The problem with fences is, once built, you don’t know if you’re inside or outside. —Thoughts of a Kalahari Desert bushman, roughly translated.
In 2003, South Africa was a country in transition, and seemingly on track to begin reversing the atrocities forced upon its native people. After being whisked between South African wineries and safari lodges, I managed a border-crossing revelation.
The age-old ways of Africa’s Kalahari Desert Bush people, innately bound to their ancient ancestry, is vanishing. Traditionally, San Bushmen were expected to provide meat for their women, and the women were expected to gather roots, fruits, and herbs. Boys could get married by age 10, if they could bring home the meat. Women were initiated after puberty, and then stayed inside for four months before emerging to select a husband. If Mrs. judged Mr. a slacker, she could trade him in for another man.
This traditional way of life went up in smoke when white colonists assigned Kalahari tribes particular precincts. The bushmen had difficulty embracing private property and animal ownership. They were perplexed when they were arrested for hunting and eating cattle that were grazing on land their people used to inhabit and roam freely. But the bush winds have shifted again. In the late 1990s, South Africa’s president flew to a dusty squatter camp on the edge of the Kalahari and ceremoniously handed over to two bushmen leaders—likely having no idea they were in Botswana—the rights to their ancestral lands from which they had been evicted half a century before.
Bush people are shy and tend to keep their distance from non-familial groups. Surviving on hunted meat, edible insects, and wild fruits and vegetables is pretty much a thing of the past. Yet elements of their kinship structure remain, for instance, they don’t comprehend community and employment outside of their immediate families. I was told of instances where bush descendants went through months of job training, then after three months, just as they were approaching proficiency, they’d disappear and “give” the job to an untrained relative.
San Bushmen average 5’5” in height, and every face tells a story. Their natural rows of peppercorn hair, almond-shaped eyes, yellowish skin, and high cheekbones meld an attractive likeness found nowhere else on earth. I meandered with my bushman guide, Teeho, cresting endless parallel sand dunes that make up the epic Kalahari Desert’s wavy signature. In search of animal tracks and edible plants and bugs, we forged a path that eventually met a barrier, officially called the Veterinary Cordon Fence.
This 1,500-mile series of barriers, mostly five feet high, was built to separate wild animals from cattle ranches. Unfortunately, it impedes natural migration routes and prevents animals and bushmen from reaching water when routine water holes go dry.
Teeho set his hand on the fence, fell silent, and peered through it like a savant conducting valuable research despite scant resources. He whispered a native word that sounded to me like he way saying phish-stok. I stared through the fence, eyeing only desert sand and brush. He peeked my way and said it again, then began pacing alongside the fence. He sauntered back and forth several times, trading his glance between me and the “property” on the other side of the fence.
Later, back on my own in a lodge 50 miles away, I tried various spellings and pronunciations of the native tongue to crack Teeho’s code. A notable feature of bushmen is their use of the so-called “click” consonants, produced by drawing air into the mouth and clicking the tongue. Because conventional spellings can’t represent these sounds, I tried an assortment of imitations. A minute later, a local sitting at the end of the bar chimed in, “Means lion.”
Before the sun rose, lying on my back gazing at southern constellations, the significance of Teeho’s message came to light. As he stared through slats in that fence—the symbol of the private property alienating his people—he imitated a detained lion pacing back and forth the way caged animals do in zoos the world over. Imprisoned people do it too.
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If someone else’s barricades confine you, don’t surrender the lesson connected to it. Unsettling things happen. Move on. For lucky animals, and a few lingering migratory people, staying really means having the freedom to go. The handful of nomads, human and otherwise, wandering across an increasingly partitioned planet must rely on strong instincts to endure. It’s okay to struggle, and occasionally slip, on the path you know is right.
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“It’s all about free will.” —Prophecy suggested to young traveler entering Zambia … “Is Will okay?” —Rookie traveler’s reply
“The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others. Freedom and slavery are mental states.” —Mahatma Gandhi
(excerpt from The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)
Water can be habit-forming.
Many vacationers peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon into its overwhelming river gorge, gasp, and then return to their cars to hunt for a burger. After doing just that, I returned years later to explore the guts of the God of all Gullies on a 150-mile rafting trip. Even when you’re a mile deep in the earth’s reddish crust on a raft drifting the length of this colossal culvert, you can’t escape sibling rivalry and city-slicker spite. Down there, the Colorado River has gargantuan whitewater that delineates life or death if played wrong. One set of rapids—really an angry waterfall—forever changed my inner tide.
