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Adventure With a Mission

We have galloped a mile through the Great Thar Desert in Rajasthan, northwest India. I grit my teeth and hug the neck of my sturdy Marwari horse as it races up a steep dune. We pause at the crest. Below is a near-vertical cliff of sand. A wind comes at us sideways, unfurling our group's orange and red flag.

I lean back in my cavalry saddle and test my stirrups. We're going down. I ride the slide. In seconds we're at the bottom of the dune. I wasn't even scared.

But that was Day 7. I didn't start out fearless.

* * *

White cabs, lean dogs and rats as big as hedgehogs. Those are my first impressions of India as I arrive in New Delhi, the first stop on our 15-day relief mission.

Tomorrow our group of nine "voluntourists" will travel 200 miles west to the village of Dundlod, where we will begin our work. For the next two weeks we will ride 15 to 20 miles a day, sleep in tents and stop in five villages to help organize medical clinics and deliver milking goats, school supplies and medicine. Our mounts: rare Marwari horses from the desert region, perhaps the most ancient breed on the planet, said to be descended from a time when horses could fly.

This first night, though, I find myself perusing the pillow menu at New Delhi's Imperial Hotel. Six choices. I narrow it down to horsehair, millet or wheat.

It seems an incongruous beginning to a humanitarian relief mission. Will we be perceived as privileged, pampered Westerners sweeping in on horseback to deliver charity?

Alexander Souri, 36, founder and executive director of the Massachusetts-based Relief Riders International, bristles at the word. Charity implies pity; the origin of the word "relief," he says, is "to raise up." Souri, whose father was an Indian businessman and mother a French racecar driver, sees his rides as a form of "guerrilla voluntourism."

A portion of the fee each rider has paid goes directly to hire doctors, purchase goats, and buy and transport medical and educational supplies. The relief rides, Souri says, are in homage to his late father. He says he has consulted with the Indian Red Cross Society and local leaders to design a program that bypasses bureaucracy and delivers relief directly to needy villagers.

My biggest worry as I'm choosing my pillows: Will I be able to keep up, to ride as much as five hours a day in the desert?

I'm a spry 60 but haven't ridden a horse in three years, not since my husband fell sick and the world began feeling dangerous. I'd given away my flighty mare. I wasn't looking for a trip, especially not a group trip. But this one just found me -- a newspaper clipping slipped under my door by a neighbor just weeks before the trip was to begin. "See the Subcontinent while making a difference," it read. I was hooked by the unique blend of adventure travel and humanitarian service.

The Group

I and the eight other members of our group set out at dawn from our hotel to the desert in a jumbo white bus. Our driver navigates the traffic-choked maze of Delhi, past a policeman in a gas mask, around a big-humped sleeping cow. We turn onto a bumpy highway and head toward Rajasthan, "land of kings."

My worst fears begin to ease as I meet the other riders and discover that we're all over 50, all first-time volunteer tourists and, best of all, I'm not the least experienced or most rusty rider. Leif, a big Swede, has been taking lessons only since last year. Jonathan hasn't ridden since a car accident five years ago. Barry has ridden only a few times. Then again, he looks like someone who could ride a bull.

After hours of driving, we turn onto an even bumpier road. Citrine green parrots flit among gnarled trees that have just a fringe of leaves at the top. An owl hunches on an acacia branch. After miles of sandy hillocks, silver thorn bushes and scrub, we reach an irrigated section of desert, with iridescent green fields of blooming mustard.

Our bus grinds to a stomach-lurching stop to let a herd of brown and taffy-spotted goats cross the road. The red-turbaned goatherd is thin as a stick.

Barry gets out a camera to take pictures. I ask about his photography. He tells me about shooting sharks. "From a cage?" I ask. "No, outside. You can't get a good shot from a cage."

I am definitely out of my league.

Meet the Fort Master

Once a trading post on the grand caravan route, the town of Dundlod is now at the back of beyond, yet still lively. Camel, bullock and donkey carts rumble over cobblestones. Motorbikes swerve around sacred cows. Tinkers and tailors ply their trade against sherbet-colored adobe walls. Businessmen who went off with the caravans in the 1800s came home to build mansions called havelis and commissioned artists to paint them with frescoes. Now the walls are crumbling, the paintings of gods, goddesses, warriors and animals almost transparent. Yet the town retains a patina of faded splendor.

