Janapar: Love, on a Bike
“This is without doubt the best adventure cycling book I have ever read.”
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.
In fact, this experience opened the door to a much deeper world of questions than those of the world outside. Harder to answer were those of the internal life we all experience but so often drown out. I found that I had made some foolish assumptions, and I soon learned why others told of the difficulty they had reintegrating with a status quo so often at odds with these things. And this is what took my particular journey – which superficially had much in common with many others – so far from its original intention as a simple bike trip.
During a particularly difficult period of time, a friend wrote to me and said: “If things aren’t changing, you can’t be learning much”. And think that neatly summarises how life plays out when you take a few risks. It would have been much easier to ignore the big questions, press single-mindedly onward, 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 Janapar is about.
It took a long time to swallow this truth, but there are already more than enough books about middle-class white blokes cycling vast distances. Janapar, by contrast, is not linear in chronology. There are no neat lines drawn across continents. It is far from comprehensive in its exposition of places visited, it excludes maps and statistics entirely, and it departs often from scientific accuracy in the way it presents events. I have changed not just names and locations but the very order of anecdotes, sometimes by weeks. I’ve invented conversations that never happened by amalgamating fragments of half-remembered utterances. I have combined many people into a handful of composite characters. And I’ve omitted periods of time measured in months. I’ve done this without guilt, knowing that the story could not otherwise be told effectively, that I have done so in the spirit of honest and engaging storytelling, and that the result is refined, condensed and ultimately truer than a mere transcription of a traveller’s diary.
Any book that would sit comfortably in the ‘memoirs’ department runs the risk of being self-absorbed. As a writer first and foremost – not a traveller or a cyclist or a filmmaker – it was my priority to avoid this, for while the motivation to write may have come from within, the book you hold is designed 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 were the same, and the details of each one were 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 analysed the characters of the people I spent time with, and took the grisly but unavoidable step of looking inward at my own character. It is easy for an author to selectively edit out the less appealing errors of judgement for the sake of ego protection. But I chose to bare all in full knowledge that this would leave my thoughts and actions wide open to judgement, but that the people who understood that life is messy and full of mistakes – and that it’s precisely this that allows us to grow, make progress and move forward – would outnumber the naysayers and the critics. 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 yet 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 an 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 drunken gap-year, and even that seems to have been killed off by mounting student debt.)
By publishing this book alongside the documentary film of the same name that you may or may not have seen, my vain hope is to inspire a new wave of personal journeys made in this spirit, with the principle that each will be unique to the journeymaker. These are clearly the actions of a madman, because life is so regretfully 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.
–Tom Allen, January 2014
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Reader reviews from Amazon.co.uk
“If you are looking for a bragging expose of another adventure traveler’s latest conquest, this book may not be for you. Because in Janapar, the adventure story itself is only a page-turning, exciting vehicle for the larger story, while the eloquent descriptions and philosophical observations reveal universal and greater truths.”
“A cycling book? A travel book? A book about life and love? Whilst Janapar ticks all these boxes, it is Tom’s narrative that sets it apart… the tough life decisions he has to make are depicted in brutal honesty — something that is lacking in many travel books.”
“I love the film and still find it inspiring and funny after having seen it 3 or 4 times. But the book gives so much more… Tom manages to put across a very honest and personal account of his motivations. Of the joys and challenges of such a trip. Of loneliness and companionship. Of the humbling friendship of complete strangers. Of the difficulties in finding out that perhaps the plan you’ve been obsessing over isn’t the only plan… in the book he is able to communicate this to a much greater degree.”
“You know when you get that rare but horrible and sad feeling of nearing the end of a very good book, and never want it to end? I got it with this book.”
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