Freedom Seat: India to Germany on a Tandem with Strangers (Film)
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Freedom Seat is a film that follows Naresh Kumar’s 8,500-kilometer journey from India to Germany on a tandem bike, during which he invited strangers to join him as he rode. Along the way, his mission was to raise awareness and funds to help end human trafficking. Watch the film and read an interview with Naresh here…
In 2019, Naresh Kumar cycled 8,646 kilometers across 13 countries, riding solo on a tandem bike and inviting curious onlookers to hop on and join him for any part of his trip, no matter how small. As he pedaled from India to Germany, his mission was to grow awareness and raise funds to help end human trafficking. Beyond fulfilling his goal of donating to organizations that are working toward ending modern slavery, he also received countless random acts of kindness and forged meaningful connections with the people he encountered during this 74-day ride, restoring his faith in humanity and greatly enriching his experience. Naresh worked with friend and filmmaker Linus Herbig-Matten to produce Freedom Seat, a 27-minute documentary about the trip, which you can watch in its entirety below, followed by an interview with Naresh and a selection of photos from his ride.
Introduce yourself briefly: where’d you grow up and where are you now?
My name is Naresh Kumar. I was born and raised in a suburb of Chennai, South India. Education was my passport to escape poverty. I studied to become an electrical engineer and my career path took me to Silicon Valley. I quit my full-time job in 2014 and moved to New Zealand, a long-term dream of mine ever since watching Lord of the Rings. I am currently back in India.
What’s your motivation for raising awareness about modern slavery?
I was in Nepal in 2014 to run/hike the Annapurna Circuit and Annapurna Sanctuary Trek. Soon after my trek, I was back in Thamel, Kathmandu. I was walking around the bazaar late one evening and a man approached me soliciting drugs and sex with young girls. He said the girls are very young and he could bring them to my hotel and pick them up. Disgusted by it, I said no and walked away. It saddened me that a vulnerable life was being sold on the streets as goods only to be used and thrown away.
This incident led to do research about human trafficking and I was staggered at the statistics. Freedom is the highest form of living yet 40 million people are trafficked globally, most of them being women and children. After leaning more, I decided to take up human trafficking and raise awareness and funds, through my expeditions, to help the victims of sex trafficking and bonded labor slavery.
Where did the idea of riding a tandem with strangers come from?
My best friends Ben and Megan were getting married in Alaska. At the wedding, I met Brian Wall, Megan’s uncle, who is an avid cyclist. He shared stories from his project called “The Empty Seat,” where he would invite locals to jump on the back of his tandem bike and interview them about their town as they ride around. I was fascinated by his story and it sparked me to do Freedom Seat, an expedition where I could invite strangers, connect with people, make them a part of my expedition, and pedal for a cause.
This is your third Freedom Seat expedition. Can you share a little about the first two?
The first Freedom Seat was in New Zealand in 2016. I rode a tandem from Cape Reinga in the North Island to Bluff in the South Island to help raise awareness and funds to help the victims of sex trafficking. The second Freedom Seat was in 2017, when I rode from Perth to Sydney, Australia, along the Indian Pacific Wheel Race route to support the victims of sex trafficking.
What stands out as the biggest difference between your ride across New Zealand and your ride from India to Germany?
Language is not a barrier for human connection. New Zealand being an English-speaking country, it was easy for me to share my journey and stories with strangers I met along my route. Kiwis are some of the kindest and most loving people in the world. Language helped to really connect and share, which made the expedition a huge success.
For my journey from India to Germany, my main concern was language. I was going to cross countries where English is rarely spoken and that had me worried. But the experience was totally the opposite. I still was able to connect with people in a more meaningful way. Technology helped a bit, but what really helped was my vulnerability.
Vulnerability is the key to human connection. Though we didn’t speak the same language, seeing me alone on a tandem bike invoked curiosity in people. It made them stop and ask me about the missing passenger. They would invite me home and we sometimes spoke only with gestures. We ate, laughed, and danced. Most nights, I went to bed with a tummy full of naan and kebabs. Total strangers accepted me and treated me like their own.
