I went on a journey seeking answers. What I found instead were questions. Things I thought were black and white dissolved into grey. This was annoying: the world was easier to understand before I’d experienced its realities.
I’d chosen to ride a bicycle because it would bring life back to basics and allow for unmatched independence. There was no other reason, least of all an interest in cycling itself. Combined with the tools and skills of outdoor living, it had seemed that bicycle travel could hardly be bettered as a means of simple, spontaneous and open-ended exploration. Satisfying basic needs and excluding all else, I assumed, would concentrate the mind on what was important, but I was not ready for the sheer extent to which this was true. My experience opened the door to deeper questions than those of the world outside. I found that I had made some foolish assumptions, and soon learned why others told of the difficulty they had reintegrating with mainstream society after years on the road. And it was exploring these questions that took my journey so far from its original intention as a simple bike trip.
During a particularly strange and challenging few months, a friend wrote to me with the following helpful reminder: “If things aren’t changing, you can’t be learning anything.” And think that neatly summarises how things play out when you take the scenic route. It would have been easier to press single-mindedly forth and then write yet another book about a bicycle-powered lap of the planet. But while I did indeed encounter mountains and deserts, challenge and hostility, long days in the saddle and the kindness of strangers, this is not what my journey was really about – and nor is the book that recounts it.
Janapar is not linear in chronology. Life is full of unfinished moments. There are no neat lines drawn across continents; it didn’t matter where I went as long as I kept moving. It is far from comprehensive in its exposition of places visited, it excludes maps and statistics entirely, and is missing periods of time measured in weeks and months. But the result is a truer portrayal of this particular tale than a mere transcription of a traveller’s diary could ever provide.
Any book that could be comfortably transplanted into the ‘memoirs’ department runs the risk of being self-absorbed. It was my priority to avoid this. While the motivation to write may have come from within, the book you now hold was written to be read. Trains of thought are lazy; far better to show and not tell. Years on the road provide no shortage of raw material: no two days are the same, the details of each one still etched into my memory, my diaries, photographs and film footage. Writing this book was an exercise in picking through the anecdotes, identifying crucial turning points and bringing them back to life. I revisited all the chance meetings with friendly strangers who became friends, trying to figure out what they’d taught me and how those lessons had affected later decisions.
I also took the grisly but unavoidable step of looking inward at my own character. It is easy for an author to selectively edit out his or her own less appealing errors of judgement for the sake of ego protection; I chose to bare all because real life is messy and full of mistakes and it’s precisely this that allows us to grow and make progress. Besides, I could not change the past, so I might as well tell it how it was. And I might also add that if I had not had my weaknesses, and growth and progress had not been the result of coming up against them, my story would not have an ending, and this book would have no cause for existence.
I wrote this book because I am an idealist. I am affected by the frankly ridiculous notion that by poking around in the dusty corners of the human experience and reporting what I find there, my efforts will somehow nudge the balance towards a commonly held idea of a better world. Journeys like mine have been happening ever since humans started to think of themselves as distinct from ‘the other’ and became preoccupied with finding out what that ‘other’ really is. This can be seen from the rites of passage of Ancient Greek civilization to the Native American ‘vision quest’ and the Australian Aboriginal ‘walkabout’; coming-of-age experiences built into cultural tradition. (The closest we have today appears to be the mildly inebriated gap-year, and even that’s been killed off by mounting student debt.)
By publishing Janapar alongside the documentary film of the same name, I’d like to think that this story will inspire a new wave of personal journeys made in the spirit of each such quest becoming a unique, formative experience. These are clearly the actions of a madman, because life is so regrettably fleeting and the actions of a million others will undo what I’ve brought into being. (But I am an idealist, and so this won’t stop me trying.)
Let me leave you to continue reading in the simple knowledge that these are the things that happened when I took my life into my own hands, though I did not know that I was doing so at the time. They happen to include a bicycle and the most unlikely kind of love story. They are not meant to fit a pattern or genre. But they are meant to speak to you as a person living this very same unpredictable, unfinished, exciting, adventurous life.