Somen Debnath has been travelling across the world on a bicycle to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS. Since the start of his journey in 2004, he has travelled 1,37,900 km and visited 126 countries.
“After all these years of travelling, I have understood one thing about the world — that it simply reciprocates. If you are confused, you’ll get nothing but confusion from the world. If you’re pessimistic, you’ll get cynicism. You will see the reflection of yourself in the world. So if you’re hopeful and optimistic, that’s what the world will reflect for you. See, the world doesn’t know good or bad, it simply responds to whatever we have to offer,” says Somen Debnath.
His incredible 1,37,900 km journey across 126 countries lends credibility to his world view. Somen first took up the mission of spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS across the world 12 years ago, setting off on his bicycle for the journey of a lifetime.
He plans to visit 191 countries by 2020 and is currently at the southern tip of Argentina in the town of Ushuaia. From here he will continue on his journey to Antarctica.
Somen comes from a small village called Basanti in the Sundarbans, West Bengal. His concern about the neglect and unawareness surrounding HIV started growing after he read an article about AIDS at the age of 14. The article said that AIDS was even deadlier than cancer and told the story of a homeless AIDS patient who was abandoned by his village, left to die alone. He decided he wanted to do something about it, then and there. He just didn’t know what or how.
“It had always been on my mind. After I completed my graduation in Zoology from the University of Calcutta, I decided to go on a three-month-long tour to Northeast India to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. Since I didn’t have many resources at my disposal, I decided to take my bicycle on the journey,” says Somen. He did extensive research about HIV, found out all the information he could and prepared a presentation. “The idea was to reach as many people as possible along my journey and make them aware. After those three months, it still felt like I had not done enough, there was a lot of work remaining. So I cycled around India for the next three years and then set off on an international mission.”
When asked about how his family reacted to his decision, Somen responds with a quick clarification, “Do you mean my parents or my global family?”
“Like any parents in the world, even mine were reluctant to let me go. My father simply refused to allow me and even stopped talking to me for a while. I managed to convince my mother and she made him understand that this was something really important to me. So he came around. Today, after seeing that I have made a family in the entire world, and have met so many important people like leaders of many nations, they are proud of me and my work,” he smiles and replies.
As his journey turned global, the horizons of Somen’s mission also widened. Other than spreading awareness about HIV, Somen has also become an ambassador of Indian culture.
“My goal is to cover 191 countries by 2020. I will travel 2,00,000 km around the world and reach nearly 20 million people,” he explains.
While travelling, Somen’s possessions include a bicycle loaded with a bagful of essentials such as clothes, a bed mat, a sleeping bag, a tent, and what he calls his most treasured possession — over 400 bracelets (that he never removes) collected from different places across the world.
Somen visits schools, colleges and universities in every town that he travels, raising awareness and encouraging local people to start new initiatives to educate people about HIV/AIDS. He ensures that he is able to interact with students, youth groups and communities likely to benefit from the programme. So far, he has reached out to over 7,500 different institutions and 139 red light districts.
Understandably, the journey hasn’t always been a piece of cake. Somen has faced numerous adversities and even near-death experiences on his journey: he’s been captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, has escaped a bomb blast in Iraq and had his bicycle stolen six times.
It is only his determination that keeps him going.
“Despite all the problems I faced throughout my journey, I have been alright! I always meet people with good hearts and after all these years, I have a global family; people that I care about and who care about me. This encourages me to keep going,” he says.
What happens after 2020?
Somen has it all mapped out. His dream is to build a Global Village in his hometown of Basanti as a tribute to his family members across the globe. “Anyone and everyone will be welcome there,” he says.
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Currently, Somen is trying to raise funds to continue his journey to Antarctica. So far, he has two individual sponsors and one company helping him financially. But he is still 70% short of his total budget.
“It seems I won’t be able to leave for Antarctica this month as all the tickets are already booked. I have been hanging out here for the last ten days, hoping that things will fall into place. But I am not worried. I have always faced problems like this and have always found a way out of such situations. I believe in the philosophy of Bhagvad Gita; one should continue on his/her path without worrying about the outcome. That’s what I am doing,” he concludes.