By Bruce Northam

Posts tagged “travel writing


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)


(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)


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



Bruce Northam


Live Loving

Die Dreaming

—Epitaph in an Ecuadorian cemetery

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