People & Chefs

Somen Debnath | Travelling 191 Countries, 200,000 kms, Meeting 20 Million People By The Year 2020!

I started writing my Culinary Travel blog to pen down and share my ‘experiences’. But there wasn’t any mission. I have consciously never written anything about politics, religion, natural disasters, human disasters and many other calamities and catastrophes that I have felt strongly about. I want to write about things that make the readers feel that there is ‘hope’ in this world and there is much to look forward to. Embarking on a culinary journey and meeting new people on new shores on my travels give me that ‘hope’. So imagine my excitement to meet a man who has been traveling around the world ‘with a mission’ and with same belief that I had – there’s ‘hope’. He set off on his travels in 2004 and intends to continue traveling till 2020, before heading back home. His mission? To spread a message of peace and awareness about HIV/Aids. His preferred mode of transportation? A bicycle! He’s been travelling on a bicycle for nine years and has covered a distance of 97,000 km across 78 countries. Right now, he’s on his Middle East leg of his world tour and is in Dubai till the 16th of July, after which he’ll cycle his way off to other Middle Eastern countries, continuing his journey to Africa, North America and even to the South Pole!

Somen Debnath was born a Bengali, but today he is nothing but a global citizen. He hasn’t met his family – the family that you and me would probably refer to. He’s looks at me bewildered when I ask him ‘Do you not miss your family?’ ‘My goal is to cover 191 countries till 2020. I will travel 200,000km around the world and will be reaching nearly 20 million people. I am with my family!’ He came home last night and we heard all about his stories over a home cooked traditional Bengali meal of Aloor Dom (Potatos), Bhaja Moonger Daal (yellow lentil soup), Chingri Malaikari (Prawn in Coconut Curry), Maacher Paturi (Fish in Mustard Sauce, wrapped in Banana leaf), Kasha Mangsho (Mutton slow cooked in Bengali style), Tomato aar Khejurer Chutney (Tomato and Dates Chutney) and Gur diye Chanar Payesh (Cottage Cheese and Milk Pudding with Jaggery). With a person who’s been travelling so much, I thought a Bengali meal must be something that he might not be coming across often. I have been ‘inspired’ naturally, to write about him at the middle of the night, just after he left. A snippet of our adda (Adda in Bengali refers to the casual chit-chat) with Somen Debnath follows the pictorial journey that he shared with us (sadly I can’t go on uploading!)…


You left home when you were 20 years old. And you haven’t gone back. How did it all start? I wanted to do something since I was a child but I wasn’t sure what. I was involved in many social work from an early age. But the real inspiration for my mission came to me at the age of 14 when I read an article called ‘AIDS is Deadlier than Cancer’. A person was left lying in front of Medical College of Calcutta (What an irony!), abandoned by all his villagers and left to die alone – he had been suffering from AIDS. No one would touch him. This incident made a huge impact on me. When I started asking my school teachers about AIDS and HIV, they could not answer and avoided discussing the subject. So two years later, I decided to get a special training at W.B.S.A.C.S. (West  Bengal State AIDS Control Society) and began an awareness campaign about HIV and AIDS, starting with educating my own teachers. AIDS-related stigma and lack of knowledge about this deadly yet preventable disease motivated me the most. My mission was to first spread the knowledge to the people from my village, then my country and then the world. Today, it is a global campaign.

What was your route? (It felt like he was chalking out the entire atlas!) Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Srilanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Romania, Moldavia,Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic…. (A total of 78 countries so far – 97,000 km till now – Phew!)

In Afghanistan, you were kidnapped. You made international headlines after you escaped from the clutches of the Taliban by feeding them an Indian curry. I am very nervous today feeding you! Oh yes, I was taken by the armed militants as I riding through the remote region in Afghanistan. They assumed that I was a spy. I was blindfolded and tortured. It was tough.

The Guardian UK came out with the first hand story – I strayed into Taliban territory in Herat, 138km from Kabul. The Taliban, taking me to be a spy, put me in a dark dungeon for 24 days before I could prove my innocence. I could have lost my head, quite literally… In 2006, after travelling across most of India, I reached the country’s north-eastern tip and the villages of the province of Assam. That’s where my bad luck started. I was held captive by the secessionist United Liberation Front of Assam for five days and only released when the ultras were convinced that I was not a government spy. My journey continued uninterrupted across 33 countries – until last month. I reached Afghanistan and was looking for help because it was obvious I knew nothing of Herat, a town in the west of the country. Suddenly a group of burly men, clad in traditional Afghan clothes and turbans, with bearded faces covered by scarves, surrounded me and started asking me questions. Did I know anything about Islam? Was I a Hindu? Had I read the Holy Koran? What was I doing in Herat?

The questions were rapid but I did not understand a word because they were talking in Pashto. They became impatient and furious and beat me up. I remember just lifting my hand in surrender, and kneeling down, praying to them for mercy. But I could not answer them because I did not understand their language. They blindfolded me and took me to their hideout which took half an hour to reach. I had no idea where it was. I just remember the semi-arid land.

After this, and again after much questioning, I was dumped in a dungeon which had no light. I was given no food save for some rice and a morsel of beef. I had to survive on that for a few days. At times, they beat me up in frustration for not understanding their commands. However, I got lucky when I chanced upon one of my captors who spoke English in monosyllables. It was from him that I came to know that I was being held by the Taliban. I knew then that I was to die.

