“Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia — and possibly Montengero and Albania.” That was the answer that Bruce Northam gave when I asked him where he was going next. And that answer only covered July.
Northam has spent many years as a travel writer, and now, in addition to his writing work, hosts the travel video series American Detour.com. He’s the author of Globetrotter Dogma (New World Library, 2002), and has contributed to National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times, Newsday and many others. For the June 2010 issue of Perceptive Travel, he wrote Ethiopia: Birthplace of a Traveler — and Then Some.
Alison Stein Wellner: What made you decide to go to Ethiopia?
Bruce Northam: I was shooting episodes of American Detour, and our sponsor set it up. But Ethiopia was totally mind blowing. I had no idea how blown away I was going to be.
I’ve had my mind blown a lot, in traveling to about 120 countries. Visually, the most incredible thing I’d ever seen was Antarctica — it was mind-blowingly beautiful, rugged and alive for only a few months a year. People-wise, I went to China in ’87 and it was truly like being an alien over there. Nothing had really topped India for me, that was like holy cow am I on drugs or am I really seeing what I’m seeing right now, such extremes of poverty and everything.
Ethiopia got me tripping again like that. I’ve been to other parts of Africa before. In the southern part, it’s more about the animals — and yes, seeing lions and giraffes is mind-blowing, but people-wise, the religious dedication there in Ethiopia… I’ve been in Jerusalem, that’s mind-blowing, but it’s even more mind-blowing in Ethiopia. The history goes so deep, it’s like being in the Jesus era. I did not expect that.
“Even atheists will be astounded by the sacred, musical dedication here—an epoch soundtrack loop fills the air in every church. In Aksum’s enormous yet intimate St. Marry Church, men and women clad from head to toe in white shawls sang “The Promise” while bowing repetitively in the glimmer from epic stained glass.” — From Birthplace of a Traveler
ASW: What did you expect that Ethiopia would be like, before you went?
BN: I expected all that comes with most of Africa, poverty balanced by kind, smiling people who take nothing for granted… I just didn’t expect it, in certain areas, to be in such a surreal 1AD setting.
ASW: And when did you start writing on Birthplace of a Traveler?
BN: On that trip, I was with laptop, so each night I was putting in notes, I was taking notes.
Every trip I take in the last twenty years, I take fewer pictures and fewer notes. I’ve gotten better at writing down trigger words, instead of just a lot of blah blah blah blah.
I wrote half the story on the road, and the other half when I came back to New York. I roughed it in, and when I got home, I polished. And that’s typical.
ASW: Did you look at the video footage that you shot when you were writing this piece?
BN: I sometimes do, but in this case, no.
ASW: And where do you write, when you’re at home?
BN: I write in my living room, in front of a large window that overlooks Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the whole span of the Williamsburg Bridge and the turn of the East River.
ASW: You’ve worked for so many years in print, how is it different working for video?
BN: I’ve been going on travel writing assignments for twenty years, and that’s easy for me, but going with a camera man, strategizing about the shots, producing, doing stand-ups and then coming back and writing the story and the voice over? It’s much harder and it’s also more fun. I’m conditioned to being alone a lot out there, but working for the camera, for a visual medium — it has enlivened my writing.