Why a Gap Year: How Baghwati, Gitwa, and Mamtschi Live Within Me

The pages of my gap year journal run rich with afternoons in Buenos Aires cafes with cortados and sparkling water, savanna runs through cactus-like trees along red dirt paths in Kenya, and colorful Nepalese scenes of saris, long skirts, and prayer flags. Why am I unable to leaf back through those pages without a smile spreading across my face? There’s the pure thrill and joy of travelling that makes me smile. However, these travels also occurred at a special time in my life. I took a gap year and traveled in a time that Bill Meyer, an MA teacher, would call a liminal space, a time in which one sits at the threshold of a new phase of life. At the thresholds of both adulthood and of college, not only do I have much freedom and few responsibilities, but I also am open to learning and forming. This is the time when I create my own values and culture, and each new moment of my gap year – the cafes, the runs, the color – defines what I take across the threshold.

Over the past year, I have felt like an actress, playing the part of the people who live in the places where I traveled and lived. I adapted to the rhythms of countless different households in the three different cultures, and emulated those who I admired in each country. A Nepalese trekking guide, an industrious Kenyan secondary school student, and an Argentinean grandmother living in el campo each invited me into their lives, showed me how to be them, and taught me lessons from their culture. I will bring these three women with me, along with an understanding of their cultures, as I move through life.

Baghwati, a small, enthusiastic trekking guide working with an all-women’s company, led Ellen and I on a journey to the Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas. We arrived on the first day of trekking wearing “lungi,” the long skirts worn by the women who live in the high Himalayan villages even while walking long distances, determined to become a part of Nepalese culture. Baghwati assisted us in our quest, by teaching us Nepali phrases such as “khushi bhaye nilo acas!” (Yipee! The sky is blue!), and “mitho cha” (it’s delicious!). We ate with our fingers, mimicking Baghwati as she swirled her rice around in her lentil sauce until forming a ball, then flicked it into her mouth with her thumb, a much more involved way to eat a meal. On the few mornings, and one rare night, when the sky cleared to give us a view of the snowy giants that towered above us even when the fog concealed them during the day, the three of us stood outside in awe of the surrounding Himalayan peaks. The mountains provided sights so ephemeral and unique that we had to take advantage of every clear moment, no matter how early or how late in the day. Even the Nepalese, who spend much of their lives looking at these mountains, have not lost a sense of reverence for them. Veneration flows throughout the culture, exemplified by the common greeting “Namaste,” of which my favorite translation is “The God in me speaks to the God in you.” The culture’s sense of appreciation lives within me now, and is something that I applied to help savor every special person, place, and experience of my gap year.

Gitwa attends Daraja Academy, an entirely free secondary school in Kenya for girls who otherwise would not get a chance to go to school, where I spent October and November of my gap year. When Gitwa’s father died, her mother remarried a man who sent Gitwa away to live with her illiterate and impoverished grandmother. She found her way to Daraja, and now is one of the smartest girls on campus as well as the “campus preacher.” Gesticulating forcefully, she would give powerful speeches about her analysis of passages of the bible, completely unafraid to open up and share her perspective with the rest of the school. “Do you want to be like that flower?” she demanded of the rest of the school one morning, after describing a flower that changed color throughout the day and demanding consistency and hard work of her classmates. She opened up to me, sharing her joy as we made bricks and plastered the adobe Shamba (garden) Shed that became my main project at Daraja. I tried to embody the hard work, joy, and love that the Daraja girls put into everything they do in my project there. If girls that have had pasts so difficult that reading about them sent me to bed in tears can exude so much love – they seem to love infinitely, towards each other, the volunteers, and their teachers – and work so earnestly, then I, with the most fortunate past imaginable, can too. When I think of Gitwa’s eyes filled with wisdom and face always smiling, I feel warmth in my core and the capacity to love, work, and to be wise.

Mamtschi, my Argentinean great grandmother, is the final role that I played, though I never met her in person. Mamtschi ruled as the matriarch of El Fortín, the sheep farm where my grandma grew up in Patagonia, for thirty years alone. During my last month in Argentina, Mamtschi shared her wisdom and her spirit with me through the stories that I collected from my aunts and cousins in Buenos Aires for a family history book. On El Fortín, Mamtschi cooked rich meals laden with heavy cream, homemade butter, and lamb, she loved to laugh at things like pigs chasing her grandchildren through the yard, and she managed to always maintain elegance with corsets and long skirts. She made friends with everyone around her, regardless of social status or background. I like to think that these relationships enabled her solitude throughout three quarters of the year, and allowed her to be someplace where she did not feel as comfortable at first – she grew up as a city girl – since I found almost exactly the same thing while I was in Argentina. I arrived at the farm I was to work on for almost two months and joined a couple’s home improvement project instead of working on a productive farm. However, through taking advantage of Argentina’s community-based culture, I found happiness at the farm that I never expected. Invite-all-your-friends barbeques called asados, circles of drinking máte tea from communal straws, and public transportation conversations taught me how much I needed relationships to survive in my independent lifestyle. Through my family history project in Buenos Aires, instead of finding community with random strangers in Patagonia, I bonded with my own family. Similarly, Mamtschi loved her family above all else and did everything she could to make their summers on El Fortín amazing. Mamtschi taught me the more subtle lesson of being able to thrive someplace I did not initially feel comfortable, and the more direct lesson of the importance of strong relationships, especially with family, to set me free in my independent life.

Now, for inspiration, I can think back to the lessons and strengths empowered by these three women: Baghwati’s respect and appreciation for nature, Gitwa’s loving and industrious attitude, and Mamtschi’s love for everyone around her, from her random neighbors to her family. However, what I take away from these three women collectively is more simple and more powerful: incredible strength. Baghwati is one of the only female trekking guides on a Himalayan trail. Gitwa overcame a difficult past and found a bright and bold voice to praise education and hard work. Mamtschi, the family matriarch, united the entire family each summer and withstood long, snowy winters alone in Patagonia. These women gave me the strength that I needed in order to survive alone for a year, without the friends, family, and home that I was accustomed to. I navigated foreign public transportation systems, learned to love spending afternoons alone in cafes, and entirely took care of myself for the first time in my life.

By letting me into their lives, each in their own way, these women also gave me the power of carrying their cultures and their personalities inside of me throughout my own life. The fact that I have an understanding of these three cultures gives me a unique perspective on the world, and furthermore, my own culture and values now reflect those that I have experienced. I cross the threshold and leave my liminal space with these three women within me, and I plan to use their perspective and strength to effect change in the world.

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