By Bruce Northam

Posts tagged “Bruce Northam


Surviving survival school

Your mind is the strongest muscle in your body.

As I was jetting to Salt Lake City, throwing back pretzels, musing at the endless desert below, I was blissfully unaware that 9/11 would re-prioritize the need for survival skills in a new world of terrorist awareness. Hours later, I’m one of eight apprehensive fellows––in search of something not found anywhere near concrete––seated in a semicircle at the bottom of a southern Utah canyon. We’re taking in a sunset lecture by a female outdoor survival guide on how to wipe our backsides using a handful of fine red sand or sagebrush. Pine needles and sticks wound, she warns. This is a prelude to a three-day fast that begins with an overnight speed hike through sandstone-cactus backcountry. We are relentlessly mobile, eating nothing, and drinking only the fish-tankish water we find, frequently from puddles.

The 14-day field course is a canyon-country wilderness four-stage marathon covering more than 200 walking miles. It’s an odyssey with missions––primitive wilderness living skills and a total detox from fast-paced advertising and internet addiction. Out here, we elect to be forced into many situations as diverse as deep thought and starvation, which I learn go hand in hand. Like most people, I took survival for granted.

On departure, hard learning follows hard lessons, many of which are magnified in the wake of three days of extreme trekking without food. We set off at dusk, wearing only waist packs minus water bottles. Our belts dangle with tied-off garments and one blue enamel cup. We pause to suckle water from potholes that are also home to darting tadpoles. The Olympic walking passes through myriad terrain changes in Escalante National Park, the elevation rising and falling from 10,000 to 5,000 feet. We’re being pushed to simulate a survival situation. Jet-lagged and visiting from sea-level cement, I’m punchy with hungry exhaustion, reminding myself I can quit, but there’s no refund. I could die, but there’s that death waiver I signed.

En route seminars involve identifying animal tracks (rear bear tracks look amazingly human), eating river birch leaves (tasting like…leaves), and explaining why it’s necessary to pack two pairs of underwear (a backup for when you shit yourself from either nerves or lapping up buggy puddles). There is no angst resolution seminar.

Two routines emerge: We duct tape blistering toes and ergonomically strip and tie off clothing onto our belts as the sun demands. The breakout sessions on using knives and making fire without matches are the big leaps for humankind. We combust fire from carved sticks—imagine a mad pyro-fiddler contraption—then appreciate matches for life.

Still no food. The mood swings from chatty to solemn. Guides are intentionally elusive about even the near future. They only act as safety nets in the event of an emergency. Five-minute breaks collapse into instant group naps.

As I am climbing out of canyon number 90 on day three, my supposedly high-tech sneaker boots herniate by flapping shoe-sole rubber like an 18-wheeler losing a retread. Branded into various zones on the sole are logos indicating the miraculous ability of each engineered area––intricate parts of footwear able to turn me into a wilderness machine. Soleless, I plod on, now wearing the equivalent of hospital slippers.

My contemplation on wearing slippers for the next 11 days is interrupted when the business school graduate and his associate become the Gatorade brothers by kneeling simultaneously to vomit lime-green antifreeze. Yakking up bile is normal under extreme exertion circumstances without food. The body expects scheduled snacks and when denied secretes superfluous bile, causing nausea.

The sneaker-boot blowout, however, is abnormal, so I duct tape my soles back on. In the midst of slicing tape sections to mummify my footwear, I glance away at the heaving-again Gatoradors and plant my knife a half-inch inside my thumb. Mommy flashes into my mind. Fortunately, nobody else notices her.

Marching into another night—everyone sporting duct-tape somewhere—we wonder how much more we can take. By day four, I down a half-cup of oatmealish veggie mush and feel bloated. Workshops continue on stone toolmaking, munching dandelion greens (the yellow part too), tying knots, and setting animal traps. All this while aiming to expend fewer calories finding food than the caloric value of the food found, a necessity to endure in the outdoor supermarket.

We’re now handy at stone-grinding oats and barley into flour. The guide surmises that, “Consumers, never knowing where their food comes from, are out of touch with the circle of life.” Think about your next burger. The next day, we humanely killed, dissected, and ate a sheep—the entire thing. This was predominantly a vegetarian outing, and there was no mention of meat in the course literature. Ironically, on the course application, which required an okay from your doctor regarding your physical ability to handle this challenge, they also ask you to list allergies. There, I wrote only “Detest liver.” Enter: Diced-organ stew. Still in starvation mode, most of the group don’t second-guess ingesting organs. After all, what are hot dogs and sausages? The smell of liver repeatedly triggers my dry-heave response and I go another day without eating. The sheep’s hide becomes a cloak, the bones become tools, fishhooks, and jewelry. Not attempting to be funny, the craftsman fashions the scrotum sack into a purse.

One of our staples becomes sheep jerky, made by dangling strips of raw sheep meat on a rack baking in the sun. On a 1,500-calorie-per-day diet, it all tastes good, even the spongy texturized vegetable protein (TVP). But the no-trail power walking isn’t over. Our mobile homes are hand-tied backpacks made from military-issue ponchos wrapped around wool blankets. We ration supplies for the next five days: carrots, cornmeal, garlic, lentils, millet, potatoes, powdered milk, onion, salt, pepper and vegetable bouillon––plus a cloth bag with enough peanuts and raisins to gorge a kitten.

Thinking our hard days are behind us, we begin to notice the little things. The aromas shift from juniper to armpit to sage to digestive gas from people battling the TVP. Living like a hunter-gatherer tribe shaved down to our humanity, we think the only apparent hazards are inhaling campfire smoke, relaxing to the point of collapse, or getting a whiff of someone’s breath (only baking soda is permitted to clean teeth).

At sunrise, it’s no bother that my canteen of mossy agua is nearly frozen solid. I’m alone in a red canyon with two dilemmas:

1. While doing laundry naked by the river, I sunburnt my butt cheeks, and must therefore sleep on my stomach. Consequently, I find myself face down in an ant ranch.

2. Once the stomach unbloats, an amazingly small amount of food suffices, and I must find other things to consider, such as the chasm between modern and ancient living. I consider an observation made by the Crow Indians: They build small fires and stand close; white men build large fires and stand far away.

Eating uncooked food has blessed me with gas and diarrhea rivaling an experience I sampled in Nepal. So I’m mellow, slow moving like a patient 80-year-old yoga devotee. Time is irrelevant, an opportunity to rethink the period from sun up till down. And, as surely as cottonwood trees and animal tracks usually lead to water, my love handles vanish and are replaced by skin stretched over my lower ribs.

My fiddling-for-fire machine won’t behave. The ointment cap I use atop the fiddle burned through and cut into the palm of my hand. Now I have no fire or cap for the ointment. I’ve got matted hair, a crusting scalp, and am in the midst of an involuntary cleanse. My savage reawakened, I brave the hours either reapplying a body mud-sheen to repel bugs or reckoning that’s it high time for a bug snack.

A vision quest usually gives the quester a direction, a plan, a dictum, or a new purpose for their life from that point on. The scope of this experience remains unclear, because I’m consumed by a few rudimentary issues, like suffering from ant-fly madness complicated by widespread itchiness. Food fantasies wane behind a daydream of a hot shower that will soothe skull-dermis decay and cactus attacks.

Knocked out, I amuse myself by watching an ant war and wonder how the ages revolve, rockwise. Night birds conduct low flybys as a lizard bursts away on lightning-speed legs. But I’m too tired even to create the indents in the sand that will prevent my hip and shoulder from falling asleep. Through a process of elimination (eating only sheep jerky), I link sheep jerky to diarrhea.

