Naresh Kumar isn’t your ordinary international touring cyclist. Kumar, 37, clawed his way out of India’s lower middle class to land a sweet gig in Silicon Valley, then gave it all up for a vagabond lifestyle punctuated by ultramarathons, cross-country trail runs, and intercontinental bike rides.
Second, and by far, the most interesting—he often travels solo on a tandem bicycle, inviting people he meets along the way to climb aboard and share their stories. The bike is a natural conversation starter, and with no brakes or steering, the back seat is a good metaphor for the sense of powerlessness felt by victims of human traffickers.
Five years ago in Nepal, a man tried to sell a young girl to Kumar for sex. Kumar soon learned that more than 40 million people worldwide are held in bondage, many of them children trafficked for sex or forced labor. The experience gave purpose to his wandering, and Kumar has since raised about $130,000 for anti-slavery causes through a series of trail-running and cycling expeditions. “All the funds that come through help to give someone not food, clothes or shelter,” he says, “but the most precious thing of all: the freedom that every human being deserves.”
Kumar ran New Zealand top-to-bottom on the 1,900-mile Te Araroa Trail—in sandals—then traversed the country again on his tandem bicycle, the first of his Freedom Seat expeditions. When a nonstop bike race across Australia was canceled in 2018 following the death of a competitor the previous year, Kumar rode the route anyway, raising funds to end slavery. And for 87 days in 2019, Kumar rode his tandem some 5,500 miles from his hometown of Chennai, India, to Germany. The route crossed two continents and 13 countries, and, as Kumar tells Adventure Journal, it renewed his faith in humanity.
AJ: You were born in India, the Kiwis claim you as one of their own, and as we speak you’re in California. Help me unravel your man-of-mystery persona.
NK: I was born in Chennai, India, and came to the U.S. when I was 27 to work as a consultant. So the U.S. was home for seven years, and then one day I quit everything and just left, not knowing what to do. Since then I’ve never been in one place longer than four months. Now I’ve been to 32 countries, and 80 percent of those countries I toured human-powered from one end to another. They call me a Kiwi because I ran the length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa Trail in winter, wearing just a pair of sandals. The Indian hobbit in Middle Earth.
I grew up in a very poor neighborhood, almost a slum. When you’re treading just to keep your head above water, it’s hard to think about what you want. You have to focus on your needs. When you’re being humiliated, insulted, and your parents are being made fun of—people are saying ‘Why don’t you send them to a factory to box some stuff? Why are you even sending them to school?’ But my dad knew education is a passport to escape poverty, so I went to a missionary school. I worked really hard, got a scholarship, and became an engineer.
Is that what brought you to the U.S.?
Yes. I worked in India as a programmer with Dell Computers and a lot of software companies. There were 400 people on my team, and the ultimate goal for everyone is getting to the U.S. It’s like winning an Oscar or a Nobel Prize and you’re working 24 hours a day to get there. I used to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to reply to my clients’ email from the U.S., so that when my boss wakes up in the morning he’ll see all this e-mail and the client ends it by saying, ‘Hey, man, thanks for fixing it. We don’t know what we would have done if not for your help.’ Time to go back to sleep. You go to bed by 4:00 in the morning, and you’re back at work at 7:00. So when a position opened in the U.S. the boss didn’t even think of the other 399 people. I got my dream job, and thought I would become a CEO with a beach house in California. But life had other plans for me.
You found another calling?
I realized I was sitting in front of the computer and typing my life away. I wanted to do something greater and even though I didn’t know what it was, it was like a volcano. It was building until at one point it just blew off the lid. I quit my job, which means I wouldn’t have a work visa to come back to the U.S. So this was literally pulling the plug. It was the biggest leap of faith I’ve ever taken.
Your first stop was Nepal. Tell me what happened there.
When I came to the States in 2007 I fell in love with trail-running, and that’s how I found I had a gift for long-distance endurance. I did a lot of marathons and ultramarathons, and one of my bucket-list goals was to run the Annapurna Circuit. So I booked a one-way ticket to Nepal and ran the circuit, then took a few weeks to see the country.
That is when a man solicited me for sex with a minor. I kept saying, no, no, no, and he just kept upping his deal, saying he had some very young girls. Looking at me with other foreigners, he said ‘If you don’t want to spend too much money, you can just take one girl and share with everyone. And when you’re done, just give me a call. I’ll pick her up.’ I couldn’t believe it. A vulnerable human life that’s being sold and thrown away. That experience opened up my heart. It made a deep impact, and fighting modern-day slavery became my cause.
