HIV/Aids Awareness: Breaking the Aids cycle

Filed on July 4, 2013
HIV/Aids Awareness: Breaking the Aids cycle

He was held captive by the Taleban for 24 days in Afghanistan, narrowly escaped bomb blasts in Iraq, and was mugged in other countries. Indian globetrotter Somen Debnath has faced it all during his nine years of travel around the world on a bicycle.

The 30-year-old, whose mission is to spread awareness about Aids and conduct seminars on Indian culture in 191 countries by 2020, is now in Dubai. Speaking to Khaleej Times at the Indian Consulate in Dubai, Debnath said he had pedalled 97,000 kilometres so far.

HIV/Aids Awareness: Breaking the Aids cycle (/assets/oldimages/cycle_0407.jpg)

“The UAE is the 78th country I am visiting. My mission is to clock 200,000 kilometres in 191 countries by 2020.”

It was a report on an HIV-infected villager who was left alone to die near his hometown in Kolkata that had a huge impact on Debnath about Aids. Debnath was only 14 when he read that article. When his school teachers couldn’t answer his questions on the dreaded disease, he decided to get trained at the West Bengal State Aids Control Society.

At 16, he began awareness campaigns about HIV/Aids and taught his teachers. “AIDS-related stigma and lack of knowledge about this deadly, yet preventable disease motivated me the most. My mission was to spread awareness first to people from my village, then my country, and now it is a global campaign.”

A graduate in Zoology, Debnath started his global ride in 2004 with just Rs422, or $17. He was inspired by Bimol Mukerji, also from West Bengal, who went on an epic world tour on a bicycle from 1926 to 1937. Debnath decided to follow in his footsteps after reading Mukerji’s book, ‘Du Chakay Duniya’ (The World on Two Wheels) that was re-published in 1998.

He first covered India, talking to sex workers about the dangers of Aids, and working with tribal communities. “I can never forget the experience with the Jarawa tribe in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Though I had to keep complete silence for two weeks as I couldn’t understand their language, I really enjoyed the warmth of their love and hospitality.”

He also cherishes the hospitality of the Inuit, the Eskimos in Greenland, and the kind gesture of an utterly poor and old farmer in Bangladesh who came to his rescue after he had collapsed in the scorching heat.

Scary memories of the Taleban in 2009 are fresh in his mind, but some Indian curry he cooked for his captors helped seal his release.

After every lucky escape and tryst with the fate, he sets off to another country with the support of Indian missions.

With an additional degree in Fine Arts, Debnath paints scenes of every country he visits. “I’m sending these paintings to a friend of mine in Germany. Once I finish my world tour, I will arrange an exhibition of all 191 paintings in all these countries through my friends in all the places that I have visited.”

In the UAE, he plans to cycle around the seven emirates. “Unfortunately, schools here are closed now. I will try to meet as many members as possible from the Indian community and other communities here.”

With every second or third person he has met in Dubai being an Indian, Debnath feels the emirate is like his second home. “I’m happy to be in the UAE which is culturally very close to India.”

Debnath and Dubai also share something in common — a Global Village, albeit his concept being different from the one here and the resemblance in the name purely coincidental.

With the support of the people he meets, those who assist him during his trip morally and financially, Debnath aims to build a Global Village back home where traditional houses of various countries will be set up in one compound. “The first house, which I call the ‘People House’, is almost ready in Kolkata. People can come and stay there for a week. I need support from more people to continue my journey to the South Pole and also to make more such ecologically sustainable houses in my Global Village.”

A book on the trip, another culinary book, a photo documentary and a film on his 20 most exciting experience are being planned by the global cyclist.

Debnath’s friends help update blogs in five languages and on his facebook page and he cherishes these bonds. But there are more kilometres to pedal and new friends to meet. The fight against Aids must continue after such a long and eventful journey. —

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