Cycling for humanitarian causes

Iranians will restore your faith in humanity; I believe every single person should visit Iran at least once in their lifetime. In India we say atithi devo bhava; there is a similar adage in Persian which translates to ‘Guests are jewels from god, so you have to take care of them.’”

The Iranian family who hosted Naresh Kumar pose with his Tandem cycle.
The Iranian family who hosted Naresh Kumar pose with his Tandem cycle.

I listen fascinated to Naresh Kumar, all of 38, who has travelled across as many countries as his age, and who made waves at the Hamburg Convention by riding the 8,646km-distance from Chennai to Hamburg, traversing through 14 countries and two continents. He is a member of Rotary Club of Guindy, RID 3232. As he couldn’t get Pakistan visa, after being flagged off from Chennai, he had to fly, with his bicycle as luggage, from Mumbai to Oman, before hitting the roads again. He has done this quite often; “while other people are waiting for their suitcases at airports, I am fixing my cycle, so that I can hit the road straight from the airport,” he says.

In Nepal, a stranger asked me if I wanted drugs, alcohol, or girls. ‘I can bring her to your room.’ It was like he was trying to sell you some goods, but it was a human life.

That bicycle is a Tandem, which comes with two seats, and his present bike has been sponsored by somebody from New Zealand, a country close to his heart. But let’s get to his Hamburg Convention ride first. He set off on Feb 27, 2019, and landed in Hamburg in time for the convention, after 74 days. From Oman he went to Dubai, from where he took a ferry, “actually a container ship to go to Iran” and from Iran he cycled to Turkey, entering Europe from Istanbul.

The Mayor of Invercargill greets Naresh Kumar during his 3,300km run across New Zealand.
The Mayor of Invercargill greets Naresh Kumar during his 3,300km run across New Zealand.

It is with starry eyes that Naresh talks about Iran: “It took me some 18 days to cycle the 2,200km across Iran. Of these I spent 15 nights in random strangers’ homes. When they see the second seat of the Tandem empty, and start talking, the first thing they say is come home.”

He uses Google translator on his phone to converse with people; in Iran it was English translated to Persian. “But thanks to the sanctions, my credit card or sim card did not work. I landed bang in the middle of the Navroz festivities and everything was closed. I didn’t know anyone, had no local currency, and it started pouring. I was sitting at a bus stop asking people how to go to Tehran… it was like asking someone in Chennai how to go to Delhi! From where he was at that point, Tehran was 1,800km away!”

I am more an extreme endurance athlete; running, and not cycling, is my main sport. I ran 3,054km non-stop in New Zealand; I always push my limits to see what I am capable of.

A little boy, speaking broken English came from nowhere and invited him home, saying his family would love to meet him. He sat on the second seat, and they pedalled to his house. “I stayed with them for two days; they helped me get a local sim card, converted $50 into local currency and connected me to friends along the route to Tehran.”

 

People pose with Naresh Kumar and his bicycle in India.
People pose with Naresh Kumar and his bicycle in India.

Extreme endurance athlete

When asked about how the idea of cycling to Hamburg came to him, Naresh says: “Actually I am more of an extreme endurance athlete; running, and not cycling, is my main sport. I ran a 3,054km along the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand right from the top to the bottom in 2014, in the unsupported category. For me it has always been about pushing my limits, to see what I am capable of.”

He adds that solo and unsupported expeditions “force you to face the unknown. With grit and determination, you end up digging very deep within you and find something that you never thought existed. That is what brings out our best when things seem impossible.”

Coming from a very humble background in North Chennai… his mother never even went to school… against all expectations, Naresh graduated as an engineer in 2004 and got a job in an IT firm. “It was like you have no time for recreation; after three years he got an opportunity to go to the US. Meanwhile in Chennai he would run marathons (42.2km). But in US, he got more serious and started running ultramarathons, which are longer than 50km. “I also ran in the US a 500km race in Tennessee. It took six days; unlike those who participated in this run in the supported category and could have a car following them with their clothes, water and food, he had to carry everything in his backpack!”

Naresh Kumar approaching the finish line after a 3,300km run in New Zealand.
Naresh Kumar approaching the finish line after a 3,300km run in New Zealand.

