The following magazine article written by Kathleen—probably from Woman's Own—was sent to me by Graham Marriott who also told me his own story of meeting Kathleen Phelan. Scans of the original article are at the bottom of this post, but for ease of reading, I have provided a typed transcript below.
Calculating that Kathleen's husband, the Irish tramp writer Jim Phelan, died in 1966 and she says 'he died 6 years ago', the article would likely have been written sometime in 1972. However, the events described below of Kathleen's first North African tramp from Casablanca to Cairo, would have happened prior to 1970, as this was the year that Jim Christy met Kathleen on a boat from Spain to Morocco and tramped with her for 6 weeks in that country (described in Kathleen Phelan Part 1). On this occasion Kathleen was already speaking Arabic and so the events described below are presumably from a much earlier trip. As Kathleen describes below that she made the North African trip 'after Jim died', possibly 1966 or 1967.
A sadness about this incredible story is the impossibility of a European woman making such a trip alone, or even in company, today.
Graham's story and the stories of others who met Kathleen over the years are also told in Kathleen Phelan Part 1, together with other anecdotes about Kathleen and other samples of her writing and illustrations.
I am a vagabond
By Kathleen Phelan
For over 30 years I’ve walked the roadways of the world. First
with my husband Jim and, since
he died, on my own. I am living a life stranger than any
fiction. Freer than a bird…
Fine weather or foul I am out on the road. I own nothing but what I stand up in and can carry with me; I rarely have more than a couple of copper coins to rub together and yet you’d have to go far to find a happier woman.
There is nothing to compare with the excitement of walking each day and never knowing who you are going to meet and where you are going to find yourself by nightfall.
Sometimes I walk from dawn till dusk and other times I get a lift in a car and just go wherever the driver is going. Once, I started out with the West Country in mind and landed up in North Wales; another time, I started out from Tehran in Persia with a vague idea of heading to Afghanistan, and 12 hours and 300 miles later, I was on the shores of the Caspian sea. But what did it matter.
For 25 years I travelled the road with my husband Jim Phelan and when he died, 6 years ago, friends told me: “You must settle down now and get a secure job. Tramping the road was alright with a man, but its not something you can do on your own.”
But never for one moment did I consider changing my way of life, although I did want to get away from the British roads for a while. I had come to know them so well when travelling with Jim; we had made hundreds of friends up and down the country and grief was too sharp to visit them yet.
Singing for my supper,
talking for my tea
It doesn’t occur to most people that professional tramps make many more friends than people who stay put. You see, you get to know someone only for a short while and you show only your best side to each other. Then you part and these people remain your friends forever.
Rarely does it happen that a person giving me a lift doesn’t want to take me home and introduce me to their family. People are so intrigued by my way of life and fascinated by the stories I have to tell. Because every vagabond is a storyteller—that’s how we live. On my passport, my profession is given as storyteller.
It’s a myth that tramps of the road go around telling a whole lot of lies. We belong to a fast vanishing band of minstrels who sing (and talk) for our supper. We are performers, entertainers, and we may have to talk for eight or nine hours a day without repeating ourselves and all for a cup of coffee, a meal, a space on the floor to sleep or a few coins. There are not many trained actors who would want to do this and write their own script! People reward us not because we’re poor, but because they like the tales we tell.
I have had so many fascinating experiences that I don’t have to make up stories. For instance, take the morning I found myself in Ataba Square in the centre of Cairo. I had arrived as usual in my jeans, blouse and barefooted (I wear canvas shoes when necessary but prefer to go without any shoes at all when I can).
The universal language
of the traveller
One side of the square small streets led past the Opera House and widened into boulevards with fashionable cafes and shops, luxury hotels, and beyond that, the Nile. On the other side, the narrow streets disappeared into a network of lanes and alleys which held the noisy, colourful bazaars and markets, thronged with people.
Suddenly there came a thudding of hooves and warning shouts. Lorries braked, a tram bell clanged urgently and men, women and children scattered swiftly. Swooping into the square came a herd of about 40 camels headed by a small one on which perched a laughing young Arab.
He sat proudly showing off his ability to control and direct the herd between the traffic. The crowd roared their admiration for this man who had ridden straight in from the desert.
As he swept across the square to pass me, I made the age-old sign holding up my right hand palm outwards on a level with my face. It is known as the “show-out” which means “Good luck to you.” He then lowered his hand but immediately swept it up and this time, he held his hand still palm outwards but farther away from his face, which meant “Need any help?”
I at once crossed my arms, hiding my hands, which indicated to him that I did not need anything. These greetings were made swiftly and unobtrusively and he nodded gravely and was gone.
That was a great moment. There I stood, a stranger in Cairo, coming from the other side of the world, and yet I was able to change greetings with a wandering Arab camel-driver. He probably had centuries of nomadic history. I had only my lifetime, but we were able to communicate because we both follow the road.
After Jim died, I decided to go across North Africa and I made my way through France and Spain to Casablanca on the coast of Morocco.
As always I travelled light: a sleeping bag with a built-in ground sheet, a small tent in case the weather is rough, slacks, jeans, a change of underclothing, a dress and two or three blouses. I take woolen socks and tights but rarely wear them, toilet things of course, scissors, a knife, a torch—and a chess set. That is the one truly international game. You can enter a cafe practically anywhere in the world and by setting up your chess board, you’ll soon get to know people.
I made my way towards the south of Morocco because I had always wanted to visit the town of Goulimime which is right on the edge of the desert. I found it every bit as fascinating as I’d been told. Here, the people lived in tents looking out on miles and miles of pinkish sand, unbroken but for stark stumps of stunted trees. They wear their own distinctive costume, long blue robes with white turbans, and they welcomed me warmly but with curiosity. Arabs can understand wandering tribes, but not the solitary vagabond, and especially not a woman on her own!
For Eastern people, hospitality to the wayfarer is part of everyday life and I stayed with them for a few days in order to see the famous weekly cattle market. It is a magnificent sight to see the Arabs, who come from miles around that region, dressed in their colourful robes and weaving around the thousands of camels which fill the market place.
I travelled some of the way back to Marrakesh with a party of Berbahs. One of the women presented me with a little portable stove which was to prove most useful. It consisted of a pottery bowl in which I put charcoal and when I had fanned it to glowing, I placed on top a special dish containing the food I wished to cook.
I conveyed my thanks to her and resolved to try and learn Arabic at the first opportunity.
In a country where I don’t know the language, I always buy a phrase book as soon as I can. For one thing, it enables me to understand the signposts, but more important, I can ask in the right tongue for a cup of coffee and a space on the floor to sleep. I have a good knowledge of French and so I knew I’d have no difficulty when I reached Marrakesh where most people understand this tongue.
I walked quite a lot of the way because not many people have cars in this region. But the lifts I did get were in large cars—officials and such going to Casablanca or Rabat. All were kind, insisting on standing me a meal at a roadside cafe, giving me addresses of friends in towns I might visit, and always ensuring that I had somewhere to sleep for the night.
People are wonderful, you know. Every person is better than he or she thinks. This is the high sacred secret of the road—the vagabond is staking his life that this is true.
I reached Marrakesh and my experience there shows vividly the contrasts and the excitement of a vagabond’s life. I had been given the address of a friendly cafe in a poor quarter in the casbah. By our standards, it was run down and far from clean, but the people were kind and were happy that I should sleep on the floor.
By day I talked with the customers and told them of my life and I leaned about theirs. In the evenings, I would go round the market and stall holders would give me scraps of food which I would bring back and cook on my little stove.
A palace guest
I had been there about 10 days when I was invited to a meal with the owner and his family. The meal consisted of a huge dish of rice and vegetables and we were, as is customary, sitting on the floor around it, eating with our fingers.
Suddenly there was a great commotion and a beautiful horse-drawn carriage pulled up outside. The driver in resplendent uniform entered and to my surprise made straight for me.
“Are you the lady who travels the road and calls herself a vagabond and storyteller?”
