Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dervla Murphy--Cyclist and Traveler Extraordinaire

For over fifty years Dervla Murphy has been traveling the world in locales rarely frequented by the tourists she dreads (Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Albania, Madagascar, Gaza, Laos, Cameroon), transporting herself by unconventional means--bicycle, mule, horse and on foot.  She occasionally travelled with her daughter Rachel, first as a five-year old to India and later to Cuba when she was an adult and had three daughters of her own, who all came along, but otherwise her travels have all been solitary adventures, each unique and extraordinary in some manner.

She began her traveling life in earnest in 1963 at the age of 31, when she rode her bike from Ireland, her homeland, to India.  It was a trip she had dreamed of ever since she was ten years old.  The long delay was due to having to take care of her invalid mother, a task she had assumed at the age of fourteen when she dropped out of school.  With her mother's death, she was free to unleash herself upon the world.  Her six-month, 3,000 mile ride to India resulted in the book "Full Tilt."  It wasn't her first book, but the first to be published.  She had attempted a couple of novels before this,  as well as a book about bicycling in Spain.  

After getting one book published, there was no holding her back.  She has gone on to write twenty-four more, the last published in 2015.  Not all are travel books and only two others can be strictly considered bicycling books, but she does get around on the bike in six or seven others. Constant to  all of her books is her fierce independence, her contempt for the "consumer society" and her perception that civilization is in a bad way.  Her love of beer is also a dominant feature of all her books.  She is certainly her own woman, never bashful about giving an opinion over matters large or small ranging from the idiocy of nationalism ("an affliction which humanity needs to be cured of as soon as possible"--from her 1979 autobiography "Wheels Within Wheels") to her strong advocacy of home births to her abhorrence of swimming in pools "reeking of chlorine and full of everyone's pee."  

Her books are spiced with diatribes and potshots against cars, modern architecture, EU food regulations, nuclear energy, hippies, packaged food and fizzy drinks, oral contraceptives, tourists, the American ambition to control the world, hair driers, wimps, mobile phones and just about anything to do with modern-day society.  She has lived life on her own terms, raising her daughter on her own--only taking six years off from her travels during Rachel's infancy, the longest span she went without writing a book, writing book reviews instead.  Rachel's father is Terence de Vere White, an Irish novelist, biographer and critic, who didn't seem involved with Rachel's upbringing and isn't granted a mention in any of Murphy's books.

Though she is most famous for her first book and is commonly referred to as a touring cyclist, she didn't write another book solely devoted to a cycling adventure for nearly thirty years after "Full Tilt," when she ventured off to Africa resulting in a pair of cycling books--"The Ukimwi Road: From Kenya to Zimbabwe" and "South from the Limpopo" about three cycle trips in South Africa during the last days of apartheid.  Cycling makes an appearance in some of her books in the interim, ("Tibetan Foothold," "A Place Apart," and "Transylvania and Beyond"), but the bike is incidental to them, seemingly inserted to appease her cyclist readers, especially in "A Place Apart" on Northern Irleland, published in 1978.  Even though she bikes around all nine counties of the other half of the Irish Isle during the period of The Troubles, her bike hardly receives a mention.  As she generally does, she concentrates on the people she meets trying to come to an understanding of their place, even ignoring the presence of her young daughter, who tags along for a spell on a pony during her summer vacation.

There is no denying she is a committed cyclist.  She's never owned a car, nor a television, as she proudly proclaims, but she is not a fanatic who needs a regular fix as some of us do.  She went five months without riding her bike after she arrived in India while working in a Tibetan refugee camp, which she wrote about in her second book "Tibetan Foothold."  Not once did she lament going through withdrawal or missing her beloved "Roz."  Instead, she takes hikes when she has some free time.  

