Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon

A while ago, I wrote about the motorcycle trip by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman across Europe, as told in Long Way Round. They had been inspired by someone called Ted Simon, a fellow I had never heard of until mentioned in that book, but they made his trip sound worth reading about.

And thus I found myself reading Jupiter's Travels over the Easter break, in between watching amiable comedies and The Wire. He went a little bit further than McGregor and Boorman: his trip was a circumnavigation of the entire world, an amazing adventure. This was in the 1970's, so his mode of transport was not exactly technologically advanced: he had a 500 cc Triumph motorcycle. On this, he went all the way down through Africa and South America, then back up the other side of South America, around Australia, up through Asia and across Europe to where he started - a total of 63,400 miles! That's 100,000 kilometres, more or less. It took him four years.

His motivation? Many people ask him this as he's travelling; at one point he says he's going the trip to find out why he's doing it. Towards the end of his trip, as he's nearing home, the same question is in his mind:
It seemed to me that there were times during those four years when I did know, and these were the times when The Journey needed no justification.

Then I needed no better reason for the journey than to be exactly where I was, knowing what I knew. Those were the times when I felt full of natural wisdom, scratching at heaven's very door.
There is one memorable passage, as he's motoring through India, that so confident is he of his purpose that he can connect the dots of all the places he has travelled through and has become "a mythical being, a god in disguise":
There was an intensity and a luminosity about my life during those years which sometimes shocked me. I wondered whether it might be beyond my capacity to hold so much experience in conscious awareness at one time, and I was seriously afraid that I would see the fabric of the tapestry begin to rot before I had finished it. I thought I might be guilty of some offence against nature for which I would be made to pay a terrible price. Was it improper for a mere human to attempt to comprehend the world in this way? For that was my intention.
At other times, he wonders if he's getting it at all - particularly in large tracts of South America where he seems unable to make much contact with the locals. But his commitment to The Journey keeps him going, even when he hits a most pleasant episode in his life in a commune in Northern California - I am not convinced I would have kept going. But he seems to be a fairly restless spirit, one who is imbued with s strong sense of curiosity, as well as one who feels a certain amount of dislocation.

Most of the time, however, the book is simply some fine writing about an amazing journey - I'd say it is one of the greatest pieces of travel writing I've read. I think my favourite parts are all in Peru. I'm not sure how many days he had been in the country, but it wasn't until he went to a hotel, tried to buy some wine with his dinner and is told "it is forbidden to sell wine during the revolution" that he has any indication there was a revolution:
It was a serious matter. The police in Lima and Callao had staged a coup. Many had been killed. The tanks were out in the streets and the fate of the country was in the balance. So far the government had managed to survive. There were rumours of chaos and bloodshed in Lima, but the only noticeable effect in Chiclayo was that you could not get wine with your prawns.
He had of course built this dinner up in his mind as being something special, he had big ideas of all the things he'd be eating, but as he calls out items on the menu, is told "no hoy". He can only get prawns - "they were fried in bread dough, and the chef had forgotten to put in the prawns". Later that night, he and his mate have slung their hummocks between two telegraph poles:
As I was dozing off a faint creaking sound disturbed me, but before had time even to identify it, the pole came crashing down. My head was towards the pole, and Bruno was asleep with his head at the van end of the hammock. In the moonlight I saw the pole fall directly onto Bruno and the porcelain insulation strike his head. I was so horrified imagining the weight of the pole behind the sharp glossy knob that I did not even notice that I had fallen on the ground.

For a second he was deathly still as I struggled up in alarm from the tangle of bedding. Then he woke. He said that he had felt nothing. Astonished but relieved I began to consider what the police might think if they found their communications cut during a revolution, and we decided to leave the site rapidly. Pausing only to pull on our trousers and bundle all our loose things into the van we rushed off for another five miles. Then the bike blew a fuse and stopped, without warning, for the first time in the entire journey.
The next day they're fishing without success, when two policemen stop, red light twirling. Our hero is convinced it has something to do with the revolution and the broken pole, but all they do is confiscate a couple of fish off some local fishermen, giving an enormous one to our hero as they go. One final quote, of a different character, but from the same day:
Some of the time I sat and studied the crabs. They were small and lived in holes spaced about a foot apart. Around the holes was a curious pattern like the footprints of many birds, which attracted my attention. I waited to see what it was. After a while the crabs would start to emerge, popping their brightly coloured periscope eyes over the top, before daring to climb out. Almost invariably each crab had a small ball of sand tucked under one arm, reminding me of an American footballer about to make a run. Some crabs kicked the ball, others walked a little way and then broke it up. Either way they then went over the loose sand with their pincers, stamping it down to leave those marks I had noticed.

In front of me were three holes set to form a triangle. One crab sat confidently at the mouth of its hole watching the other two. When another crab appeared the first crab made a rush for it, but always failed to get there before the other had bunked down its hole again. After many unsuccessful attempts, the aggressor decided on a final solution. It filled up both the other holes with sand, stamping down on them until they had disappeared. I waited a long time to see if either buried crab would reappear but did not see them again.

I had no idea what the game was but, for all its strangeness, the episode had an uncomfortable familiarity.
I don't know how many countries he went through (of a total of 40 or more) where there was some sort of war or civil disturbance going on, but he seems to have had a fairly charmed existence. Until he hits Brazil, that is. There he is arrested and detained for nearly two weeks, with no satisfactory explanation as to why.

When I was reading it, I sensed he was a bit older than his mid-20's, but couldn't really get a handle on how old he was. It turns out from his website that he was 46, an age at which most people have some sense of where they might fit into the world and know what they're up to whereas Ted really didn't. The blurb on his book listed an alarming number of occupations and locations at which he practised them - I think the answer is simply that he is a born traveller. This seems to be confirmed by the astonishing news that early this decade, aged 70, he did the whole thing all over again!



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home