It takes a pretty interesting woman to cycle all the way from Ireland to India alone. That’s just what Dervla Murphy, Irish travel writer and touring cyclist, did – in the 1960s.
The idea came on her 10th birthday: “a bicycle and an atlas coincided as gifts, and a few days later I decided to cycle to India”. She waited until she was 32 years old to set off on her journey through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan before eventually reaching her destination in India. The stories inspired her first novel: Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, but her journeys didn’t end there. She subsequently wrote about volunteering in Tibet and Nepal, and trekking in Ethiopia. After the birth of her daughter she continued to travel, taking her little one with her to India, Pakistan, South America, Madagascar and Cameroon. In later years she would travel alone again.
As one of my 25 aims for this year I wanted to read her first novel and learn what it was like for a single female to journey across the world by bicycle. I just finished it in the nick of time, so here’s five things I learned from her book:
Dervla’s book Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle offers some really interesting insights in to countries that rarely enjoy good press or tourism nowadays
Dervla famously says that “most people in the world are helpful and trustworthy” and reading about her travels through war-torn countries like Afghanistan you sense how overwhelmingly kind and giving people were to her. Those who had practically nothing would insist she stay in their house. They would provide her with the little food they had without even dreaming of taking any payment from her for their hospitality.
Dervla is a pretty cool chick it turns out
Throughout the book I was amazed by her relative calm in moments of horrendous stress. For instance, as she walked along a twilit forest road in Persia she was set upon by wolves. She aptly whipped out her gun, shot one and scared the others off. Barely an eyebrow raised. In another instance, she awoke to find a scantily-clad Kurdish man hovering over her bed and again, with hit-man-like calm, pulled the same gun from beneath her pillow and fired at the ceiling. “That concluded the matter” as she puts it. I love this (not so much the killing of the wolves, but more the ‘get on with it’ attitude) because she did not let these events hamper her resolve, and refused to be told that she could not complete the journey because she was female.
Dervla’s book provides some interesting opinions on development
“The more I see of life in these ‘underdeveloped countries’ and of the methods adopted to ‘improve’ them, the more depressed I become. It seems criminal that the backwardness of a country like Afghanistan should be used as an excuse for America and Russia to have a tug of war possession.” She talks about young Afghanistans having an “impatient feeling of contempt for their country, an undiscriminating worship of everything American”, and suggests that launching a country into a Western version of ‘civilisation’ is both catastrophic and tragic.
She draws in to question big philosophical questions about what we’ve become
In one of her most thoughtful moments, whilst travelling through the arduous mountains of the Himalayas she is forced to take a very hairy plain journey through the steep passes. After the experience she suggests, “machines have done incalculable damage by unbalancing the relationship between nature and man”. She continues, “For us to refer to nature as a separate entity… shows how far we’ve removed ourselves from it”. It’s an interesting point, which draws up a ton of other questions – are we even part of nature any more? What will the continued rapid development of the technological world do to humankind as we know it?
When Dervla isn’t musing on the future of the human race, much of what she talks about is what she’ll have for dinner…
…and how ‘Roz’ (her bike) is holding up to the demanding journey. The book was published almost word-for-word from the diary she kept, so you get an on-going dialogue of her thoughts after each day.
Some of my favourite Dervla Murphy quotes from the book:
- “I can’t give an address, for God alone knows where we are”
- “This extraordinary mountain, which inspires the most complex emotions in the least imaginative traveller, affected me so deeply that I have thought of it ever since as a personality encountered, rather than a landscape observed”
- “I feel I’ve been privileged to see Man at his best – still in possession of the sort of liberty and dignity that we have exchanged for what it pleases us to call ‘progress’.