Joining my brother Basil and his posse of Idaho rancher pals on day three of a 21-day private trip, I hiked down from the canyon’s south rim in the dark and found myself waiting by the river until they floated by the sandbar upon which I stood. I smelled the motley crew, most of whom run a few hardcore rivers every year, before I saw them. I was a New York City whitewater rafting rookie joining a bonded posse way after pecking orders had been established. Needless to say, finding training time to navigate rapids on my own wasn’t easy. Wanting to make sure I made the most of the experience, Basil committed me to a secret challenge before I arrived. This was typical and in the spirit of our childhood dares. After all, he was the one who familiarized me with suburban delinquency and shoplifting patchouli-scented candles years before my peers were allowed to cross streets by themselves. This test was rowing a raft solo over Lava Falls, the most dangerous stretch of the river and one of the country’s most difficult navigable rapids. I had about two weeks to train for it. Initially, a set of oars in my fists made my raft no more versatile than a buoy.
To prepare, I stole training time on the raft in the evenings while everyone else was enjoying happy hour after breaking camp on random sandy beaches. I spent most of this time spinning the boat with sharp alternating paddle movements in one direction and then suddenly turning it in the opposite direction. Every evening, I’d go out and twirl myself into a sweat, which made Basil’s Idaho cohorts chuckle about how the city boy needed to find his gym. By day, the brotherly dynamics of being taught how to run unforgiving rapids involved much screaming and frequent reminders of how expensive it is to repair a smashed boat. There was also a repeating bit about how pissed-off our parents would be if I died.
As the days in this geologic miracle passed, I began navigating ripples and smaller rapids. Basil and I shared a tent where we talked about the looming challenge every night until we fell asleep. He decided not to tell anyone else in the group about our secret until the morning of Lava Falls for fear they’d vote the idea down. There was no escaping my city-folk pigeonhole.
When the day arrived, half of the crew was unsupportive of the idea of my solo run. After I agreed to pay for any damages to the raft, it was stripped of everything except the oars, and I was finally given a green light. This gamble would not have been possible on a commercially organized trip, which is propelled by boat engines and signed waivers. Everyone scouted the waterfall from a nearby cliff, and one by one four rafts and three kayakers plunged into the roaring drop. One raft capsized and two others narrowly missed being sucked into the water tornado big enough to swallow a bus.
With a look I hadn’t seen in years, Basil patted me on the waist and then floated away on the fifth raft. I scouted my route over Lava Falls’s millions of gallons-per-minute froth, which helped center me with an adrenaline rush I only remember from the minutes before a wrestling match. It was the sort of anticipation that sets nausea butterflies free in your stomach. I hiked upstream on the trail toward the raft, discovering a series of large, surly, black ravens standing on the riverbank’s boulders and peering at me with tilted heads. I passed one after another, until it seemed I hadn’t yet earned a pass from the scavenger review board. Farther afield, I noticed that a pack of bighorn desert sheep had stopped chewing the brush to gaze my way. When I reached the stripped-down boat, a final raven sat on its inflated rim, staring at me gloomily. It slowly cocked its head from side to side. Losing the ability to maintain an internal dialogue, I swallowed hard and realized there was no turning back.
Trembling like a nudist in a snowstorm, I boarded the raft. It was then that the sound of my heart exploding in my ears overtook the thunder of the misting downstream mayhem. Accelerating toward the rim of the cliff, my panic was ultimately subdued by a strange quieting. This was, after all, a dare. I did my best to hit the mark everyone recommended, but drifted left of center, which, after an initial weightless freefall, meant dancing on the rim of that dreaded all-encompassing whirlpool. Balancing on the rim, I rowed furiously while a blinding froth battered my face. Stuck between heaven and hell, I heard the guttural choking sounds of the vortex trying to consume me. I hoped I was rowing in the right direction. Then, time stood still until I spun the raft and was spit out of the mammoth eddy to cleanly run the lower rapids. The deafening jet-engine roar of the plummet subsided, and I docked downstream. The crowd’s reaction was mixed. It seemed that a few of the cowboys were disappointed I hadn’t flipped. Basil, on the other hand, was validated. We strolled out of sight to celebrate privately. Brotherhood.
Aside from chasing women, the river trench cutting a mile into the parched Arizona desert reset my bar for testing Mother Nature’s wrath. It also made me rethink the trials we choose. The worthiest competitions are sometimes an inner journey with ourselves. The red sand embedded in my hair, ears, clothes, and gear followed me for a month after this voyage. The call of Lava Falls and that black raven’s gaze still do.
