Living a Life of Travel: An Interview with Jessica and Laurence Norah

December 4, 2019

From admiring the awe-inspiring pyramids of Giza up-close to savouring the grilled meat at roadside stalls along the streets of Bangkok, living a life of travel and hopping from country to country experiencing different cultures is a dream held by many around the world.

For Jessica and Laurence Norah who have realised this dream as full-time travel bloggers, this is a life they have been living for many years while documenting their journey and adventures on their popular blogs -  Independent Travel Cats and Finding the Universe.

With over 810,000 readers and 1.2 million pageviews every month combined between both of their blogs, they are also one of the most successful travel bloggers online as well. 

In this interview, we were curious to find out more about how they started, the challenges that they faced, and their journey over the years as they explored the world. Read on to find out more about this incredible travel couple:

To Jessica: You started writing on your blog in 2013 before leaving your job as a clinical psychologist to focus full time on your blog in 2015. Could you share how you felt at that time and what was the turning point for you in taking that jump?

When I started my blog in 2013, it was just as a hobby and a way to share some of my travels. At the time, I was taking one or two big trips a year and really enjoyed traveling. Some of my friends and people I met on my travels encouraged me to share my experiences and tips online and eventually I did. 

Since I had a full-time job as a clinical psychologist, I wasn’t concerned about monetizing the blog or gaining a huge audience. But after meeting Laurence and deciding to get married in 2015, we made a decision to try to see if we could make a living from just our travel blogs. We also decided at the same time to move to the UK since we needed to choose a place to live since we were both living in different countries at the time.

It was a pretty bold decision. I had spent most of my life in school and university to get a Ph.D. to be a clinical psychologist and had a great position and was supervising a funded research grant. But as much as I loved that job, I had always loved writing and travel. Writing was my first passion, and so it seemed that if I ever wanted to make a change, this was my chance.

The first year was a huge change for me. I was living in California at the time, and I went from being a single clinical psychologist in sunny Silicon Valley with a fairly secure job to being a married travel blogger living in a small village in Scotland with almost no income. But I think that the challenge we gave ourselves made us really work on our blogs and turn them into a real business, which I probably would not have done if I continued working at my previous job. 

I still miss aspects of my former job, but overall I am happy with my decision. I especially love that Laurence and I get to work together and travel together. We set our own goals and working hours, and it gives us a lot of freedom.

To Laurence: You had a career in the IT industry for almost a decade before quitting your job in 2009 to set off on a one-way adventure in Australia for one year. How did you feel then, and what motivated you to make this big decision in your life?

So for me, it was really about enjoying what I was doing. I enjoyed the basics of working in IT, which was developing code and working with technology, but I didn’t really enjoy things like office politics, fixed periods of vacation, and working for someone else.

Ultimately I decided that I wanted something more from life. I wasn’t sure what that was, but I was lucky in that I had a combination of sufficient savings and no responsibilities. So I was able to take this big leap into the unknown and go travelling. I didn’t have a long term plan - just a feeling that if I started to do things I love, like travel and photography, that I would find a life that worked for me. 

I started the blog after a year of travelling around Australia, and I’ve now been running Finding the Universe since 2010. I’ve never gone back to an IT job, and I don’t regret it! However, having a degree in computer science is definitely helpful in running a successful website and online business, and I still get to tinker with code, which remains a passion.

Tell us more about how the both of you met during a 2014 travel conference in Italy, and what caught your eye about each other.

Laurence was giving a talk on photography, and Jessica was in the audience. Laurence noticed that Jess was quite attentive and engaged with the talk, so he went up afterwards to thank her. Jessica had enjoyed the talk but her first impression was that Laurence’s jacket was too big on him (he had borrowed his brother’s jacket) ;-)

We ended up on a press trip together for a few days directly after the conference and enjoyed getting to know each other. After the trip, Laurence started an email conversation and it went from there quite quickly! We were married about a year later. 

Across all the countries you’ve travelled, what were some of the most memorable experiences that both of you have had over the years?

With travel being such a big part of our lives, we have had a lot of amazing experiences on our travels and it is hard to choose any favourites. Obviously, a highlight for both of us was our wedding at sea, which was really quite fantastic, as well as the subsequent train ride on the Orient Express from London to Venice. Jess really enjoyed her time in East Africa, as she loves seeing wildlife and Laurence really loves anywhere with big landscapes like New Zealand, Scotland, Iceland, and the United States.

What are some oft-misunderstood things or misconceptions that people have about living a life of travel?

That it’s one big holiday!

This is easy to understand, of course - for more people, travel time is associated with vacation time. So when people see us travelling pretty much full time, and sharing those lovely images and stories from the road, there is the assumption that it’s all just one long vacation.

