secondary reflects on the many benefits — and some of the complications — of the gap year program that brought her to Guatemala.

A collage featuring a passport, a plane ticket, an airplane, a few stacks of coins, and a backpack. The background is a photo of a road with a volcano at the end. There is a translucent map over the photo.

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I walked unsteadily through the cobblestone streets of San Juan del Obispo, Guatemala. Deep green palm fronds and ripe loquat trees gently swayed in the warm breeze, and I pictured myself breaking my ankles on the round, uneven stones that protruded from the ground.

I had just met my host mom for the first time. I would be staying with her family for the next few months to be immersed in the local culture and language.

We chatted as she guided me to my new home. I was nervous. I hoped my Spanish skills were enough to make a good first impression.

My host mom brought me to a grey, squarish house with bars over the windows. The metal door groaned as she opened it. I remember my host dad standing in the kitchen, washing dishes in the concrete sink. My host siblings were running around with their dog. They all stopped to look at me.

“Ya habla español,” (She already speaks Spanish) my host mom informed her husband, relieved.

As I explored, I found a small concrete staircase that led up to the top of the house. I had never been on a rooftop before.

When I sat on the roof, legs dangling over the side of the house, I had a clear view of the mountains that enveloped Antigua and its surrounding towns. I could see slices of rose gold sunlight piercing through the clouds, coating the mountains in an ethereal pink light.

A rooftop view with mountains in the background. The gentle, mid-afternoon sunlight softly illuminates the mountains. The sky is mostly cloudy.
The view from my host family’s rooftop in San Juan del Obispo, Guatemala. (Kailyn Louka)

Later that night when my host mom was reading the file my Spanish school provided her, she hesitantly asked, “Kailyn Alexandra…does anyone ever call you by your middle name?”

“No,” I told her, but when breakfast was ready the next morning, I heard her yell, “ALEXANDRA!” from the kitchen. That was my name for the rest of the trip.

After I finished high school, I longed to go backpacking and see the world. That’s how I ended up in Guatemala on a gap year program — it was the compromise I made with my parents. They weren’t thrilled about the idea of their 17-year-old daughter leaving home with a backpack and no plan, so I found a more structured option. I signed up for the Canadian Mennonite University’s gap year program (which was called Outtatown at the time) and got to travel while my parents had the assurance that I hadn’t completely severed ties with my education. The fact that an established organization with dedicated leaders was facilitating my travels reassured them.

My parents both got university degrees right after high school. My mother is a teacher, and my father is an engineer. My younger brother went to university right after high school, but I wasn’t ready to jump right into adult life. I wanted some adventure and the idea of going straight into a post-secondary program felt overwhelming. I had no idea what courses I would take or what I wanted to do for work for the rest of my life.

I was the first (and only) person in my family to take a gap year – a chunk of time people take after high school, during or after post-secondary, or between jobs. During a gap year, people work, travel, or simply take a break from life as they know it.

The term “gap year” was first recorded in 1978. When it gained momentum around the early 1990s, its use rapidly increased and peaked in 2016.

The more I looked into it, the more a gap year appealed to me.

A blog post from The School of The New York Times outlines several reasons Gen Z students are more likely to take gap years than the generations before them. One of the main factors is that Gen Z has easier access to information thanks to growing up with the Internet. For that reason, they are motivated to learn about the world to expand their knowledge firsthand so they can become informed and community-minded citizens.

This was true of the group I travelled with. As part of the program, we learned about the social issues in Winnipeg’s inner city and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside by going to those areas and talking to people who lived there. I was scared, especially since I came from the suburbs and mostly heard negative things about downtown and the north side of the city, but I learned that discomfort and actually going to those places is a good way to learn about them.

Though the program had good intentions, I could tell we weren’t welcome in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. We were a bunch of wide-eyed college kids who were clearly tourists, and we probably made the area’s residents uncomfortable. We were there on a trip, they were there for much more complicated reasons.

Someone who saw us wandering around the area took one look at us and warned us that we should turn around. It wasn’t safe for us there.

Many travel programs have similar issues. One study highlights the issues in volunteer abroad programs:

“The focus in such programmes is invariably on the benefit to the volunteer, with less regard for the benefit to the children,” the study states. “This is just another white person coming into their lives to ‘help’ for a short period of time and then leaving as they please.”