She was less than faithful to her bike on her ride to India.  She accepted rides from truckers and resorted to buses and trains and even a plane.  The subtitle of the book, "Ireland to India with a bicycle" acknowledges this. It is "with" not "on" a bicycle.  On another trip when she had enough of rough roads and takes a train, she justifies it by saying, "I'm not in Africa on a penitential pilgrimage." Not long afterwards she refuses a ride to the surprise of a driver and sighs, "The concept of cycling for fun is hard to get across in Africa."  She fully recognizes the advantage of traveling by bike, commenting, "Bicyclists know the joy of being with a place, rather than glimpsing it from inside a speedy machine," while bicycling in the Balkans in "Through the Embers of Chaos."

If her life's purpose or driving force had been to ride a bicycle, her next adventure after India would have been another bicycle trip.  Instead it was a saunter through Ethiopia with a mule ("In Ethiopia with a Mule," published in 1968).  With that she defined herself as being more interested in getting way off the beaten path rather than spending days and weeks and months pedalling her bike to satisfy her soul while asserting her independence from the internal combustion machine.  Cairo to Capetown or South America top to bottom by bike would have been a natural next trip if she had that bike-obsessive gene.  Her obsession was rather escaping Western civilization and all its entrapments.  

"I'm usually at my happiest in the most primitive places," she wrote in "Tibetan Foothold." In "Where the Indus is Young" she lamented that in Europe she is "offended every day by our mindless 'consumer society' waste of food, objects and energy."  As someone adverse to  progress and change, she loved Cuba.  "It's genial air of shabbiness and the level of physical comfort (lowish) matched what I'm used to in my own home," she wrote. "And where 'People Before Profit' is no mere slogan, but a way of governing, the level of psychic comfort is very high."

When she applied for a job working for the Tibetan refugee camp, she was asked what skills she had.  The only skill she could think of was that she could rough it.  And rough it she has, not even flinching when rats scurried over her as she slept in Ehtiopia or enduring such extreme hunger in Peru that she would have eaten her grandmother ("even if she weren't very well cooked") or sleeping in the street in front of the Delhi train station with her head on the rear wheel of her bike.

Emulating the Ethiopia adventure, she went off to Peru fifteen years and five books later with Rachel as a ten-year old  and trekked with a mule, recounted in  "Eight Feet in the Andes."  One morning as they were preparing to break camp they were startled by a pair of campesinos on bicycles.  One might think she'd be thrilled by the glorious site of these dream machines, but after days of living in a seemingly idyllic pre-industrial world, she regards them as "sinister heralds of High Technolgy."  Rachel takes her to task--"Funny to have you go into depression about bicycles!"

She is so machine-adverse she struggled with anything to do with bicycle mechanics, barely able to screw the pedals on her bike in the airport in Nairobi as a crowd watched.  In "Race to the Finish?," a book she wrote in 1982 condemning nuclear energy, after being nearby when the Three Mile Island catastrophe occurred, she wrote, "Changing an electric light bulb gives me the tremors and after 45 years of cycling I cannot mend a puncture."  That contradicts "Full Tilt,"  where she wrote that it took her an hour and fifteen minutes to repair a flat in the desert of Afghanistan.  Shortly afterwards her chain broke and "again I, myself (alone and unaided!), got out the spare links and after one and three-quarter hours of intense concentration figured out how the thing operated and mended it!"  But she falls into mechanical ineptitude on later travels, hitching a ride for fifty miles to get a flat repaired in "The Ukimwi Road."

Her self-deprecation goes beyond bicycle mechanics.  "Punctuality is among my few virtues," she wrote in "A Place Apart." She admits to being prone to getting lost, which she doesn't mind, as it leads to experiences she wouldn't otherwise have.  She dreads spiders and fears flying.  In her later years she described herself as "moth-eaten" and "semi-toothless and slightly stooped."  A Russian customs official says she'll  overlook the 300 mini-cigars she has brought for her nicotine habit, as "you don't exactly look respectable, but you do look harmless."

