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.