Though this study is specifically about programs where volunteers work with children, the central problem is the same. Tourists can come and go whenever, whereas the issues in the area they visit remain mostly unchanged.

This is something I’ve been wrestling with while reflecting on my experience. Though the gap year was a net positive for me, I look back on some situations and feel uncomfortable. I was just going along with the group. Could I have done better? Could I have realized I wasn’t welcome earlier and left before bothering the people who lived there?

A view of a valley from the top of a mountain. Aldea El Hato, Guatemala.
The view from my volunteer position in Aldea El Hato, Guatemala. We were working near the top of a mountain. (Kailyn Louka)

There are many ways to take a gap year. Some people stay home to work and build up their savings while they decide what their next step will be.

Some people go backpacking, which typically involves travelling cheaply for extended periods by staying in hostels, budget-friendly hotels, or with host families and using public transportation to get around.

Another option is to sign up for a Workaway placement, where travellers work in exchange for a bed to sleep in. This is a way to see the world without worrying about the cost of accommodations. Workaway postings have ratings and reviews on them, so it’s possible to evaluate the hosts before contacting them.

Workaway is appealing because it’s cost effective and there is a wide range of jobs for curious travellers. People can sign up to be bartenders, farmhands, receptionists, jewelry makers, and more.

For people who are interested in farming, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) has a cultural exchange program on farms in many different countries. It’s like Workaway because travellers work in exchange for accommodations, but this website exclusively deals with organic farms. There are host ratings and reviews on this website as well.

For travellers who want to make money while they’re away, it is possible to work for pay in another country, so long as they have the necessary visas or permits. Requirements and rules vary depending on the country, so doing research beforehand is imperative.

Another option is to look for gap year or exchange programs through educational institutions. The academic route can be more expensive than traditional backpacking, but these programs have several benefits.

One big advantage is having an institution plan and staff the experience. Canadian Mennonite University had local partners that helped facilitate an educational and immersive experience, which was included in the program.

It’s also possible to earn university or college credits during a gap year through a post-secondary institution, depending on the program. This is helpful for people who plan to go to university afterward. I earned three full-year university credits during my gap year.

People who have an education savings account may be able to use it toward a gap year if it’s through an educational institution. This helped me ease the financial burden of my first big trip.

I was fortunate to have support from my family. My parents and extended family helped me out because I was getting an education during my gap year. On the Christmases and birthdays leading up to the program, I asked for Guatemalan currency instead of other gifts so I could have some spending money while I was abroad.

When I told my extended family I got accepted to the program, I was expecting them to be excited for me, but they were skeptical.

I remember my grandmother telling me the longer I was away from school, the less I’d want to return. However, a study from the Gap Year Association shows that most gap year participants go back to school. Additionally, more than half of gap year students who pursue a post-secondary education have a GPA of 3.7 or higher.

I became part of that statistic. I went to university in the fall semester after I came home. I was more excited to pursue my studies because it meant I could expand on my interests and meet new people, just like I did when I was travelling.

The experiences people have during their gap years are invaluable when applying for school or work. Gap year experience shows employers and admissions staff that applicants have likely developed skills and maturity that other candidates might lack. Students who have completed gap years reported improved interpersonal skills, independence, better time management, and more.

One day during my gap year, I was walking with my friends in the bus lot in Antigua. We were chatting in English and trying to find our ride when some men started catcalling us.

The men were leaning against the front of one of the buses, following us with their eyes. The bus, like many others in Antigua, was decorated with silhouettes of naked women on the outside and crosses on the inside.

They must have assumed we didn’t speak any Spanish. When I answered them, showing off my Guatemalan slang, they were shocked and impressed. They got all excited and began talking amongst themselves while gawking at me.

“What did you say to them?” one of my friends asked me, looking concerned.

“I just said, ‘What’s up?’” I answered, laughing and looking back at the catcallers.

I would have never answered catcallers at home. It seemed too risky and I was often too shy. But in Antigua, it felt like some kind of game. The more I could impress people whose first language was Spanish, the more confident I felt.

Before I went away for my gap year, I often wished I were bolder and more easygoing, just like I was with the catcallers. Those traits came out more when I was in Guatemala.

