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Dispatches : Exploration

Handing Things Down, the Yanomami Way

My husband, Peter, opened his eyes. An old man stared down at him.

Oi,” Peter said in Portuguese. The man’s face crinkled into a delighted smile.

The man had the textbook Yanomami haircut—short bangs cut straight across, black hair neatly sculpted around the ears.


When planning this trip to the Amazon, where we were staying in an open-sided, thatched pavillion, Peter, our kids, and I had had a meeting. We discussed what each of us was hoping for. Peter was clear. He wanted to find the Yanomami. He had majored in anthropology in college and one of the classes that stuck with him, 40 years later, was the one about this tribe. It had stunned the world that there existed a people living totally detached from modern life as late as the 1960s, when these people, upriver in the Amazon, came into the public eye. Peter had read a book he still remembered, by a French anthropologist, titled The Yanomamo: The Fierce People, which described the ritualized violence they used to settle disputes.

“In my youth, it was a benchmark tribe for exoticism,” he’d told me.

“Do you think they have blow guns?” our son, Skyler, had asked.

“Do you think we could really stay in a village?" our daughter, Molly, wanted to know.

I was eager for the kids to see a way of life that was really different from ours in the U.S. It seemed the Yanomami would offer that. I had to sheepishly admit we really just wanted to watch them. But so far they were mostly watching us.

Far from fierce, this man curiously staring at Peter looked gentle, kindly, old. 

The day before, we'd left the town of São Gabriel da Cachoeira with Valdi, our hired guide. After two hours sucking our way through orange gumbo in a claptrap truck, we'd arrived at a clearing in the jungle. Waiting there in a tiny slough, was a 30-foot-long, motorized, aluminum canoe. It was getting dark. For the next eight hours, we wound through ever-braiding, ever-narrowing waterways between walls of impenetrable blackness. The kids finally fell asleep on the bottom of the boat, squeezed between the barrels, 1,040 pounds of oil and gas, our payment for being let into these Yanomamis' lives. We finally arrived in this man's village of wattle and daub huts perched high on a ridge, at 3 in the morning.

We were not exactly being held prisoner, but it was clear that we were not free to leave our “hotel." The tribe was being careful. On their first contact with outsiders, many had died from imported diseases.

Our lodgings consisted of an octagonal concrete pad, a thatch roof, a central pole and eight posts around its circumference. We lounged in our hammocks, awaiting further notice, wondering about things like where to go to the bathroom. It felt as though we were floating in an eddy, that currentless pool at the sides of a river where fish wait and watch for passing food. We were waiting for things, people, to drift by, and they did; they were coming to look at us, the animals in the zoo.


The rest of the day passed in suspended animation. The old man, as well as the chief of the neighboring village, a woman with a baby, a woman selling baskets—all drifted into our eddy. Eventually, we were summoned to lunch with Julio, the head of the village and Adelidegee, his wife. She'd grown up traveling with a German missionary—cooking his food, washing his clothes—so knew how to prepare meat the way white folks like it and had cooked what we'd brought. We sat in their outdoor kitchen, on plastic stools at a long, green-painted table.

The floor was concrete, the roof corrugated tin. Adelidegee washed dishes with funneled rainwater. Then there was the washing machine. I had another one of those double-take moments, as when I had learned their son Berto was studying to be a dentist back in São Gabriel, 10 hours away. Their grandkids tumbled underfoot with a gaggle of ducklings. Their daughter-in-law, an almond-eyed beauty, flitted around the edges. It was homey. We sat. They sat. We were all trying to feel our way through this. Why were we there? 

The next day Julio showed up at our eddy pond with a teacher of indigenous arts from the neighboring village. We'd been trying to figure out how to connect and had asked about crafts.

“Marcelino can teach your son to make an arrow,” Julio said in Portuguese, "and his daughter can teach your daughter to weave baskets."

We jumped up.



We sat back down.

Eventually the moment came. As we wound down the ridge on a narrow path, a man and his two daughters caught up and followed us. A hundred-foot-wide river separated the two villages. We arrived at its bank. On our side, there was no boat. In seconds, the daughters enthusiastically jumped in, swam across and dragged back a large aluminum canoe. It had, however, no motor and no paddles. Valdi was shaking his head.