She doesn't hide the fact that she smokes and wishes she didn't, nor that she likes her beer, sometimes even at breakfast.  She is much more of a beer-a-holic than a bike-a-holic.  When it was difficult to find water in Cameroon, which she was exploring with Rachel as an 18-year and a mule by the name of Egbert, Rachel chastised her, "Do you realize you've had five beers and it's only noon?"  Dervla wrote that she had no reply, as she "was too busy trying to walk a straight line."

She saw a considerable amount of drunkenness during two trips to Siberia, both of which were intended to be bicycling trips but turned into train trips, the first when she fell getting off a train and wrenched her knee and the second when she was robbed on her first day on the bike frightening her from continuing to bike.  The two trips resulted in the books "Through Siberia by Accident" (2005) and "Silverland" (2006).  

In "Silverland" she felt pity for a drunk passed out in an alley--"I've occasionally been there myself," she wrote, "though never at 10:20 a.m. or in such a public place (usually in the garden or sitting-room of excessively hospitable friends who pick me up and put me to bed and tactfully forget the incident.)"

With all the drinking she did in Russia she set a personal record of four straight hang-overs.  In her third book "The Waiting Land" about her return to Nepal to assist Tibetan refugees, she admitted to a rare hangover when she mixed chang and rakshi, alcohol she wasn't accustomed to drinking.  At the time she said that despite a "not abstemious life" she had had only one previous hangover, in Spain at the age of twenty after drinking a half-bottle of cheap brandy.

In an over-sized picture book simply entitled "Ireland" from 1985 describing the history and culture of her country she comments, "The Irish take drinking much more seriously than eating."  In "Where the Indus is Young" about her travels with a six-year old Rachel and a pony by the name of Hallam in Pakistan, she surprised herself as she became accustomed to getting along without alcohol.  "At home an evening without a drink would be intolerable," she wrote.  In "One Foot in Laos" from 2001 at one point she gave finding a beer a higher priority than finding a place to stay.  In the Andes she observed, "I can be too tired to eat, but not to drink."  In Cameroon she reached a point where "I was past hunger.  I only wanted a bottle of beer in each hand."  When she visited Rachel and her husband and her first grandchild, just two months old, while they were working for an NGO in the Congo, which resulted in a book on the genocide in Rwanda, "Visiting Rwanda," her son-in-law pointed out a brewery.  "He knew this would make me feel secure and relaxed," she wrote.

She refers to Gaza as "the teetotal Strip" in "A Month by the Sea,"  her second to last book published in 2013.  She was distraught that a beer couldn't even be had at the UN Beach Club, which was for UN employees only.  She had to resort to some inventive beer-hunting in Israel and Palestine in her last book two years later, "Between River and Sea."  She was cheered to see some in a fridge and on another occasion "caused some amused surprise" by the amount she could drink.  There is not a single mention of the bicycle in the Gaza book, but in the follow-up she regularly comments on cyclists, while bemoaning that it is not wholely acceptable for Muslim women to bike, in fact verbotem in some places.  Her bibliography includes Bettina Selby's bicycling book "Riding to Jerusalem," though she never refers to it in the book.

She mentions a Guardian Angel in eleven of her books, but never in reference to leading her to drink.  More often than not, a Guardian Angel appears when she is in a quandary of what direction to take. It can come in the guise of a black cow, as the one that led her across a stream and through a meadow showing her where the path resumed in "Full Tilt."  Earlier in the book she thanks her Guardian Angel for getting her to a village just as night fell.  Three times on that trip her Guardian Angel was a pistol, though she doesn't call it so, that she carried for the one and only time--once to scare off wild dogs that attacked her and twice more when men threatened her in eastern Turkey and Iran.

Her Guardian Angel in "On a Shoestring to Coorg" was a Swiss couple who lent her money.  In "Through the Embers of Chaos," it was someone who stopped to give her a ride through a long dangerous tunnel and later a young cyclist who helped her with the repair of her rear wheel.  In "The Island that Dared" about Cuba it was a British Embassy official and someone who gives her directions when she's on an isolated path.  

