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Like a lot of people when I was ten I had plenty of ‘ambitions’ – flying to the moon, meeting Norman Wisdom, driving a steam train, getting a kiss from a young lady called Lesley who sat opposite me in primary school. Well apart from the kiss the rest just passed me by in that strange thing called life. Not so for Dervla Murphy, in 1941 on her tenth birthday she received a bicycle and an atlas and soon she had planned to cycle to India. Twenty two years later she achieved that aim, cycling through Europe in the coldest winter in living memory and onto Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and into India. Murphy is an intelligent and entertaining companion, one who ‘engages sympathy from the start by her qualities of tact, charity and courage.’ One can’t help admire her tenacity and ability to overcome ‘enough difficulties and dangers to satisfy the most dedicated traveller.’ Included in a list of the kit she carried with her is Nehru’s History of India and Blake’s poems (Penguin edition), a 1.25 automatic pistol (which she had need of), four maps, 6 notebooks and 12 pens. The whole trip lasted from 14 January to 8 July 1963 and her total expenditure on the trip was £64 7s 10d. Over the years Dervla Murphy has travelled round Ethiopia, trekked the Andes with her eight year old daughter and a donkey, Madagascar, Cameroon, various places in Africa and this century now in her seventies she has spent time in Siberia and Cuba. But this is the trip that started it all and is one of my favourite travel books.
The United Nations passed an ineffectual resolution ‘demanding respect for human rights in Tibet’ but the invasion created an influx of Tibetan refugees into the surrounding countries. Dervla Murphy had spent the first six months of 1963 cycling from Dunkirk to Delhi (the story for this journey is in her book Full Tilt). Whilst recovering from heat stroke she met a refugee worker by the name of Jill Buxton who invited her to visit one of the transit camps/schools at Dharamsala. For the rest of the year Murphy worked to help these refugees adjust to their new lives. She was very taken with the Tibetan children, or Tiblets as she calls them. On visiting a nursery and finding the teachers were absent she observed two ten year olds taking the class whilst the rest of the children were copying on to their slates. She also remarks on the ‘complete equality between the sexes’ and how she could draw comparisons with a modern Western community, only to remind herself that this equality is relatively new to our society but has ‘always been taken for granted in Tibet’. Murphy writes with warmth and compassion, producing a humorous and moving account of the day to day, the life and death of refugee life. She meets the Dalai Lama, cycles through the Valley of the Gods, and spends a ‘strange’ Christmas with the Malanis – ‘an autonomous community of some 600 people who live on a 9,000ft plateau, independent of all outside influences’. It is estimated that the Malanis have been living on their plateau for about 5,000 years. Written in diary form detailing each day’s challenges and rewards, her energy and commitment shine through. On her last diary entry she contemplates the refugee predicament.