On 25th May 2004, Somen Debnath left the comfort of his tiny village of Basanti near the mangrove forests of West Bengal, India, to embark on a 16-year-long mission.
With a bicycle, some clothes, and Indian currency amounting to €15, Debnath decided to travel to 191 countries by 2020 to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS.
At the time, he was 23 years old and had graduated from college just two days before.
I catch up with him in Miami, Florida as he’s about to set off for Lake Worth. Having started his journey from India, Somen has already covered over 150 countries across all continents including Antarctica. This distance of over 180,000 kilometres has exclusively been covered on a bicycle.
The goal to spread the word about HIV/AIDS began while Debnath was in college. “I attended a seminar on HIV/AIDS awareness and the lack of knowledge about it, especially in underprivileged sections of the world,” he explains, “Coming from a small village myself, I empathized with those around the world who did not have access to basic knowledge to fight the disease.” Across the countries he visits now, Debnath organizes seminars in schools, and universities - especially in rural areas - just like the one he attended all those years ago.
Over the course of his travels, Debnath has met people from all walks of life - from presidents and prime ministers to celebrities and sportspersons. “It has only reinforced my belief in the innate oneness of all humanity,” he remarks, “More than anything else, that is the takeaway for me as I reach the end of my mission.”
How did he manage to fund his travels? He explains: “I started off with €15 at a time when I didn’t know anything about the internet or crowdfunding campaigns. Wherever I cycled, I always found people happy to invite me into their homes, share meals with me, and donate to my cause. After a few years when I got some publicity, the donations started pouring in via the internet. I have never really worried about the financial side of things. Someone always helps.”
He eventually began to sell each kilometre of his journey for a euro to various enterprises for funds. For instance, his visit to the North Pole is being funded by the Lakshmi Mittal Foundation.
I ask him about his typical routine for the day, which turns out to be as unique as expected. “I generally wake up at 8 am, and cycle for around 10 hours or about 150 km. Along the way, I stop at schools or colleges to speak about safe sex and HIV/AIDS. Earlier, I would simply barge in on them and ask for a stage and a mic,” he smiles, “I now have a team that helps arrange the workshops.”
His most treasured possessions through all his travels are his 400 bracelets, which he never removes. “These were given to me by the people I met along the way. They couldn’t accompany me themselves, so now their bracelets travel with me,” he laughs.
It couldn’t have been all smooth travels for him though, right? “Oh no, not at all,” he laughs, “I’ve had my fair share of negatives. Had my bike stolen six times now. Spent days on end with hunger. Been robbed. Been homeless.” What are the incidents that really stand out? “Once while cycling in Central Asia at sub-zero temperatures, I was offered a lift by a truck and immediately agreed. After driving to a remote location, they stopped and made me hand over everything I had and left me there. It was a very low point,” he remembers.
But the incident which propelled him into media spotlight happened in the city of Herat, Afghanistan. “I didn’t know I was in Taliban territory,” he confesses, “I was approached by bearded men wearing shawls who took me to be a spy and kidnapped me.” For 24 days, Somen was questioned and tortured, kept in a dark dungeon with nothing but a few morsels of rice to sustain him daily. “I thought it was over for me, until I got a little friendly with one of the men and offered to cook meat curry for them. They did not have any mutton, only beef, which is sacrilegious in my religion but I had no choice.” His Talibani kidnappers were so impressed with his cooking that they released him a few days later.
With his journey coming to a close, Somen has already begun preparing for the next leg of his life. Using part of the donations he received over the years, he has built a house in Kolkata that can accommodate up to 30 persons and will remain open to all travellers. The house has four rooms, one of which has been converted into a museum housing the souvenirs that Somen sends back.
“The larger goal is to build a global village after 2020, spread across eight hectares,” he explains, “I should achieve that dream by 2025.” Always the planner.
For Somen, travel is a way of retaining a childlike innocence, thanks to the spectacles of the world that never cease to amaze. He explains that getting caught in the routines of life shortens timespan - one never realizes how quickly life passes. “In serving my cause and making some difference, I have also expanded my lifespan, “ he laughs.
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Last week, David Gilmour, lead singer of the legendary band Pink Floyd, announced he would be auctioning off 126 guitars from his personal collection. The news wasn’t only exciting for guitar aficionados, but climate activists alike since Gilmour pledged to donate all of the income from the auction to a climate crisis charity.
The final amount after the auction was finalised was 21 million dollars, all of which Gilmour is donating to Client Earth, a non-profit organisation that is using legal action to battle climate crisis.
Gilmour said: “ The global climate crisis is the greatest challenge that humanity will ever face, and we are within a few years of the effects of global warming being irreversible. I hope that the sale of these guitars will help ClientEarth in their cause to use the law to bring about real change. We need a civilised world that goes on for all our grandchildren and beyond in which these guitars can be played and songs can be sung.”
Not everyone can donate 21 million dollars as Gilmour did, yet every penny towards our fight against climate change counts. If you, too, want to have a small contribution towards protecting our planet, consider donating to Cool Earth below. Cool Earth works with local rainforest communities and halts deforestation, protecting the very trees that are natural carbon offsetters.
On June 20th, the Amsterdam City Council joined over 600 local governments around the world, including London, Auckland, Prague, Milan, Quebec City, and declared climate crisis. The Netherlands branch of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion had demanded that the city recognizes the climate crisis by way of a protest, a funeral procession for the city of Amsterdam, three days prior to the decision.
