Canada is a large country so leaving home in Ottawa and travelling to Banff, Alberta is a long journey when you’re 18 years old (4000 km in fact). Banff was the start of Jessica’s gap year that ended with a backpacking trip through Mexico.
Q: I understand you were quite determined to have a gap year. Why was that?
A: I knew I didn’t want to go to university right after high school and my family supported that. While some of my friends said it was cool to take a year off they didn’t want to do it themselves because they thought they’d never go back to school. But for me, I needed to be in the real world for a little while.
Q: What were your plans?
A: I wanted to go to Banff, which was a family tradition for gap year. I left home without a job and had a bit of a panic the first day when I realized the bus from Calgary was not going to arrive in Banff until after the youth hotel closed for the night. I actually called my Mom in Ottawa and she called the hostel and they agreed to let me in after hours. Since then, I have learned to work things out without my Mom!
My interview for a job in housekeeping at the Banff Rimrock Resort Hotel was September 11, 2001, and I went to the interview after seeing planes crashing into the towers in New York. I got the job. If I had applied a day later I would have been out of luck for few were travelling after 9/11 and no one was hiring.
I stayed in staff accommodation in the basement of the hotel in a tiny room shared with two others. I eventually moved up from cleaning bedrooms (a very, very hard job) to cleaning public spaces and then to being a banquet server. It was a great time, working with people from across Canada and from around the world. We made good money but worked 12 hour shifts and were on our feet the whole time so we worked our butts off. But I eventually got a little tired of the party scene and wanted to do some travel outside Canada.
A: Actually I took two trips to Mexico during my gap year. The first was a couple of weeks in Isla Mujeres and the other a six week backpacking trip though southern Mexico. The second trip I went with my boyfriend at the time. He had never been out of Canada. We stayed in Puerto Escondido for a couple of weeks—a surfer town—and loved it although the first night we were in a cheap hotel on the beach with cockroaches in the bathroom and a baby scorpion in the bed! It was incredibly hot there. We went from there to Chiapas. I really liked San Cristobal de las Casas and it was much cooler there because of the altitude although I thought people were trying to rip us off all the time. I remember people talking about the Zapatista Movement but our safety was never a concern.
Q: What was your most memorable moment?
A: Actually, just getting back into Canada. My boyfriend did not have a passport or even a birth certificate with him. So Mexican authorities took us into a back room at the Mexico City airport and asked us many questions. I didn’t think they would let us on the plane but at the last moment they did. And I was ready to leave Mexico by that time, although I have returned to the country several times since.
Q: Was taking a gap year a good decision?
A: When I went to university after my gap year I was ready to be there. I had grown up a lot over the year. I had gotten out of my comfort zone and met people I would not ordinarily run into.
Today, some of my friends who didn’t take a break certainly wish they had. So yes, it was a very good decision.
© Riding the buses 2011