Award-winning travel journalist Bruce Northam has wandered freestyle in over 100 countries on seven continents, with experiences ranging from drifting with Burma’s sea gypsies, playing naked Frisbee with New Guinea natives, and beholding the beguiling shores of Antarctica.
With three books under his equatorial belt and a fourth on the way called “The Wisdom of Strangers”—a 108-country journey in search of unsung hero wisdom and happiness–Bruce still finds time to contribute to such venues as Forbes Traveler, Perceptive Travel, Details, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, and National Public Radio.
Meeting up in Manhattan at a South African winebar called Xai Xai, Bruce, an energetic and entertaining conversationalist, and I downed three bottles of Stellenbosch and became new best friends for one extraterrestrial night. . . .
John Edwards: Bruce, how was your recent trip to Vietnam? What all did you do? What was the travel vibe like?
Bruce Northam: Southeast Asia is my first faraway love. After covering a travel conference for a trade magazine–and staying in fancy hotels—I got back to basics, stayed in a dive, hung with local expats, and explored the countryside and the coast. Vietnam differs from nearby Laos and Cambodia where there’s a Buddhist vibe. I’m not a Buddhist, but I love Buddhist countries because of their food, tolerance, geography and affordability–that seems to be a consistent theme in those countries.
Whereas, Vietnam is more like industrious China–go go go–Me = Now. Sort of like New York City, but everyone zips around on mopeds instead of in taxis or in subways. The only drawback for me in Hanoi and Saigon is the horn-honking nightmare–oh, and almost getting whacked by spastic, no-look moped pilots.
John Edwards: How did you get into travel writing in the first place? Is there any one author or book, or experiential epiphany, which set off your perpetual motion? Who are some of your favorite travel writers?
Bruce Northam: I had already traveled far and wide by the time I was in my late 20s, and I wanted to break into the speaking business. Every successful speaker I knew told me to write a book first, then you’ll get gigs. So I turned my seminar outline into a book called The Frugal Globetrotter, and that enabled me to go out and corrupt young minds on campuses nationwide. Tim Cahill and Bill Bryson are my favorite roving writers–equally funny, but different.
John Edwards: Was it difficult getting your books–The Frugal Globetrotter, In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology, and Globetrotter Dogma published? They say you need an “agent,” but they are difficult to find. Any advice?
Bruce Northam: I got The Frugal Globetrotter published by cold-calling 300 publishers in the summer of 1993. No agent, just sweat. This was pre-email, so it was all about letters and phone calls. I don’t miss licking envelopes.
I had an agent for Globetrotter Dogma, which sounds fancy . . . but it didn’t mean that I could then go out and buy a few houses.
I recommend turning your book idea into a 2,000-word story that gets published somewhere–then that is the root of your book proposal to show agents.
John Edwards: What are your three favorite countries, and why?
Bruce Northam: For visuals, Antarctica–stadium-sized icebergs that shimmer between aquamarine and psychedelic blue, kayaking next to whales that roll by and look at you, and, of course, the affable penguins.
For culture, Southeast Asia–incredible nature, quietude, or party-off-the-hook city life. Whatever you want. You can eat all day and not get fat, and (legitimate) massages are a bargain.
For entertainment, Manhattan, New York, USA, which I consider to be its own country. I don’t go out on weekends when I’m home, but there is great everything, music, food, whatever, from Sunday through Wednesday.
John Edwards: What are your three least-favorite countries, and why?
Bruce Northam: Aruba: I don’t go to Hooters, Outback Steakhouse, or McDonald’s when I’m home in the U.S., so why in God’s name would I go to one of those joints when I’m supposedly traveling.
France: Yes, beautiful women, wine, countryside, whatever–if you don’t speak French, though, you’re toast. Most of the time, I find French men extremely annoying. No further comment.
Open: Anywhere native English speakers say things like “Where’s Tom at?” rather than “Where is Tom?” . . . just a pet peeve. I’m not Mr. Grammar, but I think it’s important to honor a few easy rules.
John Edwards: So what is your upcoming book, The Wisdom of Strangers, about?
Bruce Northam: I had to put that down for a bit with the economic hell we’re in right now–my agent pitched a different version of this book idea around but nothing happened. Example: today I got the word that Best Life Magazine folded. My Arctic Northwest Passage story was supposed to run soon. I’m taking a break from worrying about the freelancer’s toil for now. Taking a break from a life of taking a break, I guess. To stay current, I’ve created a web video series called “American Detour.” Tunisia is finished (AmericanDetour.com). I just returned from frozen Burlington, Vermont, to cover the Magic Hat (beer) Mardi Gras. Next up for the travel show series is Honduras.
John Edwards: There’s an underlying philosophic edge to your stories. Do you think with so many boho backpacker boomtowns worldwide that modern travel writing is veering more towards narrative essay or practical advice?
Bruce Northam: There’s enough practical advice out there. How many self-help books can you read before you smile on your own? I think it’s all about entertaining while informing. I think perceptivetravel.com is the best zone for modern narrative essays about travel.
John Edwards: What is your travel mantra?
Bruce Northam: On any journey, the first thing you pack is yourself.
John Edwards:What are you excited about these days?
Bruce Northam: Along with my American Detour travel show series, I enjoy being a street anthropologist . . . . Hey, that might be the title of my next book? I’m also preparing a book on “Happiness” on the road, but I don’t want to advertise it until it comes out—whoops, I guess I just did.
John Edwards: Where are you off to next?
Bruce Northam: I already told you: Honduras!
John Edwards: Fantastico. Muy bien. I had a great time on the Honduran island of Roatan, where you can snorkel on the Belize Barrier Reef only 100 meters from shore. Didn’t make it to the ancient mainland ruins of Copan, though. But I’m sure you will. Bring me back an awe-inspiring hand-rolled stogie.
Bruce Northam: Okay.
NOTE: Since this interview, Bruce has been to the Azores, Ethiopia, Ireland, and a bunch of other places, but still he itches for his next journey and the launch of his latest book coming soon to bookstores near you, “The Secret of Happiness.”