The title of this travelogue could not be more apt. Our heroine, a 31 year old Irishwoman fulfilling a lifelong dream to cycle solo from Dublin in her homeland to Delhi in India, is naturally obliged to go ‘full tilt’ on her two wheels (she charmingly christens her bike ‘Roz’ and refers to it as ‘she’ throughout) to complete her crazy-ambitious quest.
But it’s a full tilt story in other ways too: namely, in the warts and all, near-unedited diary narrative and open and honest recollection of the journey’s passage. No rounds of edits or meetings with publishing house bigwigs asking her to perhaps not cover this event, or express this unorthodox opinion, for our Dervla. We’re along for the ride in true all or nothing style!
Interestingly, for such a long journey, Murphy opts to condense the narrative so that the part of the journey before she arrives in Tehran is swiftly dealt with in anecdotal form. This is because, as becomes evidently clear as the narrative progresses, she is most enchanted with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Which is fair enough: but when you consider some of the more dramatic episodes occur during this leg – such as when she has to fight off a pack of wolves with the revolver she judiciously brought along in Bulgaria, and gets abducted by a man posing as a police officer in Azerbaijan (yes, really) – it’s a very curious choice indeed.
Not as curious as her decision to undergo in this journey in the first place, of course. A solo woman travelling the Middle East isn’t exactly the most common of sights today, but in 1963 it was an almost unheard of event. And to do so on a bicycle! If nothing else, you have to admire Murphy’s courage and chutzpah.
Roz – battered as she gets on this odyssey – is definitely a star of the story, but that is largely down to the quirky idiosyncrasies of Murphy’s narrative voice. Somehow worldly-streetwise and endearingly innocent at the same time, she is above all non-judgemental of all the people she encounters, be they officious border guards or wide-eyed, shoeless children. Also, rather pleasingly, she is no whinger either – all hardships met on the road are met with stiff upper lip understatement.
This being 1963, the pictures she portrays of Afghanistan and Pakistan are illuminating indeed. Whilst almost everyone she meets is astonishingly kind and hospitable – which, as she observes, is particularly noteworthy when her company is predominantly male – she isn’t afraid to call things as she sees them, such as when she describes the religious tensions arising from the then-recent establishment of Pakistan as an independent Islamic Republic as ‘a tragic muddle’.
Her experience travelling in these two nations would be vastly different today (especially Afghanistan) of course. What we do get is a intriguing insight in to a way of life, and a way of travel, that might not be wholly possible today. The same could arguably be said of the rough-edged, ramshackle and unpolished diary narrative. Sure, the pace is uneven and there are some dull bits, but it all accurately reflects her admirably unique journey – which, in the final analysis, is an entertaining and thoroughly likeable one indeed.
Featured image courtesy of Ricardo Mangual