How did you combine your advocacy with your love of trail running and cycling?
After Nepal I went to New Zealand for my first anti-slavery fund-raising expedition. I landed at the airport and hitchhiked all the way from Auckland airport to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of New Zealand, and pretty much ran and hiked the whole length of Te Araroa wearing just a pair of sandals.
Wait, what? Where did you get the idea to run 3,000 kilometers in sandals?
When I first came to the U.S., I ran one marathon in shoes and it was kind of a painful experience. I was also reading the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, about the Tarahumara Indians and how they are running long stretches just wearing a piece of a tire tied to their feet. And so I just wanted to explore that option. At first I was running in Vibram Five Fingers and my longest run at that time was across the length of Tennessee in a 314-mile race called the Vol State Road Race. They drop you in Missouri and you run across the state of Tennessee almost diagonally, and you finish in Georgia.
There are two categories. One is called crewed—where you have friends following you in a car, giving you food or whatever—and the other is called screwed. I ran that race in Vibram Five Fingers in the screwed category, but it felt so weird because my feet were confined, and of course I lost all my toenails. So that’s when I made my switch to Bedrock Sandals. [Ed. Note, Kumar is a brand ambassador for Bedrock.] After that I ran so many 100-milers wearing just sandals.
Te Araroa is a fair bit longer than 100 miles. You must have been on the road for a couple of months.
Eighty-seven days, 21 hours, 28 minutes, 56 seconds. It was an amazing experience. It was life-changing. One, the Kiwi hospitality just blows your mind, especially coming from the US and India, where there’s more of a me-first attitude. But then you are traversing the length of New Zealand solo and unsupported, and the hospitality and the kindness of people just blew my mind. Even the road sections, you have to cross 10 or 15 kilometers on the roads. There are so many cars that pulled over, asking ‘Are you okay?’ People offer to give you a ride, even if it’s out of their way. They go ahead, buy some food, come back and give it to you. Open their doors, treating you like family. And I’m no one to them.
With the gift of storytelling and these extreme adventures, I get the opportunity to tell people why I’m doing what I’m doing. First people ask what are you doing, and eventually they’ll ask you why. Because the why is so important—that defines your what, when, how. So I would be invited into schools, libraries, and so many places just to speak and share the story.
So you have a cause that matters and a love affair with New Zealand. Where does the tandem bike fit into the picture?
A few years ago I met a person at a friend’s wedding, and he told me about his journey on a tandem bike. He said he would pick up random people along the way and talk to them, and record all this and put out some small bits on YouTube. I found the idea truly fascinating, but also I was curious about tandems. I know what it is like to sit in the front. I wanted to sit in the back seat and see what that experience feels like. And it turns out that it’s terrifying.
It’s scary because all of a sudden you are sitting on this machine but you have absolutely no control. The first time I was on a tandem, I could see this pothole and I’m trying to push the bike. But the guy is like, ‘You are not a good stoker. You just have to bend and go with the flow.’ I was like, ‘Man, it’s easy for you, but with no control—no brakes and no steering—it’s hard.’ And I think that was the voilà moment—one of my first experiences of losing complete control over my freedom.
I realized the tandem is a nice metaphor to explain to people what it is to not have freedom, except that it’s a million times worse for people who are exploited and trafficked. So with that idea, I went back to New Zealand. I teamed up with a charity that I was raising money for and told them I’m going back to Cape Reinga with a tandem. I’m going to ride this beautiful length of New Zealand and I’m going to pick up random people. And everyone laughed.
But you did it.
I went back to the same place where I started my run and stood there with a tandem bike, hoping that someone will join me on that expedition. There was a British couple there taking pictures of the lighthouse, and when they saw me waiting with a big tandem bike fully loaded with panniers, and no one with me, the guy came to me. He’s like, ‘It looks like you are on a big adventure, but if you don’t mind me asking, where’s your friend?’
I said, ‘I don’t have a friend, but I’m going 3,000 kilometers that way. I’ll tell all about it, but would you like to be the first passenger?’ And to my surprise, he gives the car keys to his wife and says, ‘Babe, go 40 kilometers from here. There’s a cafe, wait for us there because I need to really see what this guy is up to.’ And he just jumped on the bike. I felt so sorry for him, because he’s in this cotton shirt and cargo pants and it’s a pretty hilly section. But he just powered through and it gave me the chance to explain to him why I’m doing this thing.
It sounds like the bike is a great conversation starter.