One Community for Sustainability
“Our region is characterized by coopetition—a cooperative, collaborative decision by all players to compete with each other so that the world will choose the region before choosing the country.” —Philippine Minister of Tourism Ramon R. Jimenez, Jr.
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. Manila (Philippines) will host the 35th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) this January 19-22. This year’s theme is ASEAN–One Community for Sustainability.
Since its inauguration in 1981, 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. Russia had been ASEAN’s fastest growing tourism market, but the Russian financial collapse has evaporated those inbound numbers.
The tourist appeal 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.
This forum is ultra-focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination. Philippine Tourism Secretary/Minister Jimenez notes, “Our countries become, in very real terms, each other’s value extension—we become each other’s developing markets. And to make this development last for our children, we have to make certain that we are mindful of the social and environmental context that our region’s growth exists in.”
News from the ATF 2015 (held in Myanmar)…
ATF 2015 attracted 1,500 attendees from more than 40 countries, including tourism ministers, ASEAN exhibitors, international buyers, and international and local media.
BRUNEI is a handy gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort. Brunei’s quest to draw curiosity from western travelers to Borneo is reflected by its complete overhaul and expansion of its international airport. While under 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain that could be very attractive to adventure travelers. It is also working to promote itself as a dive destination thanks to an abundance of mint-condition shipwrecks.
CAMBODIA has discussed building a new road to Angkor Wat, but talks have been tabled for the time being. The dispute is that it would increase the number of day trips and cut down on overnight stays at Angkor Wat, weaken the economy and potentially degrade the ruins. “Overnight stays at Angkor Wat are very good for the tourism and local economy,” Dr. Thong Khon, the tourism minister, said. 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.
INDONESIA: Cruises of Indonesia’s huge archipelago are beginning to become more popular, exposing the country’s beautiful coastline outside of Bali, the only destination most Americans visit. Indonesia’s presence on Borneo is often also overshadowed by Bali, making it perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Southeast Asia. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.
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. The big news out of Laos is its commitment to improving the roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. It is also upgrading all four of its international airports – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, and Savannakhet. Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos is hoping that places like Vang Vieng evolve from backpacker hangouts to upscale destinations.
MALAYSIA: This is another year of festivals in Malaysia, with over 50 events happening throughout the country. A highlight is the Rainforest World Music Festival. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
MYANMAR: In 2015, ATF was held in Myanmar for the first time. Tourism continues to grow at an amazing rate, breaking 3 million visitors in 2014 (another exponential year-to-year increase) after welcoming only 1 million in 2012. 2015 could possibly see 5 million tourist arrivals—book ahead! The country is working to improve transit, road conditions, and flight options. Yangon, Lake Inle, Mandalay, and Bagan are currently the main attractions, but as the country continues to open up, other regions will no doubt catch on. One area in particular is the Chin State, which dropped its strict entry requirements this year. I can testify that the online tourist e-visa (evisa.moip.gov.mm $50) and business visa on arrival ($40) both work.
PHILIPPINES: The US remains its second largest market, the first being South Korea—one out of four tourists here are Korean. Philippine Airlines announced that it will begin a direct flight from New York (JFK) to Manila on March 15th. Many of the Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its tourism slogan, It’s More Fun in The Philippines.
SINGAPORE: One of the country’s largest projects is a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, with an aim to eventually extend through Thailand to Kunming, China. While that plan develops, things remain busy on the homefront. This year marks the country’s 50th birthday, and it will celebrate with a number of openings, including the National Gallery and the Pinacotheque de Paris Art Museum. Last year, it opened a Chinatown street market that has proved to be very popular with locals and tourists.
THAILAND: Protests continue to plague Bangkok, and Thailand is using it as an opportunity to promote more of the regions outside its capital city. At the moment, westerns typically stick to Bangkok and the southern beaches, but those seeking an experience outside of the party tourist track should look into Loei in the north and Buri Ram in the east. The Amazing Thailand brand (reinvented this year as Thainess) 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: The popular yet hard-to-reach Northern Highlands of Vietnam are now more accessible thanks to a new road from Hanoi to Sapa that halves the travel time between Hanoi and Lao Cai to only 3.5 hours. Vietnam continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms.
