Adventure With a Mission
Sunday, September 10, 2006
We have galloped a mile through the Great Thar Desert in Rajasthan, northwest India. I grit my teeth and hug the neck of my sturdy Marwari horse as it races up a steep dune. We pause at the crest. Below is a near-vertical cliff of sand. A wind comes at us sideways, unfurling our group's orange and red flag.
I lean back in my cavalry saddle and test my stirrups. We're going down.
I ride the slide. In seconds we're at the bottom of the dune. I wasn't even scared.
But that was Day 7. I didn't start out fearless.
* * *
White cabs, lean dogs and rats as big as hedgehogs. Those are my first impressions of India as I arrive in New Delhi, the first stop on our 15-day relief mission.
Tomorrow our group of nine "voluntourists" will travel 200 miles west to the village of Dundlod, where we will begin our work. For the next two weeks we will ride 15 to 20 miles a day, sleep in tents and stop in five villages to help organize medical clinics and deliver milking goats, school supplies and medicine. Our mounts: rare Marwari horses from the desert region, perhaps the most ancient breed on the planet, said to be descended from a time when horses could fly.
This first night, though, I find myself perusing the pillow menu at New Delhi's Imperial Hotel. Six choices. I narrow it down to horsehair, millet or wheat.
It seems an incongruous beginning to a humanitarian relief mission. Will we be perceived as privileged, pampered Westerners sweeping in on horseback to deliver charity?
Alexander Souri, 36, founder and executive director of the Massachusetts-based Relief Riders International, bristles at the word. Charity implies pity; the origin of the word "relief," he says, is "to raise up." Souri, whose father was an Indian businessman and mother a French racecar driver, sees his rides as a form of "guerrilla voluntourism."
A portion of the fee each rider has paid goes directly to hire doctors, purchase goats, and buy and transport medical and educational supplies. The relief rides, Souri says, are in homage to his late father. He says he has consulted with the Indian Red Cross Society and local leaders to design a program that bypasses bureaucracy and delivers relief directly to needy villagers.
My biggest worry as I'm choosing my pillows: Will I be able to keep up, to ride as much as five hours a day in the desert?