How can people afford to spend their lives travelling? It’s a question I’ve been asking ever since I experienced my first months’ backpacking and the wonderful, heightened state of existence they allowed me to access. Even now, out in the world again with my life on my back, the question is ever-present, seductive and unanswerable: how can I sustain this?
It was only when I found myself staying at Junax, a small hostel in San Cristóbal Mexico exclusively for volunteers, that I began to understand how it could be done. There we found a very different kind of traveler – the kind you need to become to make travel a sustainable lifestyle.
These were people staying in the city for long periods of time and working with charities, some of these placements arranged by the owner of the hostel herself. Most were also working on their own side projects – one author, a couple of PHD students – and this hostel, deliberately low cost to encourage volunteers, made a long-term stay more than affordable.
Combine these kinds of community project hostels with websites like Workaway, and volunteering your way around the world seems a more and more plausible existence, which could stretch a small amount of savings a very long way.
It’s difficult to imagine being able to afford backpacking for any length of time, moving from place to place every few days and inevitably getting trapped into tourist spending. You’d have to have an enormous fortune, extremely indulgent parents or work for Lonely Planet. My current trip is the result of just over a year and a half of careful planning and saving.
But adjusting your mindset a little, staying a few months in each place, working for accommodation, volunteering for amazing organisations and all with a bit of time spare to write that novel you’ve been working on for three years but London just WOULDN’T let you finish… you could afford to get by.
If you think about it, this is also a far more enriching type of travel. Rather than skimming the surface of a culture, ticking off a list of attractions and spending most of your time with like-minded backpacking Westerners, this experience is far more real. Instead of only glimpsing the sales smiles of locals in the markets, you get to dig deeper, learn their languages, hear their stories, see the world through their eyes.
I was so envious of everyone at Junax and the kind of lifestyle it afforded them that come January you may find me absent from the UK once again, sipping San Cristóbal’s mountain air, a blank piece of paper before me, at the start of a much longer-term, open-ended adventure. Perhaps then I’ll be able to answer my question and finally make the dream of a travelling life a reality.