All Geared Up: Taliban and Syrian conflict no problem for Indian round-the-world cyclist
A passion for "global community" and a desire to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS motivated Somen Debnath to cycle around the world.
Debnath, who was born in West Bengal, India, set out in 2004 at the age of 20 on a journey that he has named "Around the World on Bicycle Tour: Cycling for HIV/AIDS Awareness Programme
He initially cycled the length of India spreading his message, then continued across Europe and the Middle East.
Debnath told The Jordan Times in a recent interview that he plans to finish his trip in 2020, after 16 years of cycling and visiting all 191 countries in the world.
Jordan is his 74th country, and the second one in the region. He began the Middle East leg of his trip in Egypt and will be continuing from the Kingdom to Palestine and Israel on Thursday, then to Syria before cycling through the Gulf states.
The current conflict in Syria has not deterred Debnath from planning his journey through the violence-stricken country.
"I don’t get nervous when travelling in dangerous places — I always have a smile on my face and I know that my mission is meaningful — so what is there to be nervous about?"
As shown by his past experiences, however, Debnath's journey has not always been free of trouble and danger.
When cycling through Herat in Afghanistan, he was captured by the Taliban, who believed him to be a spy. Debnath spent three weeks as a hostage in total isolation and unable to understand the commands of his captors.
"I told them as best I could that I respected Islam and their way of life. I tried to show them that I was peaceful by offering to clean their house and cook them traditional Indian food," he said.
Since being in Jordan, Debnath has been taken to see the sights of the country, including the Dead Sea. "It was so beautiful — I've never seen anything like it. The Jordanian people are so friendly and welcoming."
During his stopover in the Kingdom, the activist said he visited universities in Amman and Irbid, schools in Sahab and Jerash, raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, as well as talking to students about Indian culture and his journey so far.
He also gave a seminar at the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.
The subject of raising awareness on HIV/AIDS inspired Debnath as a child at school, when his teachers were unable to adequately answer his queries on the disease.
He undertook two years of training at a local AIDS centre.
"The AIDS-related stigma and lack of knowledge about this deadly yet preventable disease motivated me the most to undertake this project. My mission spread first to people in my village, then my country and now it is a global campaign," Debnath says on his website.
The cyclist said that one thing above all he has learnt from his travels is that he does not want to judge people.
"I don't want to change anyone, I just want to share my stories, learn theirs and inform them about HIV/AIDS," he noted.
"The easiest way to live in this life is to be happy, to welcome people into your life and to learn from others."
Calling himself a "representative of the world", Debnath hopes to have met some 20 million people by the end of his journey in 2020.
Keeping all these friends updated is hard; he currently sends regular newsletters to the 70,000 people he has met so far.
His trip is funded through donations from the governments of the countries he travels to, media institutions and most importantly, according to Debnath, the people he meets.
He hopes to use the proceeds of his trip to finance a project he calls a "Global Village" to be created in his birthplace, the Sunderbans, which will revert to a simpler way of life.
The cyclist said he plans to build 25 houses on 20 acres of land in a remote part of his native area, which adopts "simple living but high thinking" in its way of life.
By Rhiannon Williams
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