The group rejoins and is split in two, and we’re on our own traveling 30 miles in two days without a guide. I’m heading into the river canyon with three other guys, and one of them begins stretching to prepare for exertion. I wonder: Do wild animals stretch before going for a run?

Not surprisingly, the common realization concluding survival schools––and getting in touch with any desert––is that you can do more with less. You also gain a renewed appreciation for modern convenience.

Dyed red-orange after two weeks in Mother Earth’s sandbox, I lull myself to sleep on the final night with thoughts of lizards and ants and anticipate bliss in the morning gas can of powdered lime-ade.

“Do tadpoles contain protein?” —Survival school cohort, after suckling water from a pothole

Upon reentry, a van ride back to Salt Lake City flirts with the present, though we still smell like cavemen. I wake at 4:00a.m. in a friend’s den in Salt Lake City, where it takes me a minute to recognize that I am not in a really nice shelter. In the first mirror I see, I think, “Hey, you can survive in the wilderness.” I am cutting a better self-image and still snacking like a fashion model––until I fly the next day, on assignment, to Scotland’s Glenlivet Estate to sample a different sort of barley, the single-malt-scotch version. In flight, I look out the plane window into a desert canyon and take a bit more with me. And wonder if ants like sheep jerky.

*from The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons


Roman artifact (foot in sandal) in Tunisia

Your originality is your greatest legacy.

As a teenager, I had the privilege of living across the hall from my grandmother, Edith, until she passed away at 101 years of age. We attribute her radiant longevity to three factors: cottage cheese with pears, a daily Bufferin aspirin, and a shot of bargain Scotch before bedtime.

A loyal ally, she didn’t report my playing hooky from school, or the high school parties I threw while my parents were away at our cabin in the Adirondacks. At such parties—my living room transformed into a classic rock-blaring suburban hippie den—my British-raised grandmother would make 11pm bathrobed appearances in our den-adjoined kitchen to fetch and sip that medicinal shot of Scotch. We’d then give her a rousing ovation, as if she were on stage. She then shuffle back to her bedroom, giggling all the way.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

North Africa

Palm strike to forehead: when in Rome, dress on your own. Real style shouldn’t give a damn.While creating North African episodes of American Detour, I featured athletic sandals in a video. Soon after, the sandal theme ran away with itself—becoming a time to ponder masculinity and the art of footwear.

The world over, men and women have their respective roles, as do married and single men. Like most bachelors, I have nearly full control of my wardrobe. When I’m in a country boasting ruins from the Roman Empire (and there are dozens), they seem a fit locale to highlight the crucial wardrobe component of footwear. Slaves to fashion perceive the donning of utilitarian Velcro-strapped sandals as a catastrophic style no-no. Yet, in virtually all surviving outposts of the Empire, every male statue features a Herculean God wearing simple sandals—sandalias, flat-footed Roman shoes tied around the ankle with thin leather strips that omit gender distinction. Why aren’t they cool anymore?

Footwear, like zip codes, now influences with whom you mingle. High-heeled ladies, who won’t give a double-take to any fellow sporting open-toed shoes, tend to flirt with slick shiny-shoed guys. When did contemporary men and women lose sight of the shoes that made and shaped history? Fierce Romans conquered the world in sandals, maybe even with black socks.

What do modern Roman guys think about this? Wait, all they want to do is flirt with flashily dressed American chicks. We’ve got to get back to basics—or create sandalias with laces that go boot-high. Versatile footwear should also be sexy in a world where people in flip-flops can still rock it. Perhaps I’ve taken the footwear metaphor too far in search of a means of helping people blindly crisscross the fashion finish line. If only those sandal-wearing Roman big-shot statues could speak…

“It never troubles the wolf how many the sheep may be.” —Virgil, 70-19 B.C.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

“Don’t age. Mature.” —A New Caledonian antique buff’s advice…after picking me up hitching, but actually swindling me into an hour of yard work.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Manila, Philippines

A photographer sets up a tripod on a roadside in a dingy, untouristed neighborhood outside Manila, the Philippine city of 17 million. He aims to freeze-frame the charm of an old rusting bicycle that’s leaning against a blue stucco wall flocked by birds-of-paradise. Dozens of elementary students on recess crowd around to watch him vary compositions shot with different lenses from different angles. Halfway through the shoot, one wholly engrossed little boy couldn’t resist asking why he was taking so many photographs of the weathered bike, “when there are so many new ones around the corner?”

(from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)

Tunisia: filming American Detour with Lawrence Whiteside


“The heart doesn’t have to be clever.” (photo: Basil Northam)

Don’t be hot and cold.


To keep things real while visiting developing countries, I prefer to stay in family-run establishments because some of the best aspects of any destination are usually those that pertain to family. Occasionally, I’ll spring for air conditioning. Before setting out into northern Cambodia’s humid jungles on a motorbike, I spent five nights in a Phnom Penh guesthouse either huddling beneath a mountain of blankets battling teeth-chattering chills, or waking up repeatedly to kick off those blankets and lie drenched and shivering in my own sweat.


The horrors of dengue fever, malaria, and other tropical plagues overtook my mind. Getting into a pattern, I’d fling off the covers and gradually cool down until, an hour later, an Arctic frost would send me back under the blankets to restart the ritual. I became practiced at drenching one side of the bed, then shifting to the other side while the wet side dried. On day three, I got a short 50-cent haircut—via a sidewalk barber using hand-powered shears—so my oft-soddened hairdo would dry faster and not soak the pillow. Anyone who has backpacked extensively doesn’t go to doctors unless someone else carries them to one.


Perspiring like a freshly emerged swimmer, on the fourth night, I stormed over to unplug the non-adjustable air-conditioner and discovered instead that sauna-hot air was billowing into the room. As I stood there, relief gushed into my veins. This woeful AC dinosaur had been blowing air ranging from 55 to 95 degrees in two-hour cycles. Just when I’d resigned myself to a hospital visit, I realized that my viral rollercoaster had been instigated by recurring rounds of polar misery upstaged by a humid inferno delirium.


Enjoying a mini triumph, I attached a “broken” note onto the demonic appliance, checked out, met my brother Basil, rented a motorbike, and throttled north.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


“The heart doesn’t have to be clever.” —Cambodian motorbike shop owner’s reply to question about neighboring Thailand and Vietnam being more clever at business.


“Hey man, don’t sweat the big stuff.” —Humboldt County, California farmer


(from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)


Horsing Around with Robin Williams

NYC’s original Hard Rock Cafe

Before embarking on my first extended tour of Asia, I drove a horse-drawn carriage around midtown Manhattan. It was the mid-80s, I worked the streets at night when it was still legal. On my way home after midnight, I’d often try my luck in front of the Hard Rock Cafe, their debut club in NYC (Hard Rock launched its first cafe ever in 1971 in London and the brand now has 176 cafes, 24 hotels and 11 casinos). In front of the exit of the original NYC landmark, which was still then on 57th St. way before the tour-bus troops arrived, I’d sit atop my equestrian perch and greet the partiers as they exited and easily convince customers to join me for the ride home back to the stable on 11th Ave between 37th and 38th Streets (now a park opposite Javits Center). This was pre-regulated, lawless Manhattan, when rolling down 11th Ave late at night meant a sea of bikini and high-heel clad hookers, hot dog vendors selling beer to their johns, and the occasional snaps of distant gunfire (back when it was still justly called Hell’s Kitchen).

