Ladies We Love is a monthly interview series with women from around the world that provide us with inspiration through their travels and personal stories. This week we got to know traveller and journalist Nora Dunn of The Professional Hobo.
Nora Dunn started travel blogging in 2006 when it wasn’t even an industry yet. Nora has traveled to over 55 countries over a 12 year period, documenting her experiences and adventures along the way.
1) For our readers who haven’t visited your blog yet, please introduce yourself? Where are you from? What do you do?
Hi! I’m Nora Dunn, aka The Professional Hobo. In 2006 I sold everything I owned in Toronto Canada (including a busy financial planning practice) to embrace my dreams of long-term immersive world travel. I traveled full-time for over 12 years, living in and traveling through over 55 countries!
Along the way, I’ve earned my living as a travel writer, blogger, and vlogger. On my website, I teach people how to travel full-time in a financially sustainable way. While I now have a home base back in Toronto again, I continue to travel for about half of each year (give or take).
2) In 2006 you sold your financial planning practice and belongings to travel. What influenced you to do this?
The call to travel long-term had been a long (long, long!) time in the making, dating back to childhood, when the seed was planted that grew into a dream to “crack the code” of local cultures. As a child, I wanted to know how children in other parts of the world played. As I grew up, the idea remained the same; only the context changed. In addition to wanting to know how the children played, I also wanted to know how the adults played! I wanted to know where people shopped, what they ate, how the family household worked, and what people talked about around the dinner table.
Over the years as a young adult, I traveled, but I was mainly relegated to short vacations that were little more than glorified opportunities to defrost from Canada’s harsh winters for a week at a time. My last traditional vacation was a month in South Africa – a trip that I figured would be long enough to “crack the code” on the place! Of course, I returned home with more questions than answers. Cue in a case of burnout and a few bouts of bronchitis that devolved into walking pneumonia, and I decided life was too short to keep putting off my dream. If I wanted to learn how the world ticked, I had to make travel a lifestyle.
3) You were one of the original lifestyle travel bloggers, what influenced you to start your blog?
When I started travel blogging in 2006, travel blogging wasn’t yet an industry. The terms “digital nomad” and “location independent” were years away from being coined, and travel blogs were little more than glorified online journals – which is exactly what mine was as well; simply a way to chronicle my travels for family and friends to follow along. In terms of income, at that time I was building a freelance writing portfolio to pay the bills; I wrote for travel publications about finance (as a former CFP), and I wrote for finance publications about travel.
A couple of years later I found myself accidentally starting an international NGO in Thailand (!), and suddenly I had a growing international following of readers. It was at that point that I started getting serious about my website and I moved from a free blog to a self-hosted domain, and TheProfessionalHobo.com was born! Travel blogging as a monetizable industry was still in its infancy, but as it grew up and around me, I was carried along with the wave as something of a pioneer in a burgeoning industry. (Which is funny, because I still don’t feel like I actually know what I’m doing)!
4) Recently you moved back home, what has been the hardest part of moving back home?
For years and years, one of the main questions people would ask me was “when are you going to settle down”. I hated that question. I railed against it, insisting that “settle down” was a bad word and that it was entirely unnecessary. So one of my bigger challenges in moving back to my home town of Toronto (a place I never thought I would live in again, having decided that I preferred rural to urban locations), was a feeling that I was somehow going back on my own word. While I ultimately had nobody but me to be accountable to on this level, it still felt a bit like I was eating humble pie.
But the reality is that my priorities changed. For 12 years of full-time travel, a victory would be if I achieved a sense of belonging in a foreign country; making local friends, being invited to weddings, and proverbially (and literally) breaking bread around dinner tables around the world. Meanwhile, I missed weddings, births, and deaths, of my own family and lifelong friends back in Canada. After a pretty severe case of burnout that started in 2017 and peaked in 2018, I returned to Toronto for a visit. Two things happened that made me realize it was time for a change: 1) My oldest friend’s daughter didn’t remember me (she was six years old at the time and it had been two years since she had last seen me, but it made me feel like a pretty crappy “Aunty Nora”, and 2) My Dad said “Nora, I’m getting old, I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be around, and I’d like you to be closer”. I realized that while I was busy searching for a sense of belonging elsewhere in the world, I’d eschewed my own tribe of family and friends to whom I had always belonged!
Also, as an only child of two (divorced) only children, if something happens to either one of my parents, no matter where I am in the world, I have to drop everything and return to Toronto. And I didn’t have anywhere comfortable to stay in that event. So now, even if I travel half the year, having a modest apartment that I can come back to at any time, has given me an incredible sense of relief and comfort, and allows me to enjoy the proximity of family and friends with whom I share both history, and cultural ties.
