By NOUMAN KHALIL
‘Travel around the world for $10’ is not a new phrase in a city where annual events like Carabram takes place. No wonder, a world profile but hidden celebrity, who has toured the globe with mere $3 in his pocket, lives in the Flower City of Brampton.
Some 40 years ago, Raguhbir Singh, 68, was a world known celebrity. He hit the headlines in every nook and corner of the planet, including Toronto.
Sans helmet, the turbaned cyclist travelled 93,000 miles (148,800kms) across 128 countries, renewed seven passports and enjoyed the hospitality of many prime ministers, mayors, leaders and even the secretary general of the United Nations. But today his background is hardly known to fellow citizens.
The purpose of Singh’s excursion was to understand humanity and spread the message of peace and harmony.
“My desire was to understand humanity and meet people of different cultures and societies… it was all about peace, living together and removing the barriers of caste, creed and colour,” said Singh in an exclusive interview with SAF. “I always call myself ‘world citizen’.”
Singh says his 93,000-mile journey, which he did record on speedometer, might be record-breaking but due to lack of knowledge he couldn’t contact the Guinness Book of World Records.
Born in Pindi Lala village near Mandi Mahauddin in Pakistan’s Punjab province (pre-partition India), raised in New Delhi, India, and studied in Kathmandu, Nepal, the turbaned cyclist faced all sorts of circumstances and experienced climates from the deserts of Sahara to the anomalous and frosty colds of Russia, Europe and America.
On the one hand he enjoyed being guest of honour of U Thant, the then Secretary General of United Nations, while on the other extreme he was captured by Vietnamese soldiers who suspected him as an American spy, dumped him in terrifying infested torture cells in the rainforests and then put cockroaches on his naked body.
But Singh’s overall experience was very productive and positive. He met more than 38,000 people over his four and a half year voyage. He feels that comparatively fewer bad creatures live on the earth.
“I don’t remember more than five people who were really bad and behaved roughly with me,” said Singh.
Singh’s never-ending sweet and sour tales are far longer than his journey.
“It was one of a lifetime experience. I can sit and tell you my stories all night. I can even write a complete book,” said Singh.
“Four decades have passed but those moments are still fresh in my mind. I can exactly tell you my locations with time and dates.”
Without saying a single word about any love affair, Singh said: “How can I forget those beautiful people of different cultures who gave me so much love. Wherever I went, people opened their arms and welcomed me. They were loving and caring… I refused more than half a dozen marriage proposals.”
He also remembered a rainy season in Chile when a lady and her 22-year-old daughter allowed him to stay with them.
“With the help of such people, it had become easier for me. They guided me and provided food and shelter.”
Commenting on Singh’s journey, his wife Komal said: “It was amazing. I didn’t know I am going to marry the same cyclist but when he told me after the marriage, I was like wow!” said Komal. “And yes I know about the marriage proposals, but it has no affect on our life or relationship… I am still proud of what he has done.”
Guru Nanak inspiration
Singh was four years old when his parents moved from Mandi Mahauddin to New Delhi after the partition of India in 1947. That time he heard the story about Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, who toured to places like Mecca in Saudi Arabia and other parts of Middle East. It inspired and sparked a dream inside Singh to do the same once he grew up.
Twenty-one years later with hardly any sports background and little orientation, Singh left New Delhi in October 1968 to embark upon the world cycle tour.
“I didn’t have any sponsor and left with only $3 in my pocket, but upon return, I had more than $3,000,” said Singh. “It was like an unseen power was helping me.”
Though Singh didn’t have any sports background, and the first day he could only pedal 21kms, but the next day he travelled 40kms, then 50kms and finally he topped 100kms a day mark, which became his daily routine.
Because of the turban, Singh was a new-look athlete for most people in every country. Some used to unintentionally offend him by asking if it’s a helmet or a different type of hat. Others were keen to pay to learn how to tie a turban.
“I made big bucks and appeared on many television shows in various countries, including ‘The David Frost Show’ in the US, who paid me $500. Forty years ago it was a huge amount,” said Singh.
He was often invited to schools as well to give presentations and show slides in order to motivate kids to take part in healthy activities.
From New Delhi, Singh went through Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and then started hopping from one island to the other — Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan up to Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji.
