Dubbed the ‘female Indiana Jones’, Mireya Mayor is an adventurer and then some... Taking the career path less travelled – going from NFL cheerleader to anthropologist – Mayor’s love for exploration and conservation has led her to some of the most biodiverse places in the world.
Ever at the heart of the action, Mayor’s jaw-dropping travel tales – dodging charging elephants and surviving a plane crash in the Congo – could certainly rivals those of Indy, but one of her most memorable moments is discovering a new species of lemur in her home away from home, Madagascar.
Read on to find out what happened when we caught up with the actionista herself.
Where was your last trip?
My last trip was to Rwanda to trek up the Virunga volcanoes to search for mountain gorillas.
Where is your next trip?
My next trip is going to be to Madagascar, to continue my on-going conservation work with lemurs – who have just become the most endangered animal on the planet.
What is your first travel-related memory?
I grew up in Miami, so our go-to destination was Disney World. My way of visiting other countries was to go to Epcot.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I got my passport and had my first adventure to South America, to Guyana. At the time I hadn’t been out of the state much, let alone out of the country, and to suddenly find myself in one of the most remote, unexplored regions of the world was incredible.
Aisle or window seat?
Window seat. I love to look out and see the landscape as we’re departing or approaching a destination.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I always carry pictures of my kids. And when I go on expedition I travel with what has now become my lucky shark tooth necklace. I figured if it works for sharks it works for me.
Favourite city or country or region?
I love London as a city. I love the architecture and the history. And Rwanda and Madagascar are sort of a tie for my all-time favourite places in the world. Both are beautiful places that have such kind and generous local people.
What first drew you to study anthropology and primatology?
I took a very unusual path. I led a sheltered childhood; when I first asked my mum if I could join the Girl Scouts she said no because it was too dangerous. And I was also an NFL cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins which is not exactly what you would imagine, you know, Indiana Jones doing.
I took an anthropology class in college to fulfill a science requirement and I fell in love with the subject. Mostly because of all the travel that would be involved and the potential for discovery and exploration, but also the thought that I could help save animals from becoming extinct.
What is your most unforgettable animal encounter?
One of the most memorable for me is tracking down and being able to study one of the most endangered, rare and elusive primates in the world in Madagascar: the lemur. And also discovering the world’s smallest primate, the mouse lemur, and making this big contribution to science and conservation in that way.
There have also been more uncomfortable moments, of being charged by elephants or nearly having my head ripped off by a gorilla.
What’s the best thing travellers can do to conserve/protect wildlife?
It’s about doing your homework and partnering up with a company that you see as being mindful, respectful and careful to make sure the proceeds are being put back into that country’s conservation efforts.
What has been your most challenging travel experience?
I had one particularly bad experience in Congo where our plane basically went down. We were rescued by some trucks a day later and then tried to motorbike our way back to catch another flight to the capital. But that flight was cancelled and they didn’t reschedule for another few days and when I eventually did get to the capital, the guards would not believe that it was me in the passport picture and they nearly didn’t let me on the plane back home. It was just one incident after the other.
You spend most of your time researching out in Madagascar. What is it that makes Madagascar such a special place?
Because it’s so geographically isolated, evolution has sort of had it’s wild parties there. It’s a natural laboratory where you have all these very unique, almost Doctor Seuss-looking creatures that are only found on the island and nowhere else on the planet.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
I think my best travel souvenir is the Masai warrior shield that was given to me by one of the Masai warriors with whom I trekked 3000 miles across Africa.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you've received?
The worst was on my first expedition to South America. I was told to purchase a really good expensive tent and of course the minute I got to the Amazon all the locals laughed at me because it was useless. You shouldn’t be sleeping on the ground because of all the venomous snakes. So I had to swap this very heavy, expensive tent for a very cool, light hammock – and that’s what I slept in for the rest of the three months I was there.
The best is from a photographer friend of mine, who said don’t forget to point the camera down at your feet so that you can capture the journey. Some of my favourite pictures are of all the different terrains that I’ve walked on.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
On one expedition to Madagascar, I was the only woman on a team of about six or seven and we had driven for about 23 hours, so we decided to stop at this little roadside hotel. When I asked for a room the woman running the hotel looked at all the team members and asked ‘will you be needing that room for an hour or for the night?’ I realised the place was also used as a sort of travelling brothel, so I had explain that we would be needing several rooms and I would need my own room for the night.
And once in my room, I saw that there were roaches and rats running around everywhere. I tried to get into my cocoon sleeping bag and zip it up all the way so that only my eyes could peer out, but I felt little animals jumping around me, so I got up to go and sleep in the truck that we had driven in. Almost my entire team had already done the same.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I have two travel dreams. One is to go to the rainforests of Borneo and see the orangutan. The other is to go to Italy. Italy just looks so beautiful and I love the people, the language and of course the food.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Every once in a while just stop and breathe and enjoy the moment. Go with the flow and be open to changing plans because while it may seem like an inconvenience, changing plans can open up a whole new travel adventure that is even better.
To find out more about Mireya you can check out her website at mireyamayor.com.