Thanks to the connectivity that blogging, social networking, and all our modern conveniences that we have around us to share information and stories, I discovered Dervla Murphy late last night. A comment was made on my ‘Breaking Barriers in Afghanistan, Singlespeed Style’ that reccommended checking into her travels in AFghanistan. Much to my joy and surprise, it is a woman who didn’t just travel there in the 1960’s, but did it alone, and on a bicycle. A woman after my own heart. How had I not heard of such a ballsy woman before?
An Irish woman, trained as a nurse, Dervla fell in love with bicycles from an early age and in 1963, she took on an arduous adventure on two wheels, solo, and unsupported.
According to an article written by Clifford L Graves, “Her bicycle was an Armstrong with quarter-inch tires and a nearly flat handlebar. Without her baggage,it weighed thirty-six pounds, with it, sixty four. To prevent trouble with the derailleur, she took it off. As an additional precaution, she sent spare tires to the various cities along her route. She bought a gun and learned how to shoot it. She studied her atlas and decided to go through Paris, Milan, Venice, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul, Tehran, Meshed, Kabul, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Delhi. With several arduous side trips, this 4,500-mile trek took 175 days and cost $175.
She removed her derailleur – I take it to mean she rode with only one gear? Sweet – not just a biker but an single speeder. As the owner of two bikes, one road and one mountain, neither graced with gears and derailleurs, I feel as though I’m reading about a living legend.
Murphy is best known for her 1965 book Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, about an overland cycling trip through Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Currently out of stock, I’m anxious to read it cover to cover on my next visit to Afghanistan. Her experiences in the sixties are prior to the thirty plus years of conflict that have dominated the headlines and changed the landscape and culture of the region since her travels. My own experience on a bike in Afghanistan differ, but not the joy and belief that travel is best done by getting a little dirty.
I have a few friends, mostly in the Peace Corps that experience Afghanistan in the sixties. All have fond memories of the country and reminisce about the Hippie Trail and influx of adventures, travelers, and perhaps stoners, looking to explore the far flung regions of the world, enjoy the mystery and splendor of the Hindu Kush, and perhaps partake in some hashish. Even those that were there during the Russians remember a country devoid of the mistrust, random violence, and extreme poverty that faces Afghans today. The landmines (several generations from Russians, Taliban, and US) are still there, the Taliban and many Afghans don’t look kindly on women doing much of anything, much less something as liberating as riding a bike. Then you’ve got the roadside bombs and random kidnappings/violence that still plague many areas of the country.
I have always believed that seeing the world is the way to connect us all, and that can’t be done by car, plane, or train in the same way the bicycle allows. You need to taste the air, and dust, and mud in your mouth. You need to take away the barriers often present in modern day travel. Never have I connected to Afghan men more spontaneously than on my bike. While it is no longer possible to travel the country by bike as Murphy did, by man or woman in the current climate, my hope is that in years to come that changes. It is also my hope that Afghan women will eventually be able to ride within their own country, experiencing the freedom, joy, and convenience two wheels allows. In the meantime, I fully intend to continue to ride each visit that I’m there.
Mountain 2 Mountain also intends to keep bike culture within its ethos by delivering bikes with 88 Bikes to a village where we are building our first girls school, and looking at ways to set up women’s co ops to build bikes for a sustainable income source. Over time, it my hope that we can introduce a cultural accepted bike that Afghan women will be able to ride as well, looking at a bench instead of a seat between their legs.
To read more check out the Perils of Dervla Murphy.