FEATURE/Globetrotting Indian cyclist finds peace, good biking in Taiwan
By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter
Indian activist Somen Debnath has been on a mission for nearly two decades to cycle around the globe to raise awareness of HIV-AIDS and promote a message of peace ingrained in Indian culture.
Since his journey started in 2004, he has been to all seven continents and more than 170 countries and territories, and even survived being held captive by the Taliban for 24 days before being released.
The 39-year-old is now in Taiwan, the 172nd country on his ongoing adventure around the world, and he has found peace, positivity and excellent biking trails.
In a conversation with CNA on Feb. 5, Debnath said he has biked around several parts of northern Taiwan, including in Tamsui, Jinshan, and Sanzhi in New Taipei, Keelung, and Hsinchu, and along riverside bike trails in the Greater Taipei area.
Those outings led him to describe Taiwan as one of the world's most biker-friendly places, supported by its dedicated biking lanes and other facilities.
Before visiting Taiwan, Debnath said he had met many Taiwanese during his worldwide tour who invited him to see their home country.
"I have heard from friends while traveling around the world many positive things about Taiwan. It [Taiwan] has always been on my mind," he said.
After finishing his last trip in the Philippines, the man from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal finally made it to Taiwan on Jan. 24.
During his two weeks here, Debnath has mostly spread a message of peace, but the bigger mission of this decades-long journey has been to keep the world focused on the dangers of AIDS.
The inspiration for this mission was an article he read at the age of 14 titled "AIDS is Deadlier than Cancer."
It was about a homeless person who was laid on the ground outside the Medical College of Calcutta, abandoned by his villagers and left to die of AIDS alone.
It made a huge impact on him, and he started asking his teachers at school about AIDS/HIV, but they could not provide any answers.
"So two years later, I decided to get specialty training at W.B.S.A.C.S. (West Bengal State AIDS Control Society) and begin an awareness campaign about HIV/AIDS starting with educating my own teachers," he said.
"AIDS-related stigma and lack of knowledge about this deadly yet preventable disease motivated me the most."
His mission got off to a humble start, his first audiences his own villagers. He then extended his AIDS/HIV campaign to other parts of India before going global.
Debnath's worldwide campaign officially started on May 27, 2004, just two days after he obtained his bachelor's degree in zoology from the University of Calcutta.
At the time his ultimate goal was to cover all 191 countries around the world by 2020.
COVID-19 temporarily derailed that goal, but much like a cycling Forrest Gump who had already traveled a long distance, Debnath decided to keep going, and reset his target for completing his worldwide expedition to the end of 2023.
He told CNA that his goal now is a very simple one: "I wish to do something for humanity."
Coming from the land of Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, Debnath said his promotion of Indian culture is meant to send the message of peace and love and universal unity to all mankind.
Given Debnath's positive impressions of Taiwan's people, he said that feeling has been present in Taiwan and led to his conviction that India and Taiwan share what he called a "universal brotherhood and universal acceptance."
Debnath has faced several obstacles during his many travels, from enduring extreme heat in the Sahara desert until a sudden sandstorm guided him to an oasis to dealing with freezing cold in the Antarctica.
His biggest scare, however, came when he was taken captive by the Taliban while cycling to Herat from Kabul in 2007.
While being held, he was asked to clean his captor's houses and cook for them, but he eventually convinced them that he meant no harm and was set free.
Recalling the hardship as a captive, Debnath said he bode no ill will toward the Taliban.
"It is their country. I can't complain," he said, explaining that as a guest it was not his job to pass judgment on other countries.
Asked what he has learned from his 186,500-kilometer journey so far, Debnath said that after witnessing the many different problems and politics in different parts of the world, he felt it was important to remain positive and optimistic.
He told CNA his next stop would be Indonesia and Pacific island countries before heading back to South Asia and finally returning home late this year, a perfect ending nearly 20 years after his global adventure began.
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