That travel can be a life-changing experience is no revelation, but as Bruce Northam eloquently proves in his newly released "The Directions To Happiness--A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons," sometimes travel epiphanies can sneak up and bite you in the ass. And the closer you are to the people of your destination, the more likely are those discoveries to land in your lap. "As opposed to traveling as a tourist, I propose traveling as a poorest," he writes at one point. And it is indeed that low-impact style that leads the author to so many simple-but-true learnings.
In Peru, he finds that the best way to keep a secret is not to have one. A Bermudian bus driver advises how to keep a marriage fresh: "Keep putting' honey on it, to keep it sweet, or you'll be in trouble." In Taiwan, the take-away is that anger is contagious, so "don't get infected." And in Sweden, "Don't hook your fate to someone else's drab drama."
What saves "Directions" from veering into mawkishness is Northam's consistently charming writing style, his "what the hell am I doing here" attitude, and an earnestness that runs a fine line between naiveté and self-awareness. By the end of the book, you like the author, you believe him, and you've had a fun ride--because this is no namby-pamby travelogue. Northam finds himself second-guessing his decision to go to survivalist camp in Utah. He's seriously afraid that the Filipino mountaineer he meets in the backwoods wants to slice him with a machete and steal his backpack, when in reality he really only wants to give the author a mullet. Make no mistake, despite its engaging and easy-going narratives, "Directions" is full of the sort of adventure most of us only dream of.
My own travel-related life lessons, in comparison, seem almost trivial. After being chased by a gang of vengeance-seeking shopkeepers through the dark streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka, after accidentally under-paying a store clerk for a pack of cigarettes, I learned that I should stop smoking. From a lorry driver in Spain, while hitchhiking as a college student, I learned that a man doesn't need a beautiful wife, only one who sings well. Or so I was told. In Korea, after ordering shrimp scampi and finding that the shrimp hadn't been shelled, I learned that you shouldn't order shrimp scampi in Korea. Duh.
But whether the lessons we learn through travel are profound or merely amusing, those in "The Directions to Happiness" all go to show that travel can lead to much more than mere excitement, sensory stimulation, and the satiation of curiosity. It can also be a path to enlightenment.