A 30-year-old Indian on an ambitious mission to pedal around the globe to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS, has reached Lesotho after already touring 96 countries.
Somen Debnath is a Bachelor of Science Zoology degree-holder from a tiny village of Basanti in India’s West Bengal province. He has set himself a target of riding his bicycle through 191 countries by the year 2020 — no mean feat by any standards.
Mr Debnath arrived in Lesotho last Saturday through the Sani Pass in Mokhotlong and cycled to Maseru where he was welcomed at the Indian Consulate by the Honorary Consul of India to Lesotho, Man Mohan Bakaya.
Speaking to the Sunday Express on Thursday, Mr Debnath said he left his village 10 years ago on a bicycle and with just a simple backpack and is on a mission to sensitise communities about preventive measures they could take to protect themselves from contracting the virus.
“I embarked on this mission after reading a newspaper article, when I was 14 years of age, about a man with AIDS who died after he was abandoned by his family in Kolkata,” Mr Debnath said.
“I was touched by this story which erroneously claimed that ‘Aids is deadlier than cancer’. So I took it upon myself to learn more about this disease.”
The affable cyclist said he then underwent training at the West Bengal Aids Prevention and Control Society when he was 16 years old, and spent four years working with the organisation and travelling to different parts of India teaching about HIV and AIDS in schools and villages.
On 27 May 2004, Mr Debnath embarked on his journey which took him to 28 Indian provinces and six union territories before he left the country in 2006 and travelled to 28 Asian nations.
“I started my journey in 2004 from my hometown and travelled on a bicycle with a mission to create HIV and AIDS awareness among the youth in schools, colleges and universities by hosting seminars and workshops during my journey,” he said, adding he only carries a rucksack with a laptop, cell-phone, camera, journal and clothing.
“I could neither afford a car nor a simple motorcycle to carry me around. All I had then was my bicycle and I told myself that it would be my mode of transport as it is not only eco-friendly but can even reach remote areas.”
Mr Debnath said during that time, he also learnt that humans’ duty was not only to take care of themselves, but also others to create a healthy and disease-free society.
“People, especially the youth, need to be made aware of how deadly the disease is, so they can make simple precautions to prevent being infected and assist those who have already contracted the virus so that they are not overcome by stress and anxiety,” said Mr Debnath.
“My aim is to conscientise people about this pandemic in the 191 countries I intend to visit by the end of 2020, covering almost 200 000 kilometres and reaching a population of over 20 million people.”
Mr Debnath’s trip is funded by donations from well-wishers who pay for the kilometres he travels and get certificates of recognition as well as becoming part of his global family while on the trip.
Between 2009 and 2012, Mr Debnath cycled to 48 countries in Europe and Asia. And since 2012, he has travelled between Africa and the Middle East, until arriving in Lesotho last weekend.
Mr Debnath’s target is going through Africa this year, travel to the Americas by 2017 then Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China in 2018. Mr Debnath said by 2019, he should be cycling in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia.
Despite traversed a large chunk of the planet and encountering many challenges, Mr Debnath remains motivated to finish the expedition.
“During my travels through the 97 countries I have visited, I met countless challenges as I was robbed six times and beaten up at least eight times,” Mr Debnath said.
In Turkey, Mr Debnath was robbed and had to work in a local bar for a month to earn some cash. Soon after, he was robbed again, this time in Bulgaria, and beaten-up by skinheads.
“At times, I had to climb up trees to escape from wild animals such as tigers,” said Mr Debnath.
“However, I did not despair but instead, became stronger as most of the people I came across gave me more strength and courage to carry on.”
As if such challenges are not daunting enough, Mr Debnath has had to endure frequent bicycle breakdowns and is now on his seventh bike.
Three of his previous bicycles have since been placed in an Indian museum.
However, Mr Debnath said the most difficult part of his trip was when he was captured and detained by the Taliban in Afghanistan for 24 days in 2007, during which he was denied food and severely assaulted. He persuaded his tormentors to release him after cooking them curry.
The Islamic extremist fighters were so impressed with his banquet they decided he was “safe” and let him go, he added.
However, in all the difficulties, Mr Debnath said he harbours no grudge and neither does he have any regrets.
“My passion for teaching about this deadly disease keeps me going,” Mr Debnath said.
He also paid tribute to the people he has met along the way for their warm hospitality since he has run out of supplies on many occasions and has had to depend on well-wishers. Mr Debnath said some people also join him for parts of his journey.
Upon finishing the expedition and returning to India in 2020, Mr Debnath plans to use the proceeds he would have raised, to set up a global village near the city of Kolkata in which HIV/AIDS patients would receive care regardless of their caste, colour or creed so as to give them dignity.
“I intend to return to India on 27 March 2020 where I will build a village which should be complete by 2025,” said the young adventurer.
“I will then hand it over to the world for HIV and AIDS patients to be taken care of.”
Mr Debnath also said he hoped to meet Lesotho government officials and most of all, King Letsie III, during his stay in the kingdom.
“I intend to get the King and his government’s blessing before I visit different schools and hold workshops. Then I can continue with my journey.”