Over the last 18 months I’ve held Q&A sessions at something like 50 screenings of Janapar: Love on a Bike around the UK, as well as a handful abroad.
With a lot more people coming to the story in recent weeks due to a global release on iTunes and Google Play Movies (as well as on Amazon Instant Video in the USA), I thought it’d be a good time to attempt to answer as many of the questions I’m asked most frequently about the film.
(Warning: this Q&A will potentially contain spoilers. If you haven’t seen Janapar, this will all make a lot more sense if you watch it first!)
How many punctures did you get?
Please ask a more interesting question.
What originally motivated you to go travelling by bicycle?
It was a combination of circumstances, companions and a little serendipity that led to the original plan being hatched in 2006. I was a 22-year-old Computer Science graduate, living with my parents, and faced with this big decision of what I was going to do with my life.
For years I’d wanted to travel, but never fancied hitting the backpacker trail because I was too much of a proud non-conformist. And none of the career prospects I could see at the time — all of which involved spending 8 hours a day at a screen — made me in the least bit excited.
So I was stuck. I paid off my overdraft, began saving what money I could, and tried to keep my eyes open for an escape.
After about a year of moping about, I found a book called ‘The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook’ in a bookshop, and on the same day a good friend of mine — with whom I had been talking about possible cycling trips for ages — texted me to say he had decided to cycle round the world, with the obvious implication that I’d be interested in getting involved.
It was a lightbulb moment and made sense on every level. It would be a big and meaty project to get my teeth into. Cycling would be cheap — incredibly important at the time as a heavily indebted graduate. It’d give us complete independence, including the ability to go our separate ways, which we foresaw from the beginning would be a future possibility. And it’d allow us to live outdoors and get loads of exercise, something we both really enjoyed but which I hadn’t had anywhere near as much of as I’d liked.
So it was a case of life circumstances both allowing it and prompting it, rather than me simply coming up with the idea one day on my own. Although I only found out after buying the aforementioned book that people were routinely crossing countries and continents by bicycle!
I was a bit naive.
What happened Andy and Mark, the friends you started out with?
As you’ll have seen in the film, Andy went his own way in January 2008, about seven months after we began. He stayed for a while in Georgia, and then continued cycling through Armenia, Iran, Pakistan and India as far as Nepal. He returned to the UK at the end of 2009 and has been living, studying and working in London since then. He has self-published a book about his take on our shared journey in 2007/8, and has another book on the way about his solo journey from Georgia onward, as well as various other adventure and cycling related projects.
I didn’t actually see Mark again after he left in Budapest until late last year, over 6 years later! But this was purely for logistical reasons: he’d emigrated to New Zealand in the meantime.
What were the best bits?
The best bits had very little to do with geographical location or surroundings, and a lot more to do with memorable social and cultural encounters that happened by chance and were very often spontaneous expressions of goodwill from strangers.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of this, and even though I count myself as an outdoor/nature lover I’ve never felt the same emotional high from any stunning panorama or downhill as I have from being the recipient of genuine and unconditional hospitality from friendly strangers.
I found the first months of bicycle travel much more of an rollercoaster in this sense, because the real world turned out to be very different to the sheltered and rather jaded view I’d had of it from my bedroom in the English Midlands. Discovering this on the way through Europe — a place packed with culture and history and diversity and expression — meant that by far the most ‘fun’ I had was the ride from England to Istanbul.
I still can’t think of a better way to spend a long hot summer than meandering slowly across Europe by bicycle.
What were the worst bits?
There were daily challenges throughout life on the road, but they were little things that had to be dealt with, like it or not, and so I don’t particularly think of them as ‘bad’, just necessary.
The worst parts, for me, were when the overall experience was at odds with what my expectations and desires. I struggled particularly in a lot of Northern Turkey — partly because it was winter and the conditions were shit and we were ill-equipped and inexperienced, but mainly because the experience wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I felt like I was just plugging away because I’d said I would, rather than because I actually still wanted to. A lot had changed in half a year and I realised during that time that making such a rigid plan had perhaps been a mistake. Luckily, circumstances shortly afterwards allowed me to ditch the plan and pursue something altogether more fulfilling and in line with my changing priorities.
I also found that the lack of common language, particularly in the rural Middle East and Africa, eventually became a thorn in my side. It was fine for a few months, but eventually, no matter how lovely the people or the places or the food or anything like that, the absence of any real depth of conversation for months on end ended up creating a lot of emotional solitude, even though I was pretty much always surrounded by people. That was one of the reasons I decided to put further travels on hold, go back to Tenny and reassess what was important. It’s also the motivation for my ongoing project to learn languages ‘properly’ in advance — not just phrasebook stuff, but achieving enough fluency to be able to operate entirely in local languages when travelling.
Luckily the bicycle allows you a heck of a lot of flexibility, and its slowness redefines the concept of time so utterly that looking at the big picture and making changes to the way you live and the way you travel is not difficult. This is a very good argument for building maximum flexibility into your plans, which I’d failed to do at the very start.
