Roughing It

High Albania

by Edith Durham
Beacon Press/Virago/Beacon Travelers, 352 pp., $10.95

The Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt

by Isabelle Eberhardt
Beacon Press/Virago/Beacon Travelers, 116 pp., $7.95

My Journey to Lhasa

by Alexandra David-Neel
Beacon Press/Virago/Beacon Travelers, 310 pp., $10.95

Independent women travelers of the past were an eccentric bunch. They had to be braver than men, socially as well as physically. Their Wanderlust was a rich mixture: adventure, discovery, missionary and imperialist endeavor came into it; so did mysticism, breakout, sex, and cussedness—the determination to go to forbidden places. “What decided me to go to Lhasa was, above all, the absurd prohibition which closes Thibet,” wrote Alexandra David-Neel. It took her nine years to get there until, disguised as a Tibetan beggar, she finally made it in 1923.

The French authorities banned the Russian Isabelle Eberhardt from Algeria because they were rattled by her unconventional habits—dressing as a male Arab was one of them. She countered with another unconventional move: she married a native spahi. It was a true love match, though the marriage was soon wide open at her end. It also gave her French nationality. So she was able to return to Algeria and even to penetrate regions out of bounds to all but the army. Defying a different prohibition, she spent months as a student in a particularly arcane zawyia (a Muslim seminary).

Edith Durham found her Tibet in the Albanian highlands; the little town of Gusinje, now in Yugoslavia, had “become the Lhassa of Europe,” she wrote in 1908, and so “I was obsessed with the idea of seeing Gusinje—harped only on that, and thought of nothing else.” Her journey from Scutari into the forbidden mountains was surreptitious, but she managed without disguise. To the tribesmen in this remote and barbarian corner of the Ottoman Empire she must have been as exotic as an emu in Lapland. On horseback, and on foot when the going got too rough, she traveled in the costume of an Edwardian lady: boots, long skirt, umbrella, and straw hat. The tribesmen didn’t like the hat: they thought it ugly and ridiculous to wear wheat on the head. So she got rid of it. She loved pleasing them: they were her chosen people. She called them a “child-people”; she was a schoolboy herself, a rumbustious, philistine English public schoolboy with a tremendous sense of honor, justice, and humor. Her verve and funniness make her irresistible.

In fact she was the child of a London surgeon, chosen by unkind Victorian fate to be the unmarried daughter who stayed at home to look after an invalid mother. She first caught sight of the Balkans when, aged thirty-seven, she cruised down the Adriatic on doctor’s orders. After that she studied languages and “the Balkan question” and took a Balkan holiday each year. In 1906 her mother died and she was free. High Albania describes a series of trips she made inland from Scutari in 1908. The “Young Turks” had taken over in Constantinople and promised a “constitution” to all Ottoman subjects. In 1911, when the Albanians finally rose against the Turks, and during the Balkan wars of 1911 and 1913, Durham organized relief in the country; later on she worked in England to…

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