One summer night, Robin Williams, Paul Shaffer (Letterman), and John Cleese (Monty Python) emerged from the 57th Street Hard Rock Cafe, intending to step right into their waiting limo. Only Robin looked at me and the carriage, so I offered him a free ride. Shaffer and Cleese were already in the limo, but they’d have to wait 15 minutes until Robin was finished making me howl with laughter.

Robin walked up beside me and swore that he wanted to go but that the other guys wanted to go home. His eyes scanned the horse and carriage with magical wonder. As a consolation prize, I offered him the joint (a tip from a previous customer) from my shirt pocket—I’m not sure if he was in sober mode—and he also indecisively declined on that by lurching to and fro while exclaiming yes (loudly) and no (whispering). Then he began an odyssey of mock exits toward the limo, where he’d stroll slowly away while peering over his shoulder, open the limo door, and then come running back to the horse like a little kid. He jumped up and down, saying things like “Ohhhh, I want it. I want to go,” while miming childlike desperation. He rocketed between conversations with me, my horse—and the joint—all the while clinging to different parts of the carriage. With each of his comings and (fake) goings, his pals in the limo would lower the window and beg him to get in. He’d walk over to the limo, open the door only to slam it again, and then run back alongside my lofty seat on the carriage, and once again, beg to go on the ride or get the joint out of my pocket. It was classic Robin Williams playing should I stay or should I go with full flair. After 10 mock returns to the limo, and running back to the carriage each time with even more energy, he finally got into the limo. As it pulled away, he opened his window and parked his chin at the base like a puppy and gave me his best pouty expression. As the limo angled out of sight onto Broadway, he peered at me and my horse with his timeless funny-sad face…and slowly waved goodbye.

Bruce Northam piloting a Manhattan horse-drawn carriage (brother Bryan on left)


Walking across England’s Cotswolds with Dad in 2004

Sometimes people who have nothing have everything they need. Near a North Sea oil port, I came face to face with unrehearsed survival. Speed walking through a gritty quarter of Hull, England, I nearly tripped over a rhetorically blessed drifter, living in an urban lean-to, adrift in reverie. After sharing a few canned ales, our conversation swayed to the contents of his tattered olive rucksack.

As he fished each item out, he surrendered multi-colored histories of his worldly possessions and arranged them on the sidewalk, exhibiting and professing the import of rope, tarp, a risqué magazine, airline eyeshades, his “idea registry,” and an antique army mess kit.

Lastly, he produced a damp, hulking dictionary. Holding it high and with eyes widened he swore, “Mate, this book’s got everything.”

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

“We need the tonic of wildness.” —Thoreau

A broken clock is still right twice a day. —Polish proverb


*from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons

Los Angeles Grub Grand Slam

A veteran travel writer’s take on where the LA diner is transported…

Plan Check — Santa Monica

Plan Check (Santa Monica) is a new-American comfort food haunt made even tastier by its open-air social-atorium that’s chock-full of LA’s best characters, from bushy-bearded dudes wearing ski caps to those opting for designer t-shirts/store-ripped jeans/flip-flops. Everyone let’s their hair down at this upscale-casual industrial hangout where the soundtrack is human laughter. Debuting with the dynamite crab dip (masago, charred tomato, nori, toast) creates a leadoff moan, while the stuffed mushroom (roasted portobello, swiss cheese fondue, crispy kale, roasted garlic steak sauce) adds only silence. The craft beer (hello santa monica brew works Witbier) inspires system-wide comfort, too. The nine-seat bar slings signature cocktails including Plan Check Penicillin (el silencio mezcal, ginger, lemon, agave, fennel, and a “buzz button” that makes your tongue tingle) and the creamy El Pomelo Rose (more el silencio mezcal, pamplemousse rose liqueur, campari, agave, lime, egg white, edible bouquet). The mixology mastery here—happy hour made easy—adds digits to the sidewalk-strolling would-be models. Wait, entrees too? Make room for the Lobster Pot Pie (curried lobster bisque, beets, green beans, corn, carrots, potatoes) because you’re going to be here for a while. ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

BOA — Santa Monica

BOA Steakhouse (Santa Monica) is not your grandfather’s stogie-scented hangout, yet. While waiting for the steak to blow you away, beware of the unstoppable three-tier Chilled Seafood Platter (you name it, it looms) accompanied by a trio of dipping sauces and a seared tuna ceviche offering as the tower’s cone. The 17-page drink list is not short on revealing there’s something for everyone here; also a Wine Spectator award-winning list (hats off to The Prisoner, a Napa Valley Zinfandel-Cabernet). The modern-day cuisine also reverses trend with prime Omaha beef options including a “40 Day” Dry Aged New York Strip and Center Cut Filet Mignon (the choice for savants leaning toward weller-done). Other selections include Certified Organic Beef and Premium American Wagyu, all served with a choice of rubs and house-made sauces, including BOA’s own J-1 sauce. Traditional steakhouse sides like the tableside-made Classic Caesar Salad and Mac-n-Cheese help to weigh down your to-go bag. If you’re able to look away from what’s happening on your table, take in the colorful ambience, floor-to-ceiling wine racks, and outdoor or indoor options to behold the ocean across the street—everyone else is! Gluten-free diners warmly accommodated. And oh yeah, grandpa’s drink is waiting in the form of an El Olvido (patron silver, pineapple, poblano chile, Mexican honey, smoke-infused bitters). ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Sushi Roku –Santa Monica

Sushi Roku (Santa Monica) brings the high-end LA sushi experience back down-to-earth (since debuting in Hollywood in 1997). With a dash of contemporary California cool (jalapeños, olive oil, on so on), fresh fish handpicked from the world’s pristine waters are melded with an artistry achievable only by a seasoned sushi chef. The Yellowtail Diced Chiles (yes, spicy) and the Albacore Sashimi (ponzu, crispy onions) immediately showcase this innovative twist on Japanese tradition. The signature rolls dazzle, enter the Katana (spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, tuna, yellowtail) while the mainstays like the Softshell Crab roll won’t disappoint. Digging deeper into the menu, the freshwater eel (unagi) broke new ground for my palate. Circling back to the cold appetizer menu to sample the Fluke Kumquat Sashimi (yuzu vinaigrette) and Blue Crab Tartare (with uni & caviar) made time and place stand still—until the hot waitress returned. Exotic but casual, 100 seats share four setting options, that include an open-air patio, a 20-seat cocktail bar, and a 10-seat sushi bar. Either way, you’re within easy reach of a specialty cocktail like their Skinny Bulldog (bulldog gin, veev acai spirit, cucumber, lime, agave, sea salt). I was not embarrassed to raise my hand for a second miso soup. Ps, the name Sushi Roku is via the Japanese slang word for “rock,” implying “rock and roll sushi.” * The three restaurants above enjoy ocean-breeze locales near the same waterfront intersection (Ocean Ave @ Santa Monica Blvd). ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Westwood’s Napa Valley Grille

