Killian Conyngham explores the notion of travelling forever, looking at the culture surrounding the lifestyle and discussing his own personal experiences with it.
I. The Dream
"That's the dream, isn't it?" I say to my cousin, as the almost hour-long tram to our hostel pulls out of central Munich. The topic is travelling forever. More specifically, the topic is flights home and my current lack of one. I am 18, my cousin is 20, and he has come to join me for two weeks on my several month-long post-leaving-cert stint on the continent. We both have college to come home to in September, and yet if you were to hear our conversation you would be forgiven for thinking I didn't. It’s not that I had any concrete plan of not taking up my offer; I fully intended on going back. It was just that I had gotten a notion into my head. A notion of travelling forever. Of working wherever you were, or better still, of bringing your work with you. The lifestyle espoused by those journalists, bloggers and influencers you see so many of nowadays, made real by the flesh and bone practitioners I had encountered in various hostels in the months previous. And so, as our tram glided towards the oversized tent that made up the cheapest hostel in Munich, I excitedly ranted to my cousin about the idea. About how absolutely free you must feel, living that life, and how I just absolutely had to try it, if only for a year, once I was finished doing the whole college thing. And although the German couple sitting in the seats across from us were far from amused by my loud ramblings, I found over the following weeks, as my travels continued, that I was far from alone in my obsession.
As my summer began to draw to a close, I met a Scottish girl in Rotterdam. She told me how she had dropped out at 16, worked at an advertising firm until she was 19, and managed to buy herself a house, before selling it and heading out on the road, working, volunteering and hitchhiking her way across Europe and North Africa. It seemed like nearly everyone I talked to had some sort of variant of the same idea. This was hardly surprising, given that I have chosen my sample mostly from hostel staff and guests, and yet to me it still seemed rather bizarre that so many pined for a life on the road, and yet even amongst hostel goers actual practitioners were few and far between. Why, I wondered, is this the case? Is it really, as some who prescribe the lifestyle would have you believe, that in our society institutional and individual mindsets hold us back, or are there practical reasons why the concept of a life on the move simply isn’t feasible for most?
Considering the logistics of travelling forever the most obvious first question is going to be your source of income. When it comes to reasons to stay put, jobs are often high up the list. In the midst of our current pandemic, it has become clear that many of the jobs employers insisted couldn’t be done from home can be, which might speak for remote working being feasible. However for most people the nature of their work means that simply isn’t an option. Even in the cases where working from home is an option, occasional appearances for meetings and a permanent address of some sort is likely to be required by the vast majority of careers. It should come as no surprise then that freelancing seems to be the option many “nomads” choose to make money, as the flexibility self-employment offers really lends itself to the lifestyle.
Personally, when the dream had gripped me, I had naively envisioned myself making money somewhere between my photography, writing or videography, following the model I had seen so many people on the internet espouse.
This type of creative freelance work, however, tends to have a pretty huge barrier to entry: The question of platform. A strange contradiction inherent to the message of many who travel forever on their various platforms is that they make their money from those very platforms in the first place. They tell their fans that they too could live the same way, and yet, presumably not everyone can make their money creating ‘travel forever’ based content as that would leave very few to consume it. It seems most of those who have achieved the dream inherently rely on those of us sitting at home, consuming their content, and pining for a similar life in order to maintain it. The extent to which I had fallen into this rabbit hole of pyramid scheme-esque funding systems for travelling forever became apparent when Youtube began ceaselessly serving me ads in which ‘young entrepreneurs’ told me I too could live like they did, in yachts and hotels, travelling the world if I only paid the 30 euro a month to access their knowledge. The dream I had imagined and discussed with reference to the 1960’s counterculture movement had somehow become the new “doctors hate her”- a hyper-capitalist scam preying on those looking for escapism. Not everyone was a scammer of course, but whether it was rich kids using their parents’ money to live the life and share it on Instagram, or genuinely well-intentioned people who just so happened to make their money through the advice they shared, it was apparent that the approach of creative freelancing required a certain amount of starting capital, or a whole lot of luck, to be tenable.
Coming to grips with the immense privilege of those I had looked up to also helped me acknowledge that even my own summer of travel which had inspired this all was possible, in large part, due to the advantages I personally had been afforded in life. I began to question how it was, for example, that my Scottish friend from Rotterdam had bought herself a house on the salary of someone on the bottom rung of corporate advertising. It seemed likely that even the normal people I had met who were living out the dream had done so with no small headstart in life.
