Have you ever pushed a jeep off the recalcitrant sand dune and allowed the sleek sand to caress your skin casually? Have you ever gaily tied the floundering sole of your Nike with long dry grass?
Or, have you ever sat on a camel cart, barely 12 inches away from the unkempt animal and heard the rumble from its rear? Do you know what it is to get lost in the middle of nowhere and hitchhike with three menacing-looking men? Have you ever sat on a knoll and let the moon read your journal and the hoopoe hear you sing? Have you ever rediscovered Life this way?
I met Life again in the deserts of Rajasthan, as I traveled on camel carts and open jeep for eight days with the Relief Riders. Perhaps there was a reason to it, for even the beginnings of the ride were rather quirky. I was lazing in the backwaters of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, and one night while surfing the Net stumbled upon the profile of a man who had done special effects for The Matrix and X-Men, and was now organizing an enchanting 15-day combo of adventure travel and relief. I read the name: Alexander Souri. Before sending an email I hurriedly built an image of the Hollywood man—long, salty hair, in beret and moccasins, crow’s feet, a long drawl. He replied, we met, and 10 days later I was at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, getting introduced to the other riders: a French photographer, a studious American lawyer, a former French army commando, a perky interior decorator from New York, an ayurveda doctor from Kovalam, and Souri, the Relief Riders International (RRI) founder-director, of course, without any salt in his hair, no crow’s feet, no beret …
On that nippy morning, on the porch of Imperial Hotel, bags were counted and dumped in the boot of a minibus, and we set off for Mukundgarh Fort, some 125 miles off Jaipur. It was a lingering, crinkly ride, and as the travelers got sloshed with the images of India, I sat behind the chauffeur and worked as an interpreter of some measure. He spoke a dialect that nobody understood and I stretched my imagination to decipher the banter.
On the way there were curious onlookers, a delicious lunch, some soggy bananas, and little friendships furrowing their way through smiles, laughter, and stories. At the end of six hours, when we jumped out of the bus at the sprawling Mukundgarh Fort, there were no strangers: Alice Read wanted a quick Hindi lesson, Karen Cedar asked for chai at the dhaba, Laurent Millet loved the paranthas, and Souri rehearsed his Hindi and reminisced about his days in Sherwood College.
Mukundgarh is dusty and so full of stunning frescoes that the brown of the streets looks anomalous. The fort is nearly 200 years old, and when the sun went down the elm we roamed its stable. There they were, the Marwari horses, their color honey, amber, and snow, they sturdy, taut, and proud of their fifth gait, the revaal. The riders picked their horses and got into a friendly conversation, for we—men, women, horses, camels, cooks, grooms, attendants—were all to trudge through an assortment of villages in Rajasthan for the next 15 days. The itinerary was different from any other I had seen or traveled before—we were to rest the nights at forts and mansions, tents, and even dharamshalas (lodging facilities for pilgrims); the ride would include participation in medical camps in unknown, uncared for villages, distribution of livestock along the way, and providing educational materials to students in a village school.
The next morning I was riddled with choices—I could travel to Khirod village on the back of an open jeep or hop into a camel cart. I looked at the russet camels munching to glory and twinkled at a new experience. Camel it would be, I proclaimed, trying to jump into the cart. But before I could complete the sentence I slid to the ground. The cart was too high for the diminutive me. It was a mirthful moment and when I could not make it even the second time, I had to be literally pulled into the cart by the French photographer. That was just the beginning of the ride.
Khirod is just 21 miles away but when on a camel cart and winding through mud roads flanked by prickly shrubs and hastily built mounds, destination can be as far as eternity. At least it was that afternoon, when, after having counted the slow pace of the camel and picking fragrant flowers on the way, we strayed some 12 miles from the lunch spot and were parked in the wrong village. Famished and bewildered at having gone astray, I knocked the local houses hoping there would be a phone connection. There wasn’t any. I flagged down a jeep and pestered the menacing-looking men to take me to the nearest phone booth. They did, and after several SOSs the rescue vehicle arrived and drove us to the lunch spot—an orchard near which nomads were pitching their lives again.
Hours later, when the moon rolled onto the sky, the temperature rushed down so quickly that I had to cower and wrap the dupatta tight around myself. There was silence all along the rest of the ride and when we reached the campground I could recognize the newfound friends in the ochre of the burning logs. Not too far under a canopy food was being cooked, water was being boiled in colossal copper pots for hot shower, and the tents were pitched in beautiful symmetry. There was no electricity and the cell phones were dead and how I loved that idleness of technology.