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Tourism encourages human 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) adds to this notion: “Reaching towards greater sustainability in tourism is paramount to our future and there is no better time than the present to create a community led movement to achieve these goals. The freshly minted Sustainable Development Goals will lead the international community development agenda, while the new ASEAN Economic Community will provide unity among ASEAN member countries. One must not forget that these initiatives must translate into the local context if lasting sustainability measures are to be accomplished.”
A goldmine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers included Green Recognition Award winners and homestay program pioneers. Also, press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries 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 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 2016 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.
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For more information visit ATF Philippines. ATF 2017 will be Singapore.
Nobody gossips about virtue.
A mopey, well-fed stray hound strolls by and faintly sniffs me. I’m leaning against an impromptu beer truck on the fringe of a resort area on the Caribbean island of Grenada while distant Calypso music fills the barbequed night air. I’m fishing for West Indian gossip from the middle-aged guy whom I just gifted another icy brew. He grins and announces the same thing four times, as his songlike accent is lost on me until a fourth translation: “Who have cocoa in sun, look out for rain.” This Grenadian proverb suggests minding your own business—as in, it takes six consecutive days to sun-dry cocoa beans, so pay attention to the weather instead of trivial matters. The mellow dog takes the cue and moseys elsewhere, but I stick around.
This lively traffic circle near Grand Anse beach borders a makeshift outdoor marketplace sarcastically named “Wall Street” because the strip-mall parking area is bookended by banks. Along with being a mini-bus hub, the circle attracts locals who gather to buy open-air grilled meat and drink beverages sold from ice chests in pickup beds. At night, cars blare music, creating instant parties. Unlike other over-priced Caribbean islands that are designed so tourists rarely meet non-resort personnel, here I’m dancing in a parking lot with grandmothers, sipping bargain brew.
Strolling away from Wall Street, I follow the sound of steel drums into a palm-tree surrounded auditorium to behold a showcase of senior Calypso musicians. It sounds happy, so I wonder why 500 fans are calmly seated. I find out that Calypso, a West Indies invention, is “listening music” that doubles as delivery for satire and political commentary. Now I understand why the concert-goers are chuckling more than foot-tapping. At this point, I still have no idea how passionate these folks are about their history and politics. A woman looks away from the stage and smiles at me. I’m going to like it here.
Spice Island is an apt metaphor, as all races blend here. Children don’t speak about black or white skin, rather brown or peach skin. I stumble upon a new definition for relativity after meeting several men in my age bracket whose fathers had 10 or more offspring, sometimes with as many women. With so many folks related on this small island, everyone knowing each other keeps things safe. Also keeping the peace is their attachment to British Colonial law. One must bow to a picture of the Queen when entering a court. And if you swear, it’s not hard to land there. Locals call this a “church state” because cursing within earshot of a cop can warrant an arrest.
A long way from church, I step out onto the beach and wander down to a seaside bar. Nuggets of Grenadian folklore fly at me from every direction. As the sun dips into the water, the wave-crashing soundtrack is competing with singing frogs—a tiny newt-like chorus that sounds like an army of loud piccolos. The bartender leans forward to tell me something arriving via “tele-Grenadian” (meaning, gossip spreads fast here). “Don’t let the sun go down on it,” he adds, urging everyone there to solve problems with loved ones quickly. There’s just something about getting good advice when you’re barefoot.
I hail a cab wanting to be delivered to a popular dance joint. My plans rapidly change, however, when my taxi driver pulls over. Also a recreation advisor, Keith gives the bar I’m heading to a thumbs-down and redirects us to a local joint where the upbeat Soca music takes center stage and gets Grenadians up and bouncing. They call it whining, pronounced why-ning, a carnal dance demonstration I first witnessed in
Five hours later, I ask Keith, “What time is it?” “GMT,” he replies (Grenada Maybe Time).
The nutmeg on Grenada’s flag is telling, as it’s used to flavor many local dishes and heralded to cure everything from colds to infidelity. Taxi talent Keith and I share a few meals in local joints. The national dish is called oil down, namesaked by the coconut-milk oil residue that infuses the one-pot stew of breadfruit, callaloo, okra, cabbage, fish, dumplings, turmeric, and whatever else is on hand. While graduating from a heaping plate of oil down to brew, two schoolgirls in uniform sit across from us. Keith advises them, “Boys and books don’t agree.”
A few days later, Keith drops me off at the airport. As I walk away from his car, he reminds me, “What you miss ain’t pass you.” His way of saying, don’t worry about anything, it’s coming either way. He then retells me that copasetic is a Grenadian word.