Did you have any major mechanical problems?
Boring. No. I looked after my bike by learning how it worked, carrying tools and making sure I knew how to use them, doing sufficient and sensible preventative maintenance, and fixing things when they broke. I snapped a trailer fork through my own negligence, and improvised a solution, but nothing else of note happened on the ‘mechanical problems’ front, unless you want me to talk about replacing wheel hub bearings, which you probably don’t.
Did you ever feel afraid?
Yes. Though I didn’t have sufficient self-awareness to realise it at the time, I felt afraid throughout the planning process, which is why I did so much planning: it was a distraction from the fear. And it was a fear of all the unknowns involved, more than any real and specific risk. But it got me to the starting line, and I learned within a very short time that the unknowns are exactly what makes this way of travelling so exciting and invigorating. If you have no schedule or route or itinerary, why do you need advance knowledge of what’s coming? Waking up in the morning, having no idea where I was going to spend the coming evening and being excited about the fact was an immensely liberating feeling.
I felt really afraid on my first night in the Sudanese desert, because a whole new load of unknowns had just been thrown my way. No more roads, road signs, habitation, maps, people or life of any kind, and just a ferry-ride away from bustling Egypt and all that had come before. It was a very big adjustment to have to make, and a much more sudden one than at any other point in my travels.
There were many other times, of course, usually involving being out of my comfort zone, but that’s a healthy part of it all. These are two examples that stand out.
Did you ever feel threatened?
On busy developing-world highways with trucks flying past just inches away from my face every few seconds, I certainly felt like an endangered species. But under no other circumstances did I feel genuinely threatened. Even when village-loads of Ethiopian schoolkids were lobbing rocks at me, I couldn’t consider it outright hostility, because they were just playing.
Did the bloodletting treatment in Sudan cure your illness?
I’ve no idea. I got better…!
Did the Armenian shepherds come to your wedding?
No. We went to find them in the hills near Yerevan, but found that they had moved on. This was a shame, but it was also quite typical of encounters with people when travelling in that when I said goodbye, I knew that I would almost definitely never see that person again. These days, Facebook has made it easy to ‘collect’ friends and contacts, but the reality is that the relevance of these chance meetings as a traveller usually lasts only as long as the meeting itself.
So I have thousands of happy memories of times spent people I met but who I will never see or hear from again. That said, the journeys have also created some lifelong friendships too.
Do you know how far you cycled in total?
In terms of the journeys portrayed in the film, which are really only specific excerpts of a much more complicated whole, my best guess is somewhere in the region of 15,000 miles. I’ve added a few more thousand since through various other trips, but I’ve never bothered to try and figure out an exact number. Even when my cycle computer was stolen in Africa, it had been a long time since I’d bothered making a note of what it told me.
In reality, my journey stopped being about mileage the minute it stopped being about ‘cycling round the world’ — and even that was only ever really an excuse to be out on the road.
How about on an average day?
Depending on how hard the riding was, how interesting the place was, how friendly the people were, what the weather was like, who I was riding with, and what kind of mood I was in, my average daily distance varied between about 40 and 80 miles a day. Probably. It wasn’t about mileage.
How are things with Tenny’s parents?
Will you ever complete the round-the-world mission you originally set out on?
No. It wasn’t truthfully the point in the beginning, and it certainly isn’t relevant now.
You said you hadn’t found what you were looking for yet — have you found it now?
Yes. It’s complicated, but can be boiled down to the realisation that there’s more to life than self-service, and that concentrating on serving others in various ways (as a husband, writer, filmmaker, teacher or publisher, for example) is more fulfilling than simply chasing after personal satisfaction alone. I suppose I also realised that things like possessions, money, status and other external measures cannot by themselves create fulfilment; that making a commitment to living a life that is authentically yours has a much better chance of doing so, even if it’s a hell of a lot harder work!
How did you cope with settling back into ‘normal life’?
I coped with it by cleverly avoiding it. The film makes things look considerably neater than they really are; nearly four years’ worth of events are crammed into 79 minutes, so it’s obvious that a huge amount remains untold in order for the film to focus successfully on a single theme. In reality, when Tenny and I arrived back in the UK, it was a brief stop-off before returning to Armenia, and since then we’ve been moving regularly and have no plans to settle permanently anywhere.
Did you have any filmmaking experience before you left? Did you always intend to make a film about the journey?
We had no experience. And we never set out to make a feature-length documentary. Instead, we set out to make a series of short online videos. So we got cameras, waved them about, shot footage, and sent it back to a production company in the UK. They did an admirable job with it, but the series lasted five episodes before falling flat, because our footage was mostly shite, and nobody wanted to watch videos about three middle class white blokes on a cycling holiday in Europe anyway!
