Dervla Murphy has always been a remarkable traveller but becomes even more notable as she continues her intrepid walks (if no longer so many bike rides) well into her ‘third age’. This book of her journeys in Cuba, undertaken when she was in her mid-seventies, is full of excursions on foot for several days along mountain trails, with poor maps and often non-existent accommodation, that would defeat most younger travellers. She delights at sleeping in the open air in her ‘flea bag’, and as result has many interesting contacts with locals, both human and animal. She also has several brushes with Cuban officialdom, bent on the almost impossible task of impeding her adventures or forcing her to have a guide. She almost always outwits the bureaucrats, and usually gets help from people she passes on the way, in the friendly Cuban style, even though her Spanish is limited.
As the book develops she gets more passionate in her defence of Cuba’s uniqueness, due in no small part to its revolution and the political system which has now endured 54 years. While she can be very critical of some aspects, and freely admits that she couldn’t bear to live permanently in a place where freedom to travel and freedom to write are both constrained, she also points to Cuba’s many strengths. Not least is Cubans’ inventiveness and ability to survive when times are hard, virtues that may well mean that Cuba is better equipped than most countries to cope with the pending environmental crisis that faces us all. She enthuses, for example, about the ‘organoponico’ vegetable gardens and the ways that government agricultural policy shifted away from Soviet-style chemical farming to cheaper, healthier and more productive organic cultivation.
I read The Island that Dared on a recent third visit to Cuba. It was both an inspiring read, one that opened up new information and ways of thinking about Cuba, and one that also broadly fitted with my own views about Cuba’s past, present and future. Those who think Cuba will be a roll-over for big capital in a few years time should read Dervla Murphy’s timely warning that it might not be that simple.