I have recently come upon two books about persons of strength and endurance of a level that is so rare as to be astonishing. The first was Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Paul Farmer, the American doctor who spends most of his time in Haiti and who has revolutionized the way medicine is provided in his part of Haiti. And who never fails in his own simple physical strength, the ability to walk for miles and miles over rough country to visit his patients. He also has the strength of character that allows him to continue his work and his efforts to change the way the world perceives medical care, in spite of incredible adversity.
The other book is one I am now well into, The Mapmaker's Wife, by Robert Whitaker. It is first of all about a group of scientists who traveled from France to Peru in the early 1700s to measure one degree of latitude at the equator. Their mission expanded, as they were truly "Enlightenment" scientists, and those that returned many years later brought an understanding of the land, the people, the plants, animals, as well as the sky and the earth that had not been given to the Europeans before. To do so, this small group went to great physical lengths, climbing mountains that had never been scaled before, braving hardest winters and hottest summers, dealing with endless conflicts with each other and with the residents of the villages they stayed in. This band of "survivors", in modern parlance, included one young man, Juan, who met and married the daughter of one of the elite families in Quito, a young lady fresh from the convent, then only 13 years old. Her name was Isabel.
Ultimately, the story is hers, as the title suggests. After Juan departed down the Amazon to find a way back to France for his family, some years after the marriage and four pregnancies (three ending in the deaths of the children shortly after birth), with the intent that he would return to bring his wife and child (she was pregnant with the fourth when he left), he found himself without money, without permission to travel, with no way of getting back to her. He tried several ways over the years and ultimately was able to send a message to her village, saying he was waiting for her in French Guiana.
This was 20 years after he had left. Isabel was middle-aged but had never given up hope. As a girl she had had dreams of going to Paris and this sustained her through the years, as well as her love and trust in her husband. She determined to go to him.
Not a simple plan. Women in that age and of that rank pretty much never traveled, and when they did they were carried in chairs. When her family was unable to dissuade her they helped set her up for the journey and her two brothers came with her. Along with several Indians and her faithful slave, Antonio, and her two little slavelets - what were they called? - little girls, really. They set out with many mules and boxes of many things. After braving a great deal of jungle travel they finally found themselves on a major river. In the course of traveling, their many hired guides took off in the night. They came upon two more Indians, who were able to guide them furhter after building them a dugout canoe, over 40 feet long. After several days with them they were once again deserted.
Cut to the chase...after much rough going, Isabel is stranded in the rainforest, in a particularly inhospitable part, with her two brothers and nephew, and she ends up the only survivor. Through her strength and some good luck, she pulls out. What she endures...is almost unbelievable. Really, I have seen movies where the heroes undergo one hardship after another and I think, "Impossible". But this. Nothing like this. It's wonderful to read of people like this, to know that we are capable of so much more. Not all of us, of course.