Sandunes and Starlight: 200 Kilometers on Horseback through Rajasthan
As the lucky recipient of the first-ever “Social Entrepreneur Scholarship” offered by Relief Riders International, I had the opportunity to travel to India to see their adventure and philanthropic programs first-hand. I’ve followed the work and efforts of Alexander Souri for years since both humanitarian pursuits and India are strong passions of mine, and I was thrilled for the chance to join the February 2013 Bikaner trip.
I have a history of global activism and have spent large chunks of the past two decades overseas documenting and advocating for a wide array of causes: child brides in Afghanistan, Unexploded Ordinances in Laos, access to clean water in Kenya, and most recently the childbirth injury of Obstetric Fistula in Ethiopia. I’ve traveled to Ethiopia 3 times in the past 3 years working to support women who have suffered the consequences, through no fault of their own, of prolonged, obstructed labor. I’ve met women who have been in childbirth for 1-2 tortuous weeks at a time. Results for them are tragic: loss of their babies, permanent incontinence, rejection from families and communities, public humiliation and isolation.
These women and their stories have captured my heart, and with the generous support of donors and like-minded global citizens I’ve worked to envision, fundraise, construct, and implement a hydro-powered grinding mill in the western village of Begi. The mill itself serves about 3,200 people and grinds grain like wheat, barley, corn, and tef. Rural women in the area use the mill to avoid doing the backbreaking work of grinding grain by hand. Proceeds from the mill support the fragile population of fistula patients through sustainable and ongoing income generation projects that allow them to regain some of their independence and to forge new beginnings of hope and self-reliance.
Over $15,000 has been raised to date, the mill is completed and fully operational, and the first fistula patients have received small flocks of sheep and lambs. For the first time, the women’s smiles are returning. It is from this work that I received the Social Entrepreneur Scholarship from Relief Riders.
Before the Bikaner ride I had been on a horse only a handful of times: once in Girl Scouts many years ago, another time at summer camp in early high school, an afternoon in the Pantanol wetlands in Brazil in 2001 after which I walked like John Wayne for a week. Upon hearing of the scholarship, the reality of riding 200 km through the Thar Desert began to sink in. I’m not one to shy away from an adventure, but 8-10 hours a day on horseback? I found a local tack shop, outfitted myself with boots, half-chaps, a helmet, two pairs of breeches, gloves, and riding socks. I took 3 riding lessons at a nearby barn with a gentle gray horse named Smokey. Then, three days later, I flew to Delhi.
Relief Riders provides a mix of first-rate and boutique hotels at the beginning and end of their rides with a desert, off-the-beaten-path experience of rural life and magnificent tented camps in between. A friendly young man from Indo Asia Tours met me at the airport in the wee morning hours. After 22 hours of flying from Seattle I was grateful for a hot bath and a soft bed at the other end of that journey. Over the next 36 hours I met my lovely French roommate and the rest of our group, had an interesting and thoughtful city tour of Delhi (which was significantly cleaner and less frenetic than my memories from 12 years ago), and boarded an overnight train to Bikaner, the launch point of our horse adventure.
Alexander met us at the Bikaner train station, having gone ahead to make arrangements. We caravanned to the beautiful Heritage Hotel of Bikaner where we were offered lovely marigold necklaces and bright green cocktails upon our arrival. Red stone cottages clustered amid brightly colored flowers and an oval swimming pool. For the first time, our whole group came together for our inaugural meals and introductory conversations. In addition to the 9 participants from the USA, UK, and France we met our Indian comrades: Dr. Mahesh Arora, a full time staff and physician with Relief Riders; Ranveer Singh, leader of the “Scenic” (beginning) riding group; Ajit, owner of the herd of our Marwari desert horses, and Abiraj, from Indo Asian Tours.
The first afternoon in Bikaner we took our maiden ride on the horses. I rode Tulsi, a dark, one-eared mare with a white blaze. I tried not to be terrified, gave reassuring pats and sent kind thoughts to Tulsi, steered clear of the stallions and horses that kicked. My main recollections of that first ride are mainly of self-preservation, but we were all finding our place, people and horses included. The grooms held harnesses and adjusted stirrup lengths; saddle bags were buckled, sunscreen reapplied. I practiced walking Tulsi, turned right and left, felt her response to more tension or ease in the reins. Eventually, we were off.