“Yes,” I said. (I wasn't all that surprised that he should know about me because when I fill in the entry form to any country abroad, I put: Profession, Vagabond and storyteller; Money, Nil; Address, No fixed abode.)
The driver then said, “We would like to offer you better accommodation.”
I said thank you, but I was learning much about Morocco and the people from talking to customers here, and the owners had been more than kind.
“I think you had better see the accommodation before refusing.” he replied and there was an air of authority about him, and so I followed him into the carriage. We drove across the town and eventually he pulled up at a place that looked a cross between Windsor Castle and an Arabian Nights palace. There was a huge wooden door and he gave me an enormous key to open it.
I entered into wonderland. A tiled courtyard was surrounded by beautiful gardens filled with geraniums and bougainvillea and in the distance, I could hear a fountain playing. Inside, the rooms were just as palatial with mosaic tiles and ironwork as fine and dainty as lace.
“You are in a palace which belongs to King Hassan II and we will be happy for you to stay here for five or six weeks.” he said courteously.
I was stunned but I managed to stammer. “But why?”
“Storytellers are welcome and respected in our country and we have heard of your fame. May you be happy here . . .”
After he had gone, I had to have a quiet laugh to myself. The luxury was fantastic but not much help when you haven't got any money or any food. I had actually been a lot better off at the cafe where I might eat with the owners and customers bought me the odd cup of coffee. Each night I let myself into my palatial quarters with the massive key, sat in solitary state in the courtyard and cooked scraps from the market on my stove.
I stayed there for about four weeks and then came the call of the road. There is never any denying it. I gave the key to the caretaker, said farewell to my friends in the casbah and set off for Algeria . . .
The next night couldn't have been a greater contrast. I spent it in a filthy Moroccan doss-house with 60 men, old, poor, sick and hopeless. I had walked to a small town and into a sandstorm. I’d never seen one before and I found it terrifying—wave upon wave of sand like a mighty, roaring ocean.
I sheltered in a doorway with a small boy and I asked him if there was anywhere I could sleep on the floor for the night. He took me to a doss-house where the owner gave me a dirty straw mat. I wrinkled my nose at the smell and thought, “I shall never be able to sleep here. As soon as the storm clears I’ll go . . .” And settled down to wait.
All around, the old men were making coffee or mint tea on portable stoves like mine and in no time at all they had clustered around me, offering me refreshment. It was a terrific thing for them to have someone like me to talk to and I fixed a smile on my face as I took the proffered cup, which was really filthy. Oh well, I thought, if I get dysentery or something worse—I just will . . .
All night I sat up telling them of my life and it was dawn before I set out again, the storm having blown itself out. (And mercifully I didn't suffer any ill effects!)
I found Algeria the most interesting of the north African countries because of the attitude and evolution of the young people. Many had grown up having been orphaned in the war and they have taken to the roads as individuals. They had a great understanding of my way of life and I enjoyed travelling with them part of the way.
Then happened something which occurred quite often in Britain as well as abroad. A car put me down on the outskirts of a town at the far end of Algeria—Constantine. It was six o’clock in the evening and I hadn't a clue in which direction the city was. In such circumstances I look for a nice house and I saw one at the end of the street with lights in every window. A girl of about 18 came to the door and in answer to my question said yes, she spoke a little English.
I said: “Could you or your mother direct me to the centre of the city?”
She told me it wasn't a private house but a girl’s school and she invited me in and took me to the headmistress. I told her about my life on the road and she asked if I would talk to the girls about it and afterwards, she would be pleased if I would have supper and stay the night. Which I did, and I stayed nearly a week, helping in the kitchen and teaching the girls in English.
This is typical of chance encounters and when I find a comfortable billet I’m often asked why I don’t stay. The answer is that you don’t discover the essence of people when you’re surrounded by comfort or at least not for quite a long time while you get to know one another. On the road, people confide their inmost thoughts. Preliminaries are disposed with because you're coming from nowhere, going nowhere and you'll probably never see them again.