What were the most challenging aspects of your ride from India to Germany?
Weather was the most challenging part. Though it was supposed to be spring/summer weather conditions, it rained and snowed the entire time. The road conditions weren’t that great so I had to deal with lots of flats and mechanical issues too.
Tell us about one of your most memorable interactions with passengers or people you met along your journey.
It was freezing cold, windy, and raining heavily in Iran. The highway was flooding and it was at least 50 kilometers to the nearest civilization. I was contemplating throwing the bike in a ditch and just walk away and was really low in spirit. That’s when I saw Mahmud, carrying a burlap sack over his head. He waved at me, pointing towards a hut and asking me to follow him. I couldn’t pedal as the trail was too muddy. Once I got to the hut, he gave me a couple of woolen blankets, made me sit next to a fire, and offered me hot tea. Mahmud was a shepherd and he was herding in the area along with his grandfather and four other people who were from Iraq and Afghanistan. It rained hard for the next 18 hours. The mud hut started leaking yet we all shared the limited floor space, stayed close to the fire and survived the night.
Mahmud saw me in the distance and decided to sprint 400 meters out in cold rain and mud to help a total random stranger, then took me under his wings and saved my expedition. Inside the hut, he called one of his friends from town and asked him to bring some delicious food. We sat around and had a feast. They wished me good luck for my journey and hollered blessings as they went to herd their sheep. I pedaled away wondering, “What kind of love is this?”
Among the 13 countries you rode through on this trip, which was your favorite for cycling?
Iran was my favorite country during Freedom Seat. Not only the scenery but the hospitality of the people will blow you away. It took me 20 days to cross Iran and they were some of the best days of my life. When I crossed the border into Turkey from Iran, I was tearing up and left with a very heavy heart.
You say this trip “renewed your faith in humanity.” What do you mean by that?
My trip from India to Germany was a solo and unsupported. Also, I didn’t speak the same language. I was extremely vulnerable and had to rely on the kindness of strangers. The people who I encountered along my way were some of the nicest and kindest people I have ever met. They went above and beyond to make sure I succeed in my mission. And those who had the least were the most generous. People across all countries were extremely kind. Truck drivers would pull over to offer homemade roti and kebabs. Kids in villages would bring bottles of cold milk and water. People generously shared what little they had to a total stranger and treated me like their own. The experience totally and completely restored my faith in humanity.
You’re raising funds for the cause of ending modern slavery on these trips. How’s that going and how can readers get involved?
Opening someone’s wallet is easy, but opening someone’s heart is always the difficult part. With an expedition like Freedom Seat, it’s easy to reach out to the general public and make them a part of the expedition and connect them with the cause. The funds raised through Freedom seat expeditions has helped NGOs in the prevention, rescue, prosecution, rehabilitation and empowerment of the victims of bonded labor slavery and sex-trafficking efforts across the world.
I would encourage the readers to be mindful of their consumption and ensure that they buy sustainably made and fair trade products. If you suspect that an individual may have been trafficked, please call the local support line (a simple google search should get you the details for your area). One can also partner with a local organization and support their ongoing anti-human trafficking efforts. If you would like to support Freedom Seat, you may donate at FreedomSeat.org.
Any upcoming Freedom Seat trips in the works?
My upcoming trip would have been Freedom Seat USA, a tandem bike expedition across the USA I in the planning for 2020, but the project was delayed due to COVID. Depending on Covid and vaccination conditions, I am planning to kick start Freedom Seat USA sometime during late 2021 or early 2022.
You can learn more and make a donation to support Freedom Seat at FreedomSeat.org. Keep up with Naresh on Instagram @freedomseat. We’ll be sure to make an announcement when Naresh is able to safely begin his Freedom Seat USA trip.