Meet the Nomads – Nora Dunn-from the Canadian Rat Race to a Simple Hawaiian Life

by Carmen Bolanos

Meet Nora Dunn. A former financial planner, Nora and her partner Kelly gave up the 9-5 white collar life for that of laptop hobos. Nora and Kelly are currently house-sitting for an environmentally sustainable home in Hawaii after having crossed Canada by train. Nora maintains income by writing professionally about frugal living for WiseBread. She also maintains her personal blog, Life Happens, where you can read more about their travels.

Nora, I was reading on your blog that you and your traveling partner, Kelly, made a decision in 2006 to quit your jobs, sell your belongings and become nomadic. What brought you to this decision?

Previously as a career financial planner, I derived great joy from helping people to redefine their relationships with money and learn to plan for tomorrow but not at the expense of living for today. However it was when I was neck-deep in my practice (and quite successful) that I realized there was more to life than what I was doing. Both Kelly & I felt trapped in the rat race and couldn’t imagine spending the next 30 years of our lives maintaining status quo and keeping up with the Joneses waiting to fulfill our dreams of travel in far off retirement.

We both have also had this lifelong nagging voice in our heads telling us we aren?t on the right track which typically led us to drastic career changes more than once.

It was when I burnt out totally and became quite ill that I really started to listen to the voice, and realized that there was more to life than met the eye. One day when I was in tears about my predicament I was asked point blank what I want to do. In frustration, I replied ?I just want to retire?! But then I thought about what retirement really meant to me (because knitting and gardening were certainly not high on my list), and I realized that my dream of a life of travel, adventure, and searching for inspirational stories to tell wasn’t out of the realm of reason to do right now!

Too many people detest their current daily grind yet don\’t do anything but complain about it. I refused to become one of those people.

Hence: the decision to become a Professional Hobo!

What preparations did you have to do to actually be able to hit the road?

Selling my financial planning business was one of the trickiest obstacles, as it meant letting go of the dear relationships I had with my clients. However I took care to make sure everybody was in good hands, and surprisingly I received lots of support and encouragement from my clients and colleagues.

Then, it became a matter of selling off our belongings. I detail this process in a few articles here and here, but basically it was a matter of keeping (by storing with friends) only those things that we deemed irreplaceable (which amounted to about eight boxes) and selling or giving away everything else.

This was an extremely difficult process since society conditions us to accumulate stuff, but was quite freeing once we accepted the idea of letting go. I still miss the loft I had in the Beaches area of Toronto (Canada), but I don\’t harbour an ounce of regret for anything that I’ve done.

Next was the matter of figuring out what to take with us. We have read over and over again that the less you take, the happier the travels go. So with that in mind, we kept a few outfits that are multi-functional, three pairs of shoes (hiking boots, runners, and sandals), minimal toiletries (Dr Bronner’s rocks as a multi-functional soap), and the ever-present laptop and camera combo.

Did you plan where you would travel beforehand or are you making it up as you go?

Life Happens while you’re busy making plans. And wouldn’t you know it ? while we were planning our trip, life kept happening! Our original first destination was Costa Rica, where we would be taking an Outward Bound course to become adventure guides. But just before it came time to sign on the dotted line, we received a call from Kelly’s brother who was getting married in the summer and wanted us to be a part of his special day. So in a matter of three hours the plans changed drastically from summering Costa Rica to traveling across Canada by train (highly recommended by the way) and spending the summer in Alberta with family and friends, and enjoying the Rocky Mountains.

Costa Rica was still on the agenda for the fall, by which time life continued to throw us curve balls and we stumbled upon our current opportunity which is in Hawaii.

Having the freedom to roll with the punches and identify (and capitalize on) opportunities as they come is very special. We enjoy not following the plan, and continuing to make it up as we go!

It looks like you started out by using savings from your former careers but are now generating income on the road. Can you tell us what you’re doing and how it’s working out? Is it enough to sustain your travel?

Although we both have money saved from former careers, we are trying not to touch it as we travel. Through caretaking (more on this later) and volunteer work, we can minimize our expenses and live and travel for a long time on very little money. I also am a writer (on the subjects of travel and personal finance), and although it wouldn’t currently pay the bills in an expensive North American or European city, it helps out when living minimally on the road. It is an ideal career to work on as a Professional Hobo, since all I need is an internet connection to make a living.

Sustainability also becomes a matter of defining what the trip (and ?travel?) and looks like for us. We could return to Canada, spend a summer bar tending or guiding in the mountains and enjoying what a new part of the country has to offer to us, and save up enough money to travel for another year. If we are back in our own country and working, does that mean the trip is on hold or over? Or is it all part of the adventure? We prefer the latter mindset, and even if we have to work to save enough to travel more, we are up for the challenge. We choose to call our travels a lifestyle and not just a trip.

I\’m intrigued that you are currently house-sitting in Hawaii. How did you get this gig? Will you do this again as you travel?

Initially our online research took us to ?WOOFing?, which is a way of trading work for accommodations around the world. The type of work varies, but is usually centered around working on organic farms.