From Algeria I hitch-hiked into Tunisia and spent about three months crossing this country. It was here I learnt my first Arabic. At a cafe in a small town I fell into conversation with with a young fellow of about 20. As always, he wanted to know where I came from and why I was there, and suddenly he said, “Would you like to come see my little school?”
It transpired he was a student, and to make a little money, he taught children of poor people to read and write their own language. Parents paid him a shilling or two a week which was far cheaper than proper school fees. His class was held in a shack by the river and there were about 20 children sitting at little desks.
The student indicated a chair, gave me a notebook and Arabic reader and within minutes I had joined the class. This is what is so exciting about my life. When I had got up that morning, I didn't dream I’d be taking Arabic lessons a few hours later!
From Tunisia on and on into Libya. One of the highlights there was my stay in Tripoli. A car had deposited me in the town about 10.30 at night and the driver had given me a postal order for a pound so that I could have a bed for the night. I knew I must find lodgings quickly because it simply isn't done for a woman to be alone on the street at night in such places. I looked around for a small hotel but I couldn’t see one. There were only enormous luxury hotels near to hand—so I thought I might as well just walk into the largest!
I asked for the manager and showed him my postal order: “Have you a small room you could let me have for the night for one pound? I will cash this tomorrow.”
He said actually it would cost £2.40 but I didn’t have to pay now and I could go to my bank in the morning . . .
“But you don’t understand.” I said. “This is all I've got in the world.”
He was amazed. “But how . . .” he began, and was at a loss for words. I told him of my journey across North Africa and when I had finished, he said “You may have the room for a pound.”
It was a huge double room beautifully furnished and with a private bathroom. I hadn’t been there five minutes when there was a knock at the door and a waiter came in with a four-course dinner on a tray. Oh heavens, I thought, he really doesn't understand I’ve only a pound, so I rushed downstairs and said to the manager, “Is the meal included in the pound?”
He nodded, “Of course. I thought you might be hungry . . .”
Next morning I cashed the postal order and returned to the hotel prepared to pay and depart. The manager wouldn't hear of it. “We are not busy at this time of the year. I shall be pleased if you will stay a week in that room. I was in England a few years ago and people were kind. This can be my way of saying ‘thank you.’ ”
Well, he told everyone in the hotel about me and they were particularly fascinated by my wandering life because they were very rich oil people. To them it seemed an incredible existence. Everyday they would come up to me and say, “Madam, you must come and see this place or that place”—they took me everywhere in great limousines and we ate in some of the finest restaurants.
A young couple on holiday at the hotel asked me how I was going to cross the desert to Benghazi and I told them that I understood there was a good road and I should, as always, set out and see what happened. They were appalled.
“You cant do that. We’re returning to Benghazi and we’d be happy to buy your plane ticket if you'll come with us.”
Its marvellous how one moment you have nothing and the next you are offered something like this. I thanked them warmly but privately I thought: I haven't hitch-hiked all the way here from Casablanca to look down at the desert from a plane. I should be frustrated all the way wondering what it was like down there.
So I explained and they gave me their address in Benghazi “If you ever reach there”, they said doubtfully. The next day I set out to cross the desert. After two days’ walking I came to a little oasis and there met two Bedouin families who were going south with their camels. They immediately suggested I accompany them and offered me one of the camels to ride. We travelled together for five or six days and it was out of this world. In my mind now, I can recall those glorious nights under a sky full of stars and the breathtaking sight of the sun coming up.
They took me about half-way to Benghazi. I then managed to get a lift on a large convoy coming up from one of the oil wells.
It was a most enormous convoy—about 20 lorries, a benzine truck which “tanked up” the lorries across the desert, 100 Libyans, two New Zealanders, two Australians, an Austrian, a Frenchman—and me! I rode beside the driver of the benzine truck and each night they made a huge circle with their lorries and set up bivouacs and portable huts and lit fires for cooking. The way they looked after me was unbelievable. They erected a little wooden hut for me to sleep in and a different group invited me to eat with them each night. When the fires died down, the lovely, graceful silhouettes of gazelles would appear and stand all around watching us.
