Cynthia Yancey


“The father’s job is to teach his children how to be warriors, to give them the confidence to get on the horse to ride into battle when it’s necessary to do so. If you don’t get that from your father, you have to teach yourself.” Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

My oldest son, Zak, had scoured the world over for a real father figure who would ring true to him. Many had posed for that position in my son’s life, but as it turned out, by high school, every single potential model of manhood had fallen. The most recent heartbreak had come with the shihan of his karate school. When Zak’s stepfather and I had finally allowed him to join the Center for Martial Arts on Charlotte Street, he had plunged himself into it with all his growing boy force. He literally ran from Asheville High School to the dojo mid-afternoon each day. He recorded everything he ate and all his physical workouts to please this new man who was training him to be his best self. Shihan was not only training his body to be strong and capable of defending itself, but was also helping him to make healthier choices than a lot of his teenage buddies, and he was doing it all ever so lovingly. For you see, Shihan had been looking for a son to encourage even longer than Zak had been hungering for a father. Having failed fairly famously at finding that kind, loving model of a man to father Zak, I, too, was thrilled for my oldest son to seem to be finding a father for himself.

Zak rose like a star in the clearest of nights in that karate school. At the end of his first year there, when I would come to retrieve him after class, Shihan often had Zak perform his kata for us all, as if a gift, perhaps to show off a bit. Like an exquisite ballet dancer, Zak performed with such strength. His eyes held a newly discovered intensity of focus that his body followed gracefully, with form and precision. At the final pose before he took his bow, the crowd, especially his mother, would gasp. Then one parent would look around the dojo to another in amazement, as the entire room broke into raucous, wholehearted applause. Zak was ever so proud to show his world that he was becoming a real karate kid. In response to another parent’s praise, I frequently heard myself say with pride, “For a long time now, my main claim to fame has been to be my kids’ mom.”

Shortly after his first year in that school, after speeding through the belts, competing widely around the world, and representing his school well in all his previous competitions, Zak’s teacher chose to send him to the karate world championship in South Africa. The stakes were high. Zak seemed capable of elevating his little Asheville karate school more than anyone previously had, yet he was in fact such a novice.

Under the high pressure in this international arena, he somehow crumbled, or perhaps his opponent was simply that much better, but in the very first round, the kid he was up against kicked his taut body high up into the air, then down onto his left elbow, which shattered with the fall. The damage to his body was real, requiring specialty orthopedic surgery, yet small in comparison to the damage to his soul. His teacher, for God-only-knows what reason, did not welcome him back to the karate school.


In all the chaos of the moment, in June of 1996, just after his seventeenth birthday, Zak and I decided our best option was to become a mother/son team on a medical expedition I had already planned to Bolivia. Just after Zak’s elbow was put back together and casted, we landed at the highest airport in the world, at 13,000 feet, with a sense of cautious excitement. Many had warned us that there was so little oxygen in the air of La Paz, Bolivia, there was no need for a fire department; thus we were to “sit still” for a period of acclimatization.

Though there was some teenage rebellion brewing between us, there was also a sweet sense of shared adventure as we stepped off the plane into the Bolivian night. Our excitement rose still higher as we descended into the bowl of the canyon that its capital occupies. The scent of wood burning in the air told us we were entering a land where life was more primitive than the one we had left behind. The night lights flickered from the little mountain homes all around us as we rode down the road of that twinkling third world wonderland. We had not expected such romantic beauty as exists in the night life of La Paz.

The next morning we did our best to “sit still,” which included a slow walk to the plaza Murillo, where we sat and watched the people. The women were in their bowler hats and big skirts, which gave them the appearance of being a little fat. Later at the hospital we learned they were in fact skinny as rails underneath all those layers of clothing. Our first impressions were forming there in downtown La Paz that morning of the differences between the indigenous Aymara and the Mestizos who make up the middle and upper classes in Bolivia, between the working and begging indigenous, between them and us.

After an hour or two of ambling around the town, we went back to the hotel, where Zak rested some more. I took one extra easy stroll down to the University and back and paid dearly for it. Around 2 a.m. the following day, I woke up and ran to the bathroom to hang my head many times over the toilet to vomit, and then continued retching far beyond the emptying of all my stomach’s contents. Eventually I realized that although at a younger age I had made it in and out of the Himalayas without a trace of mountain sickness, I surely now had a case of mild cerebral edema that had me incessantly vomiting with a pounding headache the entire night. The next morning, the doctor in me said to my son, “Darling, as much as I want us to witness all this journey has to offer, cerebral edema can be lethal. I haven’t started taking the medicine yet, but I am wondering if we shouldn’t head back home.”

“Oh no, Mom!” Zak said emphatically. “I will get you more of the mate tea that’s supposed to help. I will grocery shop with the team. Rest the rest of the morning; take the medicine. We don’t leave until midday!” …to go higher up into the Andean villages around Lake Titicaca to serve the Aymara. It is an example of our mother/son dynamic that I followed his advice and that he, too, followed his plan. He returned with everything on my grocery list to get us through the next week as we worked in small hospitals along our way. By afternoon, I was able to hold up my head, dress, and walk downstairs from our hotel room, which had begun to feel like a hospital ward. At some subconscious level, I have always believed that children are much closer to truth and goodness than the rest of us; thus I often followed my children’s lead.