By the time things started to get interesting, I’d had enough experience shooting video to have really started to get a lot out of it as a creative outlet. When Andy went off on his own and I stopped in Armenia for Tenny, I bought my ‘half’ of our expensive camera from him on a coin toss (he bought a second camera brand new). I studied as many travel documentaries as I could get my hands on, and shot and edited a handful of short films to develop my shooting and directing skills. So when I set off for the Middle East and Africa, I was a lot more confident in my filmmaking abilities. The result is that the backbone of the film ended up being provided by the footage from that part of the journey, because it was where the strongest and most compelling material was.
When it came to turning the footage into a coherent narrative, I had very little to do with it — I wouldn’t have known where to start! But James Newton, one of the original filmmakers behind the short video series, had by this point gained a lot of directing experience in the TV industry, and agreed to take a look at all of the footage Andy and I had shot, which amounted to about 300 hours of raw footage (or about two and a half weeks of solid back-to-back viewing, which he had to do twice!).
Having done that in his spare time, he got in touch to say that he’d decided he wanted to focus on the story of my and Tenny’s relationship, as it was what excited him as a director. I was very skeptical that the result would be anything other than a load of cheese-ridden goo, not to mention being disappointed that so much other footage from both myself and Andy would go to waste as a result. And so I was happy to have nothing to do with the production process at all from that point forth. It was left entirely in his hands, meaning that I could go back to Armenia and concentrate on writing my book.
It wasn’t until a late stage in the editing that James invited all of us to view his work. I could not have been more surprised at how his film had turned out — while he definitely hadn’t made the ‘adventure film’ we’d imagined, he had instead made something compelling which was far more about universal human values and concerns than about cycling. At that point it was a case of ensuring that everyone involved was happy with it, and then fine-tuning the narrative to ensure it represented the truth. Then it was back over to the various professionals James had assembled to do the ‘finishing’, including music composition, sound editing, colour grading and the like — basically all the work you don’t notice in the finished film.
When it came to releasing the film publicly a year or so later, I got much more involved, because I had the website development skills to build the online platform for the film, and as a result of committing to continuing my own adventure cycle touring blog I had a growing readership who were all really eager to see it.
Although I do have reservations about it all, especially as I have absolutely no desire to be in the public eye, and the emotional nature of the story has been at times a huge energy drain, it’s because of the bigger messages carried by this story that I’m happy to help share it. It’d be selfish not to. Getting feedback from audiences continues to confirm that it’s been worth it.
Wasn’t it annoying to have to set the camera up, ride off into the distance, come back, pack it all up, etc?
Where are you going in the last scene of the film where it’s all snowy?
This was a 1-month trip from Oslo in Norway to Bodo above the Arctic Circle, via Swedish Lapland, in February. I wanted to find out if it was possible to cycle and camp in deep winter and extremely low temperatures. (It is!)
Will you and Tenny do more cycling trips together?
Possibly, if I can come up with a plan that involves enough comfortable nights indoors, easy riding conditions, nice weather and good food! (Basically a cycling holiday!)
Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Why, thank you for asking! Yes, I have indeed written and published a book. In fact I’d describe myself as an accidental filmmaker but a very deliberate writer. The written word is how I express myself best, and I’ve published millions of words since I began my first blog in 2006 with the name ‘Semi-Coherent Thought Chowder’.
So I did want to write a book, as it was a major ambition as a writer — but not until I knew what the story was, as it would surely be an enormous commitment. Initially I imagined it would be a good old travelogue about an adventurous bike ride. But as I dug into the past memories, diaries and photographs, the bigger questions of life and love began popping up over and over again. Eventually I realised that there were enough long books about long bike rides in existence already, and that I’d write something different and ultimately more interesting to more people instead.
And so the book of Janapar is now a strange hybrid of travelogue and memoir, a true story but written with a novel’s emphasis on character and narrative, and expanding greatly upon what appears in the film. I’m really pleased with it; it’s much more ‘my own work’ than the movie. It’s available on Amazon.co.uk as a paperback/eBook, and on Amazon.com as a paperback/eBook, as well as global Kindle Stores, Apple iBooks, B&N Nook and others.
How are you and Tenny supporting yourselves now?
Tenny is a freelance graphic designer with her own business, and I’ve been getting by for the last few months mainly on the proceeds of books sold at film screenings and online, as well doing the occasional bit of website consulting when an interesting and adventurous project comes along. We’re never going to be rich, but we are instead masters of our own time and direction, which is another type of wealth and one in which we’re far more interested in having!
Are you planning any more adventures?
Always. And I’ve been on several journeys since that aren’t in the film, among them across Mongolia with Andy in 2010, back through Europe with Tenny in 2011, down the Pacific Coast of the US with my brother in 2012, and many shorter and smaller trips as well. And I spend a lot of time mulling over the question of which adventure to do next!
But I also try to live every day adventurously, asking questions of everything and keeping my eyes open for new stories and new opportunities. It’s what I did on the road, and it served me well, so why not practice the same approach to everyday life?
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If you have any more questions about the film, please ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply.