Who says gap years are just for 20-somethings? Sarah O’Keefe felt run-down until a rejuvenating stay in Thailand gave her a new sense of purpose. India, Burma and southern Spain were next
I didn’t have a gap year when I was younger because I went straight into work at 17. I always wanted to travel but just didn’t get the chance, so when I found myself at a major crossroads in life in my late forties I thought I might as well bite the bullet.
I’d been in the same place for years, running a clothes shop near Portobello Road, and life had begun to feel pretty limited. The recession had hit us badly, and I had wanted to pull out of the business for some time.
The catalyst came when I had some health problems, culminating in an operation on my thyroid which permanently damaged my voice box. I decided to give up my job and sold my house.
The first stop on my gap year was to rest and recover at a beautiful spa on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. It was recommended to me because its alternative practitioners are world-class. Thailand had always appealed to me, it’s mix of stunning sandy islands and world-class spas sounded just the thing to get me back on my feet.
I arrived at Christmas and after two weeks I felt so much better.
Having finally embarked on my big adventure I was determined not to end up back where I started. While I was in Thailand I started a long-distance vocational course with a life coach to work out what the hell I was going to do next! I had to make some big decisions about my future.
My next stop was Melbourne, where my father lived. He was very ill and died a year later, so I was so glad to spend some time with him.
After Melbourne, I travelled up to northern Queensland and stayed with an old friend in the middle of the rainforest.
By this time my weekly Skype sessions with the life coach had given me some much-needed clarity. I decided I would start a business and set up my online travel clothing company. It’s great because it involves fashion, and my new passion – travelling – but without all the hassle of a shop.
Exploring Goa, Burma and beyond
I had heard that Rajasthan was a great place to set up production, and I’d always wanted to go to India, so it seemed sensible to visit on my way back to the UK. A friend joined me and when she left, I remember lying in my hammock thinking “Oh my God, I’m on my own in India.” But within a day, I’d met new friends who I could travel with. I had expected travelling to be lonely, but it wasn’t and the colours, sights and sounds of India are incredible. It was like living a whole new life.
After travelling around India I stopped in Andalusia, Spain, on what I thought was my return journey to England. I ended up in a tiny village near Tarifa, on the southernmost coast of Spain. I found an apartment with very low rent, so I decided to base myself there while I set up my new business. The village was an incredibly healing place, full of Moorish influences. There was a National Park nearby and ten minutes from my front door a beach scattered with Roman ruins.
I stayed in Andalusia for a year – travelling to and from India and the UK every month or so. I also travelled around Burma with two friends, it was an amazing experience – like stepping back in time. We each put the names of places we particularly wanted to visit in a hat, and worked out a route with the help of our travel agent who booked trains, buses and places to stay.
Last year I spent six months in India, dividing my time between Jaipur, sorting out production issues, and Goa, for pure relaxation. You can really drop your shoulders there.
Moving around all the time does take its toll though and I’ve now decided to base myself in a barn in Somerset. It feels great to finally unlock my storage unit and put down roots for a bit.
The adventure hasn’t stopped though and thanks to the nature of my business I can keep travelling and holidaying, just at an easier pace.
Before I set out on my gap year, I felt flat and uninspired. Travelling and finding my independence has been a hugely positive and transformative experience.
It’s made me aware of my strengths and helped me to focus on how I’d like to live my life and what really makes me happy.