Cause to Travel
Making a difference on horseback around the world
Clad in biking leathers as he cruises on his black BMW motorcycle, Alexander Souri doesn’t seem like the type of guy who would want to plod slowly across the desert on the back of a horse.
But horsepower—the four-legged variety—is really Souri’s preferred mode of transport. As a young boy at boarding school at the foot of the Himalayas, Souri rode Marwari horses, a rare, indigenous breed once used as cavalry mounts by the Indian army. It was an experience he carried with him the rest of his life. Looking back, Souri, now 43, credits the Marwari horses with inspiring him to start Relief Riders International, the non-profit humanitarian travel company he founded in 2004.
Two or three times a year, Souri leads two-week horse treks through the vast Rajasthan Desert in which participating riders help deliver medical supplies to remote villages and aid healthcare professionals in temporary medical camps. Sleeping in tents under a desert sky after hours spent bumping along on horseback may not be everyone’s dream vacation. But for adventurous types who yearn to make a difference in the world, humanitarian trips like those offered through Relief Riders International strike a balance.
“I’ve always loved to travel. I got my pilot’s license 12 years ago and flew across the Atlantic four times,” says Souri, who first came to the Berkshires to attend Bard College at Simon’s Rock. After developing a successful career in film production and working on such blockbuster films as X-Men and The Matrix, he realized that “being part of a big Hollywood film project wasn’t the be-all and end-all of life.”
Still, starting a non-profit travel company didn’t happen overnight. Several factors, including a trip to India with friends, led Souri to re-evaluate his career. “We were just going from five-star hotel to five-star hotel and not really seeing the country. So, I rented a car, and that’s when I saw the real poverty of India. I thought to myself: What can I do to help these people?”
Then, when his father passed away, he found himself soul-searching. “I grew up in New York until I was nine, when my Dad sent me to the Sherwood School in India, hoping to connect me with my roots,” says Souri, whose father was Indian. At first, he felt alienated and alone but found solace through riding horses.
In a similar way, Souri says he felt totally lost after his father and several other close friends passed away. He found himself reconnecting with the Marwari horses after locating a stable in Massachusetts where he could ride them. “They are very important to the essence and spirit of the trek,” he says.
Participants in the relief mission cover about 20 miles per day on horseback through the Rajasthan Desert with a caravan of pack camels, a herd of goats, support vehicles, and a healthcare team. They stop at remote villages where few of the residents have ever seen a doctor or a dentist. Many are malnourished. By age 50, some are blind from cataracts caused by the desert sun, Souri says. “We organized an eye-care camp in 2004 and offered free surgery to 100 patients who couldn’t afford or get to a medical facility for cataract surgery,” he says.
In addition to eye surgery and dental care, the team administers medication, de-worming approximately 1,200 children per trip. Volunteers work registering patients, distributing educational materials, and setting up temporary medical camps. Participants pay a fee of $7,725 per person, with a portion going toward medical supplies and educational materials—and the purchase of goats, which are donated in the villages.
Advanced riders have opportunities to gallop across the desert like Bedouins although the experience can be thrilling, even life-changing, regardless of the pace. “They are being exposed to sickness but also the compassion of helping, and there’s the horses and landscape—and India, which is its own character. It’s a very powerful place,” Souri adds.
Viewing the night sky from the middle of the desert was for Jonathan Rick, 62, of West Stockbridge, one of the most memorable experiences of his life. “Without city lights or any kind of illumination, the heavens appeared vast and jet-black, with millions of stars,” he recalls.
And the perspective of being on horseback while passing through villages allows riders to peek over the walls and glimpse people engaged in their daily lives. Sometimes those views can be harsh and heartbreaking, recalls Lynn Henderson, from Litchfield County, who participated in one of the first treks and remembers great beauty and great poverty. Those images were countered, she says, “by the joy and happiness on the faces of the children when they saw us arriving on horseback, knowing we were there to help them. That was unforgettable.”