So there we were on one of the highest spots on Earth, continuing our separate healing, Zak from a broken elbow and spirit, me from a serious case of mountain sickness. Early the afternoon of our third day in Bolivia, we joined Dr. Don Matthews, a retired gynecologist and psychiatrist. Together we all headed in a van full of medical supplies up the dusty road to Ancoraimes, a village just north of La Paz, and still one thousand feet higher on the shore of Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake.

At lunch that day up on the altiplano, Zak shared his dream with Dr. Matthews of driving from North Carolina to Bolivia in his little red jeep, to which Dr. Matthews replied in his most charming British accent and with only a hint of sarcasm, “You might consider doing it on horseback. It has been done that way a time or two,” not to be outdone by Zak in the arena of extravagant visions. Zak’s curiosity was tweaked. In retrospect it seems a sign of Zak’s perpetual hope, so recently shattered by his shihan, that he gave ole Dr. Matthews a good look up and down to glean his potential as model for manhood. They both seemed to have plans to enjoy one another during the days and nights ahead. In the evenings that followed, I noticed Dr. Matthews sharing his flask of whiskey more than once with my son.

While I was settling into our living quarters there in Ancoraimes, finding my way around the hospital, Zak was out running with the local kids. Having previously worked in so many African and Central American hospitals, I fit fairly easily into the routine of the one at Ancoraimes. My job was to see patients who came in for acute care so the regular staff could catch up on meetings and paperwork. Spanish was coming to me little by little; some Aymara dialect would surely have helped me more.

Just down the hall, the real hero of the day was Zak, who wasted little time finding a job for himself, teaching the Aymara health-care workers karate. We had heard the Aymara could be cold and distant, a difficult people to get to know, as if the harsh, rugged land they inhabited had affected their dispositions. Within a very short time, however, we had begun to notice how little affection existed between the Mestizos, who held the more executive positions in the hospital, and the indigenous, who were its workers and patients. As we consistently witnessed the Mestizos disrespect the Aymara, we began to understand more clearly their reputation for being distant and cold toward folks whiter than themselves.

Zak’s arm was freshly casted, yet still he was fit and skilled in this martial art the indigenous mountain men were anxious to know. And Zak, like his mother, would always choose the underdog class to hang out with. When I left the clinic and passed them all out in the commons area, I found these rigid Aymara rolling and tumbling on the ground, laughing and likely swearing in Aymara as only they would know they were doing, while Zak taught them his moves of self-defense. In that setting, they all seemed like kids. The health-care workers would hobble away from the lessons, stiff and sore, but with big smiles spread across their faces. These Aymara men and eventually a few of their women all came back for every class their little white ninja taught them. Such serendipity for Zak, after falling from grace in his own world of karate back home, to come to Bolivia and have a class waiting for him to teach them the best of his martial arts training, one-armed.

On the altiplano, at least within the hospital walls, there was electricity for light, but not for heat. We snuggled deep into our sleeping bags at night to keep from freezing in the cots in our room. I slept on the top bunk; Zak on the bottom. Coming up from below me, I heard his voice exclaiming as he reminisced, “Today, when I jumped up in the air spinning three hundred and sixty degrees and kicked the hat off of one of the men’s heads, I had all of their focused attention!” He went on telling his story with a bit of wonder. “They were so animated as they punched the pillows full of stuffing that they would hold for one another. And all they really wanted was for me to do all the jumping, spinning kicks. They absolutely loved watching me perform acrobatically!”

From the window of that hospital bunk room, as my son’s voice trailed off, I looked out over the stars and moon atop the Andean peaks and tried to pace my breathing. I thought to our first night on the altiplano when Zak had climbed a peak behind the hospital with one little Aymara shepherd boy. Though they had no common language, still they made contact, as Zak reached with his good arm toward the boy to touch their fingertips together across the rocks they were climbing as the sun descended behind them. I knew the big boy sleeping on the bunk beneath me had so much healing to do. My prayer those nights was that the Aymara spirit in this magical Andean setting might help him figure a way to knit himself back together again, still stronger and more whole than before.

One day while we were at Ancoraimes, the health-care workers took us on one of those treacherous bus rides over the mountain into a beautiful fertile valley on the eastern side of the altiplano. We cheerfully rode up and down the mountain passes, witnessing the Andes from the inside out, moving slowly past one patchwork picture of pastoral mountain beauty to the next on the road to Incakaturapi. Rugged, snowcapped peaks loomed in the distance. The sun shone down on the villages carved into the steep mountain slopes with their very primitive wooden houses. There were chickens in every yard and children everywhere, independent so much earlier than back home, with their always ruddy, dirty cheeks and dark, brightly shining eyes. Herds of alpaca and goats grazed in the mountain’s meadows.

