Friday, 18 August, 2006

Jupiter's Travels

In 1973, Ted Simon embarked on a four-year, around-the-world journey via motorcycle.  His book Jupiter's Travels describes the journey and many of the things he saw.  As with any good travelogue, the book also gives us some insight into the author's thoughts and how the journey changed his outlook on things.

I've heard it said before that the open minded traveler will learn much more about himself than he will about the people or places that he visits.  In my few experiences traveling outside my comfort zone, I've found that to be true.  It's certainly true for Ted Simon, and that turns out to have rather mixed results for the reader.

As a journalist, Simon kept copious notes during the journey and periodically sent dispatches back for publication by his employer, The Times of London.  The book is obviously a collection of his notes, edited to provide some kind of story.  Essentially, it's a collection of journal entries written over a four year period and then edited for inclusion in a book.  Unfortunately, the editing didn't include trying to maintain a constant "voice."  In particular, I found it somewhat confusing to read one passage written in the past tense ("I was following the coast road...") and the next passage written in present tense ("I am following the coast road again today...").

Simon's description of his route through Africa (after riding through Europe and catching a ferry across the Mediterranean Sea) clearly shows his mental journey from being cautious and somewhat frightened about unusual or unexpected situations to becoming comfortable with and even looking forward to the unexpected.  Lots of things go wrong early in his journey down the east coast of Africa, causing him great agitation.  As the trip progresses you can see him take things in stride and at one point he writes that the journey wouldn't be interesting at all if everyting went exactly as planned.  How much can you learn about yourself when you don't have to face the unexpected?

He shares another key insight when describing his conversation with a gas station attendant in Cape Town, South Africa.  The attendant asks where Simon is from, and when he finally explains that he rode the motorcycle all the way from London, the attendant is incredulous--frightened, even, to think of making such a journey.  Simon writes, "I am learning, as I make my way through my first continent, that it is remarkably easy to do things, and much more frightening to contemplate them."

From Africa, he took a ship to South America, riding south on the east coast and then north to Central America, through Mexico, and to Los Angeles.  There are fewer insights as the journey progresses, as he begins to take everything in stride.  It's as if he can no longer be shocked or surprised by the way people live, the things they eat, or by the many wondrous sights that he sees.  It is interesting, however, to read his reactions to life in the Los Angeles area after two years in less developed regions of the world.

It's possible that the book changed me--that reading of his first two years' adventures, I was no longer able to be astonished by the things he described.  But it seemed to me that he lost something after leaving the U.S.  His descriptions of Australia were mostly flat, and the trip through India and southeast Asia very disconnected and not terribly interesting.  By that time he'd been on the road for more than three years and I think he was getting tired.  Either that or he'd exhausted the page budget for the book, because he includes almost nothing of the trip from India back home.  Almost 8,000 miles through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and other countries is covered in fewer than 10 pages.

I really liked the first three-quarters of the book--up to his landing in Australia.  After that, reading became something of a chore.  Still, those first 350 pages are worth reading and all in all I'd give the book a mild recommendation.