Though it didn’t carry any prize money and Naresh admits that he did all this “more for the bragging rights”, there is a serious underlying objective in these challenges he undertakes. For the US ultramarathon, he was running to raise money to build wells in Africa to provide clean drinking water.

Rotary journey begins

All his adventures led to speaking engagements; at one such event several Rotarians were present, and they invited him to address Rotary clubs. The inevitable invite to join Rotary followed and he joined RC Guindy in 2019. While he takes up causes such as ending slavery and stopping trafficking of girls and women for sex, Rotary’s core objectives, such as eliminating polio, struck a chord with him.

I say my journey is fuelled by kindness and peanut butter. I eat a lot of peanut butter!

For the cause of rescuing girls and women from the brothels in Thailand, Cambodia and parts of Kolkata, he undertook the mission to ride a distance of 3,300km across New Zealand. “Initially people laughed at me saying who will join you. Well, 140 people did join me in that adventure and against my goal of raising NZ $20,000 (New Zealand) we raised a total of $50,000!”

He has of course quit a regular job and does freelance work. Ask him where he finds the money to travel so much and he laughs, “I don’t; that’s why I travel by bicycle, get a tiny bit of sponsorship where someone pays for my airfare. I carry a tent and sleeping bag on my bicycle and never ever stay in hotels. My cycle is called Kindness and seeing the back seat empty, out of curiosity people pull up to ask whether my girlfriend left me or we had a fight and then I tell them my story, the cause and invite them to take that seat and join the cause.” He always carries an extra helmet. “I’d say my journey is fuelled by kindness and peanut butter. I eat a lot of peanut butter.”

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Anyone can join him and they do; couples travelling in a car stop, first the woman takes the rear seat on his cycle, the man follows in the car and then they switch seats, while they hear Naresh’s fascinating story. “All across New Zealand, not a single day have I stayed in a hotel; when I pitch a tent on the side of the road for the night, random strangers take me home and offer me a bed and hot food!” Also, he clarifies, “I run in sandals, and once broke my foot while running a 300km-marathon and continued running with a broken foot.”

In New Zealand, he became quite popular and did a lot of public speaking. At one such event, the MC was Jacinda Ardern’s partner, before she became prime minister, “and even though I have never met her, she knows me and he has become my good friend.”

I carry a lot of Indian spices with me. There is nothing like sharing your traditional culture in the form of food.

His bike is fitted with a GPS and it is connected to his website. “It’s like Uber… you can track the route. I tell my parents and friends if the green dot is moving, I am fine. If it doesn’t move for 24 hours and there is no green check — which I always ensure as my parents get worried when they read about a bomb blast in Iran when I am there — then you can worry! My parents are the biggest supporters.”

Human trafficking

Once in Nepal, a man tried to sell him a young girl for sex. “On the street he just asked me what do you want; drugs, alcohol… I can also supply girls. I will bring her to your hotel. It was like a stranger trying to sell you some goods, but here he was trying to sell a human life, and so casually. Hence came my motivation to work against human trafficking. It is unbelievable, but there are 40 million people in bonded labour and sex trafficking and slavery around the world and 80 per cent of them are women and children who are the most vulnerable,” he says.

I also ran in the US a 500km race in Tennessee. It took six days, and I did that to raise money to build wells in Africa to provide clean drinking water.

Once he took up these causes, he decided to have two seats on his bike. “Riding one seat is easy; it’ll be much lighter. Getting somebody to open his wallet is easy; after all, who doesn’t want to help prevent children getting raped? They will give some money. But I want them to also become advocates so I tell them I am very tired, I need your help. Can you join this cause, take a seat and ride with me, and no one says no!”

So how long do they ride with him; “anywhere from 100m to 80km,” he says.

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About the future, once the Covid pandemic is behind us, Naresh, in collaboration with RAGAS, a Rotary action group against slavery, will undertake a 6,000km ride across the US. It is called Freedom Seat USA. “I will first dip my wheel in the Pacific Ocean and then ride to the Atlantic Ocean.” It was supposed to start in April 2020; “my flight was on March 25, and the country shut down on March 23!”

