Saturday, February 18, 2017

Miandrivazo, Madagascar




Juerg was absolutely right, if I kept trying I'd eventually find an ATM that wouldn't decline me.  Its just like playing the slots, one isn't going to win very often, but occasionally one hits pay dirt.  I wasn't  so sure though, as I had three more reject me in Antsirabe, the third largest city in Madagascar. After being turned town by the Africa Bank, the largest bank in the country and the only one with billboards promoting how caring it is, I ventured inside to see if that applied to me.  It's friendly manager accompanied me to the ATM machine to give it another try.  He was baffled, but he declined to accept  either my debit or credit card, as I found a bank to do in China when I suffered similar ATM rejection.  He just gave me the Juerg advice to keep trying other ATMs. 

Just around the corner two blocks from the grand Catholic cathedral was a Lonely Planet recommended hotel with bungalows and camping for $2.  Even though it was just mid-afternoon and this city had no charm whatsoever, I had been contemplating pitching my tent there, if only for the opportunity of a shower.  I stopped in to see if they'd bill my credit card for an extra amount and refund me the difference.  As nice as they were, that wasn't something they were willing to do.  They advertised WIFI but it wasn't working, otherwise I would have tried to contact Janina and have her call my bank, even though I had alerted it of my travel before I left. 

The hotel had had other travelers with similar difficulties and recommended the nearby BNI bank.  As I slipped my debit card in the slot of this glorified slot machine I had a premonition that this one would pay off and it did.  I felt a combination of relief and happiness as the bills were dispensed.  There were no flashing lights or ringing bells, but I could distinctly imagine them.  I celebrated by  going to the nearby Shop Right supermarket and buying a liter-and-a-half bottle of cold water for thirty cents, my first purchase of  water or a cold drink, having relied upon my filter up until now to purify water from communal town faucets.  It was my first foray into a supermarket.  Each of its four aisles was monitored by a security guard, as I had only previously witnessed in South Africa. Crime is much less of an issue here than there, but evidently still a concern.

I've had an occasional small child pester me with out-stretched hand, but the general populace is devoid of menacing o sullen looks, unlike elsewhere I've traveled in Africa. The masses may be barefoot poor, but they are not downtrodde or demoralized. There is no sense of hostility.  I am continually greeted with a warm and welcoming  "Bonjour" from those I pass on the road.  Madagascar was a French colony up until gaining independence in 1960 and many of its vestiges remain, including relic Citroen Deux Chevaux, more than one sees in France. All the travelogues I've read of Madagascar, dating back to Dervla Murphy's visit in 1983 and Gerald Durrell's expedition more than a decade later in search of the rare Aye-Aye lemur with an extra-long middle digital  comment on how gentle and kindly the people are, especially in contrast with the rest of Africa.  I can attest to that myself.  It can almost challenge Thailand as the "Land of Smiles."  The people do have a genuine cordial nature.

After the pleasure of cool water gracing my gullet I could only make myself feel better by getting on my bike and heading down the road and camping in the countryside rather than the heart of a bustling city.  Though the traffic had been minimal on the main highway following the spine of the country, it evaporated to almost none at all when I turned off it on highway 34 to the coast. On the way out of the city I stopped at a small cafe with bowls of several types of pasta in its glass display case facing the road and filled up my Tupperware bowl for sixty cents.  

I just needed to find a village water faucet in the next couple of hours before dark to fill the now empty liter-and-half bottle to go along with my already full four bottles.  I'd been sweating a lot and wanted as much water in reserve as possible. Town faucets aren't as evident or common as I would like.  After half an hour I came upon one but the water was turned off.  As I turned to go, a woman across the road told me I could help myself to the filled jugs in front of the faucet.  I had noticed rows of the ubiquitous yellow jugs before, but didn't realize they were already filled and available for taking advantage of, a valuable lesson learned.


A little while later I was joined by a teenaged boy who was pedaling home from school, an eight mile commute.  He was a rarity, someone who spoke some English.  I was the first native-born English-speaker he had had a chance to try out his English on.  "I am intelligent," he said, "but I still have a lot to learn."  We pedaled side-by-side for nearly twenty minutes, unhindered by anything but bicycle traffic and pot holes, and covered a range of topics from family life to his ambitions.  He'd like to become president and improve the conditions in Madagascar.  He doesn't like the current president, saying he has kept the country poor.  His refreshing sincerity just might lead to a political career that could lead anywhere.