We used to get up early—about four a.m., just before sunrise, and I’ll never forget those lovely hot mugs of coffee and huge sandwiches for breakfast. It was like the old pioneering days and I could have gone on for ever.
They dropped me at a little place called Agedabia and I managed to hitch rides for most of the remaining distance to Benghazi. I had crossed the dessert and I was looking forward to visiting the couple who had doubts as to whether I’d ever reach Benghazi! After a little while there, I thought, it’s Egypt for me.
My reaction to Egypt was quite simple—I fell in love with it. I stayed six months—a lifetime to a vagabond’s way of thinking. I wandered up and down the road alongside the Nile from Cairo to Aswan until I came to know every inch of the way. I became famous in Egypt through broadcasting and television and with the money I received from the talks I made my way by sea and road to Turkey. Crossing Eastern Turkey from Istanbul was, perhaps, my most terrifying journey in that everyone carried guns and an unarmed woman on her own was very suspect.
Held at gunpoint
I remember accepting a lift in a car and immediately the two men pointed their guns at me and demanded money. I said I only had a few pounds and then proceeded to talk non-stop about my travels. This is all I can do when I find myself in a tricky situation. Eventually they lowered their guns but every two miles or so, they would stop at a water tap and say, “You are thirsty.” I had to be! So I got out and they amused themselves by firing over my head as I drank. Most unnerving.
I walked a lot on that road which was surrounded by wild, rugged countryside. As always when you're on such lonely paths, you feel you must be miles away from another human being—but you're not. There are always shepherds or goatherds, woodsmen of farmers, who come out to meet you because a stranger walking alone is such a very rare happening. Usually they take you back to their homes—often wooden huts or even caves in the hillside, and here you'll meet their families, have a few dates, some fruit and a drink and perhaps sleep the night.
From Turkey I went to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India . . . I met two Tibetan families with 40 ponies and travelled with them over the Himalayas, climbing to over 12,000 feet.
I have made dozens and dozens of friends in each country I’ve visited, people I write to and others with whom I know I can have a meal or spend the night whenever I happen to be where they live.
They come from all walks of life, from the humblest peasant in a mud hut to an oil merchant in his magnificent air-conditioned house.
Civilised people who live under a roof tend to ask me the same questions: what things do I travel with, how do I keep clean and am I ever afraid, sleeping out?
Well, the professional vagabond always stays clean, otherwise he dies. There are streams in the country or you can go into the washroom of a cafe in a town. Failing that, I would guarantee I could go to any house and say, “Look, I’m travelling the road. Is there any chance I could wash out my undies and blouse?” and they'd invite me in at once.
As for being afraid, well I think its much more dangerous to be wandering round the streets of a big city at night than settling in a sleeping bag in the middle of a forest. Anyway, you don’t find vagabonds staying in towns for longer than they need. They belong on the road and they want to be out on it.
Most roadsters average a walking pace of 10 miles a day. It’s interesting that most people will boast they've driven 500 miles in a day or walked 30.
To a tramp that’s a waste of road! He will boast the other way, saying proudly that it took him three days to do five miles. This means that he’s found plenty of doors to knock on and get a cup of tea, a couple of cigarettes, some food or conversation.
When I’m talking or writing of my travels, I try hard not to paint a too romantic picture and tell of the hard times as well as the lucky strikes. I’ve slept in impossible conditions for days on end and often been hungry and very tired, although the latter is mostly my own fault because I keep on walking, not wanting to stop because the road is so exciting.
Neither would I wish to make the vagabond himself to be romantic and of stern stuff. He’s really a weakling, a person who cannot adjust to society. Lots of people can’t adjust and some have breakdowns and others become criminals.
A true vagabond is too strong in himself to break down but he’s also much too timid to commit crime. So he drifts on down the road taking each day as he finds it. The thrill of the unknown, the call of the distant horizon, will never let him rest anywhere for long. But this is the way it has to be for us. Home to me is the road. THE END