Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon (1979) 363 p.

I heard about this book, as I’m sure many people did, from Long Way Round. Ted Simon’s epic four-year motorcycle trip around the world in the 1970s was the inspiration for Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman to take off on their own trip, although Simon did it with considerably less experience and equipment and no support crew. He left London in 1973, rode across six continents and fifty-one countries, and returned home in 1977.

Simon had always been a writer and a journalist, not a rider (in fact, he had neither bike nor license when he decided to ride around the world) and this motorcycle adventure is considerably more verbose and ruminating than Ewan and Charley’s Eurasian jaunt. Long Way Round felt like hearing stories at the pub; Jupiter’s Travels is unmistakeably a traditional travelogue, full of deep reflections about cultures and societies and religion and politics. This makes it a more difficult book to read, which is not a bad thing; Simon seems to come up with genuinely interesting and truthful observations more often than most travel writers, who get caught up in the exoticism of it all and act as though every sunset, conversation and moment of reflection is a grand epiphany (although Simon is not always immune to this either).

Spanning a four-year voyage but with less than four hundred pages, Jupiter’s Travels shows some days in close detail, while at other times granting entire nations only a sentence or two (most countries in Central America) or skipping over them entirely (Afghanistan, Iran). This stands out at times, but for the most part Simon handles it fairly well, never giving anything of importance short shrift. His arrival in Brazil, where he is arrested on suspicion of being a spy and undergoes a terrible imprisonment, is given nearly fifty pages, and is one of the most interesting parts of the book.

One of the disappointing parts of the book was Simon’s arrival in India, where he comes up with an odd philosophy comparing himself to the Roman god Jupiter. I don’t know what it is about India, but no place on Earth seems less appealing to me, and whether in fiction or non-fiction, I detest reading about it. I met plenty of hippies in South-East Asia who enjoyed telling me about what an amazing, spiritual place it was, but to my eyes (and from the accounts of more ordinary travellers) it looks like the filthiest place on Earth. And as an atheist, I really couldn’t care less about all the gods. But then, that’s my problem, not Ted Simon’s.

Jupiter’s Travels is, overall, a solid piece of travel fiction, though I suspect Simon’s more traditional style of travel writing might put off readers who came directly from the simple meat-and-potatoes ghostwriter of Long Way Round.