His dream for the future is to give back to society, “and to do that, you don’t need much. It cost me less than ₹1 lakh to go from Chennai to Hamburg.”

He’s happy to share that everywhere people love and respect India. “I am never alone, and always surrounded by people. I carry a lot of Indian spices with me, and in some places, while they cook for me, I take over the kitchen and cook for them. I tell them all I need is any meat, marinated in yoghurt. There is nothing like sharing your traditional culture in the form of food.”

So once in Spain, while a family was making Paella (a Spanish rice dish) for him, “I was cooking butter chicken! They loved it, we ate a good meal and I ended up staying five days with them!”

More at www.freedomseat.org

https://www.freedomseat.org/film

Kindness all the way

Has he ever had a bad or negative experience, like being mugged or robbed, I ask Naresh Kumar. “Never, ever,” he says empathetically, adding, “my bicycle doesn’t even have a lock and it is lying on the side of the road when I sleep in my tent. Anybody can walk away with it; but nobody ever has!”

The Turkish man who hosted Naresh Kumar for a night.
The Turkish man who hosted Naresh Kumar for a night.

All that this Rotarian can recall are happy moments, good experiences and kind people. Kids jumping on to his bike, pedalling with him, and casually inviting him to their homes for dinner and rest at night. Or women in Iran putting together a sumptuous meal for him, inviting their friends over, so they can meet him, hear about his cause and get involved too, contributing whatever they can.

Turkey is another country of which Naresh speaks with fondness, having travelled through it on way to Hamburg. “I was on my way to Ankara and it was minus(-)10 degrees, and it started snowing, I was in the middle of nowhere in the night, and next, it started raining and I was standing under an abandoned building wondering how to reach the nearest village, some 15km away. A man came along in a jeep, saw the light on my bicycle, didn’t say anything, but communicated through sign language about going to his home for food and a bed. I followed him on my cycle to his home, a modest single room. He gave me some Turkish food… cheese, bread, olives etc, put some blankets on a bench and made a bed for me. The next morning, we shared a delicious breakfast!”


Hamburg experience

Naresh Kumar’s adventures include riding across Australia, where he participated in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, “representing both India and New Zealand in this 5,800km-race from Perth to Sydney”. It was during this ride in Australia that he got a call from a Chennai Rotarian called Rajamani, who asked him that at the Hamburg Convention, one of the major sessions would be on ending polio. “As your mission is to end slavery, why don’t you cycle from India to Hamburg and we can promote your cause to “end slavery now”.”

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He agreed, and before the ride, joined Rotary too. He started planning for the over 8,000km-ride from November 2018, and “besides training for the event, I had to also deal with the bureaucracy, getting visas, for so many countries, etc.”

For him, the 30km-End Polio Now cycle rally was a cakewalk. That event finished at a stadium where there was a meeting and he was introduced by a woman. “She asked the participants: ‘How many of you got tired cycling 30km and so many people said, yes it was a pretty hot day. And she said: ‘Well, here we have a gentleman who has cycled 8,646km all the way from India!”

His girlfriend, who is very supportive about his mission, also came for the convention and they met in Berlin and cycled to Hamburg.

With a chuckle he recalls a black-tie event where he was invited…. “here was everybody in suits and I was wearing a tee shirt. I had only two pairs of clothes!”

But the 74-day journey was not all smooth sailing. “I was going through temperatures which were from minus(-) 30 to 44 degrees Celsius. I got extremely sick in Prague, lost a lot of weight and was riding with a temperature of 104 degrees F.”

Finally in Vienna, he was so sick that he couldn’t even get up and had to see a doctor. “Medical care is so expensive there and something I couldn’t afford. But I needed some medication. This doctor gave me an emergency appointment, prescribed medicine and when I asked about his fees, gave me a tight hug and said: ‘Your expedition is as good as mine and I want you to succeed. If you really want to pay me back, just send me a picture of your safe arrival in Germany. That will give me happiness.”

Not only was he spared a 100–150-euro fee, the nurse too gave him a hug, free medicines and introduced him to her friends, who donated 50 to 100 euros for his cause. “We raised about ₹12–15 lakh for ending crossborder slavery in India.”

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