The Island That Dared

Dervla Murphy


The Island That Dared

Dervla Murphy


Take a three-generation family holiday in Cuba in the company of Dervla Murphy, her daughter and three young granddaughters and you have a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adventure in the Caribbean. They trek into the hills and along the coast, camping out on empty beaches beneath the stars and relishing the ubiquitous Cuban hospitality. But this is just the start of a fully-fledged quest to understand the unique society created by the Cuban Revolution. For Dervla later returns alone to investigate the experience of modern Cuba with her particular, candid curiosity and creates a complex picture of a people struggling to retain their identity in the face of insistent hostility from America.

‘Fierce, highly moral and uncompromising, this is classic Murphy. In an often anodyne world, she remains an original...she is a refreshingly defiant voice, straight-talking and no-nonsense.’ - Justin Marozzi, The Financial Times
‘Dervla Murphy’s travelogue is a close as any foreigner is likely to get to the life of Cubans on the brink.’ - Stephen Smith, Daily Telegraph
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The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba
ISBN 978-1906011-46-8
Format: 320pp demi pb
Place: Cuba


Extract from Pages 57-60

Our plan to follow the sandy shoreline was soon thwarted by mangrove. A path led up to the treeless and heat-reflecting road; as we plodded along I felt like an egg in a frying-pan and Clodagh complained about the sea’s being invisible. ‘With luck,’ said Rachel, ‘we’ll soon get back to it.’

Where the terrain began to slope slightly up I fell behind to consult our map. Alarmingly, it showed the road swinging inland for several shadeless miles. Catching up with the others I remarked brightly, ‘At least there’s no traffic.’

Zea scowled, transcended her anti-motor conditioning and said, ‘I’d like traffic! We might get a lift. I’m too hot!’ Her sisters looked as though they rather agreed with her but made no comment, having a clearer concept of the purpose of this holiday. Then came a long, high bridge spanning a river-bed some seventy yards wide. The drought had reduced this river (nameless on our map) to separate streams winding erratically between boulders and patches of scrub. Rachel paused, studied the cliff path leading down from the road and said, ‘Rivers lead to seas – let’s follow it.’

Yes!’ yelled the Trio in unison. At once they bounded down an almost perpendicular path like so many goats. Their mother, overloaded with bottled water, proceeded more cautiously. Their grandmother, overloaded with beer, and mindful of the friability of septuagenarian bones, sought a stout stick before descending. At the base of the cliff five little boys, building a mud fort, stared at us in silent astonishment. Then a horseman appeared from under the bridge, riding bareback, wearing only shorts and a sombrero, trying to lassoe herons. He ignored us.

Released from that hellish road, our spirits soared. The main stream glowed through deep pools between high boulders. ‘This is fun!’ shouted Rose, leaping from boulder to boulder. Clodagh and Zea each went their own way, Clodagh slipping often on slimy green stones in swift shallow water, Zea pausing, as is her wont, to examine various mosses and tiny rock plants. (Her paternal grandmother is a botanist.) The burdened adults sought the easiest way forward between streams – not all that easy, balancing on large loose stones. Where the streams converged the current strengthened and Zea tended to wobble while fording. So did I, despite my stick, and Zea, noticing this, waited for me and said, ‘I’m not very stable but I’ll try to help you.’

The sort of remark that sticks in a grandmaternal memory.

Hereabouts the challenges multiplied. Around a sharpish bend the river-bed abruptly narrowed to thirty yards or less and the water’s power and depth forced us into a thorny mangrove swamp. Undaunted, the Trio squelched ahead and were small enough to dodge the thorns that lacerated their elders. On half-slipping into the swamp I yelped for Rachel to rescue the Trio’s supper – those precious ship’s biscuits in my cloth shoulder-bag.

Soon, in the distance we could hear a rhythmical rattling roar. ‘That can’t be the sea!’ exclaimed Rachel. A few hours previously, in Chivirico’s sheltered bay, wavelets had been gently hissing on to the sand. But since then a strong wind had arisen and along this exposed flat coast the Atlantic was turbulent. Emerging from the bushes we caught up with the Trio and stood in awe of towering white breakers crashing on to a natural causeway of big stones and small boulders.

