A Polish, his canoe, and the Ganga

Posted on April 4, 2013


From hitchhiking around Europe and Asia to canoeing on the Ganga and biking around Africa, Pawel Kilen shares the stories of his five-year world tour that took him to over 30 countries.

The first time I met Pawel Kilen was in 2007 when he mysteriously arrived at my family home in Kolkata. Dishevelled and animated, he became our house guest for two weeks. During one of our many chats, he revealed he was on a world tour, which began in late 2006, and that Kolkata was his last stop in India before his next destination, Thailand. I mentioned how I would one day write about him.

Five years after it all began and more than 30 countries later, Pawel’s journey came to an end at the doorstep of his parents’ home, where friends and relatives lined up to welcome him home. His brave and unconventional globetrotting ways include hitchhiking across Europe, canoeing in the Ganga, and cycling his way through Africa. With a near death experience on his sixth malaria attack in Africa, Pawel thought he was close to the end and would never make it back home, but this fighter pulled through. A tour guide by profession, Pawel sat down to share the extraordinary tales of his life as a backpacker.

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

I have been brought up in Warsaw on a farm with my parents and an older sister. So [until] high school, I had been working in the field driving tractors, cutting cauliflowers, and selling them in the market.

Were you always interested in travelling? 

Since I was a kid, I always thought about travelling to far places beyond the mountains and the seas. In  high school, there was a time when I wanted to run away from everything because I did not like the city. That was when I decided that travelling was a cool thing to do. So I did my [Bachelor’s and Master’s] in tourism and recreation.

What made you decide to really do it? 

It was just an idea that popped up one day. I was talking to my girlfriend, and we did not know where we wanted to go, but we decided to travel around the world.

Did you have a plan?

We chose the easy way, and that was going east because you don’t have to fly anywhere. Europe is connected to Turkey by a small strait, so there are no big water masses. And if you can hitchhike, then it’s free. First we had to earn some money, so we went to the UK for eight months. We worked at a theme park, doing outdoor work. After that, we went back to Poland for two months to organise our visas. We left after Christmas in 2006.

Where in India did you travel and how did you get around?

I started in Punjab, then to Delhi, Goa, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. We also went to the Himalayas. I would try to hitchhike from truck drivers and private cars. When you hitchhike you have to think about the speed of the truck, so it is better to pick up a private car of a good brand. This usually means that somebody doesn’t ask you for money when he stops; he might be going far, and might be going fast.

How did people respond to you? 

Hitchhiking in India is very difficult because of traffic, and people don’t understand it. Language was not a big problem, but the mentality was. Indians are not used to that kind of behaviour, and they don’t understand what it means when you have your thumbs up. [On the highway], people would stop from time to time. But there is always a crowd around you because [they are curious].

How did you live, and what was your budget like? 

We were camping in hospitality clubs, houses, and cheap hotels. It was a budget trip, so we had to live in a minimum of USD5 a day. India is the cheapest country ever. I would have run out of money if I had been spending more. But I kept my budget low and was able to survive longer.

Why did you decide to canoe, and how did you buy the boat?

When I was in Varanasi, I saw the river and thought it would be a great idea to just travel on the river. [Since] I am a kayaking instructor, I know how to deal with water, and it is not a big deal as long as it is a lowland river with one course. I bought the boat in one of the ghats; it was nothing special and was leaking a bit. So I bargained for the price. [Now I realise] I paid twice its worth. At first, the seller was not interested; he was afraid that if I drowned, he would [get in] trouble. He asked me to get some permission. I spent a whole day trying to get the permission from the river police, which was not necessary. It cost me time, and I didn’t even get it. Luckily, I met somebody who agreed to go with me. He was a local. So in this situation, the seller sold me the boat. But the next day, the guy [who had agreed to travel with me] didn’t [show] up. [I figured] he was just a thief and was looking to get money from a tourist, but it [worked in my favour].

What was the 21-day experience like?

It was a hard ride of more than a thousand kilometres. I was alone, but the river is always a busy place. I had an orange shirt with me and had a beard at that time. So people thought I was a sadhu. It was very unusual for a white man on a boat in the Ganga. But the locals were very enthusiastic when they saw me, so there was no trouble. I had to row all day, and at night, I was camping on the shore. But from time to time, I had to wake up at night to check if I still had my boat, because it is hard to secure or tie it up. So I was afraid that my boat would be robbed. There was a situation when I was scared, when dead bodies were floating around in the Ganga. I found that odd. But the next day, I had to [manoeuvre] the big waves and whirlpools, which were dangerous. [There are chances] that you flip over, or your equipment goes down. This was just before the Barraka Bridge before the Hoogly.

Any memorable incidents along the way?

I was on the Ganga somewhere in the middle in the countryside and heard somebody shouting [at a distance]. At first, I didn’t bother and just carried on. Then suddenly I heard a gunshot, I saw people aiming guns at me, saying, “Come to the shore.” So I had to [comply]. On shore, there were three guys who weren’t in any uniforms; they looked like bodyguards or guerrillas and carried assault rifles. They were trying to persuade me to give them money and my cellphone. They were just trying to scare me. But there were others on shore that saw the situation. So I started shouting at them to come closer and to call the police. Then they finally let me go because they knew it wasn’t easy. That was the only situation where I was harassed and felt threatened.

Was there anything about India that surprised you?

The people there will change your mentality. It’s a good place to readjust your thinking of the world. India is a place where people can believe in any religion. People there have deep values. For people who live in a bubble like in Europe and the United States, a visit to India can open up their mind.

How did this experience affect you?

It made me more aware of my advantages and disadvantages. It helps you to know your own character. To get to know everything about yourself, what you are scared of, what you like and don’t like, what you can or cannot do. Some people are working on that knowledge their whole life, and I might not know everything right now, but I think I know a lot more than before.

What was it like to come home after five years?

It was a very hard feeling; it was strange and good to be back. My parents were very happy. It was [memorable] because I got back on the 24th [of December].


Next trip

South America

What’s in your travel bag?

A sleeping bag; a tent; clothes, flip-flops; basic toiletries, such as toothbrush, shampoo, and soap;tools, such as a knife and a pot for cooking; and some warm clothes if you are going to colder climates.

Two things you love about India. 

The intensity of the people and the colours

Tips for travelling in India.

Don’t hitchhike. Just use the train and the bus; it’s cheap and comfortable. Try the off-beaten tracks, the places that are less popular.


For the original PDF version please click here A polish, his canoe and the ganga

Featured in Masala Lite magazine, March 2013

Posted in: People