It is a wonderful way to connect with people. I’m very curious about talking to people, and ever since my New Zealand run I discovered that just asking people simple questions like ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What’s your story?’ just gets people talking. They make themselves so vulnerable, getting to the roots of who they are. No one gives you their resume. They go to the deep core of who they are as a person, and they share their deep secrets.
So the British guy, he was terrified sitting in the back, and I was able to tell him how freedom is the highest form of living and that 40 million people don’t have it. We rode like 26 miles, and at the café he and his wife filled up my backpack with food and water. We hugged and he took off, and within 10 minutes, my phone buzzes with a notification from GoFundMe. My first donation, about 500 Great Britain Pounds, almost 700 U.S. dollars.
The specific cause was for rescuing girls in Thailand from brothels and my goal was to raise 20,000 New Zealand dollars (about $13,000 U.S.) on this expedition. We ended up raising $60,000 in 30 days. A hundred and forty people joined me on that expedition. The youngest was five years, and the oldest was about 82 years old.
So then you took the idea to the next level this year, going from India to Germany on the tandem. How was that trip different than the New Zealand ride?
The biggest challenge was language, just because in New Zealand I had the gift of storytelling. People were really welcoming because I was able to tell them a story as to why I’m doing what I’m doing. That kind of opened up their hearts. But now here I am crossing through 13 countries, only two of which speak English. In all my previous adventures, I found that vulnerability was the key to human connection. And on this expedition the biggest lesson I learned was language is not a barrier, because vulnerability has no language. It shows in your body. People can smell it miles away.
That’s interesting, because you’d think anyone who cycles 5,500 miles through 13 countries must be fearless.
My parents thought I was going to get beheaded. But going through Iran was the best 18 days of my life, riding 2,200 kilometers across that country, with the Iranian hospitality and kindness. It taught me what it is to be a human again. I mean, I’m a Christian and we preach all the time, ‘Love thy neighbor.’ But how many of us even know what that means?
Then I’m riding in the middle of nowhere in Turkey, it’s snowing everywhere and I stop under an abandoned gas station thinking what am I doing with my life, and a random person just shows up and takes me home. There’s no reception for Google translate, so I can’t even explain what I’m doing. But this man takes me in and treats me like family. This 84-year-old guy gave up his bed, took just one blanket and put it on the floor. And literally the only thing he didn’t do is tuck me into bed and kiss me goodnight. He just kept bringing tea, bringing food. And when I woke up the next morning all my stuff in my backpack, my clothes, were missing.
That guy woke up as soon as the sun was up and hand-washed all my dirty clothes. He was waiting on the carpet outside, just waiting to cook me breakfast. There was this silence, but it wasn’t awkward. There was this very comfortable silence with this random stranger who was so invested in making sure this strange Indian boy who was cycling across the world was as comfortable as possible.
Did you experience that kind of hospitality everywhere?
Everywhere. Every single day I was shown nothing but the purest form of hospitality and kindness. It was the same in 13 countries, even in Europe. Everywhere I went, some of the poorest people were the most generous.
And then you go to the richest peoples’ houses. Electronics and iPads lying around. They just give you the keys and say, ‘Make yourself comfortable.’ It just blows your mind. And I think it comes back to vulnerability. They can see that you trust them because you are so vulnerable, and so they extend that trust to you. And they see that I have nothing. Because if stealing was my motive, I wouldn’t be riding this tandem bike halfway across the world.
Has that generosity extended to your fundraising efforts?
Yes. So far, all my expeditions together have raised about 200,000 New Zealand dollars (US$ 130,000) for causes related to trafficking and modern-day slavery. The funds that we raised from the India to Germany trip will be used to build a shelter in South India for people rescued from bonded labor slavery.
What’s next for you?
The next year’s Rotary Conference Convention is happening in Honolulu. It’ll be awesome if we can ride across America, East Coast to West Coast, or the other way, and then fly to Honolulu to speak at the big conference there. The Rotary’s main project was to eradicate polio from the face of the planet, which is pretty much done except for a very few scattered cases. So I’m really trying to get them to take up ending slavery as the next mission.
Doing something like this in the U.S., is a bit of an expensive deal because I can’t just sleep wherever I want. Even if you pitch a tent in the state park, it costs like $15. So I’m just raising some funds just to meet the expedition cost, and will hopefully start the mission in April and finish by June, in time to present to the conference.
Fantastic. Save a seat for us.
Top photo: Kumar stops for a rest in Niš, Serbia. Courtesy photo