The afternoon stretched open with blue sky and sand. Tulsi and I picked our way nervously past Acacia trees with their wicked thorns, stayed behind the other riders with their enthusiasm and obvious experience. Our group was split into two quadrants: an advanced group and a scenic one. I felt grateful for the latter, for the gradual increases of trust and competency that unfolded over subsequent days. It helped that the first ride was finite, just a couple of hours, and it helped to learn straightaway that horses and camel carts don’t mix well (especially camel carts with blaring radios on a tightly-enclosed trail lined with Acacia thorns.) Tulsi and I hugged the side of the track and managed to avoid the fracas of rearing horses, and by the time we circled back to our beginning spot across the street from the Bikaner Hotel, beneath the orange-blossomed Rohida trees, I was disappointed the ride was over.
The next morning we left for real. Stakes felt higher; it was a full day in the saddle. It was particularly picturesque in the morning: huts made of clay and sticks dotted the dunes, fuzzy-footed, long-lashed camels eyed us from the ends of their ropes, men in turbans and women in jewel-toned saris moved through their days of herding and washing. We passed several villages filled with smiling children, barking dogs, and the precarious hulk of water buffalos lumbering around the communal water troughs. The landscape was beautiful, but it took all of my concentration to focus on Tulsi. I couldn’t have managed my camera too.
As the sun blazed overhead, I began to wilt. My back grew tired. A triangle at my throat flamed red where my shirt didn’t cover and my sunscreen had inadvertently missed. We rode nearly 4 hours before lunchtime. What had I gotten myself into?
The lunch stop, when we finally arrived, brought welcome relief. Two young men in tall white hats stood proudly behind a long table with a crisp cloth and a dozen covered, silver containers of curries and vegetables, chana daal and rice, chai and chapattis, cool drinks. It was a marvel. After eating, I flopped down on a large, red blanket with a few of the other riders. Some chose sun, others shade. Most lay for an hour where we fell.
Back on Tulsi in the late afternoon, I felt every muscle. I wondered if it were easier for the others to spend 8+ hours on a horse in a single day. The Indian sky seemed to stretch out forever. Tulsi and I tried trotting, but she was keen to canter which left both of us breathless and frustrated. My body protested, my knees ached. I was hungry and irritable. The rose glow of the sun slid behind the distant hills and then, off in the distance, we saw what seemed to be a town of white buildings.
Riding closer, we caught the first glimpse of our tented camp. It looked like something straight out of Tales of the Arabian Nights. Half a dozen huge, cream-colored tents rose out of the sand, each one marked with a flickering, welcoming lantern. Rarely have I been so glad to arrive anywhere! I slid off of Tulsi, handed her over to the smiling groom, and hobbled toward the tent I was to share with Sandrine.
What a tent! Opening the flap, I was thrilled by the red flooring, painted canvas walls, real beds with pretty coverlets and blankets, and a separate bathroom nook complete with an actual flush toilet, porcelain sink, and a bathing alcove with a bucket of hot water steaming in the chilling air. I felt giddy, and better still after a warm bucket bath, clean clothes, and a dinner of soup, cauliflower, potatoes, and spinach, and spicy Papadam, and some triumphant conversations around the campfire.
Relief Riders structures its schedule with riding approximately 35 km every-other day and “rest” days of humanitarian programs in between. We stayed 2 nights at each tented camp to give us and the 35 members of the local staff looking after us a slight break from their herculean effort of logistically arranging tents, trucks, supplies, hot water, 3 home-cooked meals a day, and support for our beautiful band of Marwari horses. Their attention to detail and hospitality was a marvel.
Our first day of humanitarian programs included a short 2 km ride into Deshnok to a school of around 200 children, 16 of them girls. Alexander introduced the 8 of us with funny, exaggerated descriptions that made the children laugh. We demonstrated proper hand washing techniques, gave out Vitamin A pills, sporting equipment, and school supplies. Eager-faced children in blue and white uniforms sat in rows until it was their time to come forward for their pencil kit and blank writing and drawing books. Some children wanted to shake hands or get autographs. All of them were curious at their visitors!