“How we goin’ to cross?”

The man waved at us to get in. Climbing in last, he dangled his legs into the water where the motor would be and started to kick. Valdi’s eyes sparkled.

“An Indian motor,” he laughed, proudly I thought.

We climbed the opposite bank and followed the path into Marcelino's village, a collection of mud and thatch huts around a packed-dirt opening hacked out of the jungle. It was baking in the midday sun. Marcelino was lounging in the shade under a shed roof with his daughter and a clot of milling kids. He had the same gentle, kindly smile. Hanging on his bare, mahogany chest was a sky blue, beaded square in geometric designs.

“You want to make an arrow?” he asked Skyler in Portuguese.

"Sim," Skyler responded.


Marcelino proceeded to walk Skyler through the meticulous steps: First, he chose the right wood for each of the arrow’s three parts—the tip, the shaft, the tail; then he inserted one into the other, wrapping the joint with string dredged in glue made of tree sap and beeswax. And so it went, both quietly concentrating; Marcelino putting an arm around Skyler’s shoulders to show him how to hold a knife or wrap the hard shaft of a Curacao feather; Skyler intently hunched over the arrow, oblivious to the naked boy at his shoulder, clutching a tattered kitten to his bare belly. I could see Skyler's interest was sparked; perhaps he subconsciously understood the significance of such a moment, of learning to make something that would enable him to provide food; that this was one of the skills, one of those markers, needed to move into manhood. Markers we seem to have fewer and fewer of in the States.

Marcelino’s daughter, seated with Molly under the same shed roof, might have been in her 30s and had the same worn look I’ve seen on working mothers in the U.S. She showed Molly how to build up the side of a basket, sewing together the coiled fibers. Marcelino’s daughter spoke with that slow, cotton-headed sound of a person with a cold. A runny-nosed toddler clung to one of her knees. She looked less enthused to be “engaging” with the visitors. The number of curious kids leaning against the shed’s poles and squatting in the dirt grew. Who were these blonde kids? Why were they trying to make arrows and weave baskets?

It made me wonder what we pass down to our kids. In our circles at home, we don’t pass down this kind of hands-on skill so much as we pass down ideas: ways of approaching the world, of handling problems, of dealing with people. Peter and I were trying to hand down experience, global experience, from our childhoods to theirs; hand down the idea that there are lots of ways to live and one is not inherently superior to another. We were trying to hand down our curiosity, our enthusiasm for trying different things. At the moment it seemed to be working.


When we left Julio's village three days later, we left our UNO cards with a child who lived in the hut next to our hammock pad. We left our blankets with Adelidegee and I gave my rubber boots to her son. I realized it was impossible for us to visit such a place and leave no trace. Even if we’d left nothing, the picture of us in our yellow rubber boots and zip-off pants, reading paperbacks and toting high-tech backpacks would still be there, along, perhaps, with a new germ of desire, and then maybe discontent. Or perhaps I flatter myself. Nevertheless, I felt guilty, greedy, for buying my way in to look at these people.

On the other hand, the gate had already been opened. The signs were everywhere: in the bras and T-shirts; in the new form of Mandioca root, introduced by missionaries; in the TV and the telephone, the generator that brought recorded music and movies, the washing machine and tether ball poles in front of every home. Some were probably improvements, others not. But who defines an "improvement?"

I was glad that the Yanomami were able to exert some control over who gets in and at what price. I thought it was probably important for both sides that Molly and Skyler should continue on in the world, knowing there were people like this living so differently; important that our kids should get a taste of what skill and knowledge these people have; important that they learn that these people don’t always need help, at least not ours, and if they do, to listen carefully and respect what they’re asking for.

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Summer Reading with a Vengeance

Family legacies are hell to outrun, especially when violence is entwined in the ancestral DNA. This month a new batch of novels offer modern twists on the ancient themes of family, duty, revenge, and justice. The most anticipated is Peter Heller’s The Painter (Knopf, $25), the Outside contributing editor’s follow-up to his bestselling The Dog Stars. Jim Stegner, the title character, is a forty-something artist struggling to remake his life in the Colorado backcountry following the death of his teenage daughter.

