This summer we accidentally discovered a lovely bookstore in Brussels: Passaporta Bookshop. Not only was it open on Sunday afternoon and offered coffee and a place to sit, it is definitely one of those bookstores that invites browsing and perusing and generally getting lost among its stacks of treasures (my sister Christy will tell you this is one of my major character faults - do not take me into a bookstore if you have to be somewhere else on time later, for some reason "bookstore" trumps "not wanting to be late").
One of things I discovered at Passaporta was a new series by Penguin called "Great Journeys": a series of 20 slim volumes of excerpts from history's greatest adventurers' stories. I could not resist - the books have beautiful artwork and are such a dotey size, you can't help but pick them up. I actually ended up buying several of them, for gifts but also for myself, which felt really indulgent. But like I said, books are a real weakness!
I just finished number 16 in the series, "The Congo and the Cameroons" by Mary Kingsley, who writes about her travels in Equatorial West Africa in the late 1800's. It is amazing to follow her up and down the Great Peak of the Cameroons, through mangrove swamps, in all sorts of weather, narrowly avoiding bottomless pits, and doing it all on her own, in charge of her own troop consisting of a cook, boys to carry water and supplies, and several trackers. She was certainly a woman who did not let the prevailing customs of her day stop her in her love of travel and adventure and Africa itself:
Why did I come to Africa? thought I. Why! who would not come to its twin brother hell itself for all the beauty and charm of it!
After her second trip to Africa, she wrote the bestselling "Travels in West Africa" (1897), from which the Penguin book is excerpted. Tragically, during her third trip to Africa, while working as a volunteer nurse in a POW hospital during the Boer War, she died from enteric fever at the age of 37.
The Penguin series is a great opportunity to get acquainted with these obscure but amazing writers from long ago - when travelling was still a grand but risky adventure and there was so much of the world still to be discovered!