A country’s history is discovered in its songs.
Music mobilizes mortals. 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. Tough times. Inspired by the fall of the Iron Curtain, Estonia symbolically overcame its final suppressor, the U.S.S.R., when country-wide choir jam-bands launched their Singing Revolution. A Baltic Woodstock. 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.
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 clutched hands, and changed their destiny. Estonia, where medieval meets modern, sang itself free. The three original flags of the Baltics had been outlawed with possession punishable by prison and torture. Swiftly, these flags—hidden inside walls and ovens for decades—began waving all over the country. The keynote battle-charge song, My Fatherland is My Love, has since become an unofficial national anthem.
We’re all hooked on songs. 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 sidewalk. This fallout of 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’?
Healing conflict with music, now that’s a concept. Follow your melody.
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Estonia’s national bird is the barn swallow. It’s no pin-up like the bald eagle, nor a chart-busting singer—but, aptly, an agile survivor for all seasons.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” —Willy Wonka
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.
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“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…
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.
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
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 .
A Mother and Son Return to Ireland for a Walk Down Memory Lane—and the Road Not Taken
Story and Photos by Bruce Northam
The first gift I gave my mom was a dandelion bouquet. When she turned 80, I brought her to Ireland. It was a gift with a hidden agenda. Born Johanna O’Sullivan, she was one of seven raised by Irish-born immigrants in New York City and later Long Island. There, she was groomed for the convent. With her bags packed for the holy life, she balked and chose a career that eventually led her to Manhattan and to date a Hollywood rogue, Steve McQueen. Mom didn’t know it, but part of our Irish quest was discovering what might have been if she had taken the oath.
We began our journey with family in County Limerick. Our Irish kin own a hilly cattle farm in Loughill, near the village of Athea, where my grandparents met as kids. With a walk down memory lane, we celebrated my mom’s dedication to keeping in touch the old school way, via letters. Our cousins’ songlike brogues made it real.
After bidding them farewell, our search for Ireland’s convent lifestyle took an unconventional turn with stays in two five-star castles. The first was County Mayo’s fantastical Ashford Castle, dating back to 1228. It has since evolved into a country estate and an 83-room hotel. Greeted by the gatekeeper and self-proclaimed fountain of knowledge, we drove along the curving driveway through a golf course that foretold of the storybook majesty as the one-lane bridge introduced the lakeside castle. Coining a phrase that would be lost on most nuns, mom exclaimed, “Luxe of the Irish.” An intimidating bastion with soaring turrets, this palace features a celebrity photo hall of fame that’s a who’s who of former guests. Ronald Reagan’s picture triggered mom’s buried annoyance because, as she pointed out, “He removed the solar panels installed on the White House roof by Jimmy Carter.”
It didn’t take long for us to feel at home in the lavish surroundings—breakfast underneath Waterford Crystal chandeliers, soaks in a spa hot tub, and a concierge quoting Yeats. It was a far cry from the spartan life mom would have led as a nun. We quickly fell into a routine that involved long walks on her new knee and reminders to tuck in my shirt. At Ashford Castle, tradition calls from every corner. A nightly singer and piano player perform in the midst of the palatial but living-room-cozy drawing room while an outdoor fountain contributes to the soundtrack. Later back in our suite, mom attempting medieval humor, teased, “Where did thee go in eighth grade when you hijacked that golf cart in the middle of the night?”
Paying penance for being a naughty teen, I entertained mom on a boat cruise, introduced her to on-campus falcons and horses, ate fruit scones in the sunny drawing room, and wandered a few of the 300 acres of gardens designed by the former-owning Guinness family. A stroll on an undulating path led us to the picturesque village of Cong, where we toured the ruins of a seventh century Augustine Abbey. Nearby, inside a monk’s fishing house—a stone hut built over a river with a casting hole in the floor—mom mused on marriage, “Your dad bought ice fishing gear and returned it after a frozen night on a lake.”
Through the Highland Barrens; Nun on the Run
Rolling across County Galway and sometimes harrowing, narrow roads made slicing between trucks and stone walls a test of nerves. Otherwise, the rolling green scenery, classical music on the radio, and mom as co-pilot was bulletproof leisure. Passing into Connemarra’s highland barrens—from woodsy green to stark mountains—we never exceeded 20mph and only saw three other vehicles in an hour. Although gorgeous stone churches are at the heart of most villages, Irish convents are rapidly closing, foretelling a fading way of life. It’s hard to find a nun in Ireland these days, but we were determined.
Our wish was granted by an unscheduled stop at Kylemore Abby, a legendary convent and boarding school. We encountered one nun in seven days, and she was stealthily driving along the abbey’s utility road in a beat-up minivan. Before she could get away, I knocked on her car window, and she emerged wearing a habit and knee-high Wellington boots. She and mom chatted about Catholic school teachers and outfits. Fast friends—so close yet so far—they held hands for a moment before saying goodbye. Right then it hit me, if mom had donned the habit, my dad would never been able to use his line, “You have great legs,” when they first met on Long Beach, New York in 1949.
On the Castle Trail
Out of the barrens and back into the woods, the grand entrance to Ballynahinch Castle crosses a one-lane stone bridge, and into another era. This sprawling landmark doubles as an art gallery, with old local photos and paintings lining a mile of walls. Defining quietude, enchanting riverside trails pass lakes, cross pedestrian bridges, and antique cottages. It’s Ireland’s Vermont. Rounded mountains loom over this lush river valley that’s a fly-fishing heaven for the fisherman we met on hikes, who were going after wild Atlantic salmon and brown trout. For some, this is the royal fishing lodge.
Built by one of the 14 original tribes of Galway who reigned during the 13th to 19th centuries, it has been a hotel for 65 years. The slow-roasted serenity followed us inside: peat fires warm the lobby and an old-style pub serves roast woodcock. Mom delivers an old book from the library along with a hand-pulled brew—a trusted formula in this benign beacon for poets, writers, and painters.
After reading The Irish Times and The Irish Independent cover to cover, mom looked up and asked, “Time for a hike?” En route, on a bridge over the untroubled Owenmore River, we met Noell, one of the castle’s historians. After his Gaelic-infused lecture on clan and tribe infighting, we continued our riverside hike, holding hands for safety like I did with my daughter before “kindergarten cool” set in. Hand holding, throughout our lives, says everything without words.
Back in our riverside suite, I watch mom sleep peacefully and feel at peace myself. It occurs to me that I’ve seldom seen her in dreamland and how much she must have enjoyed watching her toddlers sleep. The next morning she awoke first. When I opened my eyes, she asked, “Could it be possible that my watch is going slower here?”