Disheartening as it was, accepting that the idea of creative freelancing was unrealistic had the effect of really crystalising my thinking as to how I was going to achieve the dream. It was far more pragmatic, I realised, to focus on bringing the cost of travel as low as possible and going from there. One of the most common ways of doing this, outside of learning to avoid tourist traps and live on less in general, is volunteering. Whether it is on an organic farm or in a hostel, the idea is very similar: you work part-time somewhere in exchange for accommodation, food, and in some cases, money. My personal experience with this began when I volunteered to work at a hostel in Budapest. What I did not know until after I had arrived was that far from just being a way to keep costs down, volunteering in a hostel would prove to be one of the best stepping stones I had found into the world of travelling forever. While us volunteers weren’t paid, the receptionists, bar staff and managers were, and getting to know the people in these roles, and some of the volunteers too, I began to hear story after story of people who had been on the road for years, with no end in sight. Each story was individual and unique, with different motivations, supports and challenges, and most did not contain the levels of privilege or advantages my cynical brain had come to expect. These were real people who had decided a permanent address was not for them and had made it happen without an online following or a loan from the bank of privilege. And sure, checking people in to a hostel, serving drinks, leading tours or cooking dinner for guests may not be quite as glamorous as the lifestyle lived by some of the influencers, but it is achievable, and with hostels and bars in almost every corner of the globe, it comes with much of the flexibility.
I cleaned floors, cooked dinners, took out bins, dealt with drunken guests, and so much more, and I loved it. Something I had considered only a hunch, that novelty and passion make hard work much easier, was proving itself to be true. As I spent more and more time in the company of those who were living it for real, the question stopped being whether I should pursue this dream, and instead became how exactly I would do so. I was getting to explore a new country, meet new people daily, and spend practically no money, all while being creatively productive. For the month I was there it truly felt as if I had things figured out. And then, one of the managers of the companies who ran our pub crawls told me I should apply for a job, saying I would definitely get it. I would have gotten to stay in Budapest with an apartment provided, and been paid to bring people on pub crawls and boat parties. The catch was, that it was a 3-month gig, and college started in 2 weeks. I began to look at things more critically as I considered my options and I quickly discovered that the lifestyle I was considering had its own peculiarities and issues. I spent most of my evenings in Budapest drinking and partying, enjoyable activities that are however quite unsustainable for very long periods of time. I learned too about a mentality that can fester in some as they meet and drink with new people every day, which was supposedly especially prevalent in the place I was considering. The staff become desensitised as the consequences of simply not being a good person diminish. When a new cohort of guests arrives every day, never staying longer than a week, things that would otherwise be remembered negatively by your peers are overlooked as the insulted parties move on to the next city. Speaking to some of the staff about to leave the very place I was considering working for, a good friend of mine mentioned how they reported months and months of their lives disappearing into a blur of intoxication and insanity. I came to the conclusion that that path wasn’t for me.
And yet, those issues I identified, while present in newer arrivals to the lifestyle, seemed far less prominent in the managers, receptionists, and others who had been on this path for far longer. The veterans seemed much better adjusted, with far healthier relationships to alcohol than myself ,the other new arrivals, and the temporary blow-ins. Precisely the people who hadn’t had an apartment or house for years on end came across to me as the most sane - no more imbalanced than the average person their age. So although I didn’t hop on the opportunity to lead pub crawls in Budapest, coming home to Ireland I did so with the knowledge that there was one tenable path, at least, to the dream I had been so enraptured by back on that tram in Munich.
IV. The Planet
I would like to think that I care about the planet, and so, I suspect, would many of the people I have met on my travels. Therefore it saddens me slightly that I only come to discuss sustainability here, as an addendum of sorts to my exploration of travelling forever. There is a growing body of evidence that supports the conclusion that frequent travel, at least in its current form, is fundamentally unsustainable on a planetary level. People I respect have opted to stop flying altogether, and I understand their perspective. Regardless of whose statistics you employ, aviation makes up a significant percentage of yearly C02 emissions and its share is only on the rise. Trains and boats tend to be more efficient, but shy of hitchhiking and cycling everywhere, it is very hard to travel consequence-free. While I personally still justify my travel, albeit possibly through cognitive dissonance, I don’t think I could justify a life on the road without some serious measures in place. Measures that would ideally ensure that my life of travel did not come at the cost of the very planet I want to see, and the plants, people, and animals who make it worth seeing. What exact form those measures would take I have yet to decide. As with many other aspects of life on the road, it will be a matter of doing research beforehand and then improvising along the way. It is ultimately always important to remember that the romantic ideal of travelling forever is just that: a romantic ideal. There will be plenty of practicalities, environmental and otherwise, to consider before you grab your backpack and set out. Yet too it appears likely that there is a lot less holding you back than many might imagine.