Trouble finds him in the person of Dellwood Siminoe, a hunter who’s mean as a sack of razors. Conflict ensues, and Stegner soon finds himself with the added burdens of both the law and Siminoe’s vengeful kin, who have a habit of showing up drunk, angry, and armed at Stegner’s favorite fishing holes. The Painter isn’t the postapocalyptic revelation that The Dog Stars was, but Heller creates in Stegner a more flawed, reflective, and fully realized protagonist than the pining loner at the center of his first novel.

A son’s duty to his father forms the backbone of Louis Bayard’s novel Roosevelt’s Beast (Holt, $27), a fictional play on Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 expedition down Brazil’s River of Doubt. This isn’t a full record of that journey (for that, see Candice Millard’s classic The River of Doubt) but a fanciful what-if that imagines T.R. and his son Kermit captured by the Cinta Larga, a real-life tribe that shadowed the expedition as it floated the river.

Bayard, bestselling author of historical thrillers like The School of Night and The Pale Blue Eye, hangs the novel on Kermit’s battle to become something more than his father’s valet, an elusive goal for a son who lacks Teddy’s tallyho bluster. “Of all the Roosevelt children,” Bayard writes, “he was the least likely to force himself on the world’s attention.” Beast tends to run a little too J.J. Abrams–ish for my taste, what with all the strange killings in the jungle. “We are in a strange land, Kermit,” says the old man. “Should we not be braced for strange outcomes?” But Bayard offers his readers a fun ride right to the end.

There’s no escaping family, duty, or violence when you’re a member of the Kings clan of Loosewood Island, the lobstering dynasty at the center of Alexi Zentner’s gripping second novel, The Lobster Kings (Norton, $27). The Kings have been pulling bugs out of the water around Loosewood since the 1720s, and they’ve always policed the grounds on their own. When young tweakers from the next town over start poaching their prey, Cordelia and her father, local big man Woody, must battle for Loosewood and their livelihood.

The struggle continues even as the family business comes under fire, with Cordelia rising as Woody’s power declines. By laying Shakespearean themes over the culturally rich New England lobster grounds, Zentner, a former newspaperman and climber, produces a deeply satisfying novel that reveals what is required by and given to those who inherit a family’s legacy.

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The Road Less Sprinted: The Rise of Fastest Known Time

A growing number of trail runners are finding a new way to test themselves, and it doesn’t involve race fees, bibs, or finish line chutes.

Instead, they’re enlisting their own stopwatch, navigational prowess, and determination to set trail Fastest Known Times, or FKTs. They pick a route, decide whether they’ll receive any outside help in the form of food or aid along the way, and try to cover the distance as fast as possible.

“FKTs allow for a lot more individual creativity than official races,” said ultrarunner Anton Krupicka.

In recent years, the FKT phenomenon has become increasingly visible. A web site—Fastest Known Time—now exists dedicated to record keeping, enabling runners to look up existing records and post their own. The site has several hundred threads dedicated to FKT attempts.

“I think there has been an increased interest in FKTs,” said Peter Bakwin, who runs the Fastest Known Time site. “There are a lot of really cool areas that will never have races on them. Wherever you live, you can find a route.” 

Some of the recent attention to FKTs emerged because elite trail runners have tackled major efforts. Whereas elites used to prioritize races over FKTs, Bakwin said, some are now making speed attempts the centerpiece of their season, due to both personal preference and growing support from the companies that back them. 

Kilian Jornet, a Spanish mountaineer and ultrarunner who many consider the best in the sport, has built his career around setting speed records on mountain routes. 

Sponsors, in turn, have followed suit in embracing FKT efforts. The North Face sponsored Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe when they set a speed record on the John Muir Trail last year. Rob Krar, who set the record last year on the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim route, believes his effort on the iconic route—along with a couple of top race performances—helped land him a sponsorship with The North Face.

