By Bruce Northam

Posts tagged “The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons


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)



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


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)


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



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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


Chen translated my questions.


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


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


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


“Why are people hurtful?” I asked.


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


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


“Why do we quarrel?” I asked.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞


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


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