Nearly 25 miles on a camel cart each day can be quite a drag, so one day I opted to travel in the open jeep. If you can tell a story between two paces of a camel, riding in an open jeep in a desert could be fast and furious. My hair flew, the entire stretch became a tanning bed, the sand scuffed the skin, and the prickly shrub stabbed my forehead and I bled. But that was just the aperitif, our goose was yet to be cooked. It did when the jeep got stuck in the sand. The stubborn sand would not loosen its vise-like grip. We pushed, the vehicle growled but did not move. We beckoned two villagers, and after a lot of loud breaths and twitched backs the jeep moved, and we hopped back and waited for the riders.
But that was not just once; the jeep got stuck five times in the 120 miles that we traveled, and every time I was part of the push. Talk of being unfortunate in an arid land! There were scary moments too—in Kochor the sandstorm nearly blew our tents away while some marauding blue bulls roamed in the vicinity. In that hamlet there was some semblance of technology too. In the land hemmed with mountains and a lake, there was one modest spot where the city cell phones would catch the signals. Three large rocks were immediately placed there and every time somebody had to make a phone call they would walk to the rocky “phone booth.” Seen any better indigenous telecom arrangement?
All along the route there was more to this ride than twitched backs, dead phones, and traditional Rajasthani performances at night. There was royalty in the forts that we stayed in, like Danta Fort that for 300 years has weathered history, intrigue, grandeur, and flamboyance within the confines of its burly walls. There were hand fans so large that it must have taken 10 men to imitate a windy evening, skins of tigers shot for pleasure, iron shields that kings used to protect their kingdoms, and halls so large that one could fit a baseball field and seat 10,000.
If royalty was sown in the itinerary, Souri also interspersed it with compassion. There was relief at the medical camps where hundreds of people turned up when the Relief Riders dispensed medicine and served food. In the school in Kochor, the children played with their new toys and books gleefully, and when Souri distributed goats in Lohargal amongst families below poverty line, the old man cried and the wrinkled woman blessed.
I have trudged the world but never have experienced such exhilarating eight days—royalty, compassion, relief, friendship, great food all stringed beautifully. Honestly, I would shove the jeep again, I would not lament the death of my expensive Nike, I would happily live without electricity if I could go traverse the desert again with the Relief Riders.
I am glad that this time when Life called, I rode. Perhaps there was a reason. Perhaps it is Destiny.
Preeti Verma Lal has worked as a journalist in India and the United States. She is now based in New Delhi, freelances for several publications, and runs her website: www.deepblueink.com.
Dream ONE MAN’S DREAM
You never know where belief begins, where nascent ideas become movements, and where one man’s dream transforms into precious moments for strangers sitting thousands of miles away.
For Alexander Souri, who has sizzled the Hollywood celluloid with special effects for The Matrix and X-Men, made promotional films in China, managed special events for Cannes, Venice, and Sundance Film Festivals, life had the essential glitter, but he wanted to redefine life, add more meaning to it. “My father had just died. I was circumnavigating my soul. I wanted to be able to live my warrior archetype, while affecting positive change in very real ways. I wanted to be able to give back,” says Souri.
It was this desire to give back that led to the formation of Great Barrington, Mass.-based Relief Riders International (RRI). For every trip Souri, the founder-director of RRI, picks a maximum of 15 riders who not only travel through the villages on horseback but also participate in medical camps and distribution of relief supplies and livestock along the route.
“It is not mere travel, it is a journey, a spiritual journey not only for me, for all those who would come along,” says Souri. “For every gift that I have given I got much more in return and through RRI, I want to keep hope alive, and exhaust every opportunity for growth and understanding,” adds Souri.
Souri, who has studied in India, France, and the United States, says this trip is a tribute to his father. “India is my father’s country; it is also the country in which I drew the greatest qualities of my character. The ride is a tribute to my father and the love that he bestowed on me.”
And this homage will continue as long as hope lives on this earth. The next ride will be through Rajasthan in February and in July 2005 the Riders will be in the Himalayas. Someday Souri wants to take his Riders to the remotest corners of the world and spread greatest happiness amongst the greatest numbers.