The cyclist who cooked for Taliban to escape death

Somen Debnath is on a mission to reach 191 countries by 2020 to spread world peace and AIDS awareness

Image Credit: XPRESS/Abdel-Krim Kallouche
Easy rider: Somen Debnath has travelled across 78 countries on a bicycle

Dubai: Somen Debnath’s well-maintained tresses and nicely trimmed jawline hair doesn’t quite tell you of the peripatetic life he’s led for the majority of the last nine years or the one he plans to undertake in the years ahead.

For a man who’s straddled an unornamented bicycle crisscrossing 78 countries covering over 95,000kms and aims to tally 191 countries over 200,000 kms by this decade, living out of four tiny camping bags, you would imagine him to be slightly removed from the ordinary.

Five minutes into a conversation with him at the Indian Consulate in Dubai and you know, he isn’t quite so. In fact he is, as it turns out, a life, less ordinary. “I am just another 29-year-old but I have a purpose and a dream that’s slightly different – I want to spread world peace and awareness about HIV/AIDS and I choose to do it riding a bicycle around the world meeting people. I haven’t gone back since leaving home in 2004,” says the travelling cyclist who comes from Basanti, a nondescript West Bengal village, far-removed from what modern India looks like today.

Just like Basanti by the way, he’s also put the likes of Termez (Uzbekistan), Samsun (Turkey), Tetovo (Macedonia), Sisimiut (Greenland) and many more on the world map, meeting along the way, he says, 17 presidents and 49 heads of state.

“The most memorable ones of course remain my meetings with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel and the then Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, if not our own President Pranab Mukherjee, who by the way, had presented me with Rs 50,000 (Dh 3054) for my first trip out of India,”.

The globe-trotter, however, also made headlines for ending up, not necessarily at the right places all the time, a story picked up quite famously by the British and other international media in 2009.

“Yes I did make some news then. I had ventured into the Taliban heartland by mistake while cycling from Kabul to Herat and was captured by the rebels. They thought I was a spy and held me captive for 24 days at a stretch. I cleaned their houses, cleaned their guns and even their utensils but the only way I thought I could get out was by offering to cook for them. Some Bengali style curry did the job for me and they let me go, finally convinced that I was harmless and a man on a mission who deserved to be free.” He also escaped a suicide bomb attack, was robbed six times, beaten more than eight times ‘because of the colour of his skin’ and survived with wild animals.

He’s also braved bone-chilling cold conditions in the North Pole, having been able set foot on the icy continent, thanks to enough support and benevolence from former Greenland Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist.

“You know people are my God. I never travelled in hopes of finding an El Dorado but I have been enriched with great friends luckily. I have never had to bother for food, money or clothes and I live in tents, if I don’t find an accommodation. Once I fell short of money in the UK and Lakshmi Mittal stepped in with 15000 pounds (Dh82,000). I am grateful to him,” says the Zoology graduate from Calcutta University.

His next big task over the next two years though is to reach the South Pole. It’s a grueling journey through 48 countries he says and he estimates it will cost him $50,000, an amount that should include his flight and ship travels and an operative cost of $30 per day that will cover his accommodation, medicine, cycle repair and vaccines.

“I am hoping my stop-over in Dubai will give a major boost to my mission of reaching every corner of the world with the message of peace and an awareness against the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. I am sincerely hoping that I get the necessary support and assistance for future travel to the South Pole, Antarctica,” he explains why he is in Dubai these days.

“My aim is to reach nearly 20 million people before I finish and return home in 2020. My fund is supported by donations and company sponsors. That’s how I have travelled all along so far – with virtually no money,” adds the man who is currently penning a book titled ‘Around the world on a bicycle with $17”, the exact amount he set out with one sunny May afternoon in 2004.


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