Ahead are a moat and a huge arched door. The terra-cotta fort was built centuries ago to protect the Marwari, an Indo-Aryan people, from the onslaught of Mogul hordes. Our bus clears the entrance by inches. We are met by fort master "Bonnie" Singh, of noble descent, member of the tall warrior caste Rajput. Wearing full dress whites with gold epaulets, he carries the title of thakur , a local lord in the land of kings. His family for years has been hosting upscale horse and camel safaris.

Rajasthan has always maintained a unique semi-independent status in India. It was never fully conquered, and that shows in the character of its inhabitants, especially the Marwaris of this "land of death" Shekhawati region. Chivalry, honor and pride go back thousands of years. These were the men and women who committed mass suicide rather than suffer defeat at the hand of the Moguls.

Inside the fort, four horses mounted by turbaned flag bearers flank cannons on either side of a grand red-carpeted staircase. These Marwari horses are famous for bringing their riders home from battle and for their curiously curved ears. They are smaller than I'd imagined. Not ponies, just very compact. Part of me is relieved -- I won't have so far to fall.

Tabla drums begin to beat. Souri, our group leader, comes down the stairs dressed in vintage jodhpurs, tall brown boots, linen shirt with Nehru collar and felt hat right out of "Indiana Jones." Souri personally leads each of Relief Riders' three annual expeditions. He has preceded us, choosing mounts to match our levels of experience. I am assigned Durga, named for an 18-armed goddess of power. In Hindu mythology, horses were winged deities superior to man. Only royal warriors could ride them.

I go with my new roommate, Sunny, a professor at Harvard Medical School, to the outer court to see the three camels that will pull our supply carts. They are tattooed with our mission symbol: a circle in a circle. I keep a respectful distance. I've known a few camels. There is nothing cute about a camel. No one ever asks a camel's name.

Souri has told us we can ride in a camel cart if we get too saddle-sore. When I see the camel carts in the corner of the yard, I know I'm in trouble. They are rickety, slatted affairs on big awkward wheels with no shade or seats, something Fred Flintstone might ride. I'll be better off on horseback.

Sunset Ride

For our ceremonial first ride, we are presented with necklaces of marigolds. A Hindu priest blesses each of us by daubing red paste on our foreheads and tying red strings on our right wrists. We are not to remove them for 41 days lest we bring on bad luck.

My mare, Durga, has large luminous eyes, a velvety Roman nose and one white sock. Her coat is fine, like silk, not like horsehair at all. The furry ears remind me of a rabbit. They curve like the sides of a lyre or a sickle, almost overlapping at the top.

The horses are nervous. I mount, and we skitter around the field. The ears, part of the animal's adaptation to the desert, are unique among horses. They swivel in all directions, enabling the horses to avoid sand and giving them uncanny hearing.

We're off. The cavalry saddle's stiff edges rub my inner thighs. It's worse when I try to post.

Schoolchildren in blue shirts watch us with wide eyes outlined with what looks like kohl. Someone tells me it is linseed oil mixed with lampblack used to ward off diseases; desert sand and sun are harsh on eyes. Many here have cataracts by age 50; they become a burden to their families and a danger to themselves. Relief Riders' Give the Gift of Sight clinics provide cataract and lens implantation surgery to as many as 100 villagers on each ride.

My stirrups are too long, my marigolds flopping around my neck. I know that Marwaris have a smooth fifth gear, a gait called the revaal . I seem to be in second.

Our laconic horse master, Arvin, smiles and asks sweetly, "Is everyone ready for a trot?" The horses react as if he had pressed the starting buzzer. Trotting quickly escalates to a gallop. I am being pelted with sand from the pack ahead.

"Single file," Arvin shouts. Single file becomes helter-skelter as our horses take their own routes: around trees, past silver thorn bushes, across sand honeycombed with slanting rodent holes. Parrots squawk and scatter at our approach.

I've never galloped so far in my life. I'm up in my stirrups now, saving my back. Finally I remember to breathe.

A sudden turn in the lane ahead, lean left, avoid that rock -- phew! I am red-faced when we pull to a stop at the top of a dune. This is what they call trotting?

I can hear my heart pounding in my chest. The desert absorbs sound. It is so quiet my body becomes noisy.

Three hours, five miles and one sunset later, we reenter Dundlod, guided by a full orange moon. Villagers hurry out of houses to see our brigade pass. "Hello, hello," we say. They smile shyly and say "Goodbye." I wonder if that's how the Beatles song got written.

Back at the fort, a wood fire is blazing in a pit. Someone offers a tray of hot, spicy papadum. Homemade garlic soup is served and then an array of curries in silver dishes, and buttery nan hot off the coals. The meal ends with an ambrosial sweet and chai.