She calls herself a Guardian Angel in "Muddling Through in Madagascar" when she assists some bashful Norwegians who were grossly overcharged, knowing Murphy had the spunk to stand up for them.  She thanks her Guardian Angel for getting her to a hotel in time in Ethiopia just before the onslaught of diarrhea.  In the same book she admits that "for an instant I was aware of being protected by some mysterious power; and to a person without definite religious convictions this was almost as great a shock as the unpleasant encounter (a robbery) itself."

She declines to call herself an "atheist," as she considers it a word with "a bleak, negative, almost aggressive ring," so prefers to identify herself a "Green Humanist."  But she does take God to task for "pulling a dirty trick" on Joseph for making Mary pregnant.   

Throughout her travels she is often mistaken for being a man, even as a 31-year old when biking to India, due to her deep voice, asexual attire and general conception that no woman would be attempting what she is doing.  She takes no offense and generally finds it amusing.  In South Africa someone told her, "You are not a common person coming on a bicycle.  Are you a male or a female?  Looking at you hard, I can't decide."

In Cameroon when she was traveling with Rachel as an 18-year old, their last trip together until Cuba nearly twenty years later, it grew tiresome when nearly everyone mistook her gender and assumed they were husband and wife.  She found it upsetting when after talking to someone, male or female, for half an hour or more, to "suddenly realize that the conversation might have developed entirely differently had the other party known the gender score."

More often than not she makes mirth of the gender confusion.  In Madagascar a disbelieving tribesman  who spoke a few words of French tapped her chest and inquired, "Lait?" She responded, "Oui, but a long time ago.  He was unconvinced and repeated "L'homme" and began unbuttoning her shirt, which she did not resist.  "There was nothing at all offensive about his action," she wrote.  "He was merely conducting a scientific investigation while incidentally causing paroxysms of hilarity among the population."  The 14-year old Rachel could take no more and fled the scene.  She concludes, "At 51 it is quite safe to let puzzled young tribesmen peer down one's shirt-front; they are unlikely to be inflamed by what they see."

Though she was often mistaken for a man, she still had to fend off many a male advance.  In "Full Tilt" she wrote that Afghanstan was the only country she ever travelled in that "not one single man of any type made the slightest attempt 'to get off' with me."  She felt no qualms about sleeping in a room one night with five men in Afghanistan even though, "They all look as if murder was their favorite hobby (and maybe it is--among themselves), yet they're as gentle as lambs with me."  In South Africa, even though she was in to her 60s, she was constantly lusted after.  She scoffed at one  guy who was young enough to be her son and commented, "not for twenty years have I had as many 'suitors.'"

Her intrepid spirit allowed her to shrug off many an incident that would have perilized most.  She calls herself a "tough old boot."  When her bike is stolen in South Africa, she accepts it, philosophizing, "A similar theft at home would have enraged me; but you can't feel enraged in South Africa when a black steals from a white."  When robbed in Ethiopia she called it "an isolated reef in an ocean of kindness."  In "Silverland" she reflected, "Happily most people in most countries are honest, as 55 years of traveling have taught me."  She thwarted a robbery in a rasta bar that she had become a habituĂ© in while writing "Tales from Two Ciites" researching immigrant populations in Manningham and Handsworth in England.  A guy tried to grab her diamond ring, "but luckily he was under-sized and easily dealt with."  

She confesses to resorting to the f-word for the first time in her life during her eight months of urban enslavement writing this book, when she called a bunch of journalists "fucking lazy bastards" for not getting any closer to a riot that she had just come from.  She wasn't happy when she heard Rachel use the word for the first time in Madagascar when she was upset that the town they had come to wasn't the one they hoped it would be.  Murphy comments, "It was a word that was not in her vocabulary before she went away to school; is it for this that we court destitution to pay school-fees?"

She knows when to take precautions.  Before she was robbed in Russia while on her bike she transferred most of her money from her money belt to her shoes and her "ultimate hiding place--reflecting as I did so that in this context the female anatomy is more convenient than the male, the vagina being in less frequent use than the anus."