It took us some moments to realise we were in a trap of sorts. Contradicting Rachel’s reasonable assumption that rivers flow into seas, this depleted river here became a murky lagoon, some eighty yards long and sixty wide, separated from the sea by the causeway. On either side sandy beaches were visible but mangrove swamps intervened. I glanced at the sun: not enough daylight remained for us to retrace our steps to a grassy campsite by the bridge. And being put to bed on a muddy path might overtax the Trio’s adaptability. They of course could swim across the lagoon to one of the beaches – but what about the laden adults? Luckily my stick was long. I waded in, having first prudently undone my rucksack’s waistband, and before each step tested the depth. The bed was unnervingly uneven, yet Rachel and I were able to wade through, circuitously, while the Trio swam to the eastern beach, Rose pulling Zea on to the six-foot-high causeway. From there they watched us slowly zig-zagging across, rarely more than crotch-deep though two waist-deep spots saturated my moneybelt.

‘You are silly!’ chided Rachel. ‘You should’ve put it in your rucksack.’

As she helped me on to the causeway we heard the Trio rejoicing about another swim.

‘No!’ I shouted – they were already scampering towards the waves and this sloping beach had an undertow threatening even to adults. Rachel however looked sceptical about my diktat and I recognised the dawn of her ‘I’m on the girls’ side’ expression. She hates to disappoint her offspring and also has strong views (possibly inherited) against over-protectionism. When planning for Cuba I had stipulated that she must be the sole leader and decisionmaker but on this one occasion I went into reverse gear and ordered – ‘No child is to go near those waves until Mummy has tested them!’

At once Mummy dumped her rucksack and approached the high water mark, a ridge of sand and stones now being washed over by this full moon tide. Momentarily she viewed the breakers as they advanced, crashed, seethed – then withdrew, dragging the shale with them, making a rasping rumble. Happily she felt no need to immerse herself before supporting my embargo.

I sat down, opened a Buccanero and drank to this momentous initiation ceremony, the Trio’s first night camping without a tent, under the stars.

We had chanced upon a magnificent site, overlooked by the Sierra Maestra’s intricate arrangement of wooded spurs and peaks, never far from this coast. No dwellings were visible. Dense groves of sea-grapes and dwarf palms hid the swamp and bleached tree skeletons, carried here by who knows which hurricane, decorated the long shore, its eastern extremity marked by a grassy promontory. Nearby, to the west, threehundred-foot limestone cliffs jutted ruggedly into the sea, now tinted by a flaring sunset.

‘This is blissful!’ I exulted. ‘Clever Mummy, leading us down the riverbed!’ The Trio, however, had practical concerns. ‘Where are we sleeping?’ asked Clodagh.

‘Right here,’ I replied, patting the coarse sand beside me.

‘But there’s stones everywhere!’ protested Zea.

‘There are stones everywhere,’ said I with Pavlovian pedantry.

‘We can clear them away,’ said Rose, looking consciously virtuous as she set about that task.

Clodagh followed suit and observed – resignedly, not complaining –

‘They’re heavy.’

Zea moved closer to her mother – busily unpacking – and said craftily,

‘I’m too small for heavy stones.’

‘They’re not that heavy,’ I argued. (Zea, being abnormally muscular for her age, can cope with huge weights when it suits her.) I added, ‘Poor Mummy! All afternoon she’s been carrying a really heavy load!’ But of course Mummy cleared Zea’s space. You can’t lose if you’re the youngest.

We decided to save the ship’s biscuits for breakfast and while the Trio dined off emergency ration organic raisins, imported from California via Ireland (shameful food miles!), the adults drew sustenance from Buccaneros. Only then did we notice that we were not alone on the beach. A distant bonfire glowed through the dusk and a figure was approaching, walking close to the waves. He stopped a few yards away, greeted us shyly, then expressed concern: he had come to warn us against the ravenous swampbased mosquitoes. We were invited to join his fishermen’s camp, they would be keeping an anti-mosquito fire smoking all night. Thanking him effusively, Rachel explained that the niños were too tired to move on, then showed him our homeopathic insect repellent. He nodded, looking unimpressed, but said no more. He seemed very shy.

Half-an-hour later we were all asleep, our lullaby the tumultuous Atlantic, no more than ten yards from where we lay. When my bladder roused me a full moon stood overhead and the world seemed brighter than at noon in Ireland on a rainy November day. For some time I walked to and fro by the foaming, gleaming waves, adding to my collection of those memories that enrich one forever. As Nicolas Bouvier noted of such moments, in his classic The Way of the World, ‘Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more.’

Then, gazing down at the sleeping quartet, I had another of my vivid flashbacks – to a tentless, full moon night on a mountain-top in Cameroon in 1987 (exactly half Rachel’s lifetime ago, our last long trek together). Waking to re-tether our pack-horse, I spent moments gazing down at my daughter, wondering what the future held for her. And now I wondered what it held for the Trio. Given this century’s problems, maybe it’s best that I’ll never know the answer.