In 1993, just before the first post-apartheid elections were to happen, Dervla Murphy, a sixty-two year old Irish travel writer, arrived in South Africa and began a 12,000 kilometre journey by bicycle through the vast and beautiful landscape, through the tumultuous beginnings of a new country. Ten years later, I read the book she wrote about that eye-opening journey. An engaged and astute observer, Murphy never shied from writing the difficult things that make a reader question their own privilege, their own social safety nets. I read South from the Limpopo in a gray cubicle belonging to the customer service department of the educational publisher where I worked, interrupted too often by calls from customers disgruntled about scuffed textbooks or missing quiz answer booklets.
I was happy to discover Murphy had written sixteen other books before South from the Limpopo (total tally now twenty-four) She began her travels relatively late in life, at the age of thirty-two, after her invalided mother died and she was relieved of that duty of care. When Murphy finally began living life for herself, she did so in a big way, riding her bicycle not just cross-country, but cross-continent, from Dunkirk in France all the way to India (Full Tilt). She smoked, she drank, she spoke her mind. She was ever-generous in giving the places she travelled and the people she met the benefit of the doubt. She was often mistaken for a man, owing to her short hair and the audacity of a woman out on her own in some of the places she travelled through.
I was hooked on Murphy’s writing, but soon frustrated to discover so many of her books out of print. I scoured used bookstores, ordered hardbacks from the U.K. and paid more for shipping than for the books themselves. I read of her journey by mule through the Andes, her nine year old daughter in tow (Eight Feet in the Andes), her rides through the Balkans (Through the Embers of Chaos) and Rwanda (Visiting Rwanda), just after the end of wars and horrendous human atrocities. She related travel tales from Laos and Coorg, Ethiopia and Nepal, Cameroon, Madagascar, Transylvania. She was held up at gunpoint. She relied on her wits and her bicycles and the immense kindness of strangers during her travels through so many countries. She suffered dysentery and malaria, bed bugs and parasites. She did not suffer doubters or fools.
In her books, Dervla Murphy never apologizes for living outside “normal” and has little patience for people who question the great distances she travels in sometimes dangerous places. For Murphy, it’s a lack of vision that makes a life dangerous, the inevitable dullness that precipitates from not trusting in one’s abilities. She wastes no words on the relationship she has with an editor and never explains or justifies (as, indeed, a child never should be) the daughter born from that relationship. Quite naturally, the child just begins to show up in Murphy’s writing--Rachel, a charming and intelligent girl who tests her mother’s patience at times because she can’t always keep up with her ma’s speed of travel. A child out of wedlock, an itinerant and independent lifestyle, a commitment to write things as she saw them in the world, nevermind the safety of popular political opinion and, most amazing of all, a lack of guilt for any of it, at least in her writing; Dervla Murphy fell well outside the scope of normal for a middle-aged woman in Catholic Ireland.
Before reading Murphy’s books, I’d never questioned what I’d do with my life. I was operating on the assumption that happiness was somehow tied up with checking things off a master list, and my list was nothing if not pragmatic: finish university (check), marry (check), work at a publishing company (check) work up from an entry level position, become an editor.
No, those last two aren’t checked. Probably they never will be. That’s owing to Dervla Murphy and her adventurous life and the books she wrote about it. That’s owing to the fact that I went out to a bookstore on a spring afternoon when I was twenty-three looking for someone to tell me what I thought I should do with my life was good and right and acceptable and finding Dervla instead. Dervla Murphy taught me that acceptability is not the goal, that what’s important in life, and in art, is the fear, the discomfort and, most of all, the trying. She pointed the way to new options, wide open options, that weren’t on my very practical list—amazing things I could accomplish if I let go of pleasing other people, if I let go of holding their expectations for my life above my own. And so I quit that customer service job. Shortly after I finished reading South from the Limpopo, I quit my idea of how the rest of my life was supposed to look according to other people. Because of Dervla’s writing, I made a new checklist. Though I guess it’s not really a list if there’s only one thing on it: WRITE.
Erin Bedford lives and writes in Toronto. She attended and won a Certificate of Distinction from the Humber School for Writers for her first published novel, Fathom Lines. At present, she is writing poetry and short stories and acting as shill for her newly-finished second novel. Find out more here erinbedford.ca or @ErinLBedford