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In his former life, Alexander Souri worked as producer in the film industry, helping create movies such as “The Matrix” and “X-Men,” while also directing commercials and even Chinese industrial films. Now, Souri, the son of a French mother and Indian father, runs Relief Riders International, a humanitarian-based adventure travel company that organizes horseback journeys through remote areas in northwestern India while providing aid to local people.
The New York native, who founded Relief Riders in 2004, hopes his voluntourism travel product will offer clients “not only an exhilarating journey, but the chance to use their skills, enthusiasm and experience to promote positive change.”
Souri shared with us a little more about Relief Riders’ approach.
From a pure destination point of view, why should travelers consider one of your tours in India? One of the most pleasing aspects of our rides is that we travel to parts so rural that time has almost stood still — areas where monuments have yet to be discovered by tourists and yet to be registered with any of the Indian historical or heritage societies. There is an India outside of the large cities that is reminiscent of a time gone by, and most travelers to the country never get the opportunity to experience it, as they tend to be shuffled off to the major cosmopolitan cities.
Do your tours attract many U.S. customers? For the last 12 years, 80 percent of our riders have come from the U.S. In the last five years, 50 to 60 percent of each of our rides consisted of alumni riders, who were returning for a second, third, fourth or even fifth time. Most of these repeat riders are from the U.S.
There are several factors as to why American travelers find our rides appealing. First, we are mission-oriented, frequently changing our already-off-the-travel-circuit itinerary and constantly developing purposeful programs that affect positive change in the communities we visit. U.S. travelers have an incredible appeal for adventure and tend to lead the planet in thoughtful and intelligent giving.
The experiential aspect of our rides and programs allows each client to do hands-on work — whether it is working at our dispensary table in one of our free eye- and dental-care camps or giving away a goat to a widow. Being able to witness and be a part of programs they have funded is very moving to our riders.
Why did you start Relief Riders International?One of the most rewarding and magical aspects of travel is its ability to allow one to experience oneself outside of daily patterns or habits. Spending 15 years traveling the planet while working in film and special events allowed me to grow in ways I could not have foreseen.
Being exposed to beautiful cultures, landscapes, social inequalities and poverty moved me and set me on a path to create a mechanism to offer individuals a unique experience that dynamically blends adventure with purpose.
More than a decade later, we have treated some 24,000 patients — of which over 18,000 have been children — delivered goats to more than 500 widows and below-poverty-level individuals or families, offered free cataract surgeries to 2,000 patients, treated more than 6,000 patients for dentistry needs, dug wells and built and plumbed bathrooms for poor schools with little to no sanitation systems.
Why do many of your tours use horses as transportation?Experientially, the horse has an incredible way of offering an intimate perspective on travel, purposefully slowing down time and allowing the rider to absorb and process much more both on a cultural and humanitarian level. The conditions of the roads are also poor, and while we could use jeeps, it would still take three hours to do 40 miles, and the experience would be mechanized and completely different.
What are some of the highlights of your new motorcycle relief ride in January?We are really excited about our Royal Enfield Desert Relief Ride. It will give foreigners the opportunity to ride a new-and-improved but not redesigned Indian classic motorcycle, which was originally based on the British classic by the same name. In a world of artificial intelligence, software control, iPhones and muscled technology, the Royal Enfield gives you the smooth simplicity of what it was like to ride motorcycles in the 1950s.
There is nothing quite like riding from one ancient fort to the next on single-lane roads, village after village. It’s a beautiful, intimate experience along an 1,800 kilometer loop of Rajasthan. On this particular ride, we will dig a well and build bathrooms for a poor desert school in Shekhawati. The group of riders will also participate in our free, eight-hour cataract and dental camp in Alniyawas.
What can you tell us about the accommodations and food on your tours? Our accommodations begin with a four-star hotel stay in Delhi in order to give people the opportunity to ground after long international flights. Most of our rides start at ancient heritage forts, which are mostly family-owned and have been converted into tasteful signature hotel experiences. We use these to stage our logistics both at the start and the end of each of our rides. The remaining 10 to 12 days of our itineraries are spent in simple, large, Swiss tents with comfortable beds, a bathroom with a sit-down flush toilet and a shower tray for bucket baths.
Great care has been taken with the foods we offer on our rides. With hygiene in mind, we offer traditional Indian vegetarian meals for breakfast (porridge, cereal and eggs) and lunch due to a lack of refrigeration. At dinner, we offer chicken or mutton. For lunch and dinner, we also have standard continental offerings such as pasta, fries and steamed vegetables.