Westwood’s Napa Valley Grille experience is a morphing of crisp décor, wine excellence, and fantastical starters like their Crescenza Cheese & Serrano Ham Tartine (pickled onions, arugula, raisin-pecan bread). The words Napa and Valley together ups any ante, and this inspiring space does not fail LA. The multi-room indoor/outdoor space can comfortably seat 370 diners. The long and handsome 20-seat bar is as inviting as any table in this sweet-sixteen-year-old institution that just got a $2 million facelift—which means new menu and new vibe mingling with its old-style neighborhood charm. Brick-oven flatbreads include the Roasted Vegetable (brussels sprouts, heirloom carrots, cauliflower, garlic, basil) and the Seasonal Harvest salad takes no prisoners (roasted kabocha squash, green dragon apple, glazed walnuts, mixed greens, maple-olive dressing). You can up your degree in wine to in-the-know here—the leather-bound wine guide for servers includes tasting notes highlighting the nose and palate of every choice on the list (borrow one). Their cozy wine cellar seats eight guests. Along with a curated selection of international wines, this grill also proudly showcases its private selection from the Tavistock Reserve Collection. While you’re at it, pair something with their sensational Cast Iron-Seared Sea Scallops (sweet corn purée, charred hearts of palm, ginger-citrus vinaigrette). Seeking a walk on the wild side? Their designer cocktail, the Spaghetti Western (lime, Giffard orgeat almond syrup, Solerno, Milagro Tequila Reposado) has your name on it. Need to keep it simple at lunch? The Grilled Wagyu Cheeseburger (Monterey cheddar, caramelized onions, brioche bun) is misdiagnosed as simply a cheeseburger.


Estonian cop rocks out on a city bus

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.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


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

Owners of Estonia’s (home) Restaurant nAnO

TBAR Steak & Lounge—time-tested classics, just in time

T-Bar Steak & Lounge

While many other Manhattan restaurants labor to reinvent themselves, it’s relaxing to slide back into basics at the upper east side’s TBAR Steak & Lounge—and that’s why it’s packed with in-the-know veteran New Yorkers. The one-page 40-item menu rolls out time-tested beauties debuting with appetizers including truffle rice balls (mushrooms, truffle oil) and salmon ceviche (lime, jalapeno, tequila). The bi-level 100-seat space has a chatty 10-seat bar and a dozen options to dine while beholding Third Avenue’s bustle. The career waiters (including philosophical Croatians) and the mature clientele ensure calm as you realize that although steaks drive this train, the menu isn’t mono-focused (Chilean sea bass, Crispy Long Island duck). That said, many filet mignons, NY strips, and prime aged angus burgers are celebrated. The flip side of the one-page menu highlights champagne, fine wines, and cocktails including the Manhattan 73 (Angels Envy whiskey, cherries, antica, vermouth, cherry herring). But you’re not done yet—desserts like the banana parfait mille feuilles (coconut, caramel sauce) and the chocolate sundae (brownie, cream, chocolate sauce) have a way of reviving your appetite. This place makes getting it right the first time look easy. Okay, now you’re done. TBAR Steak & Lounge, 1278 3rd Ave @73rd, 212-772-0404.

T-Bar Steak & Lounge


It’s tough enough for one lost man to ask for directions—tougher when four guys sail into the unknown.

Being towed to port by Cuban police for interrogation about my illegal boat approach from Florida Keys

Unexpected rewards for loyalty are divine. In the summer of 2005, I visited the off-limits island of Cuba. At the time, Fidel Castro was aged but still healthy and in power. I was the monthly travel columnist for The Improper Hamptonian, an amusing print magazine for Long Islanders. When the editor fled to start her own venture (Long Island Pulse), she invited me to write a similar column in her new magazine, which paid more. That is, only if I ceased writing for the other magazine.


I pleaded to write original columns for both publications, but the offer only stood if I cut my ties to the magazine in which I’d been a regular contributor for years. For maintaining my loyalty—I was the only columnist who did—the publisher off The Improper Hamptonian offered me a trip to Cuba by boat from the Florida Keys.


6:43p.m. Just off Cuba’s coast, as we’re scouring the shoreline for an inlet leading to a port, two huge boats race towards us.


6:44p.m. “Give us your keys,” they shout to our boat.


“Why?” I scream back. I’d never been mugged by pirates, so I dash below deck to stash valuables on my body. Back on deck, I can’t argue with the impatient, AK47-wielding crews on the steely larger boats flanking ours. Only one of the 20 guys on either boat wears anything resembling a uniform. Both boats have big cannons, and nobody is smiling. After a useless protest against surrendering the keys, I throw them the keys and the line they use to tow us into port. They then start “the investigation.”


7:28p.m. Waiting on the dock is a 50-person convoy of drug-sniffing dog handlers, scribbling policemen, brooding military personnel, doctors, interrogators, and interpreters. Welcome to Cuba!


Americans having to fly through Mexico, Canada, or elsewhere to visit the largest island in the Caribbean has always struck me as tedious. I wanted to conquer Cuba by boat, and The Improper Hamptonian publisher, Lenny, made it happen. For years, he had pondered venturing there with his father, Lenny, Sr., a retired steamfitter of merit who had previously traveled there by boat. Lenny, Jr., and I flew to Fort Lauderdale, boarded his dad’s 30-foot fishing boat, the Steamfitter, motored south and soon reaffirmed: The adventure begins when the plan fails.


Although our captain planned on docking near Havana, headwinds burned more gas than expected, so the straight line from Marathon Key, FL, led to the marina in Varadero, 80 miles east of Havana. As Cuban soil rose into view, we made several unsuccessful attempts to radio the marina. Roaming 100-yards offshore, hunting for the inlet, the only other boat we’d seen in Cuban waters was a dilapidated 120-foot rusty vessel that kept its distance but mimicked our movements. When we turned and approached them to ask directions, another rusting steel beast raced onto the scene, and our vacation went into shock, just as the sun began to sink into the ocean.


9 p.m.—until the moon finishes its slow arc across sky. They search and pick apart the boat, as I occasionally nap on the comfy wooden dock, using a pylon base as a pillow.


A team of quarantine doctors follow the drug-sniffing dogs.


“Anybody want a soda?” asks Lenny, Jr.


10:50p.m. A young female physician gives us full physicals. Using the pilot’s bench as an exam table, she probes our abdomens and wears an expression of deep concern. She suggests the captain keep his legs elevated, and returns later to retake his blood pressure.


1:33a.m. A technology expert steps on to the boat, gives us nods of confidence, and then completely dismantles each of our cell phones, taking ferocious notes about each part and their serial numbers. Spy stuff.


3:54a.m. I become keenly aware that several stone-faced men are photographing and filming the entire show because when the cameraman films part four of my nap, his camera light wakes me.


Tensions were spiking again between Cuba and America. The previous year, Bush and company sanctioned Swiss banks for the “laundering” of Cuban currency. Cuba’s retaliation, starting in 2004, outlawed the previously common U.S. dollar for all goods and services, switched to the Euro, and imposed a 20-percent fee for mandatory dollar conversions. And, Yanks arriving unannounced by boat also became a tad more problematic. Technically, while it’s not illegal for Americans to visit Cuba, U.S. law declares it illegal for them to spend U.S. dollars there.


6:16a.m. Detainment by Cuban Coast Guard and friends continues through sunrise.


6:17a.m. Emerging from a dream about missing a meal while in solitary confinement because my Spanish is rusty, I wonder aloud if we should call a lawyer. Lenny, nursing an imported Coke, winks, “Spending that quarter could multiply our legal problems.”


6:18a.m. “Ham sandwich, please,” says our captain. The Captain’s cryptic request dawns on me later. We have no food, only cases of beer and soda.


10a.m. Officials, in a variety of outfits ranging from medaled general to sly undercover detective, test-drive our boat for the second time.


