Spaniard breaks Himalayas record, then ends up under lock down
Updated: May 6, 2020
On February 4th, Dani Benedicto and his friend Sergi Unanue became the youngest people in the world to cross the Himalayas on foot without assistance.
Not long after that record-breaking trek, Dani's two years of traveling came to a sudden halt: he was on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands - a territory of India in the Bay of Bengal - when India went under national lock-down due to Covid-19.
The government made visitors leave the islands, and Dani ended up in the city of Chennai, on India's eastern coast.
India's lock down - the biggest in the world - began on March 25, and this week, the government announced it's extending it until May 17th.
For Dani - a native of Barcelona - it's going to take more than a pandemic to quell his adventurous spirit.
He's sticking to his dream of traveling around the world without taking planes, as he told our reporter Tinka Kemptner. How are you getting by? I’m OK now. But the first two days in Chennai were difficult. For a while, we didn’t know if India would kick all the tourists out of the country, or if the hotels would accept us. But now the situation has stabilized.
I’m staying in a hotel where I have a private room for which I pay only €8 [$10 U.S.] per night. I have some money saved, food is really cheap here, and the other travelers staying here are very nice. There are 20-odd lodgers: Americans, Swiss, Canadians, Australians, and a few local tourists as well. They cannot go back home because there are no domestic flights right now, and the roads between Indian states are all closed.
The lock down in India is very severe. Imagine: a population of 1.3 billion! That’s hard to manage. Many Indians live on the streets, they are homeless, many families have no savings. They are hit very hard by the pandemic. When they don’t work they risk starvation. The Indian government is not helping as much as European governments are, and on top of that, the health system here is very weak. Especially in rural areas where many people live, there are often no hospitals. I guess we will never find out how many people have died from the virus in India. That said, here in Chennai, the atmosphere is good at the hotel. Most of us are long-term travelers, rather than tourists - who have been on the road for a long time. In my case, I left Barcelona exactly two years ago. The mentality of travelers is different from that of tourists. Our goal is to not return to 9-to-5 jobs, for as long as possible. As long as we’re safe, we’re okay here! Every day we all meet up out on the terrace, but most of the day is spent in our rooms, where the fan is constantly on. The temperature is around 30° Celsius [86° Fahrenheit] right now. My fellow travelers are not thinking about traveling any more. Most of us think that this is the beginning of a new era. We are well aware that, from now on, it’s going to be very difficult to travel - at least until we get the vaccine. One year, one year and a half, who knows? At the beginning of the lock down, I got contacted by the Spanish embassy. They gave me a choice between two flights to go back to Spain. But one flight was from Kolkata, and I couldn’t go there, since the inter-state roads are closed. They also offered me to get on a German flight, but that would have been too expensive (€1,000).
As for me, when India re-opens, I'm NOT planning to return home - unlike the other travelers at the hotel. Right now I’m learning Portuguese, because I’d really like to visit Brazil.
I studied political science in Barcelona, but after graduation I didn’t want to work in an office. I saved up quite a lot of money working as a tennis coach in Boston and as an English teacher. Enough money anyway to go travelling. Most of the time, I spend just €7 to €8 [$8-$10] a day, including visas!
On my Instagram (@dani.is.gone) I share pictures of my adventures so others can see the world in a different way. I want to show that you can do things even if you’re not prepared for them. I crossed the Himalayas without any preparation. If I can do it, others can too! I’m a lover of mountains but crossing the Himalayas was never my goal when I started traveling. I found out about the Great Himalayan Trail only once I was in Kathmandu. I was told it was a beautiful and crazy path, so my friend Sergi and I gave it a shot. It took us 99 days to do the 1700-kilometer [1,056 miles] crossing - overcoming a cumulative elevation of 175,000 meters (574,000 feet)! We had some rough patches – Sergi nearly lost his toes from frostbite – but everything turned out alright in the end. During the crossing, we didn’t even know that if we were successful, we'd be making history.
We got quite a lot of media attention after completing the trail. For two weeks, we gave interviews daily. Now that I’m in lock down in Chennai, you're the only one to interview me!
What drives me in life is going on adventures. I see an adventure as something you do at your own risk, and you accept the consequences. Adventures are my way of life now, they are my reason to live. For me, the Himalayas was just one adventure among many others. I also crossed Laos on foot. And with Sergi, we bought horses in Mongolia to ride them for a few weeks, before reselling them. My plans for the future? I don’t want to go back to an office job, that’s all I know. If I run out of money, I can always go to a rich country to make some money as a tennis coach. Also, I'm working on a documentary about our adventures in Mongolia and the Himalayas. I’m co-producing it with Sergi (Instagram: @losviajesdewalliver), who's a journalist. We filmed everything ourselves. I speak to my family in Barcelona every day right now. Before the pandemic we were in contact just once a week. I still wear around my neck the rock my father picked up from a beach the week before I left. It’s my talismán. It has protected me so far.
* UPDATE: Dani contacted us early this week to say that - contrary to his plans - he has decided it's best for him to end his two years of travel for now, and return to Spain:
“Now, it’s practically impossible to go anywhere. Obviously, no one expected this situation to get this bad. So I kept thinking that things would get better, and that I would be able to continue traveling. By now, Spain has been locked down for two months, India for a month and a half…I think it’s going to be a very long time before we’re able to travel like we used to.”
Dani says that when the pandemic wanes, he will likely head to Australia for a couple of years. We will continue to follow his adventures, and suspect that he'll be back on the road as soon as borders start to reopen!