5) You have traveled to over 55 countries, what are your top three destinations and why?
Travel is contextual, and our favourite places actually have very little to do with the actual destination; rather, it’s about who we’re with, what we’re doing, and how we’re feeling at the time. So, with that in mind, here are my top three (in no particular order):
- New Zealand, for its sheer beauty, friendliness of the people, adventurous activities, and because I spent 9 months there doing various cool things including volunteering in trade for free accommodation and meals at a ridiculously beautiful spiritual retreat centre.
- Nepal, because I filmed a tv show there (I’ve actually filmed a few different tv shows in a few different countries), and
traveling with a film crew is generally an all-access ticket to some pretty cool stuff.
- Peru, because I spent two years living there and apprenticing with a shaman – a life-changing turn of events if ever there was one.
6) What destinations or experiences are on your bucket list?
While I can generally look at a map of the world and no longer feel a pressing need to conquer every country, there are still lots of places I’d like to explore, such as Iceland, Eastern Europe (eg: Bulgaria and Georgia), Mauritius/Reunion, and in my own country: both Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories (both in summer thankyouverymuch – I may be Canadian, but I don’t do winter)!
7) What would you say is the biggest life lesson you have learnt from traveling?
Travel continues to slap me around regularly and teach me new things. The latest lesson I learned has been about how very different travel can be, not only for each person but from trip to trip. I already knew this of course; as a lifestyle traveler, I had carved out a rhythm and style of travel that was quite different to other lifestyle travelers and digital nomads – who each had their own travel style and pace.
But after setting up my home base in Toronto, paint still proverbially drying on the walls, I took off for five months. The main event was to be three months in Guatemala. It was a change of travel style from so much of what I’d done over the years – I usually chose a destination based on a unique accommodation opportunity; to house-sit, volunteer, visit a friend, or even to live on boats. Instead, Guatemala was a bit of a random choice, and while I was able to leverage some connections of Guatemalan friends of mine in Toronto that gave me an “in” in Guatemala, I was largely left to plan the trip from abroad in a way that was different to what I’d done over the previous dozen or so years.
Well, guess what; I made a ton of mistakes – many of the mistakes that you wouldn’t think somebody of my tenure in the travel industry would make! So not only did I learn various lessons from the mistakes I made, but I also learned how travel is 100% customizable. We can define – and redefine – ourselves, our preferences, and our likes and dislikes a million times over. For example, while a former me would have preferred to get as far off the “beaten path” as possible, to the extent that I might recluse in a hut on the side of an obscure mountain for months at a time in the name of “living locally”, now I like to choose easier, more comfortable experiences, and experiences that might teach me a bit more about a destination and what it has to offer. In many cases, the beaten path exists for a reason; because there’s something cool to see/do/explore.
So perhaps the lesson is never to point the finger or say that one style of travel is better (or more “real” or “authentic”) than another. It’s a matter of preference, and the beautiful thing is that there’s no right or wrong. This is not only a travel lesson but a life lesson.
8) You have been working while traveling, what’s the most interesting job you have ever had?
While my income has largely been earned from working online as a writer, I’ve also had some really interesting jobs that I’ve worked in the trade for free accommodation. For example, I’ve milked goats, painted murals, chopped wood, run retreat centres, and helped keep the wheels (or sails) going on five sailboats spanning three countries in the Caribbean. Here’s a guide I wrote that teaches people how to find amazing free accommodation opportunities like these around the world.
9) What advice would you give people who are thinking of working while traveling?
My #1 piece of advice for people who are thinking of starting an online business to subsidize a lifestyle of travel, is to get the foundations of the business/career well-established before quitting your job and hitting the road. I didn’t do this, and I paid the price; simultaneously figuring out how to live and travel full-time while trying to set up my online business (which takes a heroic amount of time and effort for little to no pay in the beginning). It was a constant work-life struggle, I felt like I was always sacrificing either a cool travel experience or a cool income opportunity, and it was also hard on my relationship at the time.
Here’s a guide I wrote about what I learned and how to go location independent.
10) What are your go-to websites or resources to find jobs abroad?
It really depends! Too many to mention here. Regarding finding jobs, the websites I recommend depend entirely on the style of work and the industry. Here are my favourite travel websites.
11) Now for a fun question, tell us a fun fact about yourself?
How about a few? I was a professional actor/singer/dancer (I was in a Hollywood movie, as more than just an extra!), a concert pianist, and I toured China with ballet as the flautist when I was 16. I have done almost 300 skydives, and I used to race motorcycles. I’ve lived a few thousand lives! Here’s a fun video I made that shares these and other random fun facts about me.
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