11:11a.m. Undercover dude seats us outside the grilling office near the dock and formally permits us access to our bucket of beer and soda.


11:12a.m.—until the sun sets again. They interrogate us individually in a small windowless office. Using a Spanish-speaking quizzer with an interpreter, high-volume questions range from “Do you have any Cuban friends in the United States?” to “Have you ever been in trouble with the CIA?” Four other serious padre types look on without blinking. Thoughtfully, the interrogator skipped any real toughies, like, “Who is cooler, you, or your older brother?”


2p.m. Mildly panicked paranoia sets in. Cuban detention takes me back to the many hours I’d restlessly endured in my junior high school principal’s office. “We’re calling your parents,” I think I hear someone mumble in Spanish. Images of a $10,000 Uncle Sam fine and a year in prison swirl in my head.


3p.m. Every two hours, I peek back into the interrogation chamber—two olden computer printers busily chugging propaganda—to ask when we’ll be free to go enjoy their country’s famous tranquilizing rhythms. They maintain poker faces and predict a few more hours. “We’re checking with your government,” says the interpreter. Is he joking?  If I’m here trading with the enemy, why the hell are you calling Washington? Am I going to become an international media example, exposing the flipside of the Cuban refugee boating issue?


4p.m. Revelation: It’s amazing that Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida, because the cultural differences fly in the face of proximity. I’ve visited hundreds of diverse cultures and seldom experienced such lifestyle variation in such a short distance. Typically, when I’m in travel-writer mode, I intentionally wander into bad neighborhoods to get the street beat in towns all over the world. On the other side of those tracks, I’m used to paranoid locals first screening me as possible DEA, FBI, CIA, or Immigration. It seems ironic to raise that intelligence antenna in Cuba when I’m actually attempting a vacation. Then again, remnants of the Cold War endure.


4:01p.m. I want my mom.


4:02p.m. “Gimme another ham sandwich.” —Captain’s code words for “Someone please deliver me another Miller Lite.”


7:05p.m. We’re still slumped in chairs outside the administrative cell as another sun sets. A Canadian boat dweller muses by and attempts to illustrate the bright side of Cuba’s militarized bureaucracy: “Thick bureaucracy, thin crime.”


7:15p.m. Our 24-hour detention concludes with an apology.


Lack of radio communication aside, we had no idea that our beachfront search for the inlet had raised red flags. Occasionally, speed boat mercenaries do storm beaches and ferry locals to Florida. And, some cell phones have GPS chips that could help navigate a rafting refugee seeking diplomatic immunity. Considering our phone dismantlings, you’d think they were hunting lasers. Who knows what else prompted their paranoia. Obviously, most Cubans can’t afford boats, but you also don’t see anybody in any sort of recreational floating devices near the beaches. The Cuban government discourages Cubans from floating on anything. It’s even illegal for foreign boat visitors to use the kayaks they’ve brought along; any craft could become a local’s ticket to a Dolphin’s game.


For sure, very few Americans storm their shores by sea, and their lawmen didn’t seem to have much going on otherwise. If it was an embargo formality, at least they now have a training video for ambushing and shaking down weekend warriors.


7:37p.m. Group discussion in a Havana-bound taxi cab. Perhaps the adage about men refusing to ask for directions when lost has merit—the rare moment when the four of us asked at once, the banana hit the fan.


11:25a.m. (one week later). On the boat ride back to Florida, we see only one other boat from afar as we cross from Cuban into international waters.


“Oh sh*t, is that the U.S. Coast guard?”…“Dump the cigars!”

Stogie-puffing Cuban mechanic fiddling with gas can?

Italian Discovery: Affordable and simple hearty cuisine in NYC’s West Village

Da Tommy Osteria’s 60-seat getaway

Da Tommy Osteria’s 60-seat getaway

Twenty-four-year-old owner Tommy from Milan is an easy-going restaurateur who declares only one rule inside his cozy, intimate dining room: “It’s a no prosecco zone.” This “red line” is drawn to showcase Franciacorta, a smooth, subtle Italian sparkling wine made via small batches (unlike mass-produced prosecco). This sets the stage for Da Tommy Osteria’s 60-seat getaway, offering high-end cuisine at bargain prices (no entree tops $29). The 10-person elbow-shaped bar, white brick walls, and random shelves of wine complete the owner’s authentic vision. An osteria is a woodier, more rustic trattoria where the root word is host, as in, you’re being hosted in someone’s home. Seventy-percent of the menu is vegetarian, which is a hit with the local Kosher crowd. Start with the Zucchini Cake and Parmesan Truffle Fondue or Grilled Octopus and Lemon Ricotta (a meaty white ‘sea sausage’ via Portugal). A celebrity chef designed the menu, taking it up a notch with fresh-made colorful pasta specialties led by scene-stealer Tonnarelli Cacio E Pepe (Roman Style Pasta, Pecornio, Black Pepper, $12!). The outstanding Branzino Al Forno (Pan Roasted Sea Bass, Capers, Olives, Vegetables) is served in a sturdy frying pan. This affordable feasting ground prides itself on only serving fine Italian wine and beer; the recommended Franciacorta is Contadiscastaldi Brut. Ps, the staff is Italian, so there will be no rushing here. Da Tommy Osteria, 14 Bedford St., Manhattan, New York, NY. 212-675-9080.

Tommy's Branzino Al Forno

Tommy’s Branzino Al Forno


Roaming is how discovery sounds…

Turkey's Mount Ararat (viewed from Armenia)

Turkey’s Mount Ararat (viewed from Armenia)

If you hit a foul ball instead of that hoped for home run, remember it may have still cleared the fence. When people hit a foul ball in life, give them a break.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Akin to a Roman ruin rebirth, one of New York City’s elevated railways made a comeback as the High Line. Originally built in the 1930s to lift freight trains 30 feet above Manhattan’s then industrial West Side, it was abandoned, and decades later, revived into a public park. In the mid-80s, the High Line was still a desolate, elongated slab of crumbling concrete sprouting spindly trees and wildflowers. Mixed in were homeless people’s campsites, pigeon roosts, and rodent hideouts. It was a secret society hovering above the buzzing city.


Back then, the ominous railbed still extended north of 50th street above the West Side Highway—a block from my Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Skyscraper rooftops aside, this corroded section of tracks was my favorite urban escape. Getting up there meant scaling vertical steel support columns to locate entry points in the barbwire that barricaded this otherworld. The holes in the barbwire were constantly relocating, as it was cyclically slashed by itinerant squatters and then repaired by city workers.


I’ve always sought out railroad track environments. Before girls dismantled my pre-adolescent bicycle gang, we wandered for miles along the Long Island Railroad, day and night. A highlight was parking coins on the rails to be pulverized by commuter trains. There was other mischief, but I won’t admit any of it until I’m 70.


Some habits are hard to kick. In my early 20s, on a midnight ramble with my brother Basil along the pre-restored, then apocalyptic High Line, I tripped on a rope that was supporting a drifter’s plywood and tarp gazebo. Tugging the rope caused the plywood to shift, which alarmed the dweller and made rats scatter. My misstep actually expanded the size of his shelter. Like an earthquake instantly freeing a prisoner, my actions caused him to bolt from his hovel. Nearly naked in the August sizzle, he resembled a tortoise without a shell. I apologized for tripping over his home, but he was still visibly angry, and not yet fully awake. As he fidgeted with reasons to battle, the logic of his own argument led him towards a conclusion he tried to avoid. A grin overtook his face. Because his lean-to had morphed into a larger safari tent, he extended a hand and praised me for the upgrade.