What they don’t see is the hours of work that we have to put into creating content, the research that goes into every trip, and all the work we actually do on the ground to be sure we get all the content we need.

Of course, we’re not complaining. We chose this life, and we love what we do. But it definitely involves some hard work.

How has travel changed you and the way you look at the world? On reflection, what would be the most important message that you would want to share with others who do not travel as much?

It’s a bit of a cliché, but travel really does show you that most people around the world aren’t really that different. Sure, we eat different foods and have different traditions, clothes and cultures, but ultimately we are not that dissimilar. 

Ultimately most people want similar things in life - happiness, love, clean water, security. So I guess the message is that it’s important to look beyond the news stories and negativity that can pervade about places that are different to our familiar environments, and remember that we’re all just people at the end of the day.

With so many travel blogs and content on the internet now, do you think it’s increasingly harder for new travel bloggers to start and stand out from the crowd? What are your thoughts on travel blogging as a lifestyle and business, and what would your advice and encouragement be to new travel bloggers just starting out?

Yes, we think that It is definitely a lot harder to stand out today, and the market is very saturated with lots of new travel blogs starting each week. Only a small percentage of these actually turn into a profitable business. 

If you are planning to start a travel blog [or really any kind of blog] in a hope that it will make money, rather than just as a hobby, then you want to make sure that it is something you are truly passionate about. If you want to make money, there are definitely easier ways to go about it!

In terms of starting a travel blog, you want to come with your goals and purpose early on. We’d also suggest choosing a niche that is as focused as possible, such as focused on a specific activity (e.g., SCUBA diving), type of travel (cruising), or a specific city or region (e.g., Rome, Yorkshire). More general travel blogs, like our own, are a lot harder to establish authority in today’s blogging world. 

We’d also suggest reading our guide to becoming a travel blogger for loads more practical tips.

Tell us more about what the early years of your blogging and travelling life was like? What were some of your biggest challenges, and how did both of you overcome them?

When we started our blogs, back in 2010 and 2013, travel blogging was definitely at a more nascent phase. There was a lot less information available on how to successfully build a blog, how to attract readers, how to monetize a blog, or how to turn one’s blog into a business. Few travel bloggers were making money, and monetization options were fairly limited.

It wasn’t until 2015 that we both really took our blogs seriously and started treating them as a business.

So I think the biggest challenge was figuring out how to earn money from our blogs and do it in a way that fit our brands and our ethics. We tried a lot of things, some were successful for us and some were not, and through perseverance and hard work, we are now in the position where our blogs are able to support us full time. All of our income since Jess left her job in 2015 has come from our travel blogs and travel photography.

Another challenge has been just balancing blogging, travel, and having a normal life. For us, all three are often rolled into one, which can make it hard to separate them out when needed. So that is something we are still working on!

What are your future plans and the next adventures that you are looking forward to in 2020?

We’ve just moved (from Edinburgh, Scotland to Bath, England) and have done a lot of travelling the past several months, including just returning from a 2 week trip to Mauritius, but we haven’t done much trip planning for 2020 yet. We are tentatively planning to visit Switzerland at the beginning of the year and have plans to be in the United States in the Spring.

Although not in 2020, we have a cruise to Antarctica planned for the beginning of 2021 which we (especially Laurence) are really excited about! 

I see that you use your blogging profits to donate to charities (the donation of USD $10,000 to FAME) and that you have a commitment to a carbon-neutral footprint. Could you tell me more about those and why they are important to you?

We want our blogs and our business to help accomplish positive things and to give back. We believe everyone can make a difference, even if it is a small one.

Yes, I think we were one of the first travel blogs to come out with a carbon-neutral policy for our blog and our travels. I think a lot of other blogs are now coming out with similar policies which is great, and hopefully it has encouraged some of our readers to think more about sustainable travel.

Travel has many positive aspects, but it is not very environmentally friendly. So in 2018, we started tracking and estimating all our carbon emissions, both from travel as well as from our day to day life. Now, each year we offset that by donating money to the World Land Trust, which is a non-profit environmental charity in the UK that invests in carbon-reducing projects around the world.

This year we also started an initiative to use some of the profits from our company to donate to charity. Rather than the more piecemeal approach we had been doing at a personal level, we wanted to be able to give a more significant amount to a charity that was important to us. 

In 2019, we selected the Foundation for African Medicine and Education (FAME) as our main charity to receive $10,000. FAME operates a hospital in rural Tanzania that serves a greatly underserved rural population and it is a place Jessica visited in 2014 and met the couple who started it. You can read more about why we selected FAME here.

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