Travel as a Challenge

Image Credit: Emma Lambkin

Killian Conyngham explores the idea of giving yourself goals during your journeys and explains why it has become a personal obsession of his.

“I suppose it seems a bit contradictory”, I have to admit, as I try to explain to my sister why I consistently set myself increasingly difficult challenges for every trip I take. She had initially only asked me how she could keep costs down on her travels. I had, in the ensuing ramble, veered into trying to explain not only the how, but also the why. Why daily budgets, refusing to pay for water and days spent wandering aimlessly around cities were something I actively enjoyed. I had, however, run into the wall of having to admit that by some people’s conceptions of travel, it was indeed a bit mad. If the primary or only purpose of your trips is relaxation, it doesn’t make much sense at all to purposely add challenge or difficulty. I just happen to maintain that while relaxation can be great, it is far from the only thing one can achieve through travel. As such, introducing extra challenges can not only enhance the rewarding and enriching experience of travel but can also be key to keeping trips cheap, sustainable, ethical, as well as simply being something that is immensely and consistently fun.

Arriving in a city I would always immediately set out asking the hostel staff, locals and the internet what cheap or free activities could be done.

My infatuation began with perhaps the simplest and most common of such impositions: the daily budget. At eighteen, faced with the dual reality of limited funds and a desire to stretch out my first big solo trip as long as possible, I had to rely on a carefully tracked daily budget. At first, it felt cumbersome, or mundane at best.  But I soon discovered that giving it the air of a challenge not only made me more successfully stick to it, but also transformed it into a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Arriving in a city I would always immediately set out asking the hostel staff, locals and the internet what cheap or free activities could be done. Of course, I occasionally missed out on some local cuisine or a museum or gallery. Despite this, learning to cook on a shoestring, wandering about, people watching and discovering my love for perusing  second-hand bookshops, all while meeting others with similar ambitions and their own tips and tricks felt far more like an adventure than a burden. To cap it off, I have to admit, it does feel pretty good to think back on insane and transformative experiences, and know they didn’t come close to breaking the bank. And so, across various trips, I got my daily budget lower and lower, each graduation feeling like the honing of a technique, and a step towards making my dreams of multiple-year-long ventures viable. I didn’t always completely avoid splurging or treating myself while abroad. But I became more deliberate about when I choose to do so and, feeling safe in the knowledge that I could and have had a great time on budgets approaching nothing, it only made my trips more enjoyable.

The feeling of achievement, the gratification of having accomplished a challenge, even an arbitrary one set by oneself was always the core of it all. There is just something so immensely gratifying about being able to set an achievable goal. A task for which the path to success is direct, deliberate and actionable. Where the consequences of failure are manageable, and yet the reward for success is still so very sweet. The type of goal which stands in absolute contrast to those we so often encounter in everyday life, where progress feels slow, abstract, and complete resolution can feel impossible. In pursuit of such immediate goals, I soon graduated from budgeting to another well-worn travel challenge classic: adventure trips. hiking, biking, climbing, sailing and all the other activities where the journey itself is the challenge. Where each day involves pushing your body and abilities to their limit, constantly building towards something. The purest possible distillation of the travel challenge in some ways, where the all-encompassing nature of your goal can entirely take over, filling your thoughts until you can think of little else as you lie curled up in your sleeping bag at night, eagerly anticipating the starting gun of sunrise which lets you get back on the move.

For me, besides saving money and pumping adrenaline, what I look for in a trip is human connection.

This intense feeling is far from limited to adventure travel either. Physical challenges are not everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s fine. Because once you are hooked, anything can become a challenge. So even when your body, in a wild act of rebellion, decides to refuse to cycle anymore without sending sharp signals of pain jolting from your knee, there is still direction to be found. All that matters really is that you can invent some challenge that matches and enhances whatever you are hoping to get out of your trip in the first place. For me, besides saving money and pumping adrenaline, what I look for in a trip is human connection. So I make challenges that bring me closer to the people whose locale I have the luxury of visiting. Maybe it’s forcing myself to order dinner or book a room in the local language. Maybe it’s endeavouring to find someone nice enough to let me camp in their garden or stay on their couch. Or maybe it’s a personal favourite of mine, a steadfast refusal to pay for water, which results in finding myself asking people in their gardens, gas stations, supermarkets or wherever else I meet them, whether they couldn’t perhaps fill up my water bottle. As the only limit on ways to challenge yourself is creativity, there is sure to be some matching goal to improve your trip, whatever form it takes. Because we all need a reason from time to time, to push ourselves to do the things we might otherwise have only daydreamed about.

Such goals can even be set to higher purposes. Personally, much as with serious budgeting, treating ethical travel as a fun and engaging undertaking as opposed to an imposition has been central to making my trips more sustainable, conscientious and responsible. With the situation reframed you can fixate not so much on the luxuries you must forgo as a result of your stance, but instead on the myriad of weird, wonderful and unexpected alternatives the world has to offer. Why not try promising yourself to buy your lunch or souvenirs from a smaller local business instead of some faceless corporation, or to eat local or make your transport more sustainable? There may be no ethical consumption under capitalism but it is often very easy to do a lot better when you are surrounded by people who make their living from tourism, and doubly so when you find yourself in a place where your money goes a lot further than at home. Why wouldn’t you, when the process of doing so can be so very gratifying?

 Of course, with all this challenge setting there is one inescapable fact. Sometimes you will fail. Sometimes it will take a few attempts. Sometimes you will have to face up to the fact that your goal was a bit ambitious or you just weren’t up to the task. Luckily though, at the end of the day, the challenge is always set by you, for you. So while it is a million shades of trite to say it, the only thing that really matters is knowing you tried, knowing you got better and knowing that, at the end of the day, it’s really all just part of the adventure.