One day I was asked to cook and my luck again turned for the better. Coming from India, I had what I thought was a natural talent for cooking hot, spicy dishes – particularly mutton. I did precisely that, except there was no mutton so I had to make do with beef, something we Hindus consider untouchable and a sacrilege. But there can be no bigger religion than life itself, I told myself.

I cooked hot, spicy food for them the way we have in the Sunderbans. They were very happy and told my interpreter that I seemed to be a safe guy. In the meantime, I had talked more with the interpreter and through our short exchanges, I managed to make it clear that I was simply a man who was on an adventure and had no intention of harming their cause.

The interpreter must have passed this on because I was set free after 24 days. The first sunlight which hit my eyes almost blinded me. It was hot outside and I had bruises all over. My bicycle had not been destroyed. I was again blindfolded and driven away from the area where I had been held captive, but not before my friend gave me a packet containing some dry fruit. I treasured it but at the same time, I felt a chill down my spine when I realised how close I had come to death. I had heard so many stories of Taliban torture.

A journey indeed. Now what? In 2020 when you return home, you’ll be 36 years old. What are you going to do then? I have been traveling to reach out to people. It will be the longest journey in the world, riding in a Bicycle and will be a part of the Guinness world records. In this 16 years of travel, I am expecting to visit 191 countries, totaling 200,000 km and reaching out to 20,000,000 people. During these travels, I visit schools and universities in different countries and educate people on health as well as Indian culture. After my travel is over, all the people that have I have connected to, will connect to me. I collect a pound of soil from every country I visit and send it home. At the end of this journey, I hope to build a global village of peace and all the soil collected from the different countries will be in the center. This global village is going to be a self-sufficient village and will house any citizen of this world, irrespective of cast, creed, country and religion.

What about the practicality of your mission. Who funds it? I am selling kms of my travel to my friends and families all over the world. One-third of my kms will cover expenses of my travel and two-third of kms will go towards the funding of our global village. I will also be auctioning all the bicycles that I’ll be riding at the end of my journey. The Indian Embassy in different countries process my visa and other travel papers. Moreover, each country comes forward to help as much as they can. And I am thankful to so many individual people that have helped me in many ways. They are all part of my family and friends.

Why did you choose a bicycle as your mode of transport? One) It is environmentally friendly; Two) It is a great form of exercise and keeps me fit; Three) It lets you meet people, connect with them and make new friends. If I ride 5 kms, I am meeting 5 new people and making friends.

You don’t want any corporate sponsorship? For example if a multinational cycle brand comes forward, your fund issues would be completely solved. Yes, but that might also mean that I might have to move away from my own objectives and the goal of my mission.

Coming to Food. You are a great cook yourself. What do you like to eat? I love Georgian food. Georgia is my second home. Khachapuri (regional Cheese bread), Khinkali, Kutchmatchi – I could go on! And what about Bengali Food? Very simple – Mushurir daal aar Aloo Bhaaté the Masoor Daal and simple mashed Potato {a recipe on Mashed Potato from my blog}. It’s my personal wish to come out with a cook book as well at the end of my journey. It will document all the dishes that have originated out of India and have entered another country’s cuisine and vice versa. For example, the Turkish Sütlaç is simply Payesh or the Indian rice pudding.

Don’t you miss your family? You haven’t met them in these 9 years! (I’ve told earlier, he looked at me as I if I’ve just blurted out the most stupid thing on earth) No, I don’t miss them. I do speak to them over the phone. Only my mother is interested in knowing what I am doing. And my brothers are very nice – one is working for Kolkata Police and the other one is in Grade 12. They live with their extended families – so fourteen of them eating together and living together.

I read about you on Gulf News. And I feel very proud that you’ve taken such a leap forward. You are in Dubai till the 16th July. So what are your plans in Dubai? I will be riding to Sharjah. All my visa formalities are being done now at the Indian embassy. I hope that there will be many communities who will be interested in my mission and come forward to help me.

More on Somen: Website, Facebook, Twitter; Blog; Youtube
Dubai Phone no: +971502429306

As I said, I have been inspired by Somen. But naturally, I cannot think like Somen. Family for me consists of the Z-Sisters, our parents and my relatives. A few friends have also entered into that periphery over the years, probably because of the many years spent on foreign shores. While I fondly recall Dubai as my home, Kolkata still feels like the home that beckons me nostalgically. And although we have set up homes in many countries (Germany, Srilanka) and they have begun to feel slowly like home, I still cannot live without visiting my parents, friends and relatives in Kolkata every year. After Somen left, I asked Big Z what she thought about Somen’s idea of the world as his home and all the people that he met up with, as his family? She said that sometimes she too, thinks like Somen and probably she won’t miss me that much when she left home. I was left with tears rolling down my cheeks. I don’t think I have the courage to hope that my girls take up such bold and brave steps as Somen. Yet, I want to share Somen’s story and would like you all to share his story as much as you can – because the world needs people like him. There are many people in his world who travel with Somen all the time, in spirit – each colourful bangle or band that encircles his wrist, has been given by a person who cannot travel physically with Somen. What a journey this has been for a man starting from Basanti in the Sunderbans. Do, ride on and inspire us!

Unblogging it all… Ishita

Disclaimer: The opinions stated here are my own and are absolutely independent. I hope you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals but please do not use any material from this post. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here. It does take lot of effort to capture a food experience in text and pictures. While it’s meant for you to enjoy them, I request you not to use them!



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