Public awareness of trail speed attempts has increased as sponsors produce videos and blogs highlighting FKT records. Jornet’s sponsor, Salomon, helps create online videos about his efforts, leading to global recognition of Jornet’s pursuits. New Balance sent a film crew to Colorado last summer to track Anton Krupicka’s attempt to set a speed record on a route up and over a series of 14,000-foot peaks. And Patagonia made web video of the record-setting-run Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson set on the Trans-Zion trail. Moehl, who also set the women’s speed record on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail last year with Darcy Africa, said Patagonia prefers that she attempt FKTs and trail adventures rather than just stick to traditional races.

“Patagonia likes the storyline that goes along with it,” Moehl said.

Both elite and amateur runners who attempt FKTs say they’re drawn to the grassroots element of the endeavor. Rather than traipsing through the woods with hundreds of other race competitors, they’re on their own in nature. For trail running enthusiasts, that’s often what drew them to the sport in the first place.

“For me, it’s returning to the roots of why I love mountain running,” Wolfe said. “The joy and freedom of moving through the mountains in a minimalist style.” 

FKTs also enable runners to tackle routes in which races will never take place. Permits will likely never be issued for races in wilderness areas or National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim trail, or Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. 

With speed efforts, runners can pick their run day based on personal health, fitness, weather, or convenience, and not have to worry about a designated race day. FKTs also provide a compelling challenge for athletes who want their adventure to include navigation and strategic planning

“Races are an adventure, but one where you can blow up and get a car ride back home,” said Matt Hart, who set the Zion Traverse record in 2010 and tries to go after a new FKT each year. “There is more adventure, more risk in trying for a FKT. You have to estimate your abilities and go for it.”

But even the most ardent supporters of FKTs acknowledge that there can be downsides. Some runners simply prefer the support and comfort of directional race flagging and aid stations, and don’t want to navigate a wilderness area on their own. Krar said that some athletes might end up in trouble because they chose a route above their ability level.

Criticism also can arise if too many runners are attempting to cover a trail as fast as possible on their own terms. Bakwin and Krar noted problems with large volumes of runners in the Grand Canyon trails in recent years. The runners can overwhelm toilet facilities at the bottom of the canyon and sometimes blow past mule trains and walkers. Of course, very few of these runners are actually attempting FKTs, but observers can easily lump solo or two-person competitive runners into the category as huge groups of runners.

“I’ve heard a lot of reports of runners not obeying common courtesy because they’re on the clock,” Bakwin said. 

For these runners, time—and making records of it—means everything. The history of FKTs likely dates way back, but long-term record keeping is tough to uncover. That’s why Bakwin started the Fastest Known Time web site roughly 10 years ago. He and friend Buzz Burrell made sure to dub the records on the site Fastest Known Times, as there can always be existing speed records that no one knows about. The site encourages runners to use GPS, photos, and other methods to verify their times.

“If you want to go out there with no GPS track and no witnesses, that’s great, but then don’t publicize it and ask sponsors for support,” Burrell said. “If you’re going to publicize yourself, then document yourself. It’s a package deal.”

In addition to keeping records, Bakwin wants the site to tell stories of both trail triumphs and failures. He’s more interested in someone’s trail experience than the end time result.

“I wanted to have a place those stories could be saved,” Bakwin said. 

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Bosnia’s Better Side

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, lies in a narrow valley flanked by the Miljacka river, a faint stream often saturated by sediment. Sadly, due to historic flooding last week, that usually quaint and bucolic waterway has been thrashing against its banks, threatening to destroy some of the bridges that cross it.

The recent flooding in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia is so bad that some are comparing the damage to the brutal 1992-1995 war. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, more than 100,000 homes have been destroyed and at least 43 people have been killed. At least one-fourth of Bosnia’s four million residents have been affected. 

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Guide Fikret Kahrovic en route to the summit of Mount Maglic."}%}

And then there are the landmines. The rain triggered 2,100 landslides that wiped out an unknown number of warning signs marking 9,416 existing minefields containing 120,000 unexploded mines. No one knows how many have been dislodged and swept away. 

And so it goes. Bosnia’s modern history seems to be defined by catastrophe. 

