Though foreign travelers in India are often awestruck by the historic monuments that dot the landscape ? the Taj Mahal being, of course, the most famous one ? and there are numerous other touristy treats to please them, an increasing number of visitors are drawn to customized tours these days. These so-called niche markets cater to travelers seeking an experience that goes beyond the sightseeing thrills of mass tourism. A new ad put out by the ‘Incredible India' campaign, for instance, declares: "Win a 7 Day Yoga Holiday!" Among the environmentally conscious, to give another example, eco-tourism is very popular. At a more mundane level, medical tourism is a hot trend that attracts patients looking for quality health care at low cost. And for the socially conscious traveler, Relief Riders International (RRI) has come up with an interesting option. Founded by Alexander Souri, the New York-born son of an Indian father and a French mother, it offers horseback riding to participants who want to combine charity with adventure.
��� As the executive director of RRI, Souri leads international missions on two-week trips through remote villages and towns in India. On his inaugural trip in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, Souri's group, which included goats and a dozen donkeys carrying food and medicines, distributed their supplies to needy villagers. Best of all, the goods were paid for by the $4800 charge (excluding air fare) for the trip. Souri and his group initially met in New Delhi to organize the caravan and assist the Indian Red Cross personnel and the volunteer medical team that came along to treat villagers and present the area's first AIDS/HIV education program. Support vehicles provided cooks, food, tents and hot showers. The group rode for three to five hours a day, stopping for meals, and except for one night at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, three nights in forts and a night in a haveli (a traditional Rajput mansion), they slept in tents. They explored the rich wildlife, attended traditional dance performances in Kochor and drumming in Pachar, and also sampled the region's culinary specialties.
��� Souri's outfitter, Kanwar Raghuvenvra Singh Dundlod, has led rides for celebrities such as Sting, Prince Charles and Michael Douglas. The son of a cavalry officer, he turned his family's lovely 350-year-old fort, Dundlod, into a landmark hotel for serious riders. It has been featured in movies, articles and television programs. His legendary Marwari horses have attracted much attention. Apparently, because they were declared divine and even superior to those of royal blood, only Rajput families and Kshatriyas (warrior caste) were permitted to mount them. Some have said that the Marwari horse left the battlefield only in victory or to carry a wounded master to safety. Or he would make the ultimate sacrifice for his master on the battlefield.
��� At a boarding school in India, when Souri was eight, learning to ride helped him cope with the separation from his parents. He spent most of his youth in New York City and traveled extensively in India and France. Since then, he's produced plays, directed commercials and industrial films in China, and done special effects for The Matrix and X-Men. His work has been featured at the film festivals in Cannes, Sundance and Venice. On several occasions, his adventurous spirit led him to pilot a single engine plane across the Atlantic.
��� His equestrian journeys were born, as he notes, during a tragic period. The loss of his father was a turning point for Souri, prompting him to reassess his life. Souri was greatly influenced by Joseph Campbell (1904 ? 1987), the expert in mythology and comparative religion who helped Swami Nikhilananda with a new translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Among Campbell's many books, the classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a multicultural study of the myth of the hero that influenced generations of creative artists, ranging from the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s to contemporary filmmakers. "When I discovered this book, I realized that this trip was just like that journey," he says. "I took it as a sign. Those of us who travel have known the great gift of experiencing new places, encountering new people, and seeing the world in new ways. But on these rides, we take away all of that, while leaving behind for the people we've touched, and who've touched us, gifts that really matter."
��� On its third mission to Rajasthan, RRI successfully treated 2300 patients. While 1300 patients were treated in medical camps, about 970 children were treated in pediatric camps held at five schools. In addition, they distributed notebooks, drawing pads, pencils, erasers, maps and globes to 1200 students at those schools. "Visiting the schools is always a high point for our riders," adds Souri. "It is impossible not to experience the great appreciation that the children show for the supplies we bring. It is always such a very moving experience, and one that I know our riders always remember."
��� One of the highlights of the ride was the combined effort of the translators and two American travelers, Dr. Mary Hafer and Dr. Jeff Hartford, to treat 400 patients at three of RRI's medical camps. "As a physician I was thrilled to be able to experience India while providing a critical service to its people," says Dr. Hafer. "To be able to ride a Marwari horse through rural Rajasthan and volunteer my medical talents was an incredibly rich experience for me. The barriers of language, culture, education and class evaporated, and I was able to feel the pulse of India."
��� Based on Souri's visits to Dr. V.K. Gupta's eye clinics during that time, RRI has developed a plan to perform eye (IOL) surgery on its February 2006 Rajasthan Relief Ride. As one of India's leading eye surgeons, Dr. Gupta has more than 25 years of experience and has performed over 7000 operations. RRI and Dr. Gupta will offer eye surgery to a minimum of 50 patients. For more information, including a trip schedule, contact Relief Riders International at email@example.com or look them up at www.reliefridersinternational.com.
By ANDREA RADEMAN
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