Why I’ve Founded A Travel Grant To Get Young People Exploring The World On Two Wheels

My first long bicycle adventure – 3½ years crossing 32 countries – taught me many things.

Among them: that the world was far bigger than I thought. That my body was capable of amazing feats of adaptation. That the more I learned, the less I knew. In short, that all the tropes of the motivational speaker were true.

But when I cast a glance back, the first memories that come to mind are of the people who opened a door and let me, a stranger on a bicycle, into their lives, and the things those experiences taught me.

For a sheltered young person who’d recently discovered that the world didn’t revolve around him, the impressions these people left were lifelong, their lessons absorbed all the more readily for the crumbling of the worldview that had existed before.

These were not complicated teachings. I learned no deep secrets of the universe within the dwellings of the world’s citizenry. Just endless variations on the theme of “this is how to live”, delivered accidentally through companionship and a lack of any other agenda. The picture painted of life on Earth by the accumulation of thousands of such meetings has informed every decision I’ve made; tempered every opinion; inspired my purpose and direction ever since.

Tea break in Palmyra / Tadmur

I don’t feel like I did anything in particular to deserve such a valuable experience. All I did was get on a bike and start riding. That’s something most of us learn how to do before we start going to school.

Yet I struggle daily with the feeling that I was somehow privileged to have it. This shouldn’t imply superiority, by the way; indeed, it more often than not feels that taking this simple step has pushed me to the margins of society, a place more often lonely than it is attractive.

This feeling is at its keenest when I come within earshot of conversations about the world and its woes; conversations between intelligent people whose context for their thoughts comes only from screens and pages. All too often these conversations revolve around fears – false fears, dumbly birthed by purveyors of information in pursuit of sales, votes, clicks; growing credible through multiplication and agreement until they are no longer fears but facts, which is when they transcend screens and pages and begin to do real harm in all walks of life. And I can’t help but think, as a moment in time drifts back to me: “if only I could show you the truth.”

Syrian coffee cup

It has been one of the hardest things to deal with since I stopped travelling full time – the idea that I may be party to some special (positive) knowledge about the world while so many of us continue to live in a land of (negative) illusions, expressing opinions and making decisions that have hidden but far-reaching consequences, risking leaving this world without ever understanding the part we played in it.

It’s a challenging idea also because there are so many destructive ways to respond to it. Anger at the status quo, the knee-jerk reaction which begets defensiveness and creates more noise. Assuming moral superiority, which makes you deeply unpleasant company and your voice all the more ineffective. The blaming of those who can’t possibly be expected to know their own ignorance, which is a form of ignorance in itself. Or withdrawal from society altogether, which may be the safe option but achieves nothing.

It is not uncommon to hear of clinical depression after such a journey. While I did not suffer from this myself, it has crossed my mind too many times for comfort that it would be very easy for this kind of psychological isolation to drag me down – this sense of utter futility against a daily mass of human sentiment that fundamentally violates our most treasured experiences and the beliefs that stem from them.

Camping in the Sinai

I spent a long while struggling with these reactions and others, before realising that there was enough doom and gloom, enough noise of the kind I felt was destructive. And so I began to look for ways to take these negative feelings and turn them into positive action. It’s said that unless you destroy it completely, fighting something will only make it stronger. Create a better alternative, wisdom has it, and you gradually make your adversary redundant.

The first step was to transform my cycle touring blog, TomsBikeTrip.com, from a personal travelogue into a resource. Not a wishy-washy motivational resource, mind you; instead the best place to come and learn about bicycle travel, nuts and bolts and all, to feel it’s within reach, and then to go away and do. There are now almost half a million words on that website, many of the articles top the Google search rankings for their specific topics, and I receive almost daily emails of gratitude from people out on the road who’ve used the site to help them get going. I’ve joked in the past that the blog will be truly successful when it has no more readers because they’re all out riding. (This is actually only a half-joke.)

Janapar came next – a film, released concurrently with a book, quite simply laying bare the story of what happened to me, warts and all. It was by following the examples of others that I began my own journey; this would be my contribution to that canon. Tales of adventure like this have been told since the dawn of time and evidently have unlimited shelf-life. There’s always space for more.

Armenia, August 2008

I had been unsure for a long time what the next step would be – until last year, when it came out of nowhere. Actually, that’s a lie – it came out of my frustration with the fleeting and intangible nature of words, particularly when they only exist momentarily as pixels on a screen, or as ones and zeroes on a hard drive. I write for a living, so words are pretty important to me, but I needed to do something concrete.

Giving away the no-budget touring bike was a step in the right direction. But the ultimate goal – which has been emerging with increasing clarity as I enter my thirties – is extend that privilege I feel I had in my early twenties: to experience the world on my own terms before committing to the part I would play in it.

If there was some way I could… not just evangelise the idea, but also tangibly lower the barriers to entry, sowing the seed of the idea in the minds of more young people who would benefit from undertaking such a journey… then that would take me a big step closer to this goal.

The Janapar Grant is my first attempt at doing this.

Its purpose is simple: to help young people begin a rite-of-passage journey at a time in their lives when it will benefit them most, with the fewest possible strings attached.

Why by bicycle? Because when all is said and done, I still believe it to be the most accessible and versatile form of independent travel there is.

Stopping for the night in the Nubian desert

It’s my intention that the grant will be an annual fixture, and 2016 will be an experiment to see whether or not that’s going to be viable. I do hope it is. We’ll see what happens when we open up for applications.

You may already have guessed this, but my hope is that the idea of a rite-of-passage bicycle journey for young adults will propagate well beyond the eventual recipient of the grant. Because in making an application, the applicant will already have gone a long way towards clarifying their direction and ambitions for travel. In other words, they will already have planned much of their journey. Not just that, but the grant is (I think) a pretty generous one and is likely to get plenty of attention. Once the seed is sown, my guess is that there’ll be that many more people taking the idea seriously, with or without assistance from ageing adventurers and gear giveaways.

All of this comes from somewhere very idealistic, somewhere beyond what’s rational and measurable, somewhere firmly in the domain of values and beliefs. I do believe it’s worth trying to make the world a better place. I don’t believe the fact that humanity is doomed to extinction in the future is an argument against taking action in the present. I understand that there is no way of pinning down empirically the effects of projects like this, that any success will be anecdotal and open to interpretation, that failure is a possible outcome too. I’m fine with all of that.

Because above all, I believe that we need wise, compassionate and humble people who can rise above the corrupting influence of manufactured fear and become a force for good in the world. If I can marshal the resources available to me and create an opportunity that will help more young people to go out and develop these qualities, then it seems almost irresponsible not to.

Please take the time to visit the Janapar Grant website and share news of its launch. I’ll bet that each and every one of us knows someone who fits the criteria and would benefit from having their attention drawn to it.