Volunteers ride to rescue of extreme poverty in rural India
Groups travel on horseback, bringing humanitarian supplies along
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.