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A Ride Through Rajasthan

I was sitting quietly with a cup of tea, thinking that it was nice not to be going anywhere this spring, when I turned to the Star-Tribune travel section (Sunday, Jan. 16th) and noticed a story on Relief Riders International. RRI had undertaken its first horseback relief trip in Rajasthan, northern India in 2004 and was just about to initiate another.

I had always admired those who took their vacations doing relief work, and envied riders on long horseback treks, but with my age (almost 69) and infirmities (arthritis, a mild heart condition and a significant hearing loss) had not thought I could handle the inevitable physical challenges. Now here was a trip that combined riding and relief work . . . perhaps . . .?

The idea was clearly ridiculous. But it was intriguing. Within a few hours I had signed up, within twenty-four hours I was in a major panic. What was I doing?

I had never had instruction in English riding, though I had used a lightweight English saddle for the sake of my damaged wrists and arms. I have never been athletic and first learned to ride at age forty-seven.

I went for a lesson and bumped along like a sack of potatoes over the frozen ground on a horse too wide for me; I ached for days. My anxiety reached gut-wrenching, insomniac, levels: This trip was obviously a crazy idea! … Luckily, at this point Alexander Souri telephoned to check on my progress regarding my passport and patiently administered encouragement, and suggested that I get as many riding lessons as possible before departure. In the two weeks left. I squeezed in six sessions with Kim Hiller, a wonderful instructor at Woodloch Stables in Hugo, but still boarded the plane for New Delhi feeling very unsure of my equestrian abilities and well supplied with Ibuprofen.

The ride turned out to be the most exhilarating, unforgettable, trip I have ever taken ... I discovered that I could ride, and reveled in it, cantering along soft, sandy country lanes between brilliantly green fields, where the wheat flourished in a Rajasthani spring, and over undulating desert— greeted everywhere by villagers who turned out to wave and smile.

Co-sponsored by the Indian Red Cross, the expedition was accompanied by camel carts carrying medicines, as well as notebooks, pencils, crayons etc. to be distributed at the poorest schools in the area. Doctors with the Indian Red Cross met us at village centers where we helped organize clinics, hand out pills, often antibiotics (six in a twist of newspaper), and assist in registration. Some of our group helped with dental procedures and shots, freeing the MDs to focus on diagnosis and treatment. Eye and ear problems were very common; one boy need rabies shots his family couldn't afford (we contributed about four dollars each to pay for them), aches and sprains were treated and a gynecologist, a pediatrician and an ophthalmologist were on hand when possible.

At two stops, we delivered goats to some of the villagers, selected by the mayor or village head man. Most of the recipients were women, many of them remaining veiled before the crowd while accepting their nanny-goat and sometimes a kid. Goat meat and goat milk are staples in this part of the world and the goats would be bred to provide continuous milk for sustenance.

For four of our twelve first nights we stayed in tents, circular yurt-like structures twenty feet in diameter lined with Indian cottons. With only two people to a tent they were spacious, and comfortable. Flat woven rugs, easily swept with the brooms provided, covered the floor and we had camp beds with colorful bed linens, a table, a candle, a mirror and our belongings, all in place and ready for us when we rode into camp.

The grooms, energetic and willing young men whom we came to look on as friends, would also have set up a long table with coffee, tea, Chai (sweet, spiced Indian tea) and beer before we arrived. At mealtimes the table was set with ceramic dishes, metal cutlery and glasses. Like Victorian explorers with their retinues of bearers and cooks we had all our needs taken care of. Meals were cooked and served for us, combinations of mildly flavored, delicately seasoned, vegetables, curries and rice with pappadom, the crisp Indian bread. Every night after dinner we sat round a bonfire, again courtesy of the grooms and tent crew, until bedtime. Several evenings the men performed traditional Rajasthani songs and dances for us. The grooms accompanied us when we were riding, on horseback or in jeeps, and were ready in an instant to take care of any problems with the horses, or with riders in difficulties.

The rest of the time, we stayed in forts and Havelis, which had western style bathrooms. The forts were in small towns and we typically rode in from a narrow street through an arched gateway into the courtyard. Here we dismounted and were individually greeted by the owner, then served the usual tea, chai, coffee or beer. These forts were originally the fortified residences of the local hereditary rulers, Princes and Rajahs who were gradually stripped of their lands after Independence and whose descendants now survive by running the forts as hotels.

If one felt like a Victorian explorer in the tent camps and forts, it was often hard not to feel as if one had been transported to the Middle Ages (without the violence or cruelty). This was particularly so when after riding through the countryside we dismounted inside small Forts and looked down from an upper room on walled areas where our horses were stabled or livestock kept, and where women in saris swept the courtyards and men bustled around like feudal retainers. There was often a peacock on the roof.

Our Rajasthan trip was the second and each trip is tailored to the needs and skills of the riders. The first Rajasthan group, in the Fall of 2004, consisted of young people, and rode fast; ours, with a wider age range and more interest in enjoying the scenery, went at a relatively leisurely pace, although we too often took off at a fast trot, canter or gallop. Our horses, the local Marwari breed, were tough working horses, lean and energetic after a long season of trekking.

Alexander Souri hopes that these trips will provide life-changing experiences for the participants; I suspect that this will be true for me, maybe it already is.

Shirley Campbell

September 2005