Her supreme frankness applies to all matters.  She wrote of masturbating as a six-year old in her memoirs. When she was camping in Northern Ireland she was "caught doing my 'morning duties' by soldiers, but since my activities were at a crucial stage, I could do nothing more than squat on." She calls the avocado her favorite laxative.  There were none to be found in Pakistan when she was trekking with Rachel in the winter months and her diet reduced her "to an unprecedented state of constipation."  They were eating dog biscuits and at one point she was so hungry when she came upon eggs, she gobbled them raw.  She had no complaints though of using snow balls as toilet paper.

Murphy has six times broken ribs in her travels.  When it happened in Madagascar when someone with a rifle butt inadvertently smashed her ribs in the cramped space of a mini-bus on a rough road, Rachel chastised her for not bringing along pain-killers since it is such a common occurrence. She had to rely on alcohol to deaden the pain. She doesn't bemoan her setbacks.  When she came down with mumps working with the Tibetan refugees, she reasoned, "You can't resent a disease with the name of mumps--it's such a jolly word."

Murphy thrives on the difficulti, trekking though wilds on little used trails that could have her scrambling up cliff sides searching for a way to go.  She fears contemporary society is breeding a race of wimps, just what the consumer society needs she says, people who are easily manipulated into buying things they don't need.  One of those things is the bicycle helmet, which she regards as "wimpish."   As outspoken as she can be, she's not always as extreme as she'd like to be as with the automobile--"I'm not far enough out of my tree," she admits, "to advocate the elimination of motor vehicles, much as I detest them." 

Some might label her a curmudgeon.  In "Tales from Two Cities" she wrote, "I like my dog, my cats and even my goats much more than I like most human beings."  She proved her devotion to her animals during her time in Israel to fly home for a month to replace her pet-sitter.  But she has few derogatory remarks to make about the people she encounters in her travels other than the generic tourist and back-packer.  She directs most of her displeasure at consumerism.  While in the Balkans she observed, "Frugaliy is what every country must learn to accept, soon, if our planet is to remain habitable for human beings."  She quotes Carl Jung as "precisely expressing" her opinion that, "I have serious doubts as to the blessings of Western civilization."

Whether one agrees or not with Murphy's many pronouncements, there is no denying she is one of the premier travelers of our time.  Volume 204 of the "Dictionary of Literary Biography" on British Travel Writers devotes twenty pages to her, more than the much more prominent Jan Morris (17), Jonathan Raban (14), Bruce Chatwin (13), Eric Newby (12), and Wilfred Thesiger (11).  Bettina Selby, who wrote nine books strictly devoted to bicycle tours, is summed up in six pages.  Her career has been lengthy and legendary and it isn't over.

She's not as well known as she ought to be.  I didn't stumble upon "Full Tilt" until 1987.  I didn't think at the time to see if she'd continued her cycle touring or if she had written anything else.  I considered myself well-versed when it came to travel writing, and since I was unaware of her I assumed she was among those one-of travel writers.  It wasn't until I biked South Africa in 2009 that I learned from the Lonely Planet guide that she had written a book about cycling the country fifteen years before. That book led to the treasure-trove of her many books.  The Chicago Public Library had a handful and the rest I could find at Northwestern and other University libraries, as her books are considered worthwhile tools of research for getting at the ground roots of the countries she has explored.  I didn't read them all at once, but parceled them out over the years, finally completing the lot last month.  One of the last was about her travels to Madagascar. And thanks to that book that will be my next destination.


Rick Oberle said...

I look forward to your dispatches! I hope they are at least as colorful as you make Dervla Murphy sound. No doubt, they will be.

Bill Burns said...

Hey now, George! I picked up and read Murphy's Cameroon story on recommendation of one of your posts a couple three years ago, now. She is a unique character for sure. I'm sure she'd be a hoot to have a beer (or three) with. This post is a great introduction to her and a fine appreciation for another world traveler. Thanks for it and safe travels in Madegascar!