By Ann Jamieson
When Alexander Souri first shared his vision with a friend, the reaction was one of disbelief. “That’s great. Why don’t you call me when you wake up?”
Alexander did not let that deter him.
Admittedly, his idea seemed a bit Pollyannish. “Ride horses through the desert and help people who need it. Poor people. Bring them medicine and food.”
Fourteen years later Alexander has improved the lives of over 25,000 people including nearly 19,000 children, bringing them medical and dental care, vision care, food aid, and educational support and sanitary facilities. Beginning in India, the country of his birth, Alexander has since expanded to Turkey and now Ecuador. Along the way, Relief Riders has received the 2010 United Nations NGO Positive Peace Award.
The concept Alexander imagined, “voluntourism,” had not even been coined at the time of his vision. Yet that is exactly what he created. Guests ride horses native to whatever region they are in, immerse themselves in the local culture while experiencing some of the most stunning landscapes on earth and while en route bring humanitarian relief to remote communities.
Last August Relief Riders brought help and hope to Ecuador. After many successful rides in India, Alexander accompanied his partner Zoe Tryon to the Amazon. Zoe is known for her battles to protect indigenous tribes from oil companies, and is very familiar with the Amazon, having lived in it for 10 years.
After only one visit it was “an instant Wow! I’ve got to share this!” for Alexander. On his second visit he was already planning logistics.
He headed straight to the National Red Cross headquarters, always his first move when mapping out a new area due to the 12-year history he shared with the Indian Red Cross. “They provide me with whatever I need: vehicles, office space, teams to work with.”
Although it would be Relief Rider’s first time in Ecuador, the response was the same. “They blew me out of the water with their response: whatever you need, whenever you need it.”
Although India and Ecuador are vastly different, with contrasting landscapes (the desert as opposed to a jungle and mountains), there is a lot of love in both countries and his medical support in both came from the Red Cross.
Participants on the Ecuadorean Relief Riders arrive in Quito, and are driven through Imbabura Province, known as “The Land of The Lakes” to Otavalo. Patchworks of quinoa and maize fields and hamlets of adobe huts stretch alongside the trail while in the background the Andes soar. A two-hour drive takes them to their horses, native Criollos that they will ride for the trip.
Sue Beeton, who took the trip last year, describes the horses as “tough, responsive, eager and sure-footed: a pleasure to ride.” The horses are owned by the native villagers. Sue felt “a real sense of life for the villagers in Pinan” when she rode for seven hours up the mountains just to reach the village.
Thirty-five families make up the village, and they can trace their roots back to before Incan times. Their very existence totters on a thin edge. Their cattle, which they use for milk and to make cheese for trade, live hours away by foot.
As the guests ride the natives’ horses, the money made benefits the local community. In order to be of benefit to everyone, the horses change daily, posing a little bit of an adjustment challenge for the guests. However, the horses were all a pleasure to ride.
During the ride, guests got to experience drinking “coca” tea, relaxing in Volcano-fed hot springs, visits to a Condor sanctuary and a free-trade coffee plantation. While riding, condor sightings, as well as eagles, and large hawks, are frequent.
The Red Cross met the guests in Pinan, after taking the “new road,” a five-hour journey over boulders and treacherous terrain.
Both a dental clinic, and eye testing were presented to the villagers, along with a CPR demonstration, a live-saving skill when the nearest doctor or hospital is hours away.
In addition to the medical benefits, Relief Riders followed an age-old tradition by hosting a feast for the villagers, consisting of a calf (boiled...and boiled), potatoes, cheese and soup. Though perhaps the well-boiled calf was not so appetizing to the riders, to the villagers it was a treat and many came back for second helpings...or thirds.
The scenery as the riders left Pinan was extraordinary, featuring endless grasslands laced with lagoons and lakes.
The next stop is the Amazon rainforest, which required another mode of transportation: a small plane. Guests felt like an explorer from another era as they climbed out of the plane and people slowly emerged from the rainforest. White skin is so unusual here that babies cried at the sight of them.
While many might be leery of the creatures of the Amazon and their possible ill effect on health, the Sapara tribe gives visitors a heads up on what to be careful about. Alexander got a wake-up call when he almost put his hands on a tree: luckily a native stopped him in mid-swing. The tree was covered with half-inch fire ants which sting like scorpions.
“I got it after that,” laughs Alexander. “Don’t touch anything.”
Although piranhas have a bad reputation, it is mainly a myth. They are not aggressive fish; in fact they are related to tetras that are commonly kept in home aquariums. Their main diet is small fish. Again, the reputation of malaria far outstrips its actual occurrence. Malaria is rarely a problem in this area, and only a few cases arise in other areas.
Only 500 Sapara remain. These healers who possess encyclopedic knowledge of the plants of the jungle, and their healing properties, are becoming extinct due to destruction and pollution of their habitat by oil drilling.
By their proximity to society and their frequent comings and goings from the jungle to fight or protest the oil companies, they have been exposed to nutritional bad habits such as the addiction to sugar, and the use or margarine (which has no need for refrigeration) which result in negative effects on their oral hygiene and health. These western diseases or ailments tend to seep through to tribes that have been exposed to society. Thus a dental clinic, along with first aid, and obstetrics were conducted for the tribe.
A natural healing center is in progress, where visitors can come and study the rainforest. Guests share cleansing ceremonies with the Sapara (known as the “hippies of the Amazon” for their emphasis on spirituality over warfare) which enhance their connectedness with the surrounding forest.
Sue says that, while staying there, “we learned to slow down. I certainly began to heal, even though we were ostensibly there to help them.”
In the morning, guests take part in a ceremony with tribal elders to help them understand their dreams and experiences from the previous night’s ritual. In the afternoon they help out with the Red Cross Dental and Gynecological programs. Swims in the rivers, or soaks in the thermal pools are all part of the relaxation of visiting the Amazon.
Alexander says the sound, particularly, of the Amazon amazed him. “You don’t see much, like say in Africa where you’ll see herds of elephants and wildebeest. In the Amazon, you don’t see them until they’re upon you, but you hear them.”
After 13 days in the Andes and Amazon, guests return to Quito Airport for the trip home, indelibly changed by their experience. Speaking of the way she was helped while helping others, Sue concludes, “This is one of the great aspects of ‘philanthrotourism,’ the support is reciprocal, often in ways that one does not expect.”
Relief Riders also offers the The Pushkar Relief Ride, which combines giving back with the opportunity to experience India from a truly unique perspective. This 14-day journey on horseback takes riders through the ancient landscape of the Thar Desert, from the settlement of Baghsara to the sacred village of Pushkar, ending at the famous Pushkar Fair, when the usually sleepy Pushkar transforms into a spectacle of color and celebration around November’s full moon with livestock traders descending to buy and sell camels, cattle, and horses.
The next Pushkar ride will take place October 19-November 2; while in February the Gajner Relief Ride will be held February 26-March 11th.
For information on any of these rides contact Relief Riders International at email@example.com