Through this, we discovered the Caretaker’s Gazette, which connects people looking for rent-free living with those who need caretaking help or house-sitting. The opportunities are widely varied in nature and globally located. It was through this avenue that we found our current living arrangements. Hawaii was never on the radar for us, but the opportunity to learn sustainable living techniques (and to hopefully implement them in places of need on future travels) in a little piece of paradise was too much to pass on.

We are also members of Rotary International, a world-wide organization of people dedicated to ?Service Above Self?, and helping others through fundraising and volunteering on meaningful projects. Rotary is almost single-handedly responsible for eradicating Polio, among other amazing accomplishments. As Rotarians, we have the ability to show up at a Rotary meeting around the world and offer our services. In return, we receive a warm welcome, the insider’s perspective of the place we are visiting, and sometimes an opportunity to volunteer on a meaningful project.

So through Woofing, Caretaker’s Gazette, and Rotary, as well as networking with other travelers, we expect to continue to find perfect opportunities as they arise.

How long do you plan to keep traveling?

Until we get tired of it! This is a question we often ponder, and we simply don\’t have an answer yet. Since we are making travel a lifestyle and not just a trip, it is a potentially life-long adventure. However we acknowledge that the desire to ‘settle down? and create a more permanent home might eventually become prevalent and we are willing to cross that bridge when we come to it. As an entrepreneur and public speaker/performer, I am always looking for the next business opportunity, and the right one might be what halts our nomadic lifestyle.

What are some of your favorite places so far? Would you recommend any as more/less nomad friendly?

Although I have seen a lot of the world before (as a tourist), we are still quite new to the world of traveling as Professional Hobos. We started out by traveling across our own country (Canada) to rediscover our heritage and fortify our love for our own backyard. So it is with some bias that we say Canada is an incredible place to see (especially if you travel by train), and Vancouver Island is one of the most nomad friendly places in Canada.

Hawaii is also a very nomad friendly location, especially the region we are in, which is Puna on the Big Island. There are tons of work/trade opportunities, and a very transient population. Everybody here appears to be from somewhere else.

I also found South Africa to be an incredible place to see (and it can be done on a budget), and high on our list of places to go is Central & South America, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand.

Although I know people who have done it, I would cite China as one of the lesser nomad-friendly places, unless you speak the language and understand the culture. I have traveled through China before, with varying degrees of success (and pleasure).

What kind of reaction have you had from your family/friends about your traveling lifestyle?

I was quite surprised to receive nothing but support and admiration for our decision. Most people have told us that they wish they could do this themselves (but for a myriad of reasons they don\’t feel they can), and ask to live vicariously through our stories (which gives me all the more inspiration to write).

The worst response we have encountered so far is a simple lack of understanding as to why we would sacrifice everything we have for the unknown, but it came with no judgment or harsh words.

What would you say are the pros/cons of the nunomadic business and lifestyle?

Pros: To see the world while we are (somewhat) young, and to inspire others to take charge of their lives and make similar decisions is an incredible treat.

We have met some amazing people from around the world, and as our network continues to expand, so does our sense of self and each other. There is nothing more poignant to help you learn more about yourself (and your significant other) than to go through the stresses of travel and discovering new places and come out the other side in one piece!
Cons: As North Americans, the desire to ?nest? and accumulate stuff is strong in us, and requires some vigilance to counter. (This is ultimately a ?pro?, but is still a challenge)!

Life goes on with family and friends back home, and being away can create a sense of missing out if you’re not careful about what you want.

Travel can also be stressful, looking for a place to hang your hat (even if for a night or two), constantly forging through the unknown, trying not to get ripped off, and guarding your few belongings against theft or damage.

Do you have any advice for those people wanting to set up their own mobile business?

In order to have a mobile business, an internet connection is imperative these days.

I started out with an older laptop, which almost immediately gave me grief with the wireless card. Although I would say I know a bit about computers, I am helpless to fix some problems and they can be crippling abroad. Don?t skimp on trying to make due with a compromise (like a palm pilot) if what you need is a good laptop. You don\’t have to spend a fortune to be set up with the right stuff, and it pays off in spades in the long run. I also sold my good camera because it was too big and skimped out on my current one, and am regretting it since the quality of pictures and video (and consequent marketability of the shots) is compromised.

Also, when traveling it is easy to meet people and forget them almost as quickly as the friendship is kindled. Good entrepreneurs and networkers keep good records of those they meet. It’s not because they have super-human memories; they take notes. Make sure if you meet somebody you like, even if you don\’t know how exactly they’ll be of assistance to you (or vice versa) in the long run, you keep their information handy (along with some notes to refresh your memory about them), and who knows ? you may be able to connect them with somebody else you meet later down the road. Good karma can go a long way for a nunomadic traveler.


  1. Go, Nora, go! :o)
    Thanks for the continuous stream of inspiration.
    Great post, Carmen!

    Post a Reply
  2. Interesting, I’ve been reading there blog off and on so I was wondering how they did it.

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *