By Bruce Northam

Published Articles

GO WITH THE FLOW ~

Why knot?

(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

River Ou, Laos

River Ou, Laos

Finding your way in Laos can be a challenge. Street addresses are rarely used. If they are, building numbers match the order of construction. Lao transit often means huddling in the back of a family-size tuk-tuk. These oblong, bald-tired trucks make room for three lucky ladies riding in front with the driver, while 20 others cram into and upon the dingy pickup’s tarp-roofed bed. Because many villages can only be accessed by foot or boat, one mode of river travel presented a do-it-yourself option with two choices: sink or swim.

 

In northern Laos, 6-foot 9-inch travel-writing cohort Brad and I inherited a recently commissioned green bamboo raft valued at $12 to float a stretch of a river that originates in China and faces pending multi-dam destruction along its entire course. Semi-buoyant, slightly navigable, and gradually sinking due to waterlog, our 10-by-2-foot craft was also coming apart from collisions with various rocks. When night fell, we floated in nearly waist-deep water as the baleful purr of another set of rapids seemed to foretell our doom. We were weekend warriors in primetime.

 

The backstory of this unplanned water voyage is a lesson in international bargaining. From the last road in Nong Kiaw, we took a motorized longboat upriver to Muang Noi via the River Ou. When navigating headlong into rapids, we crashed into rocks and had to totter to the riverbank for repairs. Little did we know what an omen this would turn out to be.

 

Accessible only by boat, our destination, Muang Noi, is an idyllic village on an elevated riverside plain cradled by large mountains. A refreshing departure from Southeast Asia’s earsplitting transport madness, the little town remains blissfully devoid of motorized vehicles. There was only the drone of periodic generators creating electricity. The biggest currency note, 20,000 kip ($2), went a long way for frugal globetrotters seeking spectacular hikes and river floats. Here, the backpackers were starting to coexist with middle-aged European couples, likely revealing the future of this place. The predictable tourism cycle starts with backpackers flocking to an out-of-the-way gem, a decade later come the guided groups, and another decade brings the resorts.

 

Every town has a go-to guy. In Muang Noi, it was Kao, who for a fair wage, made many travelers whimsical daily dreams come true. On a professional level, he would be called an expediter or a fixer. We called him the magic man. When he offered to build us a boat, Brad and I clashed. I voted for continued freewheeling hiking and local riverboat tripping, as we’ve all heard foreboding maxims about boat ownership. Brad, however, saw a grand adventure brewing. I eventually convinced Brad to wait another day to decide.

 

A few hours later, I found myself sipping a beer in a thatched-roof establishment and wondering how to stave off Brad’s boat dream. That’s when a British guy I’d befriended stumbled in with one hand clutching a paddle, and the other a banged-up rifle. “Oh my god, they’re coming for me,” he stammered. “What did I do?” He dropped the rifle on the table and slapped his forehead. Come to find out, he’d gone “into business” with an Israeli guy to purchase a handmade boat for the market price of $12, but when they showed up to board and float their craft, the builder requested two more dollars for a pair of handmade paddles. The Israeli wouldn’t budge and demanded the paddles be inclusive of the $12 they’d already forked over. The Laotian bamboo craftsman wouldn’t negotiate. Harsh words flew, prompting the Laotian man to strut home, paddles in hand. The Brit and the Israeli trailed him through town and into his house, a hut really, and grabbed the only paddle they could find. And to make a point, they also snatched an antique rifle that was hanging on the man’s wall. While the argument over $2 paddles may seem incredibly petty, when ultra-thrifty travelers are on the road for a long time, a few dollars can make or break a budget—and possibly someone’s sanity.

 

After 10 minutes of consoling the sweating Brit, three calm plainclothes Lao policemen arrived at the restaurant to fetch the gun burglar. Coming to his defense, I pleaded with the cops to accept the Brit’s apology (invented by me), which included an offer to buy dinner and drinks for the boat maker and the police. With faces frozen, they weren’t interested. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for a nice guy who’d gotten in over his head. Off they marched with the Brit. Before exiting the restaurant, he thanked me for defending him and handed me the disputed paddle sighing, “You can have my boat.”

 

Soon after, Brad strolled into the restaurant, and I told him the full story, minus the gifting of the boat. He caught me off guard when he pointed to the paddle leaning on the table and asked what it was. Immediately after confessing that I now owned a boat, Brad lit up. “Let’s go!” he said. In a mad scrabble, we checked out of our huts, commissioned Kao to find us a second oar, and ship our backpacks downriver on the next local transport boat. Then we set sail.

Sink or Swim in Laos

Sink or Swim in Laos

Not 10 minutes into our downriver excursion, the raft began doing a wheelie since big Brad commandeered the back. Because we had warm beer on board and were careening off rocks, we agreed to name our craft Bamboozler. I knew we were in over our heads when a two-ton water buffalo swimming across the river gave us a steady warning look I interpreted as, “What the fu*k are these dorks doing here?”

 

Like two wagon-pulling seven-year-olds attempting to run away from home, we puffed out our chests and rowed on. Keeping pace with that mindset, we became the afternoon entertainment for children on the shoreline by echoing various animal sounds. Brad mimics a great cow. Later, we docked on the shoreline for our first of several random village visits. Kids arrived and laughed with us, and then the elder men waltzed up and chuckled at our boat, and us. Let the buyer beware. As opposed to dried brown, buoyant bamboo, our freshly cut green boat was cumbersome and basically unsteerable. Regardless, we still got credit for arriving by homespun boat and celebrated our dockings by buying all the kids pencils and writing pads from the lone shops near the makeshift marinas.

 

Eventually, our time on the water took its toll. “I have a feeling someone’s not rowing,” I accused Brad, forgetting there was a 240-pound guy back there who wasn’t smiling. And one oar, mine, was more likely to be used to fan myself. Both oars were two-foot long sections of bamboo sliced on one end to insert a chunky leaf. You could hardly call our floating logs a boat. When a father and son paddled by in their slick dugout canoe and ogled us with confused wonder, we gawked back at the harmony of their smooth, silent glide.

 

The sun set behind a cliff and the nocturnal jungle animals began to stir. The distant hiss of another run of whitewater roared louder and louder. We took swigs from our beers and braced for impact. Inexplicably, we clunked through the whitewater series like an underwater toboggan. Weaving like an unmanned magic carpet ride, we ran into rocks that spun our boat out of control, submerging it deeper underwater. Somehow, we eventually righted it, but not before the sound of cracking bamboo was heard competing with the gush of the rapids. Our limping underwater raft now set the waterline above our waists. In this part of the world, they call foreigners falang. The Falang Navy drifted on.

 

Having survived our brush with drowning and discovering that our sack of beer was still tied on, we discussed lighter issues. Then it occurred to us that neither of us had any idea where Kao had actually forwarded our backpacks. I yelped “wait,” to a deaf river deity. Still happily helpless and barely floating, the jesting continued…

 

“Brad, our raft is a bit of a lemon.”

 

Brad responded, “Your raft.”

 

Now in total darkness, we continue navigating blindly until a passing motorized passenger boat pulled up next to us, and the elderly pilot waved us into his boat. Upon boarding, we pointed to our raft, and he nodded a slow no, dismissing it with a backhanded wave. Emergency hospitality at its best. The kind, calm, and graceful Lao people make it hard to comprehend that Laos remains the most heavily bombed country ever. In a nine-year undeclared war, the U.S. dropped half a ton of bombs for every inhabitant.

 

Rescued at sea, we docked another mile downriver and discovered that our packs were on our rescue boat. Our good fortune multiplied when we re-encountered the apprehended Brit in that village, where he was taken, questioned, and released. After paying the apologetic would-be felon an honorarium for the stipulated boat, we shared a few laughs, and I realized that it was the first boat I’d ever bought—and for that matter, abandoned—albeit in the span of a day. Bucket list check for boat ownership.

 

Weeks later, back home in New York City, I found patches of reddish River Ou mud on the shorts I’d worn on the raft. Surprisingly, many of the world’s most daring pathfinders never discovered what they were looking for—riches, renown, and new trade routes to the Orient—but they all fearlessly cast searchlights into the unknown. Collectively, they mapped and helped merge the globe’s peoples and ways. Although at first reluctant for this particular adventure, I can’t imagine missing it. Brad and I didn’t exactly obliterate navigating presumptions that had endured for ages, but after smelling that Lao river again, I felt equally fulfilled and pitched my shorts into a washing machine.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Don’t bargain for a boat not in the water.” —Brendan Lake, Maine boat builder

Brad Olsen and Bruce Northam 'conquering' the River Ou in Northern Laos

Brad Olsen and Bruce Northam ‘conquering’ the River Ou in Northern Laos


DON’T PREDICT THE FUTURE, INVENT IT ~

(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

Why peer through the keyhole when your hand rests on the doorknob?

Mr. Chen (left) — unofficial mayor of Yangzhou, China

Mr. Chen (left) — unofficial mayor of Yangzhou, China

I was backpacking in the newly “opened” China in 1987 when Chen, a multilingual restaurateur and the unofficial mayor of Yangzhou, entered my life. He had a kindly way with backpackers, and one afternoon he invited me to join him on a 70-mile journey in a rickety delivery truck across southeast China’s surreal limestone-peak landscape.

 

En route, we passed a seemingly ancient man and his goat. They were walking on the roadside in the opposite direction. Barefoot, the man plodded along the rough, hot road, two immense bags of rice suspended on a long, flexible pole across his back.

 

We passed him without a word, but upon returning to Yangzhou several hours later, we found him again—still plodding along. I suggested to Chen that we offer him a lift. After we pulled over, the old man and Chen had a brief exchange. Then Chen got back behind the wheel, and we drove off, leaving the man in the road. Puzzled, I asked Chen to translate their conversation. He explained that the man wasn’t due to arrive in Yangzhou until the following day. If he were to show up in advance, he wouldn’t know what to do with the extra time.

 

“You see, my friend,” said Chen, “Not all of us are in a hurry.”

 

I asked him to turn back, as I wanted to ask the old man a few things. Chen parked, and I hopped out. The old man stopped, balancing on his walking stick, and grinned. We pondered each other, beings from opposite sides of the planet—different planets really, worlds and ways apart.

 

Chen translated my questions.

 

“What’s the most important thing in your life?” I asked.

 

The old man looked to his left and made a peculiar honking call for his straying goat. Was the goat the most important thing? When the animal arrived at his side, the man looked at Chen and spoke slowly.

 

Chen interpreted, “He said that if you can’t help people, don’t harm them.”

 

“Why are people hurtful?” I asked.

 

I didn’t look at Chen as he spoke but rather stared into the old man’s eyes. He was human art, more serene than a drowsy cat.

 

“If you decline to accept someone’s abuse, then it still belongs to them,” he replied.

 

“Why do we quarrel?” I asked.

 

“The rise of a man’s mind from his scrotum to his skull can be a long haul.” We all burst into laughter. The goat bleated. “Ready?” Chen asked.

 

The old man and I shook hands and waved goodbye. The truck rolled away.

 

Today, I often recall the man’s deeply wrinkled face, and I know that the infuriating fixtures of modern life—traffic jams, rude people, the arrogance of ego—are only options. His words remain a permanent, benevolent echo.

 

I departed Yangzhou a month later. Chen walked with me to the bus stop. After mutual pats on the back, I told him how much his companionship meant to me, and that the old man’s words were unforgettable. I thanked him for those too.

 

“Use those words to end a book,” Chen said.

 

“Come on, Chen,” I replied. “Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I get published?”

 

“The same age you’ll be if you don’t,” he winked.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

…Well, two decades and several books later, I received a letter from Chen that delivered a shock. He confessed—in that letter—that he hadn’t actually translated the old man’s words. Everything I’d learned that day had actually been Chen’s sage advice.

 

But, I got the best of Chen, and started this book with him…


WHERE IT ALL BEGAN ~

(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

 

The detour is the journey.

 

We all start somewhere—love it or leave it. If I could blitz the U.S. with air-dropped leaflets, they would urge: Pack a small bag, march outside, wander into a different neighborhood, ask strangers fun questions. Faithfully beholding this tactic—anywhere and everywhere—turned most of my life into a working vacation. First, I had to wrestle the establishment to learn a few lessons about freedom.

 

My first income involved petty theft. As an eight-year-old living across the street from the Hempstead, Long Island golf course driving range, I was motivated by the pro shops’ return policy, which netted a nickel per ball. The pilfering ring began with me coaxing balls through the fence using a long stick. The scheme matured into fence-hopping sprints onto the driving range to load as many balls as possible into the belly of my shirt and then bounding back over the rusted eight-foot chainlink fence using the free arm not securing the loot. Older brother initiations aside, this midday one-armed banditry delivered my earliest adrenaline rushes.

 

Ball burglary was only a symptom of the recreational terrorism my two older brothers and I routinely enjoyed inside those suburban-liberating golf course fences. We’d camp overnight, buried deep in the courses’ leaf piles, sled year-round on any slope, and spend hours clinging to soaring treetops. In an early stride toward independence, I constructed and maintained my own treehouse in a lumbering white pine to spy on a sport I’d never fancy, except as a caddy.

 

When the dreaded greenskeeper, Tony Matueza, finally captured me red-handed snatching balls on the driving range, he drove me in his supply-laden golf cart onto the street and into my driveway. As we walked up to my front door, his chunky claw still clutching my arm, he threatened, “You’re in a world of trouble.” After citing abundant crimes to my mother, he remanded me to her custody and left me to ponder a troubled planet.

 

Skip to now, as the news media continue fanning that world-of-trouble myth (my mom let me off the hook and didn’t tell dad), my worldwide search for guidance reconfirmed that we actually reside on a very friendly planet. Tony was wrong.

 

Don’t let blanket travel warnings, the bruising 24-hour news cycle, and other implanted delusions limit your scope of the world. Heed the common sense revealed by unlikely sages in faraway places and just down the road from you. Detour away from ill-advised gloom and the scorn of crotchety pessimists. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

back cover via STUART


PROLOGUE ~

(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

 

I have felt the lungs of the world expand, and this is my exhale. Our planet is trying to tell us something. There is a global disconnect of understanding, as we are often led to believe that the world is an unwelcoming place. I’m not a preacher, a guru, or a therapist but a working-guy explorer on a cross-continental mission, a messenger sharing the local bliss that’s always out there, if you know where to dig. By asking the right questions—or the wrong ones—I’ve discovered what keeps people striving for their dreams.

 

Pursuing and compiling these teachings reminded me that diversity is a great teacher. There are volumes of inspiring life lessons that have yet to be published, televised, or digitized. Gems of understanding have been passed down through generations to the people you’ll soon meet on these pages. Capturing simple moments that inform without leaning on arcane dogmas, I’m inviting you on a world-ranging holiday to far-flung places away from the gadgets that threaten to disengage us from our deeper senses and sensibilities.

 

This isn’t about my quest for happiness, though the hunt for how others find their joy inspires mine. Wisdom from a stranger fires the imagination—individuals in strange lands often have the power to realign our beliefs.

 

Patriotism should be redefined as improving every country, not just our own. That’s why I strive to be a frontline worker in the battle against bad news and boredom. I’ve explored our world tailing timeless news—some people call it “travel writing.” Mobile street anthropology reveals what happens when curiosity conquers the fear of the unknown.

 

It’s easier to behold what people really think once you cut to the chase. Thanks to a merry vagabond I met while hitching across Australia, I’ll never forget that the real measure of wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money. Likewise, a musical encounter in the Philippines taught me that the enlightened never ask who is teacher and who is student. And, I won’t soon forget when a self-proclaimed Honduran expert in pirate chic declared, “If you have to ask what’s hip—you’re not!” These life lessons from seven continents double as contemporary wisdom updates. Socrates and the ancient gang studied contentment intensely, but we need a recharge. Happiness, purely defined, is the love of living. Seize moments, set your gypsy blood afire, and discover insights you can’t find online.

 

Cultural anthropology studies why people do what they do—and asks how society manages itself. A number of academics spend more time studying indoors than out on the world’s streets, which encourages the redefinition of some PhDs as merely Piling it Higher and Deeper. Formal education may be an essential preparation for life, but it’s no substitute for it. Humanity lives “out there,” under the bridges, on remote mountaintops, or sitting beside you. Don’t spend your vital years warming a chair.

 

We’re here to find and teach love, and I don’t just mean the nude version. The emergence of our individual wisdom tends to loom a few years or decades ahead of us. So I pursued my own, country by country, state by state, person to person, moment by moment. Check out this world before the next.

 

 

Bruce Northam

AmericanDetour.com

 

Live Loving

Die Dreaming

—Epitaph in an Ecuadorian cemetery

Layout 2


RECOGNIZE PRIDE NEEDS NO FLAG

Grace over race.

I’m sitting outside on a mini stool in northern Cambodia where my bent knees don’t fit under the table. A three-course meal arrives from the nearby food stall—a hard-boiled egg served as a delicacy with three additional finger bowls presenting spices, limes, and mint. Egg vendor #7, Chantheaea, giggles when she returns with a tiny long-handle spoon. Meanwhile, I watch two guys, Narit and Ponlok, shoot it out on a makeshift outdoor pool table. This jungle-encased village, Cheabb, probably won’t see electricity in the lifetime of these two pool sharks. Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, has just built its first shopping mall with an escalator that has become an instant tourist attraction. I realize later that Chantheaea was chuckling about my inside-out T-shirt. I haven’t passed a mirror in weeks.

 

I’ve flown 15,000 miles by plane, over-nighted on a bench of a chugging riverboat, spent a day in the dusty cab of a puny Japanese pickup crammed with 10 riders, and then 10 hours on a wobbling motorbike sputtering on rutted, meandering jungle trails. The trail, barely worthy of foot traffic, frequently requires crossing rivers on slimy log bridges. It becomes impassable during the wet season.

 

My brother Basil and I were repeatedly warned not to venture into this isolated region that’s supposedly rife with landmines and holdups by teams of bandits. However, our reward for forging ahead was a spontaneous night that fused a wedding and a bizarre theater odyssey. The first thing we saw in Cheabb was a mobile PA system announcing what later turned out to be a play. The PA system involved two guys on a motorbike rigged with a large horn on the handlebars connected to an amplifier sitting in the drivers lap. The rear passenger held a mike to a Walkman that made the announcements.

 

In this off-the-grid destination, the wooden box houses are raised on six-foot stilts. In the shade below, black buffalo, pigs, and chickens reside. The people, mostly rice farmers, steal naps in hammocks slung between stilts under the houses or between the trees. Everyone we pass waves hello. My hunch is that once war-ravaged, perpetually destitute Cambodia had a lighter side, and I wasn’t quitting until we found it. Landmines, civil war, and genocide dominate many associations with Cambodia, but life has returned to a new version of normal, even in Preah Vihear Province, one of the poorest and most isolated.

 

There’s no way for an outsider to know they’re crossing between the neighboring villages of Cheabb Lech and Cheabb Kart (Cheabb east and west). But that’s where we were invited into the soul of this village with zero tourism. In one magical night, we attended a wedding reception, which later segued into an outdoor theater performance, and then slept on the top cop’s porch.

 

The wedding highlights included proud toasts ladled from a 35-gallon jug of homemade milky-fermented booze, dancing to insanely loud Cambodian pop, eating bugs, and listening to the best man speech in which he noted that the bride’s premiere hobby was jumping rope. The groom, dressed in a frumpy, oversized suit, couldn’t stop snickering during the should-be solemn slow dances. Our go-to-guy, the only one in town who could speak English, told us about the local pothead, a little girl who wears a red cooking pot as a hat.

 

After the wedding reception, the group marched across town to join 200 people already seated on the ground before a stage that was amplified by a lone microphone hanging from a wire. The wooden stage set was draped in billowing, silky tarps. The performance, hours and hours of short bits, were punctuated by the manual closing of a dainty pink curtain. A flash photo (Basil’s) started a tizzy that startled the entire audience and made actors modify their act and speak in even higher pitched voices.

 

Where there are no televisions, traveling troupes are still the stars. Within the crowd, several campfires were maintained to combat the 70-degree winter chill. At one point during the six-hour Khmer epic play, half of the audience suddenly stood up and gasped—a reverse domino effect that didn’t seem like a standing ovation. It wasn’t. A six-foot-long heat-seeking venomous snake had crawled into the audience. Once the snake was hacked in half by someone who happened to have a machete handy, the show resumed. Basil suggested that the snake’s demise might be a metaphor for what happens here when someone threatens married life.

 

After the marathon performance, we feasted with the wedding gang, but passed on the cow stomach and dried blood patties that resembled black tofu cakes. After waking up on the hospitable police chief’s front porch, we visited several schools, all raised 12×12-foot platforms either under a home or outside covered by tarps. The blackboards were black paint on flat boards and the instructional guides were laminated posters, one for math and one for language. After Basil donated hordes of pens and notebooks to these makeshift schools, he also stepped in as interim teacher, which routinely inspired more laughter than learning.

 

Despite the forewarnings about landmines and holdups, we ventured to Cheabb where the people, like most Cambodians, exemplify warmth, grace, and pride, which is incredible when considering the unspeakable horrors many of them have endured in their lifetime. In these more prosperous times, some still manage to survive on one dollar and 1,000 calories per day. The Khmer capacity to overcome extreme adversity and still welcome unannounced travelers with smiles and respect is humanity. Being the first foreigners to visit a place where they’ve never seen any is a traveler’s cliché—but when you unearth the last remnants of virgin turf in Southeast Asia, dignity and joy is what you’ll find.

 

As my brother and I prepared to roll out of Cheabb, we enjoyed a final hard-boiled egg at the food stall. The newly married couple rode past and waved to us and all of the food stall workers. They were honeymoon bound—a visit to the other side of the village—which made the staff cheer wildly. That’s when it dawned on us that the bride was #7, our previous egg vendor, Chantheaea.

Cambodian transport

Cambodian transport


The Milling Room—Columbus Ave’s Enchanting Hideaway

The Milling Room’s historic space

The Milling Room’s refreshing space is a discovery even for veteran Upper West Side Manhattanites. There’s no indication from the establishment’s street view—which only reveals their inviting bar—that a huge, inspiring restaurant space with high ceilings capped by a glass atrium awaits. The rustic, industrial brick is counterweighed by recycled wood and cast iron trimmings. I’ll get to the dazzling food in a bit. The history of this lofty space is equally amazing, as it transitioned from a hotel lobby bar hangout for “high-end” 1930s gangsters into an asylum for the mentally ill during the 1940s through the 1960s. It later became a food court. Then, after a few restaurant incarnations, it established itself as this trusted local retreat.

 

Olden and classic blues play while old-school 1930s cocktails (that won’t break the bank) accompany supreme appetizer stylings of Hamache Tartar and Roast Beet Salad. I settled in with a Casino, a classic concoction (Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, lemon, orange bitters) that has multihued notes which make you ponder New York’s oft-glamorized mobster era. A disused fireplace mantle is one more bit of history inside this bygone but revitalized gem.

 

The American-style cuisine is prepared by veteran Chef Scott Bryan. Bryan, who was heralded by Antony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential as one of New York’s top chefs, turned me into a fan of Long Island Duck Breast via its preparation in parsnip puree, shaved brussel sprouts, and brandy jus. Bryan’s take on Skate (crisped with couscous, capers, tomato, and verjus) elevates this fish in the ray family to new heights.

 

This spacious getaway that melds tavern, historic site, and memorable cuisine—while transporting NYC’s aggravation eons away—won’t disappoint.

 

The Milling Room, 446 Columbus Ave, NYC, 212.595.0380

The Milling Room’s Hamachi Tartar

 


Huffington Post reviews THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS

“Write This Way: In The Directions to Happiness, the gallant globetrotting New Yorker Bruce Northam writes that smiles ‘can inspire contagious winds of change.’ Well, so too will this captivating book … you’re certain to be carried by the book’s undercurrents of ‘If not now, then when?’” —Huffington Post

 

Check out the full review here, I’m #9…


Swifty’s

New York Comfort Food—with a Twist

Where you won’t see many diners ogling their phones

Swifty’s restaurant feels like an old-style Upper East Side private club, but with reasonable prices and a few designer-t-shirt hipsters spiced into the mix. Dinnertime, which seems to start at 7pm-sharp for sport-jacket-wearing retired men and their spouses, means Frank Sinatra might be crooning as the backdrop. There’s no shortage of chatter and cheer in this eatery namesaked after a dog who used to be the VIP at a now-closed nearby restaurant that took its reputation—and clientele—here. Enjoy clear-cut American cuisine with classic Euro options, ranging from Baked Meatloaf to Wild Bass with Chanterelles and Port Wine Sauce.

 

What does ‘bistro’ mean to you? If desired descriptions include non-flashy, intimate, romantic, old-world-real, and house-made ice creams, then this place is for you. The lingering, clandestine 65+ high-society vibe is balanced by affable, mostly European waiters. It seems that at least one person at each table (your neighbors are not far away) is an expert storyteller (or filibusterer). Inside this neighborhood parlor with huge, slightly down-turned mirrors, vintage wallpaper, and talk of the Ivy League, you won’t see many diners ogling their phones. If you wear a cowboy hat here, you will be the first. Arrive early (6pm) and run the show. There will be no brawls.

 

Swifty’s, 1007 Lexington Avenue, NYC, 212.535.6000

Swifty’s Paella


“Adventure and rock ‘n’ roll.” —Condé Nast

Condé Nast (another great review on The Directions to Happiness)…

 

“Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, each story delivers a message that continues on well beyond the page.” —Condé Nast (Jaunted)

 

Condé Nast also reissued my description of this book as a “Chicken Soup for the Traveler—with balls.”

 

Check out the full write-up here

 

 


Manhattan’s Worldly Cuisine Getaway

Stanton Street Kitchen—Craft Beer & Wine Bar

Stanton Street Kitchen’s open-kitchen food show

I’m fully aware of the advance of cool joints creeping into my neighborhood of 15 years. This stretch of Stanton St., unlike its parallel universe, hip Rivington St., is still an archetypal lower (lower) east side street with little fanfare and some lingering grit—the edge of a creeping frontier. Charging ahead on this frontier is the Stanton Street Kitchen Craft Beer & Wine Bar. Grand but intimate, this open-kitchen food show features an in-house beer advisor (suds sommelier) who’ll no doubt be tailed by a wine whiz for comrades so inclined. The décor is reminiscent of the late 1920s with brick walls, high ceilings, copper accents, and black granite. Newsflash: if scallops, pork belly, gigantic tasting stouts (from the cellar below your feet), and a revived take on non-mainstream handpicked wines are your kind of thing, then this is your kind of getaway.

 

As opposed to being an opinionated foodie, I review restaurants based on how they physically transport customers. To me, this key to this destination is renowned master chef Erik Blauberg’s passion for food-inspired travel. When not fine-tuning his restaurant, he leads food and wine journeys—literal cooking tours—via Culinary Passport, which frequently collaborates with The Culinary Institute of America. With years of guiding food and wine lovers around the world on his resume, Blauberg’s forthcoming fine-food foray opportunities are to Spain, France, Italy, and New Zealand. Throughout these trips, customers enjoy local culinary experiences and exclusive food and wine tastings available only to travelers in these exclusive groups.

 

Back on the Stanton St. home-front, Blauberg has created a menu of small plates designed to pair with the beer and wine offerings, allowing guests to fashion their own tasting menus. There is also a “Chef’s Feast” tasting menu presenting off-the-menu seasonally inspired dishes, available to guests who are seated at the 14-seat bar that overlooks the open kitchen. The contemporary menu reflects Chef Blauberg’s worldwide travels and is heavily influenced by the many different global cuisines he has studied.

 

So if you can’t join Blauberg on a culinary journey, don’t fret, as he brings the best of his gastronomic discoveries from around the world to you on New York City’s Lower East Side. Bring on the truffles paired with beer sampler “flights” that hit each of your taste buds. The beer cellar features 100 different varieties of bottled beers from around our planet, ranging in styles from Kolsch to Imperial Stouts, and is no stranger to the revolution of small batch brewing overtaking Brooklyn. Trust their beer sommelier to pair the 24 rotating seasonal drafts—and an extensive wine list—with their reasonably priced menu.

 

The menu features an assortment of “beer bites” served on toast such as Spicy Prawns with cracked corn, jicama, and cilantro; Kadotas Figs with goat cheese and 50 Year-Old Sherry; and Braised Pork Belly with red cabbage and toasted peanut slaw. Small plates such as Sugar Pea Risottowith cepes and delicata squash; Homemade Tagliatelle with hen of the woods mushrooms and wild boar sausage; and Port-Braised Oxtail with foie gras and fava bean ravioli can be yours. The lineup also includes a few vegetarian items, including a Salad of Wild Arugula, flat bread, Humboldt-fog goat cheese, candied spicy pecans, and pistachio vinaigrette.

 

You won’t be bored.

 

Stanton Street Kitchen seats 70, including a 14-seat intimate food bar overlooking the open kitchen and the hustling chefs. The beer cellar also showcases a private Chef’s Table with seating for up to 30 guests.

 

178 Stanton Street, Manhattan, NYC, 917.963.6000, Stanton Street Kitchen

Worry not … they also feature veggie options (and organic brews)


Good Medicine, Good Music

Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation raises the roof (and $2.5 million for cancer) at Cipriani Wall Street

 

The Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation recently hosted its 17th annual benefit dinner and auction featuring reggae-rocker Ziggy Marley. $2.5 million was raised to support cancer research, while Marley raised the roof at Cipriani Wall Street with an incredible set of music that mixed his originals with a few of his father’s classics. Cipriani Wall Street is a towering triumph of Greek revival architecture, and one heck of a place to enjoy this singer, songwriter, Emmy and six-time Grammy award winner.

 

But the main focus of this annual event is helping people in need—handily redefining the concept of collaborating for a cure. Entertainment aside, the energy in this huge room full of some of New York’s most influential heavy hitters was not about being seen, but more about supporting a visionary named Dr. Samuel Waxman. Waxman, a cancer specialist and founder and CEO of Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation, is a disarming dream-maker who, while mixing affably with everyone, also introduces some of his patients who have overcome the odds to beat cancer and continue to thrive. Waxman’s motto: Imagine a world in which cancer can be treated without disrupting life, can be cured, or can even be prevented. Known affectionately by New Yorkers as “The Waxman,” the yearly gala is considered to be among the top fundraising events in New York City. Waxman’s laboratory is at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

 

Once again, CBS News anchor Chris Wragge was the Master of Ceremony while Charity Buzz created a dazzling benefit auction, both live and online. The live auction, led by Hugh Hildesley, Executive Vice President of Sotheby’s Auction House, offered guests the opportunity to bid on exclusive items such as two black Labrador puppies which received winning bids of $9,000 and $8,000. Guests were able to bid on an exclusive opportunity to meet Ziggy Marley and receive a guitar autographed by the reggae superstar, which sold to the highest bidder for $23,000. The highest bid of the night, $100,000, went to a luxurious five-night cruise in the Bahamas aboard an M/Y Serque private yacht.

 

Guests included many notables on the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation Board of Directors. The event was also attended by fashion designers Cushnie et Ochs, and more than 750 corporate executives and their guests. The money raised will support the Foundation’s research efforts to produce a cure for cancer by reprogramming cancer cells and to deliver tailored, minimally toxic treatments to patients. The scientists funded by the SWCRF have made significant breakthroughs in cancer research, including identifying pathways to deliver novel therapies to treat cancer.

Carly Cushnie, Dr. Samuel Waxman, Michelle Ochs, and Michael Nierenberg – (c) Patrick McMullan

Go here for more information about the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation—and here for more information on Collaborating for A Cure.

 

The prior year’s musical guest was Train when this event was held at the Park Avenue Armory. Past celebrity supporters have included the Warren Hayes Band, Kid Rock, Chevy Chase, Steely Dan, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Sheryl Crow, John Fogerty, and Counting Crows.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

The Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation is an international organization dedicated to curing and preventing cancer. The Foundation is a pioneer in cancer research and its mission is to eradicate cancer by funding cutting-edge research that identifies and corrects abnormal gene function that causes cancer and develops minimally toxic treatments for patients. Through the Foundation’s collaborative group of world-class scientists, the Institute without Walls, investigators share information and tools to speed the pace of cancer research. Since its inception in 1976, the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation has awarded more than $85 million to support the work of more than 200 researchers across the globe.


SOUTHEAST ASIA DEVELOPING UNIFIED TOURISM MODEL

The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. Myanmar hosts the 34th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in Nay Pyi Taw on January 22-29, 2015. This year’s theme is “ASEAN – Tourism Towards Peace, Prosperity and Partnership.” ATF will be held in Myanmar for the first time since its inauguration in 1981.

 

This conference is laser focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination. Myanmar Tourism Minister Htay Aung is keen on promoting “Myanmar’s richness in culture and biodiversity…while sharing products and services for the local tourism players to showcase their products and services to the global market.”

 

Last year, the 33rd forum took place in Kuching, Borneo, with the theme “Advancing Tourism Together.” The fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, until now, a sometimes difficult to access Myanmar.

 

Tourism promotes people-to-people connectivity—one of the key strategies towards ultimately achieving the ASEAN community. Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (Lanith) noted that “ATF points to what lies ahead for the region where human capital is at the core of its sustainability and a robust tourism economy.”

 

ATF 2015 is expected to attract 1,500 attendees from more than 40 countries, including tourism ministers and officials, ASEAN exhibitors, international buyers, international and local media, as well as tourism trade visitors.

 

A goldmine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers will include Green Recognition Award winners and homestay program pioneers. Also, press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries will create buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination.

 

ASEAN Tourism Forum 2014 news…

 

Tiny BRUNEI is a gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort.

 

CAMBODIA now partners with Thailand for a single visa option. The symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism.

 

The “Wonderful INDONESIA” campaign continues successfully selling its brand beyond Hindu Bali. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.

 

Simply Beautiful LAOS is undergoing major infrastructure developments that will soon change the face of this hospitable country. The “Jewel of the Mekong” continues a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion.

 

For the first time ever during decades of international travel, upon landing in Kuching, MALAYSIA, there were no forms required to clear immigration or customs, only a quick scan of both index fingers. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.

 

MYANMAR had a 93-percent increase in tourism in 2013! Prohibitive to tourism for decades, its democratic rebranding includes visa on arrival and the acceptance of foreign investment. Every aspect of tourism is rapidly evolving, and securing accommodations can be difficult.

 

Still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, when a PHILIPPINES Tourism Minister was asked about what stage of climate-change awareness, he replied, “Painfully, aware.” Many of the Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its new tourism slogan: It’s More Fun in The Philippines. In 2013, the U.S. followed South Korea as its strongest arrivals market.

 

SINGAPORE is gearing up for a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, a project that aims to eventually extend through Thailand and all the way to Kunming, China. The Your Singapore brand drives an efficient tourism machine, including Formula One Racing Week (once featuring ZZ Top) which as has been extended until 2017.

 

THAILAND’s anti-government demonstrations continue, but the tourism influx endures outside Bangkok. The Amazing Thailand brand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors. The country is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service.

 

VIETNAM continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms. Russia is its fastest growing market.

 

This ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. Tourism Ministers continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in other countries. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2015 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.

 

For details about the ASEAN Tourism Fourm in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, visit ATF-2015.

 

The annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

 


RESPECT YOUR FOOD’S JOURNEY

There is no burnt rice to a hungry person. —Philippine proverb (Ifugao Province)

 

Our first urge to travel was motivated by finding food. This transient lifestyle requires a mobile crash pad. Tracking migratory herds, primeval wanderers fashioned portable shelters out of stones, branches, and animal hides. Today, our movable shelters—tents and the like—have roots in archetypal havens like Native American tepees, Inuit tupiks, and Mongolian gers. Even well-fed never-get-their-knees-muddy city kids want to build forts inside of their apartments.

 

While many are now concerned with our food’s farm-to-table odyssey, we rarely have to worry about defending it while it grows. Grown in water, rice is the staple food of three billion people. In traditional rice paddies, a hidden few take shelter and wait to defend their crops. While trekking in the mountainous northern Philippine highlands, I came across a recurring curiosity, farmhands who seemed to be watching the rice grow. I discovered that the rice business requires 24-hour surveillance where live scarecrows protect mountainside rice terraces from persistent rice-loving birds. These farmers spend their days in temporary thatch-and-bamboo huts called ab-hungs, makeshift sheds built for two. They are built into manmade mountainside terraces and provide relief from the sun and rain for the people whose job it is to spy and scare off the thieving birds.

 

These human scarecrows rely on tactics that evolve with the growing seasons. Early on, pounding on a barrel or a basin would suffice in frightening the birds away. When the birds tired of that ploy and returned to the crime scene, the farmers created noise by pulling on strings attached to rows of jingling cans. When that jig was up—the birds don’t fall for the same tricks for long—ab-hung security ultimately had to shoo the birds away by running after them.

 

Fortunately, this mode of occupational scaremongering does pay off.Highland rice is tastier, more aromatic, and more nutritious than the lowland’s industrial version. Then again, more work goes into it, as it takes six to seven months to grow, three times longer than chemically fertilized rice. Locals perform planting and harvesting rituals to invoke ancestral spirits who watch over the crops—and it seems to work. The International Rice Research Institute wasn’t so lucky. When it tried introducing new strains here, they didn’t yield. Farmers then resurrected their ancient methods after rejecting a non-governmental organization’s pesticide invasion, which killed tiny fish and snails—additional food sources—that also grow in the rice-paddy ponds.

 

Savoring moments in an ab-hung, I’m reminded of the ancient nomad musings today’s weekend warriors enjoy inside their camping tents. Entering one makes the hut smaller but the world bigger. While avoiding some midday rain in this bird-spy shack, I chatted with a local elder about rice watchmen until the sun came out. Inside the primitive lean-to, I offered the farsighted, squinting man a pen, and he doled out a pinch of tobacco for me to chew, redefining the notion of insider trading. He then trotted out a thought that was loosely rendered by an eager kid who had been tailing me. I later employed the eager one as my guide, and the old man’s quote as fact…

 

“A peace on birds would probably work better than this war on birds.” —Rice wisdom, and an ageless take on disputes

 


Travel+Leisure describes THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS as “a fun ride.”

Check out Travel+Leisure’s rave review of THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons.

“By the end of the book, you like the author, you believe him, and you’ve had a fun ride–because this is no namby-pamby travelogue.” —Travel+Leisure


Juni—a festival of flavor in a sea of calm

Bustling Midtown still has a few secret hideaways. As part of Hotel Chandler’s inviting entrance, Juni and its understated elegance might go unnoticed if you’re hustling along East 31st St—but they shouldn’t. Juni’s famous Australian chef, Shaun Hergatt, slices and dices locally sourced ingredients (think nearby Union Square Market) to enliven the contemporary American theme. The chef—no stranger to media fanfare—provides a minimalist but exotic experience that allows you to have a fling with his culinary imagination.

Paying homage to every season, chef Hergatt serves up enticing combinations, such as the “stone crop–fresh hearts of palm–purple basil.” Other standout choices include the “garden radish–live montauk scallop–citrus coriander” option, which sounds as tantalizing as it tastes. This is an extended journey, not a mere meal. Juni’s inventive ingredient pairings awaken the taste buds with flavors meant to be savored.

The universal appetizer medley is the first of four or six courses (not including chef’s samples). A team of attentive waiters swoop in with oyster-soaked leaves, and the odyssey begins. You’re invited to explore your boundaries with a menu that encourages and rewards experimentation.

The modern, plush setting, inspired by Capellini Design Associates, whispers relax. It’s Midtown majesty without the pomp. However, be prepared to have the wait staff cater to your every need. The server to diner ratio seems almost one to one in the 50-seat restaurant. If you’re a true foodie and can’t get a reservation at Noma (waiting in line?), add this classy but unpretentious gem to your culinary hit list. Dress nice.

Discover Juni at 12 E 31st St., Manhattan, (212) 995-8599.


The Other Rainforest Music Festival—in Malaysia

The musician Sting launched a tradition of concerts raising money and awareness for South America’s rain forests. Borneoa wild and wonderful Malaysian island, has stepped up to the plate with its version of celebrating music in their tropical setting.

 

Andy Kho at the Rainforest Music Festival

moncler vests menThe Rainforest Music Festival (RMF) is a weekend concert (June 20-22) featuring musicians from around the world with a common theme of tribal and traditional music. Every continent is represented, but there is a focus on regional Southeast Asian island culture with performances by the indigenous musicians of Borneo. Their instruments go well beyond standard guitars and into the exotic. The indigenous Iban tribe,
for example, plays an ensemble of an engkerumong (similar to a xylophone), a tawak (bass), a bendai (snare), and a set of ketebungs (single-sided drums).

In addition to the concerts and performances at night, the RMF also has workshops during the day that dive into the cultural aspects of the music. Think dance lessons, theory lectures, instrument education, and fire-drum demos. Local food vendors serving up Malaysian specialties will also be a big part of the fanfare.

The festival takes place about 40-minutes outside of Kuching in the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo. The exact location is the Damai Peninsular, home of Gunung Santubong National Park. You can hike your way up Mt. Santubong as a side adventure, or visit the Sarawak Cultural Village to soak up the local history.

Juk Wan Emang Sarawak

Tickets are still available if you’re looking for a last-minute idea for some frequent flyer miles, but otherwise, keep it in mind for next summer as it’s a yearly event.


Midtown Manhattan’s Subterranean Reprieve

I love being in situations where it’s nearly impossible to make a culinary mistake. In most restaurants,you order, and then your entrée is parked upon your table and that pretty much defines your experience. At Fogo de Chão, the circulating waiters swing by your table to slice your preference of 16 different cuts of prime fire-roasted meats. It’s all about revolving options at your own pace.

Gaucho–slicing!

Behind the scenes, the knife-wielding waiters—gauchos—who roam the restaurant are also grilling the individual skewers of your meat.

You turn the meat service on and off by flipping the coaster on your table. When you’ve had enough
filet mignon, prime sirloin, sausage, or chicken parked on your plate via your personal tongs, the gourmet salad bar (30+ items) is available to satisfy any other cravings. Fogo de Chão also has an enormous selection of wine, including its own signature label.

Fogo de Chão’s Midtown location, 53rd street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, doesn’t conjure up intimate images of leisure, and there’s nothing about its nondescript façade to lure you in. But, inside, 30-foot ceilings and sweeping staircases  create a modern museum atmosphere—then add the fabulous aromas. Adding to the ambiance is the friendly staff, many who are Brazilian. The staff to customer ratio is unheard of in most other
city restaurants. This is the company’s 22nd opening in the U.S., and a true escape from hurried Midtown Manhattan. 

This Brazilian steakhouse experience means no commitments—or regrets. Visit or call 212 969 9980.


Estonia

Estonian family about to break into song
Estonia lacks military might and has always been surrounded by  much larger countries with intimidating armies. Russia, Germany, and Sweden all vied for its control, creating a tug of war that lasted centuries. Inspired by the fall of the Iron Curtain, Estonia symbolically overcame its latest suppressor,the U.S.S.R., when country-wide choir jam-bands launched their Singing Revolution. Here, choirs outrank sports as a national pastime—some attracting as many as 30,000 singers. Song festival fairgrounds, with their signature bandshell arches, are everywhere.
Estonian beauty
After 50 years of Soviet repression, in August, 1989, two million Baltic citizens, including people from neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, created an unbroken 350-mile human chain linking the countries in their call for freedom. The likeminded people held hands, and changed their destiny. Estonia, where medieval meets modern, sang themselves free. Their keynote battle-charge song, “My Fatherland is My Love,” has since become their unofficial national anthem.

Another Estonian beauty (sort of)
 

While in Estonia, I asked several street-strolling locals to sing for me, and true to form, they obliged. One woman sang the entire unofficial anthem as we stood on an empty street. The Baltic Singing Revolution made me wonder, what would the U.S. choose if it needed a new anthem to sing its way out of a real jam? “Won’t Back Down,” “Born in the USA,” “American Woman,” “Highway to Hell,” “Don’t Stop Believin’?”

Estonia’s national bird is the barn swallow. It’s no pin-up like the bald eagle, nor a chart-busting singer—but, aptly, a humble survivor for all seasons. Healing conflict with music, now that’s a concept.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

“We  are the music makers, and we arelouis vuitton sale uk the dreamers of dreams.” —Willy Wonka

Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city

New York Travel Festival

 

Unlike the other generic trade show-like travel conferences, the more intimate New York Travel Festival goes beyond brochures and vendor booths and brings you face-to-face with the industry’s movers and shakers. The NY “TravFest” hosts panels, interactive discussions, and hands-on workshops dealing with hot-button travel topics and trends that will inspire and enhance your travel planning. This show is about making direct access to travel industry experts easy.

Held in Manhattan’s charming , the festival for tech-savvy, immersive travelers starts at 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 26. It continues on Sunday, April 27 at.

Standard consumer tickets cost $45 in advance or $60 at the door. This ticket grants full-weekend (Saturday and Sunday) access to:

* Talks and panels from, including presentations by writers, editors and photographers from AFAR, the of NY TravFest 2014.

*  founder Mike Coletta will be hosting , a full-day session which will explore current travel innovation trends, and offer opportunities to discover new and up-and-coming tech travel companies.
* Festival-only discounts from .
* In-venue giveaways, including gift certificates of up to $300 from , who make the awesome pickpocket-proof travel pants.
* Mezcal and food pairings at the Mexico bar.

Sunday, April 27 is designed around. Lee Abbamonte–the youngest American to visit every country in the world–is the Sunday afternoon keynote. Later, G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip is the headline speaker for the Matador Network Speaker Series in a session entitled Transformation in Travel. Poon Tip will discuss lessons from his experiences as an entrepreneur and sustainable-travel advocate, as well as his new book, Looptail.

Tickets for Sunday, April 27, are available for $12 in advance $15 at the door. All ticket holders receive discounts on NYC tours offered before, during and after the festival by a selection of in partnership with the NY TravFest.

321 East 73rd Street, between 1st and 2nd avenues in Manhattan
: 891 Amsterdam Avenue, at 104th Street in Manhattan

* More details on.
*For NY TravFest tickets, visit .
* For a complete schedule, see .
* For news and updates about the NY TravFest, go to .


How One Guitar Will Save The World

An Interview with Luke Maguire Armstrong—The Nomad’s Nomad

Girl carrying clouds in El Hato, Guatemala

Rarely does a written story make me laugh out loud, but did just that. So, I emailed the author. A few months later, I met Luke Maguire Armstrong, a guy who, in the midst of hitchhiking from Chile to Alaska, got happily stuck in Guatemala for four years. Since then, we meet whenever he breezes through New York City.

I wrote about life on the road while traveling pretty much constantly for 20 years until mellowing into “home life,” which now means taking 10 disconnected trips a year—with each trip now having predetermined return dates. Those vagabond years defined me and make me a tough customer when it comes to enjoying a travel tale. I know a lot of travel writers, but only one who is truly, almost constantly still out there. As opposed to the long-weekend warriors attempting to take over travel writing via minute-by-minute blogging, lives on the road and patiently crafts tales that stand the test of time. The author of supports himself by writing, playing music, and spearheading ongoing humanitarian efforts in Guatemala, Uganda, Kenya, and New York. Recently, we sat down for a chat in Bushwick, Brooklyn, while he paused between a stint in Iceland, where he started the band “Loki and the Fashion Bandits” and a return to one of his first loves, Guatemala.

 

Talking to Maasai Warrior about how one must kill a lion to become a man.

Q. At what point in your life did you know it was time to hit the road and not look back?

When it seemed my plan was falling apart. A year ago this month, I arrived from Nairobi to New York City after three months in Kenya covering the 2013 elections as a freelance journalist and working pro-bono to put two children orphaned by AIDs in school. I returned to NYC worse than broke. My trip to Kenya, that was supposed to earn me an income, left me $5,000 in credit card debt. I had fifty bucks cash in my pocket and a friend’s couch to sleep on for a week or so.

That marked my one-year anniversary of trying to make the mobile writer lifestyle work. I paced that small Brooklyn apartment and looked at my guitar. She looked back as if to say, “Don’t look at me, this is the life you made for yourself.” I swore silently and made a decision to cut off my lifeboats. I decided then that if I made $100 a month doing what I loved, then that was what I lived off. If I wanted to have a life more glamorous than a homeless person’s, I was going to have to work harder and smarter. I spent my last $50 on business cards, opened my laptop, started writing, and stopped looking back.

Q. Most people might have thrown the towel in well before that point, what caused you to stick it out so long?

I needed that gun to my head—that Yoda on my shoulder telling me, “Do or do not, there is no try.” When failure is not an option, your success is measured by degree. Also, “coming of age” in the expatriate scene of Antigua, Guatemala, made a nomadic life seem like a logical next step.

Q. What prior experiences led you to that small Brooklyn apartment?

While finishing my last semester of college as an exchange student in Chile in 2007, I read the book Into The Wild, took the wrong message from it, procured a $7,000 student loan, ditched my return ticket home, and started to hitchhike from Chile to Alaska. My family has a rich history making rash decisions abroad that affects the course of everyone’s lives—my parents met in the Marshal Islands as Peace Corps volunteers and decided to get married after a few weeks of dating. Near that time, my dad was thrown out of The Peace Corps for building a radio station instead of a tomato garden.

My plans on the road were to volunteer along the way and begin earning a living as a writer before my student loan ran out. I met an Irish travel writer at a campfire on a beach on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and he told me, “Do what you want to do in life. There will be always someone who will pay you for it.” We’ve all heard some variation of this, but at the time I was 22 and it was my first time. It was an exciting notion. I listened to the lapping of waves and thought about my peers. It seemed like most of them put off doing what they really wanted to do to some future date. I never really bought into that model as viable for life and have always been happier for it.

Guatemala’s Volcanos: Acatenango, Agua and Fuego.
 

Q. How did you end up making a four-year stopover in Guatemala?

Book-length story short, I thought my writing would support my humanitarian habit, but for four years my humanitarian work supported my writing habit.

Many thought taking out that $7,000 student loan to travel was a dumb plan, but in the end it led to a career that paid off that loan and most of my others. For four years, I worked in Antigua, Guatemala, as the program director for the charity Nuestros Ahijados. My 11th day volunteering at the project, the director quit and the executive director and founder somehow thought giving me, a 22-year-old, the position was a good idea. I administered 12 programs, fund-raised to meet the budgetary gaps that most NGOs suffered in 2008, and managed a staff of 50 employees and 500 annual volunteers. The project provided education and health resources for people to break out of poverty and had a program to rescue victims of human trafficking. It was a wonderful job where every day felt impactful, and I can’t imagine living life today without the many lessons I learned from that opportunity. In 2010, Christiane Amanpour came to Guatemala to interview me about a and ran for Nuestros Ahijados.

Orphans in Kisii, Kenya, promise to study hard if they are given money to go to school.

Q. Because you’ve worked with traveling women victimized by crimes in places like Central America, I imagine you would be the right guy explain the rules of the road to my daughter in a few years. What is your core advice to women traveling in distant lands?

Aside from warning them to stay away from my friend Andres, I would say women travelers by the unique nature of the dangers they face are far ballsier than their male counterparts traveling the same road. Be smart ladies, and trust your instincts. No, be smarter than smart. Be a femme fatale traveling Jedi warrior woman who is always one step ahead of anyone that would harm you. You don’t need to actively distrust strangers—most people are good. But never trust anyone you’ve just met 100-percent. People who want to hurt you or take things from you use your trust as their camouflage.

Do your research. What does the guidebook say about safety? What do expats know? What do other travelers say? What do the locals know? What does your embassy say? All of these sources should be looked into, because each provides an important piece to the puzzle of how safe a place is and what you should do to avoid the dangers. If the streets aren’t safe at night, get yourself a reliable cabby who doesn’t drink on the job. If that doesn’t fit into your budget, give your pops Bruce a pouty face and remind him how much he loves you, and I bet he’ll grab your taxi bill. He would have just spent it on beer anyway. Speaking of beer, don’t leave your drink unattended, and don’t accept a drink that you did not watch the bartender make.

 

Mother and calf in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Reserve.
Q. I would imagine that playing music live puts you on a fast track into cool, wild, or bizarre situations. Does it?

I’m not sure if it’s my guitar or the crazy person playing it (see Luke perform), but the short answer is yes. Playing the guitar is a great way to meet people and gain access to places. Most of the stories stemming from this fact are long. One short story that comes to mind is when my guitar led me to an underground gambling ring of chicken bus drivers in the lakeside village of San Pedro, Guatemala. My guitar and I were both drunk. The rest of my friends had gone to bed at a reasonable time. My late-night guitar playing by the lake led to a man named Juan approaching me and inviting me to this underground gambling ring he knew of on the outskirts of town.

It looked like a tough crowd and a rough game. I made a point of losing $20 to keep them from pulling out the guns I could see bulging from their belts and just taking what they wanted. It could have gone even more loco, because one of them asked me if I would be his “frog”—the guy on the bus that collects the money and shouts out the destinations. He was drunk and about to drive to Xela, Guatemala. It was 5am. He said he could get me back by noon. This was a very tempting offer. I did not have a phone with me to inform my friends at the hotel why I would have failed to materialize in the morning, so I declined. I took a few more shots of the fire water the bus driver insisted I try and called it a night just as the dawn ticked up on the horizon.

Q. What’s next for you? You say you’re committed to the path you’re on now, but what specifically is that path?

It’s a winding one, and there are always surprises on it. I plan to continue to write and continually take that craft to a new level. I am finishing a non-fiction book about my four years living in Guatemala and courting various publishers for my completed novel How One Guitar Will Save The World.

Humanitarian-wise, I am going to continue to fundraise and deploy that capital with charities that I have vetted as being sustainable and making tangible differences. My music has recently taken on a life of its own, and I have an LP coming out soon called “Luke Maguire Armstrong: Eaten By a Horse.” Oh, and we can’t forget women. I hope to run into some of them. Specifically, I hope to meet one as crazy as I am, who will let me buy a puppy to “nip at our heels.”

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frequent contributor to an award-winning site with the best travel stories from wandering book authors. His current project,  is an effort to raise $10,000 to take 55 children off the streets in Guatemala and place them in school.

 

Fire and ice: Sunset view of wash from Iceland’s Jökulsárlón Glacier.


Keep It Sweet

Bermuda is a quintessentially British island of palms. It was there in 1999 that an eccentric self-styled Bermudian traffic supervisor taught me something about crafting a singular life mission.

Located far enough off the coast of North Carolina to forego NASCAR fanaticism but close enough to New York to attract weekend warriors, the breezy 21-mile fishhook island showcases pink sand beaches separated by limestone cliff-rimmed coves—and wealth. Churches and colorful stone and cedar architecture distinguish the rolling landscape, while convoys of white-collar tourist duos live out biker-couple fantasies, on mopeds.

Bermuda is more than a refined, secure haven for wealthy folks hiding money from governments and living off the interest. When I visited, local celebs included a Guinness Book of World Records kite flyer, Ms. Universe 1976, and Johnny Barnes—a then 70ish, retired school bus driver who dedicated his life to transferring smiles to everyone transiting around the island’s busiest traffic roundabout. Every day from 5:00 to 10:00 a.m. Barnes performed by waving, smiling, gesturing, and preaching love to all passersby. The island dedicated a life-sized bronze statue in his honor just down the road from his roundabout. So, soon after passing the real Johnny Barnes you encounter the iron version: Johnny frozen in his traffic-greeting glory, bestowing an evangelical salute, smiling, with arms extended above his head. He apparently loves everything and doesn’t keep it a secret.

When I asked him how to stay married forever, he replied with a grin of sin, “Keep puttin’ honey on it, to keep it sweet, or you’ll be in trouble.” Barnes has been blissfully married since 1951.

Here, in the midst of semi-tropical nowhere, an island never visited by war or fast-food franchises, the oldest British colony remains a fresh-air paradise for visitors, insurance corporations, undeclared riches, heroic moped pilots in training, and one chipper, immortalized bus driver.

Sweet.

(Ps, Johnny is now 90—and still waving happiness to the world.)

When the ego speaks, the truth winks—and then ducks for cover.


Baltimore, Maryland

The Best Place to Heal in the World?

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor
 

 

Baltimore is a legendary brick empire that redefines urban renewal. After sliding from a manufacturing stronghold into a depression of near irrelevance, the port cities’ grand factory landscape has been reinvented into an industrial-chic hotspot. Being from this storied metropolis means being somehow connected to the water—whether it be intrepid boating, prying open seafood, or wearing nautical-inspired clothing even in winter. Locals also don’t pronounce the ‘t’ in Baltimore. A relaxed gap between north and south, the hometown of Frank Zappa and John Waters has a history as remarkable as Boston’s, and a future that won’t quit.

Downtown Baltimore’s U-shape frames a harbor that’s a showcase for colonial and modern architecture, likeable tourist attractions, including one of the most beloved aquariums in the world, and classic people watching. Water taxis ply these waters, quickly delivering passengers to various neighborhoods, all with their own trademark charm. Baltimore’s resurgence from a once grim industrial city into trendy factory ritziness reminds me of the similarly amazing metropolitan turnaround achieved in Manchester, England.

Baltimore has also always been a great place to heal. Johns Hopkins is rated as one of the best hospitals in the world, and the University of Maryland’s Trauma Center isn’t far behind. Because of these cutting-edge institutions, a significant number of international patients, and their families, visit here long term and dig in for a cure. But illness is certainly not the only reason to schedule a visit. A few suggestions…

American Visionary Art Museum
 

*Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum is the official national museum for self-taught, intuitive artistry. Three renovated buildings that are themselves works of art showcase masterpieces created by artists—ranging from the homeless to neurosurgeons—who were never taught not what to do in the making of their art. Many spent decades of intense devotion to create just one work they saw as a fulfillment of a spiritual mission or personal devotion. If you crave a bit of the untamed and wild, visit avam.org.

Wit & Wisdom
 

*Wit & Wisdom, a harbor-side ultra-modern American tavern on the ground floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, has an open-air wood-fired kitchen and a hand-pulley operated grill designed by Thomas Jefferson. Its specialty is comfort food with a contemporary Eastern Seaboard twist. The upscale, roomy space—no two diners will ever bang elbows—has high ceilings and flawless service. The staff, including your waiter, gets a ‘cheat’ for each customer sharing their profile, preferences, and tendencies revealed during earlier visits. Even without a cheat-sheet, you won’t have to beg for refills of any of their hand-crafted cocktails. witandwisdombaltimore.com

Baltimore’s Pazo Restaurant
 

*Another impressively spacious dining spot is Pazo (Galician for ‘grand house’) in Harbor East. This renovated 19th-century iron-works factory has a 65-foot ceiling, its original hulking-wood crossbeams, and huge booths that resemble two posh high-back couches facing each other. This liberating environment—rustic but plush—was once open at one end to accept backed-in freight trains that hauled out bullets and other munitions. The candlelit-style wrought-iron chandeliers and wraparound balcony adds to the wide-open but warm atmosphere. And, oh yeah, prepare for the most indulgent Euro-Mediterranean food and wine in town. pazorestaurant.com

*Aldo’s in Little Italy is fine dining without the pomp or attitude. Calm, professional servers ply an old-school parlor setting. Chef Aldo Vitale, originally a cabinet maker, spun his handiness into building the lavishly appointed dining rooms—and crafts classic southern Italian dishes. This sets the bar for Maryland’s Italian cuisine. aldositaly.com

*Baltimore’s Four Season Hotel’s (fourseasons.com/Baltimore) international ambiance is partially kindled by relatives of patients being treated at Johns Hopkins; seems Arab royalty puts this hospital high on its list. There are also guests from every corner of the world mixing with rooted East Coasters. The swankest digs in town, every detail—from the harbor view from your bed to a beguiling staff-to-guest ratio—make luxury seem natural. The hotel also has an incredible spa, whose world-class masseuses leave you wet-noodle limp. The Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore houses the largest hotel art collection in the city. Check it out here here

*Baltimore Soundstage (baltimoresoundstage.com) is a classic mid-sized downtown music venue attracting nationally touring acts; another example of a defunct factory that now rocks, literally. Right next door, PowerPlant Live! also rocks live entertainment at five bars, Rams Head Live!, and a summertime outdoor concert series.

PowerPlant Live!
 

*I usually avoid what can be deemed as tourist traps, but was presently surprised at Baltimore’s harbor-side Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I now appreciate founder Robert Ripley (1890-1949) as a world-traveling pioneer (201 countries) and ‘amateur’ anthropologist. A groundbreaking travel writer on a par with Mark Twain, his museums celebrate (way) out of the ordinary oddities, trivia, unsung heroes, and touchable interactive displays—a tribute to his dedication to collecting mind-bending news and show-and-tells from every edge of the globe. ripleys.com/baltimore

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*For more information, visit baltimore.org.

*Amtrak lands near the heart of downtown Baltimore, which is easily accessible along the northeast corridor. Once there, your feet, or inexpensive ferries (or the free Charm City Circulator) can take you pretty much everywhere. Take advantage of a special 30-percent off companion fare discount from Amtrak to save on traveling here. baltimore.org/amtrak

Baltimore at night
 

Ps, National Bohemian Beer, colloquially “Natty Boh,” was first brewed in Baltimore in 1885. This Bohemian-style beer’s slogan has long been “From the Land of Pleasant Living,” a tribute to the Chesapeake Bay. Ninety percent of National Bohemian sales are still in Baltimore, where it’s not uncommon to find cans served in many bars for $2. National’s president once also owned the Baltimore Orioles, making Natty Boh the “official” brew served at the ballpark in the 1960s—similar to Schaefer Beer proudly sponsoring the New York Mets in the 1970s.


Southeast Asian Countries Collectively Cultivate United Tourism Model

Annual travel industry trade show—in Malaysia for 2014—unifies Southeast Asian tourism.

Southeast Asia’s 10 countries are bonding…like Borneo Hornbills
 

 

The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) resonates the European Union’s regional solidarity for reciprocal benefits. Held in member nation Malaysia, the 33rd annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) will take place January 16-23. In developmental terms, Southeast Asia’s 10-country amalgam of incredibly diverse cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN member states range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politically, members include the democratic Philippines (largely Christian), Indonesia (world’s largest Muslim population), and, until recently, military-ruled Myanmar. Host country Malaysia has long understood the value of tourism.

This year’s conference in Kuching (Borneo) is themed, Advancing Tourism Together. Multi-ethnic and multicultural Malaysia is one of 17 megadiverse countries on earth that harbor the majority of the Earth’s species, including 250 endemic reptiles.

Borneo’s Mulu Caves
 

ATF 2014 will stand on the shoulders of ATF 2013, which was hosted in Vientiane, Laos, and brought together 1,580 delegates, including 10 Tourism Ministers, travel industry buyers (470 from 60 countries), nearly 1,000 sellers (500 exhibition booths from 360 companies and properties), and media (145 from 35 countries) to focus on the significant developments and aspirations of this booming region. A mine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers ranged from tourism experts to winners of the Green Recognition Awards, a supporter of rainforest tree-replanting programs.

ASEAN Tourism Forum news…

BRUNEI, the last Malay Kingdom, celebrates options to golf, play polo, dive, or kick back in a plush resort. This tiny country is a gateway to remarkable Borneo.

CAMBODIA’s symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism. It now partners with Thailand for a single visa option.

INDONESIA’s claim that it offers the ultimate in diversity remains legitimate. Despite a few setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing. Wonderful Indonesia is succeeding at selling its brand beyond Bali.

Simply beautiful LAOS continues promoting itself as the jewel of the Mekong with a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion. Major infrastructure development will soon change the face of this hospitable country. tourismlaos.org.

MALAYSIA welcomed 23 million visitors in 2009, a one million increase from 2008. That growth model continues to accelerate. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign showcases the best of its mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.

MYANMAR, closed tight for decades, now has visa on arrival and is accepting foreign investment. Suddenly, every aspect of tourism is evolving, and it can be difficult to secure accommodations.

Many of The PHILIPPINES’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its new tourism slogan: It’s More Fun in The Philippines. In 2013, the U.S. followed South Korea as its strongest arrivals market.

SINGAPORE’S Formula One Racing Week, once featuring ZZ Top, will continue to headline international music acts. Hosting this race has been extended until 2017. The Your Singapore brand drives an efficient tourism machine.

THAILAND is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service. The Amazing Thailand brand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors.

VIETNAM’s French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms. It continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. Russia is its fastest growing market.

Sipadan, Malaysia
 

Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (lanith.com), said, “The grouping of destinations under the ASEAN flag is a highly effective way of bringing together Southeast Asia’s unique tourism options. In the realm of human capacity development, ASEAN plays an important role in identifying common standards for education and training. Not only does this enable smaller countries such as Laos to benefit from its more developed neighbors, but it also affords greater workforce mobility, which in the coming years will be a challenge as markets become more integrated and liberalized through the ASEAN Economic Community.”

Bernie Rosenbloom, a Southeast Asia tourism and hospitality communications consultant, was pleased that “Laos finally silenced critics who did not believe the country could successfully host an event of this size. It also served as a showcase for Vientiane’s fast-growing infrastructure, including more upscale accommodations, a new convention center, a rejuvenated tourist area, better roads, and expanding air links—all of which brighten the city’s light on the Asia Pacific’s MICE radar screen.”

Borneo orangutans advocating regional goodwill
 

Exemplifying that spirit, ASEAN Ministers of Tourism continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in different locations in the region. “This forum is always an ideal venue for tourism managers and policy makers to exchange issues of common interest,” explained Brad Olsen, a California-based author and travel expert. “ATF is more than just another trade show, because it goes to great lengths to infuse culture—including music, dancing, and fashion shows—into the daily events.” Conference delegates were also entertained each night by an array of cultural song and dance performances.

ATF’s “Hand In Hand, Conquering Our Future” campaign also created a united tourism image. ASEAN’s concern for the environment continues to uplift its hotel industry standard in the form of the ASEAN Green Hotel Recognition Awards presented to ASEAN properties with outstanding efforts in environmental conservation. Criteria for these hotels includes environmental-friendliness and energy conservation measures based on 11 major criteria, including environmental policy and actions for hotel operations, solid waste management, energy efficiency, water efficiency, and air quality management.

ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the organization, which has existed for more than 40 years. But until December 2008, it had no written constitution. The new charter set a 2015 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.

Professor Bosengkham Vongdara, the Lao Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism, said, “This was an exciting time for the Laotian tourism industry, and we were honored to host ATF 2013. Since we last hosted ATF nine years ago, Laos has grown in infrastructure and facilities. Through ATF, we did our best to contribute to strengthen and build an ASEAN community by 2015.” Press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries created buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will create an ideal single destination.

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For details about ATF 2014 in Kuching, Malaysia, visit atf-malaysia.com. For travel ideas in Malaysia, try tourismmalaysiausa.com.

The annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Rock-climbing in Borneo


The World’s Most Determined Vigilante

An Interview with Robert Young Pelton

Published: Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Robert Young Pelton plying the gap between right and wrong
Robert Young Pelton is the kind of guy you want around when the sh*t hits the fan—wherever that may be. I first met him when we served as contributors to the adventure travel magazineBlue, which launched in 1997. I’ve built a career as a storyteller but gladly zip it when a master like Pelton lets it rip. The feathers in his cap include finding “American Taliban” member John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan in November 2001, and his continuously updated bestselling bookThe World’s Most Dangerous Places. However, they only hint at this unflappable Canadian-born Californian’s lifelong mission to report about, stare down and battle the world’s evil…on the ground and face to face.

An author of seven books, as well as an extreme journalist, documentary filmmaker, show host, and raconteur, Pelton focuses on reporting conflict and interviewing military, insurgent, and political figures in war zones. His career and reputation are built on a history of entering forbidden, deadly, and otherwise no-go environments—and stirring the pot. There is no denying that Pelton is also one of the ballsiest of travel writers, sharing practical and survival information for people who work and travel in high-risk zones. He’s no stranger to humor, either.

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Q. What do hot places, while figuratively on fire, like Afghanistan, Chechnya, Liberia, Mogadishu, Iraq, and Uganda (where Pelton survived an assassination attempt) have in common?

A. They are usually unrecovered from a previous political cataclysm that might have occurred a decade or more earlier. Many of these places are so fragile that less than a dozen armed men can plunge the region into chaos.

Q. What five things should any traveler never forget to pack?

A. A passport, money, comfortable pants, and hot sauce—makes lousy food palatable, even the worst refugee camp food and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).

Q. What made you want to track down African fugitive Joseph Kony, and what do you think your chances are of finding him?

A. I have spent twenty years tracking down rebel leaders, wanted men, Jihadis and other people who didn’t want to be found. My chances are good simply because my singular goal is to locate Kony. Many of the other large programs have tangential goals and limited resources.

Q. Where is the most beautiful war or conflict zone you’ve visited?

A. Bougainville. A small island north of the Solomons where there is a smoking volcano, white beaches and beautiful people. I remember sitting on the top of the mountain, helping the late rebel leader Francis Ona try to write the national anthem. It was hard to find anything that rhymed with “Mekamui” or the holy land as they called their island. Bougainville is now open for tourists, by the way.

Q. In the heavens and hells on our globe, is there a human trait that remains constant?

A. People are curious. Ultimately they want affirmation. And they have held their fire when they see a 6’ 4” white man bound across their front lines.

Pelton at a hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan
 

Q. Can you recommend three destinations—once no-go zones—to visit that are now safe for ordinary travelers?

A. The country of Georgia has the creative and architectural aura of 1920s Paris with spectacular mountains and international intrigue thrown in. Sierra Leone in West Africa has amazing jungles in the north…and even Somaliland. Afghanistan (Bamiyan Valley) and Iraq (Kurdistan) have beautiful and safe places to explore.

Q. In order to gain access, you’ve spent an unusual amount of time living with, traveling with and documenting some of the world’s best known rebel, Jihadi, and insurgent groups in dozens of countries. From a traveling perspective, which group was the most and least entertaining?

A. The most interesting were the Chechen rebels during the 1999 war. Mostly for their bravery and unusual fighting tactics. My least favorite were the FARC rebels in Colombia who seemed to view Marxism as a way to get rich—and have sexy female bodyguards.

Q. When you were kidnapped in Colombia’s Darien Gap by AUC death squads, was your first thought: Fight, flight, or, my daughters are going to kill me?

A. My first thought was to ensure the safety of the two people who were with me. The second was that my wife is going to be pissed.

Q. I enjoyed your Men’s Journal article, “How to Stage a Coup”: You’ve met, interviewed, fought or worked with many intriguing and polarizing world figures, such as Steve Jobs, pirates, mercenaries, prisoners and high-profile killers and fugitives. What makes famous and infamous people tick?

A. Famous people are driven by a need to prove something. It’s probably something buried in their youth. Steve Jobs was an adopted kid who had to prove authority figures wrong. A very angry, unhappy man until he realized that he was one of those authority figures. Rebels are very similar on the intellectual level. I can’t tell you how many tedious, pretentious conversations I have had about revolution, Jihad, and Marxism in jungles with the overeducated and angry sons of affluent people. Whether it’s John Walker Lindh or Erik Prince, they view themselves as being above the rules of survival. It’s the same narcissist profile that the CIA and al Qaeda seeks out.

Q. What is DPx Gear?

A. I have had many people ask why I don’t make “survival gear,” so finally in 2008, I designed a survival knife called the “Hostile Environment Survival Tool” and we have never looked back. I used to be a product designer and marketing specialist, so I suppose it was inevitable. The key is: I develop our products in combat zones and design for a very narrow group of special operations, expedition, and hard use professionals.

Q. What’s next, and why?

A. Well, finding Kony is going to suck up some of my time, including a book and a film on the project. General Dostum has asked for help in getting elected in Afghanistan, and I have a new graphic novel out called Roll Hard about a month I spent in Iraq with an ill-fated Blackwater crew. I just launched a new knife design called the DPx HEAT, and I have my first fictional book calledRaven (about a boy who gets lost in the Pacific Northwest and learns to survive). …And, I’m rewriting The World’s Most Dangerous Places. So, never a dull moment.

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*For more on Robert Young Pelton, visit comebackalive.comadventuristmedia.com, anddpxgear.com.

*Pelton’s comment on the title of this story: I don’t know that I am a vigilante since I am working within legal framework on the hunt for Kony.

‘Roll Hard’ is a 64 graphic novel about an ill-fated group of security contractors in Iraq