Vagabonding Case Study: Nora Dunn

On April 22nd, 2016

Nora Dunn of the Professional Hoba

Age: 35

Hometown: Toronto, Canada

Quote: “We all have ideas. But until we do something with the idea, it remains lifeless. It’s all about the execution.

How did you find out about Vagabonding, and how did you find it useful before and during the trip?
Having loved the travel section of any bookstore, I had been familiar with Vagabonding for a while. I finally had a chance to read it once I’d sold everything and had just begun my full-time traveling life (in 2007). Although I found it to be an inspirational read and insightful as to what life on the road could be like, I also found it left me with more questions than answers in terms of the logistics of traveling long-term. That was when I realized travel is very different for everybody, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution (as much as we might like one).

How long were you on the road?
I sold everything I owned (including a financial planning business) in late 2006, and I’ve been traveling full-time since April 2007.

Where all did you go?
Here’s a basic breakdown: I took the train across Canada and spent seven months in the Rocky Mountains; I lived in Hawaii for six months; then traveled for two months through Thailand/Malaysia/Singapore (with more than a few mis-adventures in Thailand), before using Australia as a base for a year and a half. (Australia also entailed a mis-adventure or two).

Filming a travel/adventure tv show in New Zealand shook things up a bit, and after a few months there I spent four months in Europe (namely Spain, Germany, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland). I also breezed back through Paris and spent a few weeks in Nepal to film the pilot episode of a (different) travel tv show.

I returned to Australia to tie up some loose ends and ride over 16,000kms on the train, before heading back over to New Zealand to catch my breath at while volunteering at Mana Retreat for six months. I’m writing this from Toronto, where I’m visiting family and friends, getting a new passport, and plotting the next stage of my travels.

What was your job or source of travel funding for this journey?
I travel full-time in a financially sustainable manner; due in part to a location independent income I’ve developed from writing (about travel, personal finance, and lifestyle design), and tempered by a reduced cost of living with various gigs that involve volunteering in trade for accommodation (which can involve caretaking, house-sitting, pet-sitting, and hospitality exchanges).

Managing work/life balance while traveling is not easy, but it’s a nice problem to have.

Of all the places you visited, which was your favorite?
Ah yes, that million dollar question. I have a thousand dollar answer here.

Was there a place that was your least favorite, or most disappointing, or most challenging?
I was caught in or near two devastating natural disasters in less than two years. The first was a close brush with Cyclone Nargis (which obliterated Burma) while I was in Thailand, and the second was being trapped on all sides by fire for a month during the Victorian Bushfires in Australia.

In both cases I made the best of the situation by volunteering or fundraising. But all in all those experiences (in relatively close succession, with a few challenges like dengue fever in between) were exhausting.

Did any of your pre-trip worries or concerns come true?  Did you run into any problems or obstacles that you hadn’t anticipated?
For the life of me I can’t recall having any significant pre-trip concerns; at least nothing that continues to stand out for me over four years later! As for problems or obstacles, breaking up with my partner after the first few years of traveling together wasn’t easy or predictable, but I survived – and thrived – nonetheless.

Which travel gear proved most useful?  Least useful?
I love my headlamp through and through. It’s so useful, I keep it in my purse at all times!

As for least useful, anything that adds unnecessary weight and/or isn’t multi-functional or frequently used has been culled. I started out with no concept of how much the weight of your pack directly correlates to misery on the road, so I’ve culled items like a solar charging panel, climbing rope and gear, and a good chunk of the clothes I started out with.

What are the rewards of the vagabonding lifestyle?
Believe it or not, the cost of traveling full-time can be cheaper than staying in one place! This ultimate freedom of being on the road all the time has been incredible and led to rewarding relationships, growth experiences, and cultural exchanges I could never have experienced if I were still relegated to two-week vacations each year.

What are the challenges and sacrifices of the vagabonding lifestyle?
Returning home for a visit after over four years has left me feeling somewhat disconnected. It goes beyond reverse culture shock; after so long on the road, I’ve experienced a fair degree of travel fatigue and a certain sacrifice of personal space with the volunteer gigs and hospitality exchanges I’ve done.

And somehow, emotionally, I associated my home town with being grounding and a relief from these stresses. In actual fact, I’ve found it to be quite the opposite, which is unsettling – literally and figuratively. It challenges my definition of “home” and ultimately what I’m doing. (But I appreciate these sorts of challenges for the insight they ultimately reveal).

What lessons did you learn on the road?
I learned that long-term travel (for more than a few months) can be exhausting, and that I value my personal space and now try to design my travels accordingly. I expect to do more long-term house-sitting or even taking advantage of short-term rentals going forward to satisfy these needs for a sense of “home” along the way.

I’ve also become somewhat apathetic about traveling for the sheer sake of traveling or seeing a specific destination without having a really good reason; so now it’s usually an opportunity (to volunteer, house-sit, visit somebody, or explore a specific type of adventure) that dictates where I go.

How did your personal definition of “vagabonding” develop over the course of the trip?
I think the act of long-term travel in and of itself can be considered “vagabonding” – and that will incarnate in many different forms depending on the traveler. That’s what my popular week-in-the-life series is all about; celebrating how each traveler chooses to live on the road.

If there was one thing you could have told yourself before the trip, what would it be?
How about five things?

  1. Pack light; the weight of your pack is directly attributable to your happiness (or lack thereof) on the road.
  2. Plan loosely and keep your eyes and ears open; this can exponentially deepen the travel experience. My original first destination was Latin America, and I still haven’t made it there for all the opportunities I just couldn’t turn down that took me elsewhere.
  3. Have the flexibility to take people up on their offers to stay with them; it has been invaluable in helping me to experience a slice of local life in so many of the places I’ve visited.
  4. Have the courage to approach people and step outside your comfort zone; I never would have met Sheralee in Australia, or Toro Bravo in Spain if I had kept walking.
  5. Lastly, give yourself permission to change your destiny; nothing about travel should be set in stone; escaping one rat race for a different attempt at keeping up with the Joneses – or rather, travelers – is not what it’s all about. There is no roadmap, so have the courage to create your own path.

Any advice or tips for someone hoping to embark on a similar adventure?
As with so many things in life, we all have ideas. But until we do something with the idea, it remains lifeless. It’s all about the execution. So get out there and just do it. You’ll figure out how to swim along the way, with the help of other travelers and your own ingenuity. There is no right or wrong answer; just doing and not doing. Taking that first step and making the commitment is the most important part.

A little more logistically, make sure you have your financial house in order. Hitting the road with a pile of debt is a recipe for disaster unless you have a steady income to service the debt along the way. So many people return home from trips with debt which is bad enough; don’t start out that way.

When and where do you think you’ll take your next long-term journey?
I’m still planning out the next stages of where I’ll go – which will be sooner than later. Among other things, I’m contemplating a (very long) train journey from Portugal to Vietnam, hacking my way into a Bollywood movie dance scene, checking out a few opportunities in Scandanavia, and house-sitting in Latin America. We’ll see which opportunity sings to me first. Stay tuned!

Read more about Nora on her website, The Professional Hobo.

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Image: reurinkjan (flickr)