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For A Guinness World Record, “Have Bike, Will Travel”

During his visit to Houston, Avijit Chakraborty, who hopes to get into the Guinness World Book of Records for around-the-world cycling, met with members of the local Indian community and received accommodations and financial support from them. Rajinder Pal Singh, who is a talented tabla player hailing from Patiala and New Delhi met Avijit at the Sikh Center of Houston and members of the Durga Bari showed him around at their temple complex. From left: Santosh Mukerji, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, Champak Sadhu, Avijit Chakraborty, Partha Ghosal, Partha Sarathi Chatterjee, Gopendu Chakraborty.

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: Travelling alone along the long backroads can have its share of adventures, especially if you’re doing it on a bicycle and also happen to be in a foreign country and don’t know the language or customs.

“I was in Yugoslavia, about 10 kilometers before the Hungarian border, minding my own business in a bar,” recalled Avijit Chakraborty of that cold, winter day as he rested in the hot, muggy Bayou City between destinations this past weekend, “and this lady came upto me, very friendly and talkative. She wanted to know all about me.” Chakraborty told her he was an Indian from Calcutta on an around-the-world bicycle tour.

“She was impressed, but when she looked at my biking clothes, she said ‘You must get cold! Here, wear this,’ and she handed me a really heavy jacket,” continued Chakraborty in his heavily Bengali-accented Indian English during our phone conversation. “I said ‘No, I warm up once I start riding, so I don’t need it’, but she tried to push it on to me.”

Fortunately for Chakraborty, he spurned her advances and crossed into Hungary, where the border guard told him he did the right thing by refusing her. Chakraborty learnt that the area was run by the drug mafia, that the jacket was heavy because it was full of drugs and that he had been watched. Once across safely, they would have come to get the jacket and who knows what would have happened to him.

The fear of such misadventures certainly didn’t deter Chakraborty as he started his bicycle tour in Calcutta in December 2009 to beat the previous around-the-world title of 45 countries and 50,000 km in 23 months and 7 days held by John Hathaway, to get into the Guinness World Book of Records. So far, Chakraborty has gone through 46 countries and logged 49,600 km and wants to add another 12 countries to finish in 20 months by September 2011.

Chakraborty had always been an athlete and fitness enthusiast in school and college and joined the cycling program at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, Punjab in 1996. He participated in international cycling tournaments, coming in 41st in the 2002 Tour de France and one from Los Angeles to Maryland in 2004/2005 (on a Hero cycle) in which he was first out of 19 contestants and was awarded a Cannandala T-1000 bicycles, one of the industry’s finest, by President George W. Bush.

The now 39-year old Chakraborty got married to a high school teacher and has an 8-year old daughter. But the lure of cycling for a record to ride around the world was too much to pass up, especially as he was selected by the Sports Authority of India to be the one to take up the challenge. Since Guinness does not allow sponsorships, he had ride as an amateur, and count on contributions: Rs. 5,000 ($111) from the Chief Minister of West Bengal, and Rs. 15,000 ($333) from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and another Rs. 40,000 ($890) from private donors.

While going around the globe, Chakraborty has received both financial and lodging support from about 10 Sikh Gurudwaras that he has stayed in. In Houston, the Sikh Center of Houston on Prairie where he stayed overnight felicitated him with a contribution of $400 and Gurudwara Sahib of Houston on Breen contributed a similar amount. During his sojourn here, Chakraborty Champak Sadhu, who offered him lodging at his home and then took him to the Durga Bari for a visit, where several members raised $1,000 to give Chakraborty, along with a plaque commemorating his achievement.

Chakraborty left Houston on Monday, July 25 to pedal upto Austin, then San Antonio and Laredo before entering Mexico. Usually, he rides between 85 to 90 miles a day at 10 to 12 mph for three hours at a stretch. As required by the Guinness’ rules, he has to report to the local police station to authenticate his visit and usually stays overnight at the station or a church or a Gurudwara if there is one there. Camping is a last resort, and motels are outside his budget, though an Indian couple (Gujarati husband, Bengali wife) offered him two nights for free in their Day’s Inn motel in Albuquerque.

When he started, Chakraborty flew to Hanoi and then went through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, S. Korea and Japan; flew to Australia, went through New Zealand, then flew to South Africa, went through Africa through Sudan to Turkey, then through Europe, eventually taking a flight from London to Miami and then through over three dozen cities in the US and Canada before arriving in Houston from Dallas. After he goes through Mexico, he will travel through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, where he will conclude his around-the-world odyssey and take a fight back to New Delhi, presumably with a new record in hand.

“I wanted to make a positive statement with this voyage,” explained Chakraborty about his motivation, “but I have also promoted pollution-free living and environmental causes wherever I have gone.” To spread this message, he has spoken at over 150 schools around the world.

Chakraborty is impressed by the milk of human kindness which has nurtured him over the past 19 months on his long trek. Like the time outside of Ft. Lauderdale when he was accosted by three guys, who stopped him and gave him a rough time, rummaging through his knapsacks. “I told them my story and showed them my press clippings,” he remembered. “and they asked me to follow them to a Burger King. They went in and came out with food for me, then sped off. The manager came running out and asked me about them, saying they just robbed them at gunpoint and ordered food for me!”

But the best episode must be in Columbus, Ohio. Since Chakraborty has no US bank account or Social Security number, a saleswoman wouldn’t let him buy a local cell phone, but after pleading with her and since she had seen his interview of Fox television, she allowed him to get pre-paid service under her name and use it while in the US. “She only asked that I discard the phone after I left the US,” explained Chakraborty, “and as soon as I leave Laredo for Mexico, I will honor that.”


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2 Responses to For A Guinness World Record, “Have Bike, Will Travel”

  1. Lisa at Real Club Cancun July 29, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Wow! What an epic journey! Good for Avijit! Only 12 more countries to go! Good luck!

  2. Sebastian Benzango July 29, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Thanks for the post, bookmarked!

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