After we parted ways the terrain suddenly dealt up a series of killer hills for the next thirty miles, ten before I found a place to camp just off the road behind a bushy thicket and then to start the next day.  It was much more demanding than the first fifty miles of ups and downs out of the capital.  And I had to limit my speed on the descents wary of pot holes and the danger of a rift in the road preceding a bridge that was often at the bottom of a hill.  I had been saved by a couple of cyclists on the main highway on a long steep descent.  They were a ways ahead of me and I was surprised when I suddenly starting gaining on them as they knew to start braking before a bridge that had a virtual speed bump preceding it.

In the smaller villages along my route I was occasionally finding town faucets with no one around.  The temperature was creeping into the high eighties as I began my descent to the coast.  I was beginning to bake, especially from the strenuous climbing.  For the first time I was able to put my head under a faucet and to soak my shirt, at least before a crowd had gathered.


The culture here has an abundance of taboos, known as fady.  They include pointing at the royal tombs, eating pork on certain occasions, swimming in certain places, touching certain baobab trees and many others.  I no doubt was violating some taboo by my faucet behavior,  but no one reprimanded me.  Juerg says in his year here no one has ever told him he has done something unapproved of, though he is certain he has.  The people are too polite and understanding of our ignorance to make an issue of it.  

In one small town I passed through I came upon a guy with a cart who I thought was selling ice cream.  When I stopped he immediately handed me a glass of cold juice.  It was a nectar of the gods, just what I needed.  At eight cents a glass, I had two more, sipping the last two plopped on the ground sitting in the shade eating some left-over spaghetti I had acquired a couple villages back.  I had fully immersed myself in the life around me, as traveling by bicycle so easily facilitates.




Thursday, February 16, 2017

Antsirabe, Madagascar



I wisely brought more cash than usual on a trip, $200, as I have yet to find an ATM machine here in Madagascar that will accept my Master debit card--not the one at the airport nor four in the capital of Antananarivo, a city of 1.2 million.  I needed $27 of that stash upon arrival, as I unexpectedly had to purchase a visa, contrary to the information at the Madagascar website--one month or less was supposedly to be free.

I haven't totally abandoned hope of finding an ATM that will accept my card, as my Warmshowers host Juerg, who has lived here for a year with his wife and son, said his cards are occasionally rejected, but eventually accepted.  There is no predicting nor explaining. There is much in Madagascar that doesn't conform to the norms.  Juerg is Swiss and not easily rattled. He's learned to not despair when things aren't as he wishes here.   He's not even alarmed by Trump, or at least just yet.  He thinks he could be an interesting experiment.

I changed $100 at the airport at a reasonable rate and with no commission.  That could last me a couple of weeks if have no accommodation expenses, hopefully camping wild as I usually do.  Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world.  It ranks 151 of 181 countries in average income.  Some eighty per cent of the population earn less than $200 a year.  Since I'll only be here a month, and the short one at that, I could well have enough US currency to get me through.  That may deprive me of as many cold drinks as I would like, but that will make me feel a little more like a Malagasy.  

Plenty of them bike, some thanks to Juerg's wife Gaby. She's works for UNICEF and tries to get bikes donated by the international community.  It's not as easy task, as Madagascar doesn't have that high of a profile among the donor class.  With the cost of a bike well over a quarter of the average Malagasy's annual earnings, someone on a bike is truly blessed, but that applies everywhere.  One of the bikers helped guide me through Antananarivo's thick traffic on my ten-mile ride from the airport to Juerg's apartment in a gated community.

I was about half way there, negotiating the traffic-clogged two-lane national highway carrying my bike box under my right arm.  I knew I would soon be leaving it and asked a cyclist the way to a large park that was one of my landmarks.  He said he was headed in that direction and to follow hiim.  After a few blocks we left the highway and rode a dirt path for a couple of miles that was atop a dyke separating a river from a small stretch of rice paddies.  There were other cyclists on the path and puddles of water to dodge.  It was approaching nightfall.  There were flashes of lightning in the distance over the high hills.  I was racing the dark as well as the rain, but only at seven miles per hour.  

After fifteen minutes we reached a paved road.  My guide stopped and told me he was turning to the left while I had to go to the right.  He drew a map for me.  By the time I reached the park it was dark and I still had a couple miles to go.  I wasn't the lone cyclist, but I was the only one with lights and a helmet. There was still lots of traffic, but it wasn't going very fast and it was mostly compact cars not hogging the road.  

I needed to use my GPS device and ask directions several times, but I wasn't regretting at all that I had chosen to bike and not resorted to a cab.  It was just what I needed after my long transit--eleven hours to Istanbul, a ten-hour layover, an eight-hour flight to Mauritius and then ninety minutes to Madagascar after ninety per cent of the passengers disembarked and no others boarded--the first indication of how little interest there is in Madagascar.