Throughout the Bikaner ride we visited 4 different schools and interacted with 1300 children. Seeing their enthusiasm and hearing their questions and ways of learning was a real highlight of the trip.
One of the other humanitarian programs was a Give-a-Goat program to assist rural villagers living below the $22 per month poverty level. The recipients were often elderly people or widows. Women in India are considered unlucky and are sometimes blamed for the deaths of their husbands. We held 2 Give-a-Goat programs in Deshnok and Mukam, providing 9 goats at a time. I enjoyed the interaction with the people, seeing their smiles and showing them their photos on the back of my digital camera. It was heartening to imagine their lives being made a bit easier through an additional income source of milk or cheese from their new goat.
Our main humanitarian program was a full day health clinic held in the town of Kakku. Members of our group participated in an array of activities: checking in the men and women who had come for dental treatments or eye screenings, helping with a Fluorosis study since the region has a naturally-occurring excess of fluoride in the water which causes various health issues, working at the prescription table with Dr. Arora handing out items like anti-inflammatories, rehydration salts, sterile bandages, antibiotics, and pain medicine. A team of Indian dentists from Jaipur screened and took care of the dental patients and performed teeth extractions, root canals, scaling, fillings, and other minor surgeries. Throughout the course of the day, 109 patients were offered dental services.
In another building an eye surgical team screened the locals for cataracts and also provided prescription glasses for those who needed them. 426 patients registered for the eye camp, but on that particular day only 21 qualified for actual cataract surgery. Later in the day we traveled to the eye clinic where the surgeries are held, met with the doctors and staff, and saw the process of pre- and post-op as well as having the opportunity to watch an actual cataract surgery. In addition to the screening and the surgery itself Relief Riders provides food and lodging for the patient’s family or chaperone so they can stay the 2-3 days that the patient is admitted at the clinic.
Over the course of the 2013 Bikaner Ride we traveled nearly 200 km on horseback through the Thar Desert. Favorite moments include cantering up and down the dunes under the wide open blue skies of Rajasthan, sharing shy smiles with the women and children, growing my riding capacity with Tulsi and another wonderful horse named Khajana, and spending time with the other members of our diverse and well-traveled group.
Our final day of riding took us through more amazing dunes that warmed to gold in the late afternoon light. Our “scenic” group had developed some cohesion, and all of us felt the triumph and fluidity of cantering toward the setting sun. Just before arriving at the stunning 16th century Khimsar Fort, we walked our horses through the local village. Both sides of the bustling street were filled with tiny shops: whirring sewing machines, piles of fruit and grain, barbers, bolts of fabric, tools and scaffolding. Camels, goats and water buffalo wandered freely, carts and bicycles wove in and out, garbage and sewage ran across the rough ground, and the bells and whistles and horns that 10 days before would have filled me with dread now just seeped into my senses as a multi-dimensional blaze of rural India.
A few minutes later we reached the Fort, and the horses stepped over the metal grating of the entrance into another world. A long, curving driveway lined with palms and flowers unfurled in a royal welcome that seemed to say, “You made it! 200 km on horseback, and now you’re HERE!” The last wash of pink across the sky began to fade to a deep purple rimmed with stars. Above the trees a cacophony of crows rose like smoke, and I felt an odd prick of tears at the realization that I’d really made it.
Our scenic group of beginners was the first to arrive, but then there came the others. There was my kind-eyed groom who had faithfully helped me on and off my horse day after day, who had smiled and waved at me from the jeep that passed us every couple of hours, and who with–despite a lack of similar language- I had developed a mutual affection and respect.
A wide palette of emotions washed over me as I finally climbed down off of the back of Khajana, “Treasure:” exhilaration, fatigue, relief, sadness, awe, and ultimately gratitude. We had all made it safely, we had amazing tales to tell, and off in the darkness over the kilometers we had already traveled, others were sharing stories too, about us.
I lay my hand against Khajana’s muscled neck for the last time, hugged the groom and the others who had worked so hard, and with tears stinging my eyes turned away from the silhouette of palms and horses toward the promise of a hot shower.