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  • Uncommon Journeys

Trailblazing Women in Travel History

Think about great explorers, and legendary men readily spring to mind.

But as a tour leader in Burma, Bolivia, Ethiopia and the Adriatic, I’m mindful that I humbly follow in the footsteps of four intrepid women. These trailblazers did the unthinkable, fearlessly venturing around the world ahead of their time and against all odds. Their spirit of adventure was matched only by their eloquence. Their beautifully written, inspirational travelogues captured the imagination a century ago and continue to stand the test of time.

Geraldine Edith Mitton was an English novelist, biographer, editor, and guide-book writer who traveled in Burma at the beginning of the 20th century.

Favorite excerpt: “Pagoda bells are one of the most satisfactory fulfillments of anticipation. They are set on the metal htee, or umbrella, which crowns the spire of every pagoda and are rung by the action of the wind as it wafts past them. The sound is sometimes unheard, for it may be lost in the noise of the throng below, and if the pagoda be in a sheltered spot, the tongues are not easily moved to utterance. But with no scrambling of feet or droning of voices to dull their magic, they speak straight to the heart of me, telling I know not what strange secrets of the east. Sometimes they clash all together, and then there is heard the sleepy tinkle of one dropping to silence, gently sighing away, but before it quite ceases another rings out thin, sweet and insistent as if it would be heard, and quite suddenly the sound breaks off. The bells have told enough.” (from A Bachelor Girl in Burma)

Harriet Chalmers Adams traversed Bolivia on horseback in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and published numerous articles in National Geographic.

Favorite excerpt: “The interest and charm of La Paz lies not only in its ever-changing scenes, for every street, every building, has its history. From the balconies above I seemed to see fair, bejeweled ladies robed in satin brocade, with great tortoise-shell combs crowning their heads, looking down as mounted cavaliers rode gaily into the patio, resplendent in armor, silver trappings on saddle and bridle. Sometimes in the very early morning I walked up the old highway leading to the heights. Failing to look back on the tiled roofs, I quite forgot the coming of the Spaniards, for the men and women whom I met on the road belonged to a time long past. Speaking a tongue even more ancient than the Quechua of the Incas, these people were little changed from their ancestors who lived in Aymara-land. Too soon came the day for our departure. Regretfully we rode up to the Alto, where we stood for a time bidding farewell to the canyon. Yet I find I have never lost sight of it. When the day is especially colorless I recall with delight that far-off canyon, where lies the quaint city of “high lights,” kaleidoscope La Paz.” (from Kaleidoscopic La Paz: City of the Clouds)

Rosita Forbes was an prolific English travel writer, novelist and explorer, who wrote about her Abyssinian (Ethiopian) adventure in the early 20th century.

Favorite excerpt: “The most marvelous of all Abyssinian landscapes opened before us, as we looked across a gorge that was clouded amethyst to the peaks of Semien. A thousand thousand years ago, when the old gods reigned in Ethiopia, they must have played chess with those stupendous crags, for we saw bishops' miters cut in lapis lazuli, castles with the ruby of approaching sunset on their turrets, an emerald knight where the forest crept up on to the rock, and far away, a king, crowned with sapphire, and guarded by a row of pawns. When the gods exchanged their games for shield and buckler to fight the new men clamoring at their gates, they turned the pieces of their chessboard into mountains. In Semien they stand enchanted, till once again the world is pagan and the titans and the earth gods lean down from the monstrous cloud banks to wager a star or two on their sport.'' (from From Red Sea to Blue Nile)

Rebecca West made three trips to Yugoslavia in the early 20th century. She considered it to be the nexus of European history since the late Middle Ages, and wrote about it in her highly acclaimed masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Favorite excerpt: “Plitvice Park is the most laughing and light-minded of natural prodigies. It is dedicated solely to gaiety and loveliness. Sixteen lakes joined by glittering and musical waterfalls that are sometimes spiral staircases and sometimes amphitheaters and sometimes chutes, but always ingeniously pretty. It is rare to find great beauty on this plane.” (from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)


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