A bad attitude is a disability. —Grenadian cabbie Keith
What a difference a walk makes.
Long-distance walking veterans, my father and I tackled the renowned 240-mile, coast-to-coast trek across Northern England’s rugged terrain in 1996. Two years later, shortly after dad endured life-saving surgery, we tackled Offa’s Dyke, a 200-mile long wall built in the eighth century to keep the Welsh on their side of that giant fence.
On our third walk across the Commonwealth, my father, then 76, and I rambled the width of England’s Cotswolds region, a country paradise defined by enchanting drystone walls dating back hundreds of years. The region has a woolspun history and is picture-postcard flawless. And, one benefit of undertaking an exhausting itinerary is that it left us no energy to recycle any debates about my tenth-grade car-crashing spree.
The Romans laid out this part of Europe in ten-acre plots. Don’t dare suggest it was the French. Today, these plots have matured into showcases of a fading way of life. These serene river valleys of sheep pens on soft rolling hills with limestone buildings and outcroppings remain out of harm’s way from developers. It endures as a haven of trout-filled streams, quaint stone hamlets, stone walls, and romping horses.
Unfolding our map and our sense of humor ensured that we had a grand time losing our bearings, never a long way from a stone wall or a friendly character. Our route from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold started on a forgotten, car-free single-lane road that visited woods, farms, cottages with window-sill flower boxes, tiny medieval stone villages, bounteous wildflowers, and rare fellow walkers. Roaming 10 to 20 miles per day, sort of with a plan, we slept in archetypal English inns. Predictably, these accommodations were made of stone with low-overhead medieval-era doorways. We become aware of separate hot and cold water faucets, uber-creaky stairs, and twin beds so short that our feet were left dangling.
On the trail, my ears adjusted from urban car horns to ewe-speak. The footpath broke into farms divided by stiles; turnstile gates allowing ramblers to pass but not livestock. Dad had no trouble covering our daily distances, or hurdling the older five-foot-high wooden stiles.
Minutes before sunset, we encountered a stone wall and the man working to preserve it. Today’s stone-wall builders preserve an ancient tradition that both pays the bills and safeguards the Isles’ uncommon landscape. The hardworking stone mason, a chap with meaty hands, massive forearms, and steady phrasing, assured us his art form couldn’t be mechanized. A dry stone wall uses no mortar, only limestones, gravity, friction, and a talent for made-to-last jigsaw puzzles. A symbol of national pride, this typically inherited craft merits prestige; wall building is to Britain what gourmet cooking is to France.
Dry stonewall architects obsess about their materials, describing shades of limestone as passionately as interior designers might salute skylights. They wax eloquent about subtle hues from specific quarries, renowned builders who left unmistakable signatures, and how an able mason can dismantle and rebuild—stone by stone—an identical wall. Like radiance passing through a prism, stone walls share ancestry and imagination.
As the sun set behind us, the wall builder chuckled, “The last ramblers passing this way asked me ‘What I made building walls’…and I told them I make people heave a sigh.”
Dad then asked about optimum stone sizes and which stone position in the wall was the most vital for longevity. The Englishman rested a hand on the wall, looked at the ground, and then slowly raised his head to trace his eyes along a mile of accomplished stonework behind him. Turning his glance my way—but slyly gesturing at my father—he mused, “Just don’t pull that card, or the whole thing collapses!” After that wily epiphany and another chuckle, my dad and I trekked on.
On our final day, we strolled through a retired nobleman’s digs with miles of hilly lawns and well-spaced chestnut oak trees, some 800-years-old with trunks having 24-foot circumferences. We paused at a 13th-century water mill and agreed that we were in an outdoor museum. In the final mile, we climbed a steep ridge near a two-house settlement that wound past friendly miniature ponies, another hundred sheep, and led to a bench set on the high point.
I sat on the bench and watched as my dad walked slowly with a slight limp up the steep path toward me. He was puffing a bit, scaling a mountain once summited by Alexander Cromwell. I thought again about the cunning dry-stone wall builder who had said—speaking about his wall’s hidden power—but also I think in retrospect, about parents everywhere…
“What you don’t see is the strength of the wall.”
It was then that I vowed to keep discovering the charms of life with my dad—that vital card in my familial deck and a stone wall of love—one step at a time.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
“Wallers do it in all weathers.” —Drystone Waller’s credo on a bumper sticker
(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.
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.
“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…
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…
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