When I finally found the entrance to Juerg's gated community one of the security guards hopped on a bike and led me to my destination a few blocks away in one of a row of four-story complexes on Ronald Reagan Way.  Juerg couldn't explain how it gained its name.  It was only ten years old.  A lot of US embassy staff reside there, but far from the majority of the residents.

Since I was later than expected, Juerg and Gaby had already eaten but had some dinner for me.  I still had perishable food that I hadn't eaten so I finished that while we sat on their porch in the pleasant 70 degree temperatures. We talked cycling, as Juerg also biked South America top to bottom, and UNICEF.  They had last been in Peru for four years before beginning this four-year assignment.  They had also served in Laos and Kazastan.  There was no shortage of subjects.

I had my choice of the guest bedroom or pitching my tent in their small courtyard.  I was delighted to be the first to camp there.


Gaby was off early the next morning for a meeting with the Finance Minister so she missed out on the photo op taken by their cook and housekeeper.


Juerg's Florida State t-shirt acknowledged Gaby's alma mater where she earned a degree in economics before gong to Oxford for a Ph.D and then Yale for more study.  UNICEF is certainly lucky to have someone so highly qualified and committed.  Juerg is hoping her next assignment will be in Switzerland at the UN offices in Geneva.  That will ease the difficulty of visiting family, though it won't totally resolve it as Gaby's family is Mexican, residing in Puebla where she grew up.

I was eager to dive into the country the next morning, but first Juerg led me a mall complex where I could get a SIM card for my iPad and try some ATMs.  After completing those chores Juerg pointed the way for me to the downtown and National Hoghway 7 that would take me south to the Allée des Baobobs on the west coast of the island 400 miles away.  There was no point of him leading the way as the traffic didn't make for such pleasant cycling nor the heavy pollution, which he does his best to avoid.

There are lots of remarkable sites to see on this huge island, exceeded only in size by Greenland, Papua New Guinea and Borneo.  I will have to be selective in what I see. There are national parks with wild and eccentric rock formations teeming with lemurs and beaches galore and even a fireplace designed by Eiffel.  But I am not here so, much to see the sites, but rather to have a good bike ride and gain an understanding of this isolated island. It is one thousand miles top to bottom, more than the circumference of Taiwan that I biked a year ago.  Unlike Taiwan and Iceland, it does not have a road that circles it.  What coastal roads there are barely qualify as roads.  Cyclists who attempt them end up pushing their bikes through miles and miles of sand and rely on dugout canoes to cross many rivers. 

Antananarivo resides on the highlands at 4,100 feet.  My ride south has so far kept in the relative cool of the highlands.  The road has climbed as high as 5,700 feet.  It was up and down with hardly a flat stretch the first fifty miles. If I weren't carrying weight I might have avoided my small chain ring, as the climbs haven't been excessively steep or prolonged, just unremitting. Small rice paddies flanked the road where the soil permitted.  Mostly the terrain was deforested hillsides, the shame of Madagascar.  Only ten per cent of the forests that covered the island and greeted the first humans to reach it from Indonessia two thousand years ago remain.  Although it is only 250 miles off the coast of Tanzania, just below the Equator, the Africans of that era weren't seafarers, and didn't populate Madagascar until later, lending a unique mix with the Indonesians.  

Madagascar's size and isolation, earning it the nickname of the Eighth Continent, has bred a flora and fauna found nowhere else.  Some eighty per cent of the plant and animal life is unique to the island.  There are 100 lemur species and sub-species, a primate with a cat face that are found only here.  It is the largest mammal on the island.  Madagascar may be considered Africa, but when it drifted away from the continent over 100 million years ago, it didn't bring along any elephants, giraffes, hippos, felines or monkeys.  There are no dangerous animals, not even venomous snakes.  

Despite the deforestation, which was a true blight from the air flying in, most of the population relies on firewood  and charcoal for their cooking and heat.  I haven't heard any chain saws yet, but I did see recently felled trees being transported on the national highway.


The relaxed small towns, some with rickshaws, referred to as pousse-pousses, were a refreshing tonic after the hive of humanity thronging the sidewalks and streets of the bustling capital.  Small cafes had food on display.  I stopped twice for noodles and hard-boiled eggs that I spotted in glass cases and put my trusty Tupperware bowl to use.  At sixty cents for such a meal, my limited monetary supply might stretch to allow me an occasional thirty cent cold soda. 


I was an attraction drawing a good crowd at one town's water pump as I used my water filter for the first time.  But the highlight of my first day on the road was finding a patch of scraggly trees at dark to camp in.  All is well with the promise of another memorable adventure to come. 



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 habitué 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.