On this particular excursion, Zak’s interest was whetted by a man who hitched a ride on the bus, who was wearing a whip across his back, who seemed to carry himself with extraordinary pride. From the time the man boarded the bus, until he descended, Zak was whispering to me, prodding me to ask about the whip, and how he might acquire one himself. Though my language skills were better than Zak’s, I was still timid to invade their cultural space, not knowing for sure when it might be intrusive. So I chose to give the question back to Zak, telling him he’d have to find out for himself if he wanted to know. I thought, at his age, he might be given more leniency than I would in cultural literacy. Before he could muster the courage to ask, the man had jumped off the bus, the opportunity lost, a teenage boy sorely disappointed.

That evening over dinner discussion of the day, we discovered this handmade instrument, emblazoned with local shiny metal and secured around the man’s torso with hand-hewn leather, was called a colcachicote, and was only worn by the village leader. The intern back in Ancoraimes told us, “In these villages where there are no policemen, one person is chosen to be their leader and is responsible for punishing whichever crimes the people commit. He receives the whip as a symbol of his position in the community and also as a tool for punishment. The colcachicote is passed down from one leader to another. It is not for sale.” I was personally relieved to not have succumbed to my son’s supplications on the bus, and even Zak seemed perhaps thankful to not have asked the leader to sell his treasured token of status. Still though I imagined Zak may have been nurturing a fantasy of someday having his very own colcachicote to strap around his torso.

On down the road of this journey of healers hoping to heal themselves, we headed north along the windswept Andean plain along Lake Titicaca toward Carabuco. There are so many ways to heal in life or not, to stop and be broken or to get back up. Zak and I were more separate on this leg of the trip. As much as a mother wants to do everything for her children, sometimes she must let the kid pick himself back up and put his own pieces back together.

We stopped at a village just above the Sleeping Dragon rock formation where Dr. Matthews had told us he hoped to live someday. In conditions much starker and more primitive than we had ever been before, we watched young and old ladies weaving their colorful mats and men making pottery of local clay with their very primitive instruments in the crisp, high Andean air. Zak bought a few clay pots to take back to his new buddy, old Dr. Don.

Carabuco was the next village with a hospital where we were to carry supplies and offer services. We went with their health-care workers on toilet inspections in an effort to prevent another cholera epidemic as they had experienced a few years prior. In fact, the Aymara infrequently used those toilets. We watched and listened to their villagers discuss childhood nutrition at maternal child health meetings conducted in their schools. We wondered at how they seemed to live so well with so little.

We were able to laugh at the treacherous third world showers that are mostly ice cold, but with little electrical contraptions that occasionally send down a burst of boiling water. These icy showers did not encourage one’s daily cleanliness. On the stove in our otherwise spartan room, we cooked one of our favorite dishes of fresh eggs and potatoes, but this time with a twist of Andean spices on top, which we didn’t really like all that much.

When the health-care workers of Carabuco offered to take us with them to an island community where they said they could use our help, Zak and I had to make a choice. We wanted the experience of yet another side of Andean life, but we were running out of time. In our deliberations, I understood that the healing power of the exotic experiences we were living paled in comparison to that of the human connections made while teaching a skill one has worked hard to obtain to a people who seem to also feel a need for it. So instead of getting on the boat to go out to the island, Zak and I headed back down the mountain where he could teach his recently acquired Aymara buddies a little more self-defense.


The hospital staff at Ancoraimes welcomed us back into their fold with open arms. The health-care workers were indeed eager for more of Zak’s karate lessons. Knowing they were drawing to an end, Zak drew on their chalkboard a pictorial representation of the exercises they might continue after he was gone. I covered the emergency room, and learned more of their very basic health-care system, of how many sick patients had to be shipped down the mountain to La Paz. I also heard about how often community health-care workers nonetheless managed to put a lot of injured folks back together and to reverse many accidental poisonings.

The last night there they made us api, a thick, hot, sweet drink made of corn and served with bread. The spirit was festive all around. Having helped, we were headed home. Zak’s arm, x-rayed at the hospital in Carabuco to assure no dislocations had occurred during his karate lessons, appeared to be on the mend. I had recovered from my altitude sickness. In the dining hall our last night, the Aymara were playfully throwing their bread at one another.

They likely said some words of thanks for my medical services, but I’m not even sure of that. What etched its way deep into my memory was the moment the last health-care worker took to the podium and stated how much it had meant for a wounded teenage boy to come to them and so skillfully and lovingly teach them his martial art. Zak’s ears perked up as he leaned into me asking for translation. Then they brought a package wrapped in brown paper and string and placed it in front of Zak that needed no translation. I will never forget my son’s bright red, tear-streaked cheeks as he opened his gift of an old and lovely colcachicote, his very own. They had warned at the podium that one had to remain worthy of such a gift, but that he had proven himself to them in our stay.

Zak may have lost the world championship in South Africa; he may have lost favor with his father/teacher back home, but he had won the hearts of the Aymara health-care workers on the altiplano of Bolivia, and they had given him such an amazing gift. They had given Zak back his hope; the Aymara had given my son the confidence to get back up on his horse to ride into whichever battle was next.

© Cynthia Yancey

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