Virtuoso Life September 2018 Age 14: A Gap Year Around the World

Age 14: A Gap Year Around the World

Close encounters with Magellanic penguins on Argentina’s<br />
Valdés Peninsula.
Close encounters with Magellanic penguins on Argentina’s
Valdés Peninsula.
Zander Galli’s far-reaching gap year – between middle school and high school – opened his eyes to a world of wonders.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by wildlife and protecting natural habitats. Between eighth and ninth grades, the opportunity presented itself to take a year off to travel the world, and I went about as far as I could to turn my passion for the natural world into an unbelievable reality.

I was 14 when I started my gap year in Alaska, then Baffin Island, Iceland, the UK, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, India, Argentina, Chile, the Falklands, Antarctica, on to South Africa, and back to the Arctic. Next came New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, and Brazil. The final leg was six weeks touring Madagascar, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. It took roughly two years to plan the trip. My parents and I live in Baltimore, and we worked with Virtuoso travel advisor Martha Rhodes, who’s based in Richmond, Virginia. We met her on a family trip to the Galápagos when I was 11.

One of my parents traveled with me to all but one destination, the Canadian Arctic, and over the year I’ve grown in every possible way. I’ve become more and more aware of how important it is to engage and educate local communities about the economic value of ethical ecotourism for wildlife conservation to succeed. Traveling has transformed my writing and photography skills and my cultural awareness. I have a true global perspective now. I’m also taller.

Visiting a resident of South Africa’s Kalahari Meerkat Project.
Visiting a resident of South Africa’s Kalahari Meerkat Project.
In Indonesia, we saw the critically endangered Bali mynah, also known as the Rothschild’s mynah. There are only around 90 of these birds left in the wild. In New Zealand, we spotted the flightless takahe, once thought to be extinct, and crawled through muddy swamps to see wild kiwis. In India, we were fortunate enough to find Bengal tigers. Definitely the hardest challenge was seeing polar bear cubs in Canada: 14 hours on a qamutik, a traditional snow sled, with frostbite on my nose and the almost impossible task of picking the bears out from the white landscape. You have to travel ahead of them and then wait. We waited six hours in one spot until the adorable cubs finally arrived.

Initially, I wrote out a big list of countries I thought would be interesting, then Martha and I narrowed things down and got into specific wildlife for each location. In the UK, my mother and I met a scientist who Martha had connected us with, and he invited us to visit his meerkat research site in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, a trip that Martha also coordinated. She also met up with my family and me in Iceland.
Zander with his dad, Joe, and his mom gorilla-trekking in Rwanda.
Zander with his dad, Joe, and his mom gorilla-trekking in Rwanda.
Martha was involved with every step of the planning, and we were in contact almost every day. Throughout the trip, she introduced me to experts in each place, the top local guides, and the best people to build relationships with. One example: Lawrence Blair, an anthropologist and explorer in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, who we spent five days with on a research vessel. In South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, we helped tranquilize and tag a rhinoceros to learn about rhino conservation. But I think the highlight was meeting Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson Chris Darwin. He taught me how to think differently about being anywhere in the wild. He said you should always ask the question, “Why?” It’s such a basic thing, but so important. Why is the climate changing? Why are certain ecosystems in danger? Why is saving these animals so critical? Asking questions takes you deeper than sightseeing and taking photos. You think about the real concerns of the places you’re visiting.
Inspecting moth traps at the British Trust for Ornithology.
Inspecting moth traps at the British Trust for Ornithology.
Some days were rougher than others, and some nights too. We traveled to a very remote place in a national park in Laos to see the last remaining tigers of their kind – they’re on the very edge of extinction. The journey took us up a river through dense forest in a dugout canoe with two local guides and a translator. After five hours on the river, we reached our extremely basic camp in the middle of nowhere. The only walls were mosquito nets. At night it was pitch black, but we used a spotlight to find monitor lizards and other nocturnal creatures. At the end of that long day, I was falling asleep and thought I felt a snake crawling up my leg. That was the end of sleeping for the night. In the Kalahari, I actually did step on a snake – a puff adder. Luckily, it didn’t bite me; it’s one of the most poisonous reptiles on earth.

Traveling has taught me to be flexible in places where the rules aren’t the same as they are at home. You accept that traditions are different, and so are foods. I ate puffin in Iceland ... Let’s just say it does not taste like chicken (more like carpaccio). They served caribou in the Arctic, and, in Japan, they served shark-fin soup – which I didn’t eat because it’s not sustainable.

On a trip like this, you also get really good at logistics. I tried packing cubes one time. I didn’t like them, actually. What works best for me is a small bag with as few clothes as you can get away with bringing. Camera equipment was my main priority – I’d rather have the cameras than fancy clothes. Even with a basic set of clothes, my bag weighed about 50 pounds and was often over the baggage allowance.
Exploring the Nam Nern River in Laos.
Exploring the Nam Nern River in Laos.
In November, I turn 16 and I’ll be back at school, but I still have so many places on my list to visit. I’d love to see the snow leopards in the Himalayas. I would like to go to some of Siberia’s more remote areas for a different type of Arctic experience. I want to see other parts of Antarctica – like the Ross Ice Shelf, with all the emperor penguins – and the tropical Pacific’s coral reefs.

Travel is the greatest education, I’m convinced of that. It changes you in profound ways, with memories that will last forever: the first time a tiger walked by our jeep in India, seeing dolphins underwater in South Australia’s Baird Bay, and those polar bear cubs. Going into this, I didn’t know that I would want to focus my life on conservation, but now I do. I plan to continue learning about wildlife and traveling as much as I can to really spread conservation messages. I know I’ve seen so much, but in a way it feels like just the beginning of a lifetime of adventure.
Zander and his mom, Cindy, in Port Lockroy, Antarctica.
Zander and his mom, Cindy, in Port Lockroy, Antarctica.

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