Experiencing different personality traits when immersed in a new culture or speaking a different language has something to do with a phenomenon known as frameshifting. Frameshifting means someone’s personality changes when they speak another language. For example, some people adopt different mannerisms, speak with a different tone, or exhibit different levels of confidence than before.

In my experience, frameshifting can also make you take on some of the traits of your language teachers.

My high school Spanish teacher had no filter and was a huge geography and grammar nerd. We spent hours together after class at a coffee shop near the school, drinking cortados and poring over Spanish and geography textbooks.

One of my friends, who had recently moved to Winnipeg from Ecuador, helped me improve my Spanish whenever we hung out. She was energetic, outgoing, and often gushed about whatever guy she was interested in at the time.

I think it’s safe to say I inadvertently took on a bit of each of their personalities while learning Spanish from them. It showed once I was in Guatemala and speaking Spanish every day.

When I was translating our first tour for my group, the tour guide and I chatted between stops. She joked around with me and told me about life in Guatemala.

“Between every meal, Guatemalans eat bread and drink coffee,” she told me in Spanish as we walked toward a popular local bakery, La Casa De Las Xecas. “Por eso somos gorditos,” (That’s why we’re chubby) she said, chuckling.

Speaking Spanish and being in a new culture helped me gain confidence, which was important as I transitioned into adulthood. Conversations like the one I had with our tour guide helped me become more comfortable and easygoing in Guatemala, and it was a great way to coax out my personality traits that were less obvious or even nonexistent at home.

A park with a view of volcanoes. The sky is bright blue. There is a big green tree at the top of the photo.
The main park in San Juan del Obispo, Guatemala. This is where we met up before group activities. (Kailyn Louka)

After a couple of weeks with my host family, speaking Spanish felt natural. I was chatting with people everywhere I went, and eventually, I translated entire tours and cultural experiences for my group.

“¿Tienes una mascota?” (Do you have a pet?) My host mom asked. She saw how excited I was to meet her family’s dog.

“No—pues, tengo un hermano,” (No — well, I have a brother.) I answered.

My host sister giggled, looking at her brother to gauge his reaction. My host parents chuckled and shook their heads.

After a long week of volunteering and intensive Spanish classes, we were heading to Río Lanquín for a rest and recovery week.

Our bus came to a stop at the top of a hill. I felt disoriented — it was pitch black, we were in the middle of a rainstorm, and there were no buildings or other vehicles in sight.

I remember the rain mercilessly pounding on the metal roof, startling those who had fallen asleep. Our bus driver couldn’t continue down the road to the hostel because the path was steep and muddy, and we were travelling in a school bus.

The sun had set hours before, forcing our group to navigate this new place with only the light from our headlamps. We grabbed our bags and began hiking down the path to the hostel. Or, more accurately, sliding down it. The dirt road liquefied beneath our feet in the rain.

We were getting tired and soaked with mud when a truck appeared. The trailer behind it was covered in an opaque fabric. It appeared to be for transporting cattle.

After talking to our group leaders, the driver waved us over and told us to get in the back. Nobody seemed suspicious of this, so I reluctantly climbed into the trailer.

I could only see my friends’ silhouettes. We huddled together in the dark, shuddering with every bump on the road. I tried not to think about how cold and wet my clothes were. I also tried not to think about the fact that we couldn’t see where we were going, which meant the driver could take us wherever he wanted.

When I chose to get into the trailer, I knew that whatever happened next was beyond my control. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that in the first place, but it was too late. My only alternative was to stumble down a muddy road in the dark.

After several minutes of agony, we arrived at the hostel. A hearty supper was waiting for us in the common area. My mind calmed down as I took in the familiar scent of warm tortillas, a staple in many Guatemalan meals. We were tired from being thrown around in a cattle trailer, so we went to the hostel bar and played card games as if nothing unusual had happened.

My view of Río Lanquín from El Retiro Lodge. This river was the gentle greeting we needed after our chaotic road trip. Turn up the volume to hear the soothing jungle sounds. (Kailyn Louka)

The same week, we travelled to Semuc Champey — a nearby area that boasted a series of natural pools. Our tour guide led us to a river on the way to the pools. There was a rope swing beside it, and he showed us how to use it so we could safely swing into the water.