The Mission

Remember, you are in India, and time flows differently, Souri tells us as the fire burns down. Over the next two weeks, we must be flexible and ready to adapt. This ride is not mere travel but also a journey, unscripted beyond its fixed dates for medical clinics, school visits and goat distributions. It will be what we make it. Each of us must find the ride we have already in us.

We will be joined at tomorrow's clinic by a team of doctors and dentists from Jaipur and a troupe of actors to perform an interactive AIDS-awareness skit. We will not run out of medicine, but the villagers might think we will run out. There might be some crowding. We must try to embrace the confusion.

"So, who wants to get up at dawn and help pack the Red Cross caravan?" Several eager hands wave.

We hear music from the town and are told that a Hindu wedding is underway. "Does anyone want to go?" Souri offers. Several people nod. Souri rises. "I'll just go see what I can arrange."

My room smells of marigolds. I crawl under a thick duvet, fall asleep and dream of horses.

The next morning we set up the makings of a mobile clinic at Goyenka Hospital, the first of three medical clinics on this ride. There is already a long line of patients when our doctors arrive. I have volunteered for the registration table and hastily enter patient information in a logbook, barely taking time to look up until my translator tells me that the next patient is 60. I stop to look. My counterpart in age looks 20 years older, wrinkled, with betel nut-stained teeth. She gives me a craggy smile. "Complaint?" She smiles and points at the red nubs of her decayed teeth.

Tomorrow we ride into the desert and our first tent camp. We are all up by 6 a.m. Our flag bearer is still winding his orange turban as we prepare to mount. By afternoon we arrive at a school where children are waiting to sing and dance in our honor. When the performance is over, we roll up our sleeves and run a deworming clinic. My job: Count and break open pill capsules.

We camp in yellow tents pitched in a field by dunes. Inside each tent, two cots are made up with thick comforters; a tiny bar of pink soap sits atop thin towels.

Water is being heated in caldrons for our hot-water bucket baths. Curries simmer in stew pots, and dining tables are set up around the campfire. Children gather on the hillside to gape at our luxuries. I grab a towel and head for one of the two mobile washrooms. After dinner I get my first ayurvedic massage from our camp doctor and am instantly addicted.

Our days take on a rhythm. We ride in the morning and the evening. In between: school, clinic or goat distribution. The milking goats have been purchased from local shepherds and are given to the poorest villagers. I learn how to lead a goat -- by the ear.

On the long riding days between camps, we stop and do what the locals normally do -- sleep in the midday sun. The villages fall behind us: Kumas, Sotwara, Meetwas, Thimoli.

At the poorest school, in Thimoli, a child applies red puja blessings to our foreheads. The mayor presents thin chains of mustard blooms. A tiny girl in a dusty green ruffled dress dances barefoot, bells on her ankles. A boy with a pure angelic voice sings a solo. We riders, in turn, sing to them, "Doe, a Deer," in two-part harmony.

Knight to Castle

We have been a fortnight in the desert and have traveled more than 100 miles from the stronghold of Dundlod to the fortress of Mahansar. We have given away five dozen goats, distributed two tons of supplies to 1,200 schoolchildren and helped treat some 700 patients. Later today we will register another 500 people for eye exams. It's estimated that 100 of these will need and receive cataract or lens implantation surgery tomorrow.

In the distance as we ride, I sight the ramparts of the fortress. Sand becomes cobblestone. We clatter into town, past an ominous green lagoon and a turquoise villa with a banner reading: Relief Riders International Eye Clinic.

I pat Durga's silky neck as we enter the medieval courtyard of Narayan Niwas Castle. Huge spikes protrude from the top of the giant wooden door -- anti-elephant barriers. Too soon, after the eye operations are done, we will be boarding a bus to Jaipur. In the Pink City we will walk in the Palace of Winds, dine at a maharani's palace and sleep in a hotel. On our last two days, we will be ordinary tourists. Back in Mahansar, the eye bandages will just be coming off.

I will miss the Great Thar and its warm winds and gaunt khejri trees. I will miss the nights in our butter-yellow tents lit by candles, the sky swarming with stars. I will miss the dunes and the endorphins flooding my body and the sound of my heart beating in the desert.

This trip has been anything but ordinary. Each of us has found the ride we had already in us, brought with us through dreams and time. A fortnight in the desert. It feels as if I've been gone for a thousand and one nights. Yet I know, when I get home, people will say, "Are you back already?"

By Pamela West
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 10, 2006


Please click here for the actual article on The Washington Post

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