First, a confession. I don’t read a lot of travel blogs. Sure, if I search a question and a relevant-sounding blog post comes up, I’ll click, but otherwise, I don’t really seek them out.
Instead, I try to find travelogues. Travelogues are more like memoirs; whole books written about a journey, rather than a destination. There tends to be a lot of good info to be found within on particular places, but it’s written more to set the scene and put the reader in situ rather than act as a pure guidebook. Many are written as journals, and may not have been written with the intention that they be read widely until long after the fact. Lately, I’ve been on the hunt for female travelogues, especially ones that really put themselves out there before solo female travel became the latest buzzword.
That leads me to my new series, Lady Traveloguers. While I’ve read Bill Bryson and Patrick Leigh Fermor (and loved them dearly), I had never heard of any famous female travelogue writers until I started to actively seek them out. Turns out there are plenty! So, I’ve decided to feature and share some of my recent finds.
Badass Lady Traveloguer the First: Dervla Murphy
First up, Dervla Murphy. Murphy might be the most badass grandmother in all of Ireland. She’s written over 20 books in about 50 years, all travelogues of her journeys all over the globe. When Murphy travels, she really digs in. We’re talking hiking/ cycling, remote areas, pack mules, injuries, relying on the kindness of others, the whole thing. In finding her books, I accidentally ended up reading her first book and one of her most recent, written nearly 40 years apart. It made from an interesting exercise in comparing and contrasting.
Dervla Murphy: Full Tilt
In the first, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, Murphy is in her twenties, travelling across Europe and Asia in the mid 1960s. On a bicycle. Think about how crazy that is for a moment. The book is actually a collection of letters written to friends back home. While it’s clear that the letters were never meant to be read by a wide audience, it’s just as clear that very little was changed when the decision to publish was made. Murphy is caustic, naïve, and utterly fearless (some might say reckless). She is certainly not the most politically correct, and while I initially thought that to be a product of the time of writing, it turns out to be a permanent character trait, as shown by her later work.
The book delivers on the promise of its title. Murphy breezes through Europe, reaching the eastern edge of Turkey by page 16 (with some pretty harrowing close calls in those few pages). From there on, she lingers through each country, sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity of illness, malnutrition, or blocked passage. In particular, Murphy falls in love with both the beauty and people of Afghanistan. She passes through it in an interesting point period, as the Soviet Union and the US were vying for influence in the country. It’s a little heartbreaking to realize that many of the places Murphy experiences no longer exist; I had a sad moment when reading her description of the giant Buddhas of central Afghanistan, which were destroyed in 2001.
Murphy’s writing is honest and insightful. It was both poignant and laughable to read her description of the more escapist type of traveller she encountered, a description that seemed all too familiar: young, aimless, American/ European.
To them, travel is more a going away from rather than a going towards, and they seem empty and unhappy and bewildered and pathetically anxious for companionship, yet are afraid to commit themselves to any ideal or cause or other individual. […] This young man was pleasant and intelligent but wasting himself and resentfully conscious of that fact. He doesn’t want to return home in the foreseeable future, yet, after two years of it, is weary of travelling, probably because he always holds himself aloof from the people he travels among – not through hostility or superiority but through a strange unconsciousness of the unity of mankind. (p.95)
I was definitely inspired by the book, but at the same time, I finished it completely convinced that I am in no way cut out for that sort of journey, even if world affairs were to make it more feasible than they currently do.
Dervla Murphy: The Island that Dared
Murphy became as much a political historian as a travel writer in her later years. This comes through in her book The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba. The book documents her three trips through Cuba, first with her daughter and 3 granddaughters, and then twice on her own. Unlike her first book, Island was a very intentional research project and trip. Murphy sets out to understand the history and motivations behind the Cuban political system, questioning as many locals as she can.
It’s an interesting mash-up. Murphy juxtaposes her journeys hiking through the countryside, accidentally coming up to restricted army bases, travelling with young children, and dealing with archaic train systems, with long political conversations, musings on the writings of Castro and Guevara, and diatribes on modern economic scholarship. It makes for an occasionally heavy read, jumping across time and place, but just when all the politics gets to be too much, Murphy lightens the mood with an anecdote of her hunting for beer in towns that don’t cater to tourists.
That said, and with no disrespect intended, Murphy does show her age. There’s no disputing how impressive it is that she embark on such a venture, and her honesty in her opinions is part of her appeal. From time to time, though, there is a crotchety and old-fashioned undertone to her views; she hates technology, doesn’t seem to believe in equal rights for all, has little respect for younger generations. I believe her distaste of capitalism leads her to gloss over and even romanticize some of Cuba’s problems.
Murphy does have a gift for painting a picture. Her descriptions of Havana brought me straight back there, right down to chowing down bananas from the organoponico, the smell of exhaust, and the incomparable experience of riding on truck-buses. It was especially poignant reading this in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death. Love him or hate him, his impact will be felt for many, many years.
Much like Full Tilt, I finished Island inspired, though differently so. While the former left me wanting to do something completely outrageous, the latter made me want to dig a lot deeper into the places I travel. One thing is for sure, I am now itching to read more awesome lady traveloguers like Dervla Murphy.