Kira Salak

The remarkable Kira Salak has been a solo writer/adventurer in Third World countries since she was 20 years old.

Now 36, she is erudite about the problems of such Third World countries as Madagascar, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and Borneo. She was the first person to kayak solo 600 miles down West Africa's Niger River to Timbuktu in Mali — and she was the first woman to cross the treacherous Papua New Guinea.

In 2003, she cycled 800 miles across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean, and in 2007, she was one of a few people in the world to complete Bhutan's 216-mile Snowman Trek, the most difficult trek in the Himalayas.

Now she is also a fiction writer, having written the exciting novel, "The White Mary," about a woman named Marika Vecera, who does the same sort of thing that Salak does but is in a romantic relationship with Seb, a psychologist who desperately wants her to stay home and give up her dangerous profession. Nevertheless, she continues to travel and risk her life for months at a time while Seb is sick with worry at home in Boston.

Although the parallels between Salak and her character are profound, Salak insists that Marika is first and foremost a fictional character. "I was not trying to re-create myself," said Salak during a phone interview from the Grand Hotel Minneapolis during her book tour — although she conceded that the majority of Marika's experiences were also her own, including suffering severely with malaria and cholera, being beaten, suffering through jungle travel, almost being raped and witnessing torture.

"We both did dangerous solo trips that most people would not get themselves into. I've gone to most parts of the world, usually alone, and I take my own photos," said Salak. "Much of my life went straight into the novel."

Salak said that her lack of self-esteem as a young girl helped lead her to seek adventure. "Traveling solo made me feel empowered. I discovered parts of me I didn't know were there. I discovered my strength. The harder the trip, the better. I got hooked on facing my fears."

But her motivation has changed over the years. She has gone from a young woman testing herself to a magazine writer "with a desire to explore parts of the world most people are not willing to see and report on human suffering. I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I don't do white water rafting in classified countries."

She has realized that she wanted to bring the realization of wars and human suffering in so many places to the minds of her readers. While traveling she has always kept a copious journal, which helped her write her novel. "I remember things very well," she said, "but I don't think I have a photographic memory. When I wrote fiction, I wanted it to be as personal as possible, to weave it into the fiction. My Marika character has to pull herself out of darkness and despair."

Not unlike Salak herself, who suffered from Post Traumatic Syndrome when she returned from the Eastern Congo, where she witnessed genocide, "the worst that human beings can do to each other." She experienced a "helplessness" that took her two years to work through. "I needed to grieve for the people I saw and for humanity itself. The way through it was to look straight at it, to cry and grieve. It took introspection."

Salak also suffered depression as a child, and in fact wrote her first fiction when she was 6 years old. "Nothing helped me with depression — not talk therapy, not anti-depressants." Then, while doing a magazine story in Peru, she discovered Shamanic medicine and after three treatments awoke free of depression.

"It's been over five years now," said Salak, "and it has not returned. I wrote an article for the National Geographic Adventure Magazine, telling how even such physical ailments as migraine "vanished" when she drank ayahuasca, "a tincture made from jungle plants that are boiled. It was a visceral experience. It entered my conscious mind and it was not just me but many people who read my article and went to Peru and tried the same thing. It's a miracle substance for depression, addiction and anxiety," said Salak.

Although Salak began as more of an adventurer, her interest has become empathy for the suffering of human beings in many places in the world. That started when her own brother was killed in Africa. "A lot of people don't like to hear about tragedy," said Salak. "I think that reduces our abilities to empathize and relate to all human beings."

The writers Salak most admires are William Styron, a legendary American novelist, and Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish war correspondent, who wrote "Another Day of Life." She considers him to be "a spectacular writer."

It took Salak at least a decade to find her own voice, but she is comfortable writing about her experiences now, and especially she loved the process of writing her novel. While finishing her doctorate in English at the University of Missouri, she was living in a basement apartment in Columbia. Salak took a year and a half to write "The White Mary."

She set a rigorous schedule for herself, writing most of every day, including holidays and weekends. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but when I started to write it just came flowing out of me. I was obsessed with it. Luckily, I didn't have a boyfriend at the time."

Currently, she is writing her second novel, but she plans to continue her dangerous travel and magazine writing about the countries where people continue to suffer so deeply. She can't imagine giving up traveling completely — but her new boyfriend might feel differently.

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