FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1) “Why do you like traveling alone to dangerous or uncomfortable places?”
Interestingly, many of the places that people consider “dangerous,” I don’t. For example, it wouldn’t concern me to jump on a plane to some country in West Africa first thing tomorrow. I’ve never felt a need to have a traveling companion or some kind of male protector going with me. I generally prefer to travel alone, finding it more liberating. Also, there are many places in the U.S. that are much more dangerous than the places I’ve visited in the world. It’s all a matter of perspective. I think people have a kind of internal fear meter, and mine is on the low end when it comes to traveling.
I don’t do any of my trips because I’m an “adrenaline junkie.” I’m not into white-water rafting on class five rivers. I don’t even rock climb. I’ve known many people who have died from such sports, and I tend to consider those sorts of activities “dangerous” or “foolhardy.”
As far as truly, undeniably dangerous countries go—places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, which is in the middle of a brutal civil war—I’ve gone to such places in order to report on what was happening there. I was willing to risk my life to bring back the story. In other instances, I’ve found myself caught in situations that were out of my control, such as coup attempts. I don’t seek out danger, and I take many precautions to avoid it. But in some places in the world, the risk is just going to be there. That’s the way it is.
As far as the “uncomfortable” places go, there is something to be said for the challenge of going where most people don’t want to travel. I find that such unfamiliar places fuel my imagination. I love encountering rich cultures and traditions. I also like the fact that it’s harder to get around. You have to have your wits about you. You have to rough it. Challenges build character like nothing else. They teach you about yourself and others; they give you a deeper perspective on life. (And of course they make for great writing material!)
2)“How’d you get started with adventure travel and magazine writing?”
When I was 19 and studying abroad in Holland, I got a Eurail pass and traveled all over Europe by myself. That was when I realized how exciting travel was and how much I loved it. I was completely hooked. I worked in a crouton factory to save up money, then I backpacked alone around eastern and central Africa and Madagascar when I was 20.
My trip to Africa had been tough, but incredible. It was the most empowering thing I’d ever done. I think many young women may experience the same thing I did before I went on that trip: underestimating their true potential, undervaluing their worth. By traveling around Africa, I uncovered parts of myself that I didn’t know were there. Feeling self-confidence for the first time, I vowed to go on another trip. I went back to the factory, saved up more money, and then backpacked alone across Papua New Guinea. That trip is recounted in my first book, Four Corners: One Woman’s Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea. A copy of the book ended up on the desk of the editor-at-large of National Geographic Adventure magazine, and he called me to ask if I would write for the magazine. That was how I broke into freelance magazine writing and journalism. At that time I already had extensive experience writing fiction and nonfiction, so it was a natural transition for me. (I got my MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and my Ph.D. in English/ Literature & Writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia.)
3) “Are you scared or challenged as a woman traveling alone? How do you protect yourself?”
I get asked this question all the time. In all honesty, there have been situations which were exacerbated by the fact that I was a lone woman. For example, I’ve had to face harassment because of my gender. I find that having a good sense of humor is important in such cases. I don’t take the harassment personally; I find it intriguing; I laugh at it. Harassers don’t like being laughed at—you’re supposed to be scared and intimidated by them. On the other hand, there have been situations where my being a lone woman helped make things easier. In some cultures, men have gone out of their way to assist me, believing that I needed more help because of my gender. In many male-dominated societies around the world, men just don’t take women very seriously—which I’ve always used to my advantage. For example, while reporting I’ve managed to get into places that should have been off-limits to me. So I don’t see my gender as a limitation in any way.
But yes, women do have to be careful about assault or rape. Still, I don’t buy the idea that women are intrinsically more vulnerable than men. That notion has held women back for centuries. Male travelers have been victims of violent crime as much as women, if not more so. No matter what your gender, you need to take precautions and act from a place of self-confidence. Each year in the U.S. 40,000 people die in car accidents. Does that mean you shouldn’t drive anywhere? No. But you can play it safe. You wear your seatbelt, right? You drive carefully. You watch where you’re going. It’s the same thing with women traveling abroad. Women can most certainly travel, they just need to take basic precautions. In my case, I know martial arts and kickboxing. I keep myself physically strong. I feel confident that I could at least defend myself if I needed to. It might be worthwhile for women to acquire self-defense skills, to empower themselves physically as well as mentally.
Regardless of what you do, it’s all comes down to challenging that “women are fragile” myth. The less you believe it, the more empowered you’ll become and the more you’ll be able to accomplish as a woman. Life, itself, is a risk. We never know what’s going to happen to us. But the point is not to let fear dominate our lives and hold us back.
4) “How do people respond to you as a woman traveling alone?”
