I spent four years dreaming about my gap year. The idea that I could take a year out of academic study and travel the world seemed fantastic. The fact that my parents encouraged me was even better. Yet when it came to researching and planning my year out, none of the projects run by gap year organisations was quite right for me.
Some of the companies provide language courses as part of the package. As I had Spanish A-level, I decided this wasn't necessary. The majority of projects involved teaching English, but the thought of standing up in front of a class of rowdy children appalled me. Other projects involved homestays, which I didn't fancy, although for many of my friends, living with a host family turned out to be one of the most rewarding parts of their travels. Finally, I was very suspicious about the amount some organisations charged: pounds 3,000 for three months in a developing country did not seem like value for money.
I knew I wanted to travel in Central or South America to practise my Spanish. And I knew I wanted to spend a reasonable amount of time in one place, getting to know the locals and their culture. More important, I knew I wanted to achieve something. I spent hours on the internet looking at conservation projects from turtle monitoring in Mexico to counting tree species in the Amazon, neither of which seemed like the life-altering experiences I was after.
Growing up in the US, I had spent summer holidays in Mexico and I remember visiting archaeological sites. So, working in ancient Maya temples uncovering artefacts no one had laid eyes on for centuries appealed. I sent off for a book listing archaeological digs. I found the website of the American Archaeological Association and discovered the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve in Belize, Central America. The description of this project mentioned archaeology, conservation, eco-tourism and sustainable development - you name it, it seemed to do it.
Arranging the placement was a straightforward, if lengthy, process. I emailed the director of the project, an academic at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and agreed to spend a month in California working in her office and three months in Belize doing fieldwork. After this I hoped to travel for a month around Central America and Cuba with a friend who was going to be out there at the same time. At the end of the five months I was to fly to Washington DC, where I used to live, to spend one month with old friends there. Unsurprisingly, all did not go to plan.
My month in Santa Barbara was fun, but uneventful. I stayed in a flat with two American students next to the university campus and my days were spent working for the director of the project in a small office doing administrative jobs. It was not the most exciting four weeks. So, I was happy to leave the air-conditioning and Western comforts for the harsher life in Belize.
I was staying in a Benedictine monastery outside a decent-sized town. When I arrived, I didn't understand what the archaeological site was about, nor did I know what I would be doing. But by the end of my three months I had grasped some of the debates about how the ancient Maya lived and started to understand the difficulties that development projects face.
I had mistakenly thought that the volunteers would be students from the University of California at Santa Barbara. …