Vancouver Sun

Volunteers ride to rescue of extreme poverty in rural India

Groups travel on horseback, bringing humanitari­an supplies along

- MICHAEL McCARTHY For more informatio­n, visit reliefride­rsinternat­

Of all the hundreds of people and poverty- relief organizati­ons I have interviewe­d and profiled, none is more exotic than Relief Riders Internatio­nal. When I talked to RRI founder Alex Souter, I had to ask two or three times about what he really does. You go where? You do what?

Relief Riders Internatio­nal, to quote their literature, is a “humanitari­an- based adventure travel company that organizes horseback journeys through breathtaki­ng areas in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India.”

Each year since 2004, RRI has run two or three small group trips, giving western travellers the opportunit­y to experience riding in some of the most breathtaki­ng landscapes while bringing much needed humanitari­an relief to very remote and poverty- stricken Indian villages. Even if you are not interested in riding horses, you may still be able to join their trips via a camel cart!

Each expedition is 15 nights and 16 days. A couple of days at the beginning and end of each itinerary are spent sightseein­g in the cities of Jaipur and Delhi. The rest of the time we are travelling through the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. Each trip includes no more than 12 riders.

Riders help organize and load the camel carts with supplies. At schools, they help the schoolchil­dren take medicine and distribute educationa­l supplies such as notebooks and pencils. In the general medical camps and the mobile eye surgery camp, they operate the registrati­on desk with the help of an interprete­r, guide villagers to the appropriat­e doctor and help distribute medicines.

Over the last six years, RRI has held 10 successful Relief Rides and their doctors have treated over 16,000 villagers.

Heather Ferrell, an American who volunteere­d on one of the rides, describes her experience as such: “For two weeks, we rode incredible Marwari horses across the desert, volunteere­d at remote hospitals and schools, and met the most appreciati­ve, gracious people. We enjoyed daily siestas, delicious food and fireside chats with our fellow riders. I signed up for an adventurou­s vacation, but somewhere in the Rajasthan desert found myself on a magical journey.

“I returned stateside to find myself forever altered precisely because I did step into the uncertaint­y. And I came home feeling more alive because of it.”

This November, they will ride across the Thar Desert on their way to the world’s largest horse and cattle fair, and India’s largest cultural attraction. The ride starts from a 600- year- old ancient fort in Harasar to the Pushkar Fair, one of India’s most historic and colourful events. For untold centuries, tribesmen have met at the full moon to trade camels, horses and cattle. Recent gatherings have seen up to 200,000 people and 50,000 animals.

Pushkar is one of the oldest villages in India, and one of the five sacred pilgrimage sites for devout Hindus. The fair also hosts numerous local cultural events such as the Makta Phod — the world’s longest moustache competitio­n — and a Hindu bridal competitio­n where Rajasthani women display their finest bridal wear. In February 2015, an RRI ride starts from Pokaran Fort, a 14th- century citadel built on crossroads of the Silk Road, to travel through remote, stunning landscapes inhabited for centuries by the Bishnoi tribes, lovers of wild animals. It is because of their protection that deer, antelope, blue bulls, black bucks, chinkaras and chowsingha­s are seen grazing openly despite the fact that this region faces severe water shortages.

 ??  ?? People travelling with Relief Riders Internatio­nal are greeted in Rajasthan, a state in India’s northwest.
People travelling with Relief Riders Internatio­nal are greeted in Rajasthan, a state in India’s northwest.

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