It all started in the 1960s when my father began enthusing about an Irish woman riding a bicycle from Dublin to Delhi. By all I mean my developing pre-occupation with India, not all in the absolute sense; my father’s good but he’s not that good, and by the time of his enthusing there were already several other pre-occupations jostling for position in my already complicated seven-year-old soul. The general family pre-occupation at that time was listening to the evening news on a small, crackly wireless. My parents told me the news came from London on air waves, that’s why it was important, but I knew that it arrived along an improbably long, thin wire that stretched from the transistor, through our living room window to the top of a Jacaranda tree beside the house and thereafter, presumably, to London.
For those fifteen minutes every night my parents listened intently by the light of a hurricane lamp, and passed comment on mini-skirts they heard about but couldn’t see, and on the General Election in which they wouldn’t be able to vote. Even as a rather naïve seven year old I thought their interest was misplaced: I knew that London had just given up its say in the affairs of the country that, as if to underline the fact, changed its name to Malawi as soon as it got rid of the British, and that’s where we were living. Biafra was more of a worry to me because I knew that it was closer and there was a war going on there: it too was in Africa, as were Congo and Suez. They seemed to me to be much more of a threat than a nice man called Harold whose bearded friends all wore mini-skirts and took tablets. Some of them played guitars.
Life for me had just become a heady mix of climbing trees, damming streams, catching lizards, eating grasshoppers and being vaguely thankful that the world’s awfulnesses were taking place thousands of miles away: a little boy’s paradise. At the same time however things weren’t so idyllic for seriously-minded adults. Throughout the country most roads were blocked every few miles by young men with big sticks and hatchets wanting to search every traveller’s luggage and know everything about them. Suspicion and rumour seemed to be the order of the day, something that I was able to sense from my parents’ knowing looks when their friends mentioned certain names and events. There was always the threat of deportation hanging over Europeans, and I didn’t want to go back to Ireland.
I had no reason to think about Ireland: I don’t suppose I ever thought about it when I lived there, so why start when I’d left? Moreover, life had just become crowded with interesting people: black people, lots more black people, the missionaries down the road and a band of Peace Corps volunteers including a man called Lyn, so it seemed quite in the run of things for my father to come across this strange woman called Dervla Murphy who came from Ireland and was pedalling her way to Delhi. Sometimes I forgot she really lived in a book. If I’d known the word quixotic I might have used it of the image I had of her in my mind, but then that word would have done just as well for most of the people who turned up in our house: mauled (and therefore failed) big game hunters, out-of-favour politicians on the run, exiled aristocrats and itinerant priests, dead-beats.
They all passed through our house for a meal, a bed, to hide or because they just got lost, but I sensed from my father that Dervla was perhaps more purposefully, or maybe more usefully quixotic than all the others. Dervla rode a bike and had a destination in mind which she eventually reached. She was solid and practical and very, very clever. She had written a book about riding her bicycle. I was learning to ride a big rusty bike too. Unlike Dervla I was a boy and I never thought to give my bicycle a name. I half expected that she would turn up at our house any day, maybe with Harold. She didn’t of course, and neither did Harold, but when I met her years later in Belfast the Q word came so easily to mind, unleashing a flood of devastating memories that quite paralysed me and made me feel all Proustian. I call her Madeleine now to myself.
So that’s how I think it all started, but my father’s captivation with Dervla’s adventures was little more than a point of departure for me. I knew instinctively from the squiggly line traced out in his copy of her book Full Tilt that I wouldn’t be arriving in Delhi by bicycle, but it seemed to have become one of life’s inexplicable givens that Delhi would be reached by me somehow, sometime, and life from then on was to be spent waiting for that day to arrive.
Dervla still cycles in and out of my imagination every so often, her photograph catching up with me in bookshops that try time and again to re-launch the written accounts of her adventures and draw us into her new ones, but far from being encouraged to get on my bike, what I’ve taken from the lady’s example, and enjoyed, has been just turning up in places, finding them interesting and surviving them. That’s what Dervla seems to have done, although her methodology and planning have been undeniably more rigorous than mine, and Destiny doesn’t seem to have much of a hold on her.
But Destiny has her own sense of timing. For me other cities came and went in the company of my parents: Melbourne, Capetown, Algiers and back to Belfast where mini skirts had just gone out of fashion, Harold had fallen out of favour, and people were going to jail for taking tablets and playing guitars. People were also throwing stones at policemen and bombing public toilets. Captivating enough, but what I was really after was obscurity and my own adventure without parents, brothers or elderly, moustachioed, powdered, female relatives wanting to smother me with kisses on arrival.
By the time 1978 came around and I had left school and made some money there was nowhere more obscure than Afghanistan, and Kabul became my destination of choice. Other people had other ideas however, including Destiny, and although the Magic Bus was willing to take me all the way to Kabul roughly following Dervla’s squiggly line, the Iranians decided to do a bit of Shah-deposing, hostage-taking and visa-refusing.
That left me standing at Piccadilly Circus on one of those freezing cold November mornings with a choice to make: either go back to Malawi or find some other way of getting to Afghanistan. The Malawian option was really a non-starter because I knew I would find a totally different country to the one I’d been taken from four years previously as a very disgruntled fourteen year old. They had electricity 24 hours a day now, and television! I valued my childhood memories without begrudging Malawians their progress, so I had to consider finding another way into fabled Afghanistan.
The agonising London cold and attacks of spiteful pigeons helped me to concentrate on the matter in hand, and with the help of my photographic memory for all things cartographic I worked out that the easiest way to my destination was to over-fly the recalcitrant Iranians to India, and then to backtrack through Pakistan, and there was only one place in India to fly to: DELHI. Destiny had its way with the help of the Iranian revolution and the English winter, and I flew reluctantly into Delhi, but never made it back west to Afghanistan.
A year later I tried another assault on Kabul. In December 1979 I still had to avoid Iran so I flew via Moscow. The problem this time was that although the Americans still didn’t know where (or what) Afghanistan was, the Soviets did, and while I was waiting in Moscow for a connecting flight to Kabul their tanks rumbled across the border ahead of me, and I was redirected onto a flight for … DELHI.