Full Tilt – Dervla Murphy

Back from my honeymoon! Things will now resume as normal.

Point of note: hours after I took this picture, someone sat on this coffee table and broke it.

My continued foray into modern female travel writers brought me to Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy. Which is not precisely modern–it was published in 1965, but she has written so many travel books since then, I consider her a modern writer so you can take that and suck on it. Or however that phrase goes.

I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot, but this book was fantastic. Yes, the first chapter was… different than the rest. Not as good. Not as personable, not as amusing or descriptive. Almost another writer.

But the rest of the book?


What made it wonderful? Many things. Her love of the countries she traveled through, her desire to engage with the locals, her willingness to live/eat like a native, her humor (which shines through the whole book, even in serious moments), her apparent ease in writing, how she interacts with people, how much she stands up for herself in adversity… I could keep going.

She’s a great travel companion, in summary. She’s someone I enjoyed spending my afternoons with, traveling through Central Asia. She was easy to identify with, easy to read, easy to be with as a narrator.

This book also made me question things. As a child of the 80s, my concept of Afghanistan is that it’s just a constant war zone. Yet this book portrayed it as a peaceful, friendly country that the author would enjoy living in. Which is nothing near my mental image of it.

Has it changed that much? Has it changed at all? Or is it just all the news? I don’t know enough to answer those questions, but reading these books that are offset from my own experience by a few decades gives color to areas that are sadly monochromatic, if they even exist at all in my mind.

Some quotes for your enjoyment:

“Obviously the primary need was brandy, yet my face was so numb that I couldn’t articulate one word. I merely pointed to the relevant bottle, and stood by the stove to thaw out, while a group of card-playing men stared at me with a trace of that hostility shown by all peasants in remote places to unexpected strangers.”

“By this time worrying about pneumonia seemed futile; for days I had been living in a state of permanent saturation from the waist down, so that the only sensible reaction was lots of rum and no fuss.”

“I meekly went off to same but it consisted of a tiny room with six beds and just enough space to walk between them. One bed was mine; the other five were occupied by women who possessed a minimum of two infants apiece–all being fed and changed at the time of my appearance. Both window and door were tightly sealed and the stink was appalling, so I got hold of an Indian, also staying here, and used him as interpreter to tell the proprietor that (a) the Shah condemned the segregation of women, (b) the Government was trying to encourage tourism, and (c) I was prepared to respect religious conventions within reason but was not prepared to lock myself up for hours in a room like that […]”

“The Afghan has not yet learned that tourists were invented to be fleeced and twice today my money was refused when I attempted to pay for tea.”

“The light here goes out every ten or fifteen minutes for about five minutes, which is very right and proper; it would be too boring to travel all the way to Central Asia and then have an infallible electricity supply.”

“At 7AM the Police Commissioner appeared again to say that a bus was leaving for Bolola at 8AM, but I’ve been long enough in Afghanistan now to know what that means, so I crawled down to the village at 930 and sat in the sun, drinking tea and watching the Bazaar Day crowd, till the bus was ready to go at 1215PM. In these parts no bus will start until double the number of passengers that it was designed to hold have been crammed into and onto it. If there’s room for just one more, it’ll wait hours for that one to turn up, with the bacha standing out in the middle of the road hoarsely yelling. As Afghans are so indifferent to time […] it follows that every passenger comes when it suits him so that it can take up to six hours to fill a bus.”

“The ribs are very much better today but my big toe got bitten by a scorpion this morning, so I’m having serum treatment. It was  very traditional scorpion, lurking in my boot, and I’ve never seen anything quite so horrifying[…]”

“Today I met a twenty-five-year-old American boy in the Museum who was typical of a certain category of youngster–European, Commonwealth, and America–I’ve met all along the route. 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.”

“At a dinner party tonight I met a European couple who have been in Kabul for eighteen months without once entering the home of an ordinary Afghan–and they are not exceptions. The attitude is that the ‘natives’ are people to be observed from a discreet distance and photographed as often as possible, but not lived among. The result is boredom and an obsessional longing for home leave. The collecting of souvenirs seems to be a substitute for the cheaper and richer experience of being temporarily integrated in the life of the country. Apparently if you can bring home to Malvern or Minneapolis or Munich a sufficiently overwhelming bulk of ‘typical native products’ this concrete evidence of your travels is enough.”

“In Teheran the money-changers work openly but here it’s all frightfully hush-hush and melodramatic. You go down into a maze of smelly little alleys and walk along with your hands held in a certain position, indicating that you’ve been initiated by someone the changer already trusts. Then a little boy of about seven of eight appears, wearing an appropriately significant expression, and he looks at you and you look at him, after which he saunters casually off and you follow and enter a bakery and go behind the scenes where you sit sipping tea and haggling in a leisurely way about the rate of exchange […]”

“At mid-day I went asleep for about a half-an-hour on a mountainside, having been up since 530AM, and woke to find myself in a tent. I had decided that I was still asleep and dreaming when a filthy old man of the Kochi (nomad) tribes appeared and explained by signs that they’d noticed me going to sleep with no shade, which they thought very bad, so he erected one of their goat-hair tents over me […]”

“A few days ago at a nearby court the magistrate awarded a case to A against B. B prompty stood up and shot A dead in front of the magistrate, who equally promptly and very wisely dived under a table.”

“One wonders how I expected to photograph two monkeys, considering that I can’t even get a moderately good picture of a mountain that stands still and waits to be photographed.”

“One of the unsettling things about local customs is that servants never knock before entering a room. As I’m prone to nudity [in] this weather, in what I regard as the privacy of my boudoir, the result is that all concerned are unnerved–me grabbing a bath towel at the sound of any footsteps and the bearers leaving my tea-tray outside the door in terror of what they might behold if they entered.”