It really depends on where I go. When I kayaked alone 600 miles to Timbuktu, in Mali, most of the men were shocked to see me. Women don’t paddle there—it’s the man’s job—so I was defying a major social custom. And of course I wasn’t accompanied by a man, which was even more shocking. Still, invariably, the women in the villages I passed would line up onshore to yell “femme forte”—“strong woman”—and cheer me on. That was great.
In Papua New Guinea, it was a different matter. In remote regions of the country, most tribal people believe that women possess harmful energy that can “poison” or hex men. Hunters actually blamed me for chasing prey away with my “poisonous” female presence. There were also villages that had never seen a white woman before, and the children ran off in terror, thinking I was some kind of witch.
5) “How do you cope with the violence or atrocities you’ve seen during your travels and reporting?”
I don’t know that you ever “cope” with it. And you certainly don’t forget it. But when I was covering the war and genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire), for example, I found that my emotions automatically turned off. Day after day, I saw all manner of barbarism—people with their limbs chopped off, babies shot, etc.—and my emotions just shut down. It took several weeks for them to turn on again, once I got back to the States. I was later diagnosed with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) and it took me about two years to fully process what I saw.
In my business, which is very male-dominated, you’re taught to have a “stiff upper lip” and not allow yourself to be affected by violence or tragedy while doing reporting. Yet, I discovered that such a stoic response only aggravated the situation for me. I needed to feel the suffering of the people I’d met. I needed to grieve. The only way I got through the PTSD was by, literally, grieving for the suffering I’d seen in the world, for humanity itself.
6) “You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction books. How is fiction writing different from nonfiction?”
I see the processes as being significantly different. Fiction writing feels much more intricate. I liken it to the process of weaving a very ornate tapestry. In fiction, everything is there for a critical thematic reason; nothing should ever be arbitrary. The characters, plot, point of view, setting—everything must interconnect on multiple levels. It is an enormously labor-intensive process.
Nonfiction writing—and I now refer to first-person essays, memoir, and reportage—is also a very intricate process. Yet, it’s wedded to true experience, which changes the whole dynamic of the work. The writer becomes the protagonist (or, at least, s/he is a strong presence in the piece). Obviously, if you’re writing about an experience that actually happened, the creative restrictions are going to be greater. You don’t have the imaginative leeway of fiction. Some people like this because they don’t have to figure out a plot; their life is the plot. In that sense, it can be argued that nonfiction is easier to write. Regardless, nonfiction is much less private than fiction; you’re putting yourself out there before the entire world. That requires some tough skin. Ironically, I find that I can reveal more of my true self in fiction because I can “hide” behind the personas of my characters.
7) “How autobiographical is your novel The White Mary? Where did your characters come from?”
A great deal of my novel is based on actual experience. The book is about a woman war reporter, Marika Vecera, who travels through the jungles of Papua New Guinea in search of Robert Lewis, a famous American journalist who allegedly committed suicide. In many ways, Marika’s experience parallels my own. I also reported on the war in Congo; many of the novel’s Congo scenes happened to me exactly as written. Also, I spent months crossing Papua New Guinea, and Marika’s jungle adventures were based on my own real-life experiences in that country (my crossing was the subject of my first nonfiction book, Four Corners). Like Marika, I nearly died from malaria, had unpleasant bouts with dysentery, etc.
Still, Marika Vecera is fictional. She has her own issues and failings; she undergoes many experiences that never actually happened to me. Seb is meant to represent someone who has risen above the darkness and limitations in his life to become unconditionally loving and spiritually evolved (yes, such folks do exist!; it’s been pointed out that he has a lot in common with my husband). My Robert Lewis character is meant to be Seb’s foil—the man who succumbs to his darkness and despair. He isn’t actually based on any person I know. Lewis popped into my head after I spent time with some refugees in Papua New Guinea; he was a response to the feelings of despair and helplessness I felt before the suffering I’d seen.
8) “Why did you choose Papua New Guinea as the setting for your novel?”
Papua New Guinea is a wonderfully unique place. It has over 700 distinct tribes and an amazingly rich tribal culture. Unlike in West Papua (the Indonesian side of the island of New Guinea), the jungles haven’t been seriously deforested and the indigenous people aren’t being forcibly removed or killed. Most of PNG is still very pristine and there’s little infrastructure. To this day, there are no roads crossing the country. Large areas can only be accessed by chopping through the jungle or by taking a dugout canoe up the rivers. I found this sort of setting both important and appealing for my novel. I wanted my characters to explore one of Earth’s last untouched places.
© 2008 Kira Salak, KiraSalak.com--all rights of reproduction in any form reserved