“Do not throw yourself off the swing,” I remember him instructing us.

It was my turn. I backed up into the swing, made sure I was sitting in the middle of the seat, and lifted my feet off the ground. When it was time to let go, my mind blanked. I had forgotten how to gracefully depart from the swing, so I did what felt natural: I threw myself off.

Our guide was right. I shouldn’t have done that. I landed on my stomach and knocked the wind out of myself. Did I mention it was a river? With a current? I was gasping for air, swimming against the stream, spitting out water. I couldn’t call for help because I could barely breathe. I wasn’t sure if I would make it to shore before the current swept me away.

I eventually got back to safety, but not without consequences. When we were back in Antigua, something felt off. I went to the hospital to get some tests done. That warm February day, I was diagnosed with two super uncomfortable sicknesses: a stomach infection and a parasite.

In my terrible failure of a rope swing manoeuvre, I must have swallowed some river water and gotten myself a parasite. Or, at least, that’s where I think I got it.

During one Spanish class after my diagnosis, I started giggling uncontrollably. My teacher was concerned. I had to look up the Spanish translation for “tickle” to explain what was happening.

“Mi parásito me está haciendo cosquillas!” (My parasite is tickling me!) I exclaimed. I had no idea that was a symptom.

About a month later, I found out the first round of antibiotics hadn’t wiped my parasite out. I came into Spanish class eating popcorn.

“¿Qué haces, Fresa? ¿Puedes comer poporopos con tu parásito?” I remember my Spanish teacher asking me. She was concerned because she thought popcorn was on the no-no list for people with parasites. I didn’t think it could hurt, so I kept snacking.

“Mis mascotas tienen hambre,” (My pets are hungry) I answered, shrugging.

“Sigue alimentándolas, pues,” (Keep feeding them, then) she said, rolling her eyes and chuckling.

I was in Guatemala until March 2020, which is when the COVID-19 pandemic really became a threat. I was almost fluent in Spanish and my confidence had improved tenfold when the government shipped us back to Canada and enforced lockdowns. I was cooped up in my house for the better part of two years, and I could only socialize with people outdoors or on Zoom calls.

I thought all the confidence I had gained during my gap year had been squashed after being socially isolated for so long, but my high school Spanish teacher/mentor told me otherwise. When I asked her how I’ve changed since I returned from my gap year almost four years ago, she excitedly sent me a list.

“[You’re] more confident, outgoing, excited to discover the world around you,” she told me in a text. “[You’re] brave and adventurous, and you do your own thinking instead of accepting the conventional wisdom of idiots!” she said.

Annika Scheelar, one of the friends I travelled with during my gap year, had a similar experience.

“[The gap year] allowed me to have time away from my family and time to…grow up and figure out who I am,” she said. “It allowed me to break out of who I was in high school, who I was in the church I grew up in, and I got to have the space to meet new people and grow without judgment because we’re all just figuring it out,” she said. “Ten out of ten recommend,” she concluded with a chuckle.

I will always be grateful that I took the time I needed to figure myself out instead of following most of my graduating class to university. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I had stuck with my classmates, but I always come to the same conclusion: taking a gap year was the right decision at that critical time in my life.

The program helped shape my adulthood — even so, I’m aware of many issues around programs that send middle-class kids to underprivileged areas. In fact, as a mixed-race person who passes as white most of the time, this issue is even more complex for me. But I know my gap year made me strive to be a more informed and involved member of my community.

I made connections that are still strong. I keep in touch with my host family, and we always send each other Facebook messages on our birthdays. I made friends with people in my program from all over Canada, which has allowed me to travel to places like Cambridge, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia when I find cheap flights. I still meet up with the Winnipeggers from my gap year for coffee every once in a while.

Though I still have mixed feelings about some of the experiences I had during my gap year, I’m glad I took my time to figure out my place in the world. The program taught me that it’s healthy to challenge my point of view and to ask questions in new and sometimes uncomfortable situations.

Headshot of Kailyn Louka.

Kailyn Louka

Kailyn (she/her) enjoys backpacking with friends, writing, and taking photos of the beverages she makes. She is most content when she is in the forest or near a body of water.
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