My brother resecured the structure while I asked the man about the vagaries of living upon the lowly High Line. One more nomad at home, his head spun away from his modified fortress and smiled at me without front teeth to say, “VIP baby. Vagabonds In Power!”


You never know when you’ll encounter a radical utopian. Wild turkeys in the woods are hard to find, no less catch.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞



Sometimes you wander, and the pictures stare at you. The remarkably preserved and photogenic Roman coliseum in the ancient metropolis of Ephesus made me wonder what it was like to be a gladiator waiting in an underground tunnel before surfacing to fight for your life. Sometimes, it ain’t easy being human.


Seating hundreds, this coliseum is still in use today—for mellower spectacles. The restored coliseum hosted full-on rock acts until the mid-80s when, apparently, a vibrating Sting show damaged the stone structures. Throughout the Greco-Roman world, once-abandoned relics that weren’t looted for new construction materials or foreign museums (or rocked by Sting) have been given new lives.


I met a charismatic carpet-vending Turkish elder near Ephesus’ spa ruins. He had probably slept in the oversized, dusty sweater he wore like a robe. When his lively carpet pitch—a hurried medley of outdoor furlings and unfurlings—failed, he told me that he lived in one of the tunnels where “the gladiators prayed before battling the lions.” When I asked him what it was like to live among lions, he stood up straighter and announced, “If lions could talk, the gladiators would not.”

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

“A foul ball is still a home run to the person who recovers it.” —Guy in Jericho, Palestine, wryly commenting on his neighborhood


[from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons]


Shades of freedom—evolving from red (communist) to green (democracy)…

Latvian singer Linda Leen (right) at Riga’s central market

Latvian singer Linda Leen (right) at Riga’s central market

As opposed to huge countries like the U.S., where some residents can live lifetimes without encountering foreigners, residents of small countries with numerous neighbors have global outlooks by necessity. A tiny country with a big reputation for nightlife, Latvia has been free from Soviet occupation since 1989. Its photogenic capital, Riga, is viewed by some untamed party-seeking Euros as an inexpensive binge getaway. It’s not surprising considering that Riga’s Old City overflows with inviting and inexpensive bars and restaurants. When inbound weekend warriors let their hair down, it can annoy the locals.


Riga’s immense European-style central market is not on the party circuit. There, I asked a local what she thought about the inbound party animals. At that moment, a coiffed Russian sauntered by. Tearing the veneer off any illusion, the local nodded toward the showboat and replied with a twist: “That’s what happens when a hairdo becomes a hair-don’t.”


I stood in that same spot near the seafood peddlers, and it got better. A hardcover book-toting local guy waltzed by, and I asked him about Latvian hairstyles. Lacking caché but logging originality, he predicted, “Non-judgment day is near.” I remind myself that when you ask the wrong question, you’ll rarely get the right answer.


Reborn Baltic liberty in the air, I accosted another local who waved me off with a Latvian slur. A nearby woman witnessed my dismissal and asked me if I needed help. I asked her how Latvian life had changed with democracy, and how Russians, their former occupiers, got along with Latvians. Her offering: Self-praise is not an endorsement.


Happy with that trio of swift informal interviews, I walked towards a doorway and saw an elderly man decked out in an Art Nouveau period outfit. Motionless, he stared contemplatively toward the market’s breezy open-air exit. I waved hello, and he flapped a no thank you. The helpful woman I’d just met was keeping pace a step behind me. She saw me gesture toward the sharp-dressed man and again asked if I needed assistance. I said no, but leered toward the Art Nouveau guy suggesting that he might. They had a brief conversation and the man then exited the building.


“What did he say?” I asked her.


She pointed at the illuminated EXIT sign hovering over the arched stone doorway, and explained that he also regarded it as a starting point…


“Every exit is also an entrance.”


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


“Ten years ago, we sell all our snakes to China. So now we have many more rats. The rats are very tasty.” —Deckhand, during float down Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River


(from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)


Do we spend the first half of our lives trying to figure out what to do with the second half of our lives or do we spend the second half of our lives wondering just what the heck happened in the first half? Tough call, but traveling can help us figure it out.

Babysitting in Neyagawashi, Japan (1987)

Babysitting in Neyagawashi, Japan (1987)

Going it alone can be lonely. Sometimes, during trying times, we need help from other people to help us rediscover the bright side. Which is why, in my late 20s, in the true spirit of neurotic Manhattan, I went to see an Upper West Side shrink masquerading as a career counselor. I was living with a girlfriend at the time when my résumé began to resemble vomited spaghetti. My addicted traveler pattern of working in sales for a year and then traveling for a year was—in the traditional career mindset—tattooing a hazard sign on my forehead. Freshly dismissed from a soulless job, I announced to my girlfriend that I wanted to write books and give presentations about world travel. She, sensing unsteady grandiosity, suggested that I seek professional help.


So off to Barbara Allen I went, a healer who had reinvented herself as a career counselor after spending 20 years working as a death and dying counselor; a saint who reached out to terminally ill people and their families facing their worst moments. Time after time, Barbara observed that it typically wasn’t until people were courting death that they realized what a pity it was to not have identified their passions and migrate toward them fearlessly. I should have. Why didn’t I? What was I afraid of? They’d all wonder, what did I have to lose?


Searching into my eyes, Barbara said, “After 20 years of dealing with people who finally realized what they were meant to do with their lives after it was too late, I committed the rest of my life to helping vibrant people like you to realize their dreams while they still have their health.” Barbara—60 bucks an hour, holy cow that’s a lot, I need to get better quick—started asking questions.


Her first question: “I’m going to give you a million dollars right now. What are you going to do with it?” I began to divvy up my bounty with a third going to a cabin in the woods, a third invested, then I’d travel the world until the rest vaporized. She got me fantasizing about those three scenarios for about five minutes until suddenly asking, “Is your girlfriend in that picture right now?” I swallowed hard, shook my head, and whispered a solemn no. She peered from beneath a lowered forehead, “Contemplate who is and who is not in your dreams.”


I went back to my apartment, schemed a crusade, hit the road, wrote a book, and began giving travel seminars. My kind of therapy.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


There are exemptions to every decree—sometimes backtracking rediscovers bliss. Nobody ever forgets visiting Japan. Fresh out of college and backpacking with no expiration date, I hitched 300 miles from Tokyo to a rural village outside Osaka and unexpectedly ended up living with the Doi family for a month. An unofficial babysitter and English-speaking influence for a one- and three-year-old, I relished time with an extended family where four generations lived under one roof.


Twenty-five years later, I returned to Japan and reunited with Emiko and Rieko as adults. Although they didn’t actually remember me, I left behind audio and written English lessons to keep that ball rolling, and their parents documented our time together with photos. The stirring reunion was like finding long-lost family in another land, and a reminder that life is sweet.


After humorously reenacting some of the poses from the photos when they were toddlers, we spent another day together, shed a few sappy tears, and hugged one more time. In a country where being on time means being early, I realized that although you cannot be in two places at once, your spirit can. Later, solo again, I bowed to no one in particular, and boarded a plane.

Reunited in Neyagawashi, Japan

Reunited in Neyagawashi, Japan

(from: The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)


Kalahari Desert Bush survivor

Kalahari Desert Bush survivor

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.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


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.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


“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.