The declaration came after Sylvana Simons of the political party Bij1 gave a speech about the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to acknowledge the city’s duties. Simmons said:
“We are in an unprecedented ecological disaster. The climate crisis is already the end of the way of life and the lives of many people. Young climate change leaders, Extinction Rebellion activists and concerned citizens throughout the world are right to make themselves heard and demand that politicians take the necessary measures to combat the climate crisis. By declaring a climate emergency as the first Dutch city we send a clear signal that Amsterdam hears them and will do everything in its power to deal with this crisis. ”
Following the city's recognition of the climate crisis and a motion by Jaspar Groen, a councillor with the green party GroenLinks, the municipality has also proposed a climate clock showing Amsterdam's carbon emissions and how much the city has got left in its carbon budget.
There is no denying that the plant-based and animal product free food sector is rapidly growing. Every day, there is news of a well-known chain releasing a plant-based alternative to their traditionally meaty offers, or a big food conglomerate investing in plant-based options, or a new exciting company that is producing some sort of meat, dairy, or poultry alternative.
Proveg is an international food awareness organisation raising awareness about the benefits of a plant-based diet for the planet, animals, and the humankind. The organisation has been very instrumental in making animal-product-free diets mainstream and has started a startup incubator programme in 2018. The programme, first of its kind, supports emerging innovative startups with the goal of reducing animal product consumption. Here are five exciting startups from their equally exciting list of cohorts.
The first lab-grown meat product might have been a burger but the clean meat field has grown a lot since 2013 when Mark Post and his team served the $300,000 burger. That cultured meat is the next big thing is news to approximately no one but this doesn’t mean we can’t still be excited about the budding innovations. To me, ClearMeat is one such exciting cultured meat prospect. Based in India, ClearMeat is on its way to produce the world’s first chicken mince and move on to products such as tandoori chicken and chicken tikka masala from there. Chicken is the main source of animal protein in India and as the country's population steadily grows and the people's economic power with it, chicken consumption also seems to be growing rapidly. ClearMeat’s goal is to provide sustainable, healthy, and affordable meat alternatives to a growing population.
I love a good mushroom. They’re easy to cook, delicious in and of themselves, and have many species that are different but equally tasty — one might even say they’re magic. Mushlabs is employing the magic of the mushrooms and applying it to producing sustainable sustenance in an ingenious way. You might be thinking portobello burgers and mushroom mince, but instead, Mushlabs takes the roots of mushrooms and uses fermentation to produce a protein-, fiber-, and micronutrient-rich ingredient. The production process of Mushlabs uses indoor farming systems that employ vertical stacks to grow plants. Because they are stacked, vertical systems take up considerably less land and, because they are controlled environments, require less water. This makes the potential negative environmental impact of Mushlabs proteins comparably lower than it’s animal counterparts and even plant proteins. Mushlabs might soon be the answer to the questions vegans get the most: “But where do you get your protein?”
3) Legendairy Foods
Numerous people in numerous labs are on the journey to produce meat without the slaughter and intensive farming of animals but the animal farming industry doesn’t end with just meat. Although plant-based milks are on the rise even with non-vegan consumers, dairy is still very much part of the majority of people’s diet. Legendairy Foods is aiming to give people dairy milk without the destructive environmental and ethical consequences. Through a fermentation process, LegenDairy Foods transform microorganisms and sugar into milk protein and then on to dairy products. Dairy milk without cows. From anecdotal evidence, cheese seems to be the one thing people feel like they can’t give up when the topic of going vegan comes up. To me, real cheese without real cows seems to be the perfect solution to that.
Russian startup Greenwise, produces plant-based meat alternatives — meat and jerky — that are structurally almost identical to meat. Their products look, feel, and chew like real meat. Amongst the five companies, Greenwise is the one that I actually got to taste the products of and I can attest to their claim. Their plant-based meat comes in dry form and you can cook it any way you like. It absorbs the taste of whatever you decided to cook it with very well, be it broth spices or a sauce. I think GreenWise is making way in a relatively underdeveloped side of plant-based meat production. A side that is quickly growing with companies like Beyond Burger taking off in terms of media and consumer attention. That is, producing plant-based meat for meat eaters. The products of Greenwise are made to replace meat in dishes without having to compromise on taste or texture. They appeal to a fast-growing consumer base of environmentally or ethically conscious people who want to reduce their impact but not ready to give up meat.
5) Better Nature
I first discovered tempeh as a delicious protein source upon moving to the Netherlands. Tempeh is a soy product (although it can be made with other beans as well) that is made by fermenting cooked beans into a cake-like solid block. It’s a rich source of B12 (a vitamin everyone and not just non-meat eaters often lack), protein and dietary fibres. Tempeh originates from Indonesia and is a staple in SouthEast Asian cooking, thus thanks to the large Indonesian community in the Netherlands it’s very easy to find here, you can find it in almost all supermarkets. However, I was surprised to learn that it’s not at all this common or well known in other parts of the world, even the most cosmopolitan ones. Better Nature wants to change this and be the company responsible for making tempeh mainstream. They are taking this ancient food and applying contemporary scientific methods to it in order to make it even tastier and richer in protein and vitamin B12. The result is an affordable and nutritious food product that is at the same time much better for our planet compared to animal proteins.