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Indian activist rides into Riverside

Indian cyclist Somen Debnath rode into Riverside last week on his 17-year tour around the world, greeting Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson before heading to San Diego.

What began as a trip to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS throughout India when he was 20-years-old, is now what he calls his worldwide mission. At 37, he has visited 157 countries on every continent including Antarctica, closing in on his goal of 191 by 2022.

Debnath was first inspired to raise awareness about the disease at 14, when he heard of the havoc HIV/AIDS causes on a global scale. At 20, he set out on his bike with a hope of educating Indian students throughout his country, but after he completed his goal he wanted to see if he could add surrounding countries.

Three years later, after his decision to ride through each continent, Debnath was riding through Central Asia. While in Herat, Afghanistan, he was kidnapped by members of the Taliban. Believing him to be a spy, they held him captive until he convinced them otherwise 24 days later.

“I couldn’t understand their commands, they couldn’t understand me, so I was beaten many times,” Debnath said. “When they could find an interpreter who spoke English, I could tell them who I was and that I was not a spy.”

According to Debnath it was sheer luck they decided to let him go. They blindfolded him and brought the 23-year-old back to the place they found him.

Throughout his travels, Debnath was robbed six times and his bikes were stolen three times. Yet he said he continues to meet exceptional people who have shown him a positive common thread.

“The one thing I’ve found in everyone I’ve met, is that we are all so human,” He said. “Maybe we’re different with different perspectives … but everywhere anyone wants good for themselves, they want to move forward.”

When he finishes his 191-country goal, he said he wants to build a global village in his home town near Kolkata, India where ecological engineering students from around the world can come to develop sustainable farming practices. “I want it to also be a place where people who desire to explore the Himalayas can come and station before they begin their mission,” Debnath said.