Basil and Bruce Northam

Basil and Bruce Northam

Falling Back in Like with Midtown Manhattan

Executive Hotel Le Soleil New York City - Executive Queen Suite with View - 1068162

As a long-time Manhattanite, I typically loathe Midtown’s near-constant chaos. But, West 36th Street’s Executive Hotel Le Soleil New York initiated my ceasefire with this part of NYC. An instant classic celebrating a bygone era of charm, this Fashion District newcomer welcomes in-the-know business travelers, savvy holidaymakers, and pets.


Each one of the sensually pleasing 162 rooms (including three twentieth-floor penthouse suites) go above-and-beyond the style of the traditional luxury boutique hotels with furniture designed by local and European artisans that accent rich fabrics, chrome, and glass. The Couture Penthouse Suite has a full kitchen, dining and living area, an office, two separate bedrooms, and an outdoor terrace with a fireplace, and sweeping views of the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower. Many of the sleek-design luxurious hotel’s upper floors have amazing skyline views—every room has floor-to-ceiling windows. Here, I had a rare uninterrupted night of sleep in this crazy city.


All rooms contain custom-designed furniture, plush beds with luxurious bedding, fluffy bathrobes and slippers, a 43” flat-screen TV with cable, tempting mini bar, spacious work desk, audio docking station, cordless bedside phone, stylish coffee maker, umbrella, hairdryer, an electronic safe, and a morning newspaper.  All of the bathrooms are adorned with marble countertops and feature ultra-fancy Italian-made bath products.


The impeccable attention given to guests by the hotel’s staff is praiseworthy, and seems genuine. Le Soleil also offers a helicopter ride package. Adjacent to the lobby, street-side Trademark Grind boutique coffee bar fronts and cleverly hides Trademark Taste, a revived speakeasy cum delicious dining hideaway. The 80-seat restaurant offers hand-crafted cocktails along with comfort food and homemade pastries. 38 W 36th St, New York. 212.685.2181.

Southeast Asia Introduces New Models for a Unified Tourism Front

One Community for Sustainability

The Philippines Arreceffi Island

The Philippines Arreceffi Island

“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 ( $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.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


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.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


For more information visit ATF Philippines. ATF 2017 will be Singapore.

Men's Journal fan in Ifugao Province, Philippines

Men’s Journal fan in Ifugao Province, Philippines



Nobody gossips about virtue.

The simple life in Grenada

The simple life in Grenada

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 Jamaica. Think doggie-style dancing couples swiveling for hours, rarely making eye contact with one other.


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

Grenada spice market

Grenada spice market

Introducing my three new KEYNOTE presentations…


What a difference a walk makes.

Strolling across England's Cotswolds

Strolling across England’s Cotswolds

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

American Royalty!

American Royalty!


“We make the road by walking it.” —Rosa Parks

In the midst of fourth coast-to-coast walk across Britain with dad

In the midst of fourth coast-to-coast walk across Britain with dad

What if you only had one more opportunity to take a long walk with your dad and ask him those ultimate questions, the ones you wish you had asked before it was no longer possible?


Where a son takes his father for a precious ramble depends on his dad’s favored backdrop. Mine treasures sweeping fields and birdsong, and no haven for wide-open strolls matches England’s countryside. But I knew that our trekking savvy would be put to the test this time around, our fourth in Britain, because dad was more fragile than during our earlier rambles. After initially declining my suggestion for one more trek—at 79, dad didn’t want to slow me down—he thought better of it. We used this trek to discover England’s Midlands, and our shared history.


Our 10-day walk navigated the 147-mile Viking Way, a trail across Lincolnshire, which borders England’s central east coast and the North Sea. Named at the suggestion of the Ramblers Association to reflect the influence of Danish law in Britain’s eastern counties, The Viking Way met dad’s demands for mild hills, woodlands, livestock encounters, and villages of stone houses with gracious inhabitants.


Our previous experiences in the U.K. had impressed upon us the respect Britain pays to its walkers. Foot travelers rule in Britain, on ancient rights of way. Once, Madonna (locally known as “Madge”) purchased a mansion adjacent to a public footpath and then spent millions trying to block its public access to no avail. A testament to ramblers’ solidarity, the right to roam endures.


Our wanderings led us to villages forgotten by modern highways and high-speed trains. In Lincolnshire’s rolling forested wolds, the most timeless scenery on our itinerary, each village offered a weathered stone church from the 13th century, usually positioned on the settlement’s highest point and left unlocked. We stayed in homey bed and breakfasts (you must adore dogs and horses) and archetypal English inns that make New England’s historic buildings seem like new. Viking helmet signage marked the trail, and when it escaped us, the British national habit of tending gardens made getting directions easy. Birds and sheep galore provided the soundtrack.


Most English homeowners post the nicknames of their houses on a placard out front or along the driveway. Handles like Willow Croft and Lilac Cottage prompted me to ask my father, “What should we have named our house?” Dad first suggested a memoriam to our dog and cat, “Ben and Chelsea’s Pee Palace?” Then he corrected himself with a moniker honoring his three sons’ reign of mild suburban delinquency: “Wild Antelope Range.”


My father imparted my middle name, Thoreau, hoping that I’d sympathize with the philosophical naturalist. Today my standing as a professional wanderer pleases him. In high school, I had difficulty distinguishing the family station wagon from a daring off-road all-terrain vehicle. Dad frequently discovered muddy grass clumped in the wagon’s wheel wells and forbade me from borrowing it. No measure of lawn mowing, firewood chopping and stacking, or kitchen Nerf-basketball tournament victories could reverse his decrees. We were the lone residents in suburban Garden City who burned storm-toppled trees for heat and used our backyard as a hedge-to-hedge vegetable garden.


During our trek, Dad enjoyed interviewing unguarded Lincolnshire locals about birds, flowers, and heritage. These included the truck driver who rescued us when we had to hitchhike our way back onto the vanished route. Our feet held out without incident. I’m told that when my English-born great-grandfather and his son walked the south coast of England together, my great-grandfather had some trouble with his feet and poured a bit of whiskey into his boot “to make the leather more supple.”


Dad’s sporty, self-styled, extreme suburbanite hiking outfit for the ramble was an evolving mélange of trusted sweaters over button-down shirts; khaki or corduroy pants; his hiking boots plodding a confident, sturdy gait; and a game face shadowed by a traditional British flat cap or farmer’s cap, as it’s called locally. Plus, a nose devoted to smelling blossoms.


Swinging through charming Normanby le Wold, in need of directions, we encountered a woman hosing down her mastiff who demonstrated the Anglo-specific custom of agreeably ending nonquestioning sentences with either “isn’t it?” “doesn’t it?” or “wouldn’t it?”


“Well, it would be that way then, wouldn’t it?” she said.


I looked hard at Dad. He looked hard at a bird.


We used the ubiquitous medieval churches—cool and still inside, stained-glass light bleeding in, bird chorus outside—as pit stops. The All Saints Church, its 1226 character intact, sits on a hilltop overlooking Walesby and beyond. Dad decided “The Ramblers Church,” nicknamed that because it holds Sunday services and weddings for rambling enthusiasts, was an apt place to pray for the continued absence of fast-food franchises on Long Island’s North Fork, where my parents live.


Lectures on art and Long Island history aside, Dad declared another signpost of his retirement from teaching: The self-appointed status of back yard-reclining, binoculars-raking-the-sky air traffic observer. An elderly couple dining at an adjacent table pretended to not hear the conversation, but then I suggested an attempt to short circuit the often obligatory jests about anyone’s Long Island heritage by renaming it Isle de Long. The couple broke down and peered red at us. When Dad steered the chat toward our family’s established legacy of “booming,” a familial term for inspired but aimless wandering, they left.