“We call it island hopping where we travel either by plane or ferry,” said Singh.
In April 1970, Singh entered Vancouver, British Columbia, to embark upon US and Canada tour.
Recalling his frightening memories, Singh said the voyage could have been deadly.
“I am very fortunate that I completed the journey and today am sitting in front of you,” said Singh. “I could have been killed or waiting to die in Vietnam.”
It was no less than an action-packed movie when Vietnamese soldiers captured Singh.
They tied him up and started firing one question after the other. Due to language barrier, Singh felt like a creature from another planet.
He could not understand their language and tried to communicate in English, which is why the troops suspected him as an American spy.
“They dumped me in a terrifying and disgusting cell in the rainforests and put cockroaches on my naked body,” said Singh. “It was painful and fearful experience… no one could hear my screams and I was thinking ‘this is the end’.”
After several days of investigation and going through Singh’s belongings, they realized he was a tourist and finally apologized and let him go with respect.
In another instance in Chicago, Illinois, one day a person tried to rob Singh at gunpoint, but in return gave him a $5 bill.
“When he put his gun on my head, I begged not to kill me and take whatever he wants. I was carrying $24 and I offered him all, including my bike. But then he gave $5,” said Singh.
“It wasn’t actually difficult. People can be good or bad. They can become doctors and save lives or become murderers and kill people. Ultimately all are humans, it’s education that changes people’s behaviour and polishes their mentalities.
“This person was also a human. After a little conversation, he helped me continue my journey,” said Singh.
Singh sat, chatted, ate and lived with low to high-class dignitaries around the world. He is a ‘world citizen’. His remarkable voyage enabled him to meet over 38,000 people, attend close to 1,000 functions, appear on some 300 television shows and learn a variety of languages such as German, Japanese, Italian and Spanish. Moreover, he also replaced 67 tires out of 410 flat tires.
“The trip gave me a lot. People would love to shake my hand,” said Singh. “It was the time when there was no concept of GPS, we used to depend on maps and local residents.”
“They (residents) were so helpful that they would travel miles with me to put me on right direction, others would ask me to stay for lunch, dinner and stay with them for some time.”
As per procedures during the immigration process at New Zealand’s Wellington Airport, Singh says he insisted his caste was ‘human’, which resulted in his deportation orders.
Afterwards as he was waiting for the next flight back to Australia, higher authorities intervened and issued a visa to him.
Singh later wrote a complaint letter to the then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, who replied back to him, apologized for the inconvenience and promised to consider removing the column of asking visitors’ race.
“Today there is no such column in New Zealand’s immigration procedures,” said Singh.
Continuing his story, Singh said it used to be difficult to get in contact with his family back home and he had to write letters to inform his parents about his current and approximate next location.
“Every month I used to send and receive letters through American Express service, there was no other system like cell phones or emails.
“One day an Australian senator offered to telephone. I called one of my neighbours and spoke with my mom the first time in two years,” said Singh.
From West to the East Coast, US and Canada journey was kind of zigzag for Singh.
“I crossed 47 states in the US and nine provinces in Canada,” said Singh. “For me it was incredible because of the challenging weather conditions… you have to pave your way through.”
Later Singh continued his travel towards Mexico and after passing through all of South America — Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and South America — he embarked on the United Kingdom, Europe and Russia leg of his tour.
Later, he proceeded to Morocco, Mali, Algeria, Nigeria, Libya, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and then to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordon, Syria, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Iraq, Iran and then to Afghanistan and finally back to India.
Due to tense Indo-Pak situation, Singh couldn’t get a Pakistan visa and from Kabul flew straight back to New Delhi in April 1973 to a warm welcome.
All together, including former Russia and Yugoslavia, Singh travelled through 128 countries.
“It might be a record, but I didn’t have enough knowledge to contact the Guinness Book of World Records. However, I am proud that I have played my role in doing something for humanity,” said the ‘world citizen’.
Singh later went on to complete his masters in Human Communication studies from the Fairfield University in Connecticut, United States, and finally migrated to Canada in 1975.
He is married with two daughters and as many grandchildren and has been living in Brampton for the last 11 years. He, along with his wife Komal, runs a family business of trophies and souvenirs.
By NOUMAN KHALIL