TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 November 2012
The first book that I read by the very peripatetic Dervla Murphy was (In Ethiopia with a Mule). It is an account of her 1000-mile trip across the highlands of Ethiopia, in 1967, solo, save for the mule which carried her belonging. For many of us, that would have been THE impressive idiosyncratic achievement of a lifetime. Not so for Ms. Murphy, who sees an obscure place on the globe, and has to go there, and savor it, usually via unconventional means. I gave the Ethiopia book only a 4-star review, since I was annoyed that throughout the long journey she was incapable of loading her own mule, and always had to rely on the "kindness of strangers." That flaw in her travel mode was not present in this book... in fact, she seemed to "double down" in terms of challenges... at the age of 51, in 1983, instead of being accompanied by a mule, it was her (beloved) 14 year old daughter! Ah, that all teenagers might have such an experience.
Just the first chapter, an excellent history of the island, is worth the purchase price. It was the largest fertile area of the world that was uninhabited until the arrival of Malayo-Polynesian groups around 900 AD. Various African groups came thereafter. Then the Portuguese showed up in 1500, and then the English and the French showed tepid interest for a few centuries. Only well into the 19th century did the London Missionary Society get serious in sending missionaries, who are often the advance wave of colonists, as all too many colonized have learned. In 1896 Madagascar officially became a French colony, which was its status until independence in 1960. The human settlement and interactions there have been historically unique, but what truly sets the island off, in terms of uniqueness, is its flora and fauna, with numerous species found only there, and nowhere else in the world.
Murphy wrangled a visa, and an all-important "permission letter" of the "to whom it may concern" variety from the embassy in Paris. She and her daughter flew there the cheap way - via Aeroflot and Moscow, arriving in the capital, Antananarivo, mercifully called "Tana." The newly independent government's push for autarky means that few things work well; and many things don't work at all. Imports are virtually non-existent. And in particular, for a traveler, the roads are abysmal; in some cases they are passable only on foot. And for sure, the buses don't run on that very alien concept: "time." Rather, they run when they are full... and don't break down.
In what seemed to be a couple of months, they covered a large part of the southern two-thirds of the island. The central highlands are the most populous, and the town of Antsirabe (the "Vichy," that is, the spas and mineral springs, of Madagascar) seems to be the most viable and enjoyable. They went to the western coastal town of Tulear, but stopped to see the lemurs on the way, in the Parc National d'Isalo. Due to the lack of accommodation, they camped there. They checked the guest book, and there was only one page of names spanning a decade. (I checked on the internet, and there is now a very nice looking lodge there.) One of the "gutsy" (or crazy?) things they did was camp in the wild on several occasions. From Tulear they had another epic journey by vehicle, spanning days, across the southern part of the island, to Fort Dauphin. And then it was back to Tana, and beyond to the coast, with broken vehicles along the way, and a fairly vigorous hike at the end.
Murphy is a keen observer of all, and has strong descriptive powers. She also carries a fair load of erudition, and weaves it into her account. The people, though poor, and in a daily struggle for so much that the "civilized" west takes for granted, seem to be happier, and certainly kinder to the stranger that she and her daughter are. Yet, and Murphy specifically makes this point, the island is no Rousseau fantasy. There is evil and unhappiness there also.
She has been criticized for being too "new age." I didn't see that in particular, but I did feel she was a bit reckless in the treatment of her own health, particularly after being cut with a knife. In terms of her observations, I've marked many a passage, one of the best being: "The distortion of human relationships, rather than the building of Holiday Inns or the sprouting of souvenir stalls, is the single most damaging consequence of Third World tourism." Murphy also quoted extensively from Dr. Alison Jolly's naturalist work (A World of Our Own), which is a book I've owned for 30 years, and have yet to read. Murphy's push will finally remedy that deficiency. Overall, 5-stars.