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Book review: Pink Boots and the Machete by Mireya Mayor

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As a little boy, I was always drawn to books about wilderness, exotic places, explorers and wild animals. I hungrily read accounts of real events, from Joy Adamson to Gerald Durrell, and works of fiction, from The Jungle Book to The White Fang, from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and Wilderness to the entire Doctor Dolittle series.

And I never outgrew the genre, excitedly checking out new titles, but now with a somewhat raised bar – adventure is not enough, I also want good science in the story. Like, for example, last year’s hit Bonobo Handshake.

And this year, or to be more precise, exactly today, a new adventure book is coming out – Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer by Mireya Mayor.

If the name is familiar to you as a science and nature enthusiast, it is probably because you saw her on TV. Mireya is the host of numerous wildlife shows on the National Geographic channel. You may have seen her in "Mystery Gorillas", or the currently airing "Wild Nights with Mireya Mayor". Or perhaps you watched her in the History Channel’s "Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone" retracing, using only the technology available at the time of the original journey, the footsteps of Dr.Livingstone, I presume.

Raised by three strong women in the Cuban immigrant family in Miami, Mireya Mayor was both a "girly-girl" with interest in pretty clothes and make-up, and a "tom-boy", climbing trees and hunting for lizards around the neighborhood. As breaking into a career in acting was difficult, and 9-5 cubicle jobs she had to take were deadening, she saw going back to college as her only way out.

One day, on a dare, she auditioned for a slot on the cheerleading squad with Miami Dolphins and, to her own surprise, she got picked out of thousands of candidates. Majoring in English and Philosophy, and busy with professional NFL cheerleading, she postponed the science requirement to the very end of her senior year, when the only class still available was physical anthropology.

That class changed her life. She got lucky to get sent by National Geographic to her first expedition, and she started graduate studies in anthropology soon after.

The book is her autobiography, describing how she grew up, in every sense of the word "grow up", from a sheltered girl in Miami, through the world of professional cheerleading, to a career in science and finally the spotlight on television.

A Fulbright Scholar, a National Science Foundation Fellow, a two-time Emmy Award-nominee, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, a scientist with a respectable publication record, including the discovery of Microcebus mittermeieri which is likely the smallest primate species in the world, one can say she’s made it. But the journey was anything but easy – getting chased by elephants and gorillas, swimming with Great White sharks, climbing steep mountains, getting bitten by every imaginable tropical critter that bites, getting sick and medivac-ed back home in the nick of time, even surviving an airplane crash in the jungle. This was no smoothly oiled Hollywood stardom track – it took literally gallons of blood, sweat and tears to get there!

I may have read all those books and explored the wilderness vicariously, but Mireya lived them. I did not have the courage (or craziness – but are the two traits really distinguishable from each other?) Mireya has. She has a rare talent – to say ‘Yes’ when her entire terrified body is saying "No" to an offer of yet another spectacularly dangerous expedition.

It is quite difficult to write an autobiography when one is so accomplished. It is too easy to sound self-aggrandizing. On the other hand, efforts to write in a more self-deprecating manner, emphasizing the role of friends and luck in one’s success, usually sound fake.

Mireya Mayor did not fall into either trap. She just wrote it as it is. A genuine, authentic voice describing what happened, what she did, what others did, and how it all felt.

In other words, Mireya is a Natural Born BloggerTM (and coming from me, this is the highest praise she can get), writing with her genuine voice, with her real personality shining through each sentence. If she was scared, she says so. If she did something brave or smart, she says so. No need to embellish or downplay anything. Total honesty all the way.

It is a refreshing style. Even the paragraphs describing the setting of the story of the particular expedition are real, clear descriptions, helping one visualize the place, not places to practice endless flowery prose for the sake of showing off one’s writing ability. Each chapter reads like a long blog post (or a series of several shorter posts) and I am surprised that she does not write a blog herself. While wildly popular on Twitter and Facebook, I could only find one blog post she has ever written.

With such personal and authentic style of storytelling, it is very easy to get inside of her head and go on the journey with her, trekking around the world, avoiding hippos, piranhas, scorpions and leeches, drinking dirty water full of worms (and getting de-wormed after every return home), running out of food in the middle of nowhere where no communication with the civilized world is possible, climbing vertical walls of rock while being terrified of heights, and all of that with bleeding wounds and swollen ankles in 100 degrees Fahrenheit over days of incessant rain. It is exciting, enchanting, sometimes scary. It is sometimes exhausting just reading it, but you feel guilty for being so whiny while not actually having to physically endure it yourself!

Fortunately, Mireya sometimes gives us a break. And those chapters that are not "on the road" are probably most important parts of the book.

Chapter 12 may seem funny at first. In it, she compares what she used to pack for her first trips and what she packs today, joking about the unexpected usefulness of feminine items, carefully choosing what items are more useful than others for survival. But between the lines you can see how she matured over the years, and what it feels like to be the only woman on an expedition, often at time when desperate times demand desperate measures, like starting a fire with a tampon.

Many will suggest this book as essential reading for teenage girls, with or without interest in science, and for their mothers. But I think that it is even more important this book gets read by boys and men. The book as a whole, but especially the incredible and must-read Chapter 6, shows what it takes to succeed as a woman in the male world of science and in the even more male world of television.

Why did her professors, classmates and scientific colleagues make life so hard for her in the beginning? Why does every TV crew want to film her showering under a waterfall? Why, no matter how she dresses, producers will think she looks either too sexy or not sexy enough? Why does it matter how she looks like in the first place?

"You don’t look like a scientist" is often the first thing she hears when a new TV crew meets her. "Well, this is how a scientist looks like" is her response. Makes you think. Now read the book.

Related: Cheerleader for Science: a chat with Mireya Mayor, author of "Pink Boots and the Machete"





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