After graduating from college, Tom Allen searched for an escape from an unfulfilling, deskbound career. A plan to bike through a few countries snowballed into a four-year trip through 32 countries, from his home in England through Europe, the Middle East and down the northeastern edge of Africa.
Throughout the journey Allen, 31, shot more than 300 hours of video showing him contracting malaria in Sudan and meeting his future wife in Armenia.
“A lot of the time, I was just talking to the camera like an old mate, trying to sort out my thoughts,” Allen said. “It was really quite raw.”
But on his return to England, BBC director James Newton watched the footage, realized there was a story to be told and turned it into the feature-length film “Janapar: Love on a Bike,” available on DVD and on iTunes, Amazon Instant Play and Google Play.
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Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Allen about his adventure.
Q: How did you plan your route?
A. We planned for about 10 months before we left, but we ended up pitching the plans we made. We had an overall direction, but it was fun to not be rigid in getting there. It made it more interesting. We weren’t comparing what we saw with our eyes with what we saw on the map. We’re in a new town, and let’s just see. Cycling and walking are a great way to be spontaneous. You’re not restricted by the schedules of buses or planes.
Q: You started the trip with two friends, but after a few weeks you ended up on your own. What were the challenges of traveling alone?
A: When you go off on your own, you have to deal with this voice in your head who is always rabbiting thoughts at you. It does take a bit of adjustment. After that, it’s making good decisions. You have to make every decision on your own, and that can be scary. You make a lot of mistakes. You don’t have anyone with you to share the highs. You end up learning a lot about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.
Q: What mistakes did you make?
A: When I was cycling through Ethiopia, I was the subject of a lot of abuse by kids. They’d throw rocks at me and shout at me. I ended up just plugging away and trying to get across the country. I didn’t stop and explore.
Q: What were the highs?
A: The hospitality. It was very humbling, awesome. I spent hundreds of nights in people’s homes. There were epic views and amazing downhills, but the people with very little means saying come stay the night was the restore-your-faith-in-humanity kind of stuff.
Q: How often did you talk to friends or family?
A: I would drop an occasional email from an Internet cafe. I didn’t bring a phone. Five years later mobiles have become ubiquitous. Today, you’d be tweeting from Sudan. I feel lucky that I couldn’t do that. That kind of experience is about the present moment and present place. Being half involved and thinking this would be a nice Instagram photo isn’t the point.
Q: In the film, you say it changed your life and you encourage other people to take a similar journey. How did it change your life?
A: It gives you a massively broader context for how the world looks and how you live in it. Even if the result is learning your friends and family back home are more important. It’s always going to be different for everyone. The real beauty is how personal it is.