After getting our urban fix from an Indian meal, we returned to 360-degree views of the horizon. Trotting past another screaming-yellow crop of rapeseed (harvested as cooking oil and a base for butter alternatives), Dad reminded me that “prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession … farming is.” Dad’s flora identification computer was heating up again as we crossed into a young green field of wheat. He petitioned the next three people on genus and species. Isaac Newton, a Lincolnshire native, would have been proud.
Whenever I stopped to take pictures, Dad obliged by allowing me to tilt up his farmer’s cap stylishly to allow sunshine on his face. After a fence-leaning shoot, I tried talking him into taking up modeling back in Manhattan, such as Mom did in the 1950s. He immediately focused on the dung stuck to his soles.


Walk talk stimulates recollection, anywhere. While ensuring the survival of bottomless memories, my two-week trip abroad with Dad transcended the proverbial pat on the back after watching a game together. We retuned to that global circuit of father and son connections. It was the perfect time to thank him for helping me earn my Walker Laureate.
On the path, I enjoyed the role reversal of being in charge. When we inevitably found ourselves lost in a muddy field of cows—and all of us wondering what we were doing there—I drove the boat, er, station wagon. I intentionally delayed answering his question about what sort of meat was hiding in that Indian food.


The 30 meals we shared along the route afforded me ample time to encourage Dad to recount his life story, the entire odyssey. These discussions made us realize that our greatest fortune was also our supreme bond: my mother. Rural England is a rare zone where humans have improved upon nature. Somewhere in the dream of hunting for Viking Way signposts, I discovered my best friend, the bird and jet watcher.


In the end, after hiking at least 10 miles a day, wiry Dad slept less and ate more than I did and seemed to have more energy. He also noticed every birdsong, flower, shrub, tree, gardener, and cloud. Once again, we’d simplified parent-child recreation, without props. At the Viking Way’s lakeside end, Dad unlocked from an expression recalling a medieval frieze we’d seen and raised an eyebrow to declare, “When my mother turned 100 on Long Island, she received a congratulatory telegram from the Queen.”


Pause. “But it was routed through Philadelphia?” he added.


At London’s Heathrow Airport, my dad, who loves Big Band jazz and once suggested his epitaph read simply “Clown,” let his inner actor shine by faking a docile, demented stare to secure me a standby seat to New York.


The eternal revelation surfaced mid-trek, en route to Tealby, while strolling along a green hillside as magpies chattered to each other. I finally asked, “Dad, what gives you hope?”


He paused to reflect, there in the midst of England’s secret rambling magic, changed his expression to glad, and declared, “You.”


Looks like I’ve got another shot at borrowing the station wagon.


(This story is a chapter in The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)



Why knot?

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

River Ou, Laos

River Ou, Laos

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Sink or Swim in Laos

Sink or Swim in Laos

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


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


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


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


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


“Brad, our raft is a bit of a lemon.”


Brad responded, “Your raft.”


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


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


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


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


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

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

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


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


“A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.” —Thomas Jefferson


Now that childhood seems to be officially over, only occasionally do I dare people to do things. Not the case with my eldest brother, Basil, who routinely challenges me to perform illegal tricks for his amusement. I routinely caved into his cons until I turned, well, about 35.


Our family summered in New York’s Adirondack mountains annually starting in 1967 after my father bought 16 acres of remote hillside land there for $800 from a farmer who needed that amount to buy an oil burner. That was back when achieving the American Dream was doable, even affordable.


As seasonal Adirondackians, July Fourth is my father’s favorite holiday. Although he’s still mad about being persecuted as a Walden-carrying Communist during the 1950’s McCarthy era, he remains a loyal transcendentalist. His favorite Americans, after Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, include Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Our family beheld the annual fireworks show on a hillside overlooking touristy Lake George, N.Y. Throughout the crackling airborne display, my otherwise publicly measured dad would loudly thank our founding fathers for all to hear. It embarrassed his three boys, but his glowing pride let us know this was important.


After my father’s 1972 patriotic public declaration, “Thank you, Thomas Jefferson!” my brother Basil challenged me, a fourth-grader, and brother Bryan to summit the lakeside A-frame roof of a nearby fast food restaurant. With Basil and hundreds of people watching from the fort’s hillside, Bryan and I galloped up one side and over the other side of a roof that we soon realized was made from soda-can-thin aluminum-bubble shingles that crushed audibly under the weight of our steps. For everyone crammed on the hillside, we became the show.


The audience lounging on the hillside applauded our crunchy roof summit. The ovation surged when, once back on the ground, we sprinted into the crowd hoping to disappear. Feeling safe, we then strolled calmly away from the scene of the crime until the restaurant owner grabbed me from behind, spun me on my heel, and screamed “You’re coming with me.” As he dragged me back toward his damaged snack shack, the still attentive crowd booed my capture. Basil yelled out at the top of his lungs, “Boo…Run!” (Family, old friends, and a few cousins occasionally still call me Boo.) I twisted out of the man’s grip and bolted. The onlookers, thankfully not including my parents, gave me a howling standing ovation as I sprinted toward freedom. And so the lessons on eluding authority continued. Once I caught my breath, far in the distance I heard someone yell, “Thank you, Benjamin Franklin!”

Basil and Johanna Northam enjoying mellower times in Geneva, FL (photo: Basil Northam)

Basil and Johanna Northam enjoying mellower times in Geneva, FL (photo: Basil Northam)


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

Put the currency blues on the run.

Hitchhiking across Australia—bound for AC/DC concert

Hitchhiking across Australia—bound for AC/DC concert

Before email and cell phones, letter writing was still vital, as many long-term backpackers could rarely afford to call home. Such isolation made Australian hospitality even more welcome, especially after a year in Asia without a turkey hero.


In the late 1980s, after a year-long Southeast Asian tour, a college friend and I hitchhiked 1,000 miles up Australia’s east coast to attend an AC/DC rock concert. Somewhere near Bundaberg, rides were in short supply. Our money evaporated, and we forgot that the buck is an endangered species that can’t be eaten. We stood by the road, yearning to overcome poverty’s limitations.


Across the baked intersection, a quintessential Outback man twice our age was hitching in the other direction and smoking a homemade cigarette that would get him tossed out of most U.S. establishments.


“How’s it goin’, mates?” he quizzed from across the pocked pavement, his voice rising above a soundtrack merging crickets with distant chainsaws.


“We ran out of money,” groaned my friend Pete.


The grinning Aussie rambler, a talent-at-large, notched up his tattered wide-brim hat and, unknowingly narrating timeless mythology, replied, “No worries guys, I started out with nothing and still have most of it left.”


A mirage no doubt belonging in the gallery of sainted survivors, he had a primitive affluence that reminded us that you can rise from the pits to the Ritz, in your head.


After scaring away our purse-onalities, he added, “Don’t spend time; enjoy it.”


There are a million options in the enterprise of starting from scratch.


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


“They’d raise the rent, and I couldn’t raise the money.” —Mozambique musician


“Beware of loan wolves.” —Emirati businesswoman observing an unfinished, rusting skyscraper skeleton in her neighborhood.


“The funny thing about money is that if everyone threw in their two cents about it, there’d be 15 billion cents.” —overheard in Israel’s Negev Desert