This is an even greater shame because Bosnia is worth knowing about—in a very different way. When I was there in the summer of 2013, on a fellowship to research and write about the anniversary of the 1984 Olympics—the Miljacka was bustling with people, mostly locals, many of them crowding into the tree-shaded cafes that line its banks. Some nursed a cold beer from the nearby Sarajevska brewery. Upstream, anglers sat beside their poles in hopes that something in the shallow water would snag their line.

During the three months I spent working, exploring, hiking, and peak-bagging, I was struck by the country’s abundant beauty. In Sarajevo, a city of roughly 400,000, history spills out everywhere—between the cobblestone bricks in the Turkish quarter and the gouged ground filled with red acrylic “roses.” Red roofs against light stone streets laced with patches of green extend across the valley. There’s a mosque in every sight line, but no shortage of beer or liquor or cigarettes.

You can buy a slice of pizza for a dollar on most streets. At Vrelo Bosna in Ilidza (currently flooded), swans drift on ponds. There is the well-known annual Sarajevo Film Festival and a dance club where you can take your dog. 

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Overlooking Sarajevo, home of the 1984 Winter Olympics."}%}

Bosnia is small—about the size of West Virginia. The southern region has a Mediterranean climate—similar to neighboring Croatia—with a modest 12 miles of coastline on the Adriatic. In Sarajevo and northerly parts of the country, there’s a moderate continental climate, and real winters, which allowed the city to host the 1984 Winter Olympics when Bosnia was still part of Yugoslavia.

No matter what direction of the compass you choose to follow, adventure abounds. You can raft class IV rapids on the Tara, hike to waterfalls and highland villages, and explore one of the last primeval forests in Europe. There are miles of singletrack on Mount Trebevic, just outside of town, along the former front lines and the Olympic bobsled course. In June, good luck finding a table for a post-ride beer: Bosnia is playing in its first-ever World Cup.  

On the weekends I would head to the nearby mountains. The Bosnian countryside is carved by winding turquoise rivers with frothing rapids. The severe peaks of the Dinaric Alps stab at the skyline, surrounded by lowlands of lush forests and sprawling fields. Most hiking routes are marked with red circles surrounding white dots on trails that lead through open meadows, ascend vertigo-inducing hillsides, scramble up rock faces and down wide, worn paths courtesy of the local bears. Guides like Fikret Kahrovic will steer you toward the highest peaks, or the prettiest, or the most challenging, depending on your taste. There are so many, however, he can’t be made to choose his favorite.

But I know mine.

Mount Maglic in Sutjeska National Park on the border with Montenegro is Bosnia’s highest peak at 7,828 feet. One Sunday morning I met Fikret, dressed in a blue polo and a giant grin, and a few others at the iconic yellow Holiday Inn at the edge of town. Built for the Olympics, the hotel housed journalists during the war and was frequently shelled. Now a disco ball spins and neon lights bounce against the walls during late-night parties.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"The approach to Mount Maglic (right), with views of the Dinaric Alps in the distance."}%}

Maglic is often obscured by clouds (its name means "fog"), but when we were there clear skies provided panoramic views, and the craggy limestone behemoth was entirely visible. The trail began at a clearing in the woods and meandered through the forest before opening up to a meadow streaked with lingering snowpack. Fikret jokingly cursed as his phone alerted him he’d entered Montenegro, though the border was still a few miles away. “This is Bosnia!” he declared proudly, laughing.

The flat expanse led straight to the rocky base and a faint shaded triangle on the face illustrated our route. Relatively new steel cables line multiple sections of the ascent, helping mute the vertigo caused by sheer faces in either direction. After a few scrambles, a false summit, and a short climb over a mound of boulders, we reached the top. Hikers from the Montenegrin side were sprawled across the grass plateau—the first people we’d seen all day. They posed for pictures next to a metal flag staked in the ground and a plaque honoring Josip Broz Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia. Directly below, a sparking glacial lake in Montenegro was wedged between the mountains. The 360-degree views seemed boundless. It felt like a summer hike back in Western Washington, where I’d grown up.

The pendulum of catastrophe seems to swing at a faster kick in Bosnia and its people are no stranger to heartbreak. But perhaps one day the place will be known, not for war and disaster, but for thigh thrashing ascents and a haven for adventure, like it deserves.

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