I’ve decided to add a new element to the blog. I will be posting occasional interviews with people I’ve met who are “Agents of Change,” folks who have done or are doing astounding work making a difference in lives or sometimes providing the structure and opportunity for us to make a difference. I hope you’ll find them as inspiring as I do.
This first is with Alexander Souri, the founder of Relief Riders International and Relief Workers International. Full disclosure: I did a Relief Ride with Alexander in the desert of Rajasthan, India, where 14 of us traveled on horseback to deliver school and medical supplies, helped at free medical camps and cataract eye surgery camps, and delivered milking goats to poor families. In my field of travel writing, the description “life-changing” is bandied about loosely, but I could not be more sincere when I say this trip changed my life. (a stream of consciousness account of that trip can be found here: www.andrewmersmann.blogspot.com) That experience plays a huge part in what I am doing right now…
INTERVIEW: ALEXANDER SOURI, RELIEF RIDERS INTERNATIONAL, RELIEF WORKERS INTERNATIONAL
Mission Statement: Relief Riders International (RRI) is a humanitarian-based, adventure travel company that organizes horseback journeys through breathtaking areas in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, India.
Over the last four years Relief Riders International has held seven successful Relief Rides. During this period we were able to design and develop far reaching medical and educational programs providing school supplies, goats, medical care and cataract surgeries to rural communities in Rajasthan.
To date, our medical programs have given us the opportunity to treat over 15,000 villagers, including 7,800 children.
Building on the success of these programs we are always researching new ways to provide effective medical care to rural areas. Relief Riders International is pleased to introduce our free Dental Surgery Program. Villagers will be able to receive free dental care and minor surgeries on our Relief Rides scheduled for the winter of 2010.
This past year was spent launching Relief Workers International (RWI) offering a different travel experience while incorporating the same humanitarian programs without the use of horses.
WHAT POSSESSED YOU? THERE MUST HAVE BEEN EASIER THINGS TO START—WHY THIS?
Firstly it all had to do with where I was at in my life. I’d reached a point where I had been lucky enough to travel the world and do all sorts of colorful and interesting jobs—but there was no alignment. I was an observer and could do this skill here and that skill there, but it didn’t add up. I realized there was much more to life than what I was living. Mostly I looked to provide an opportunity to help other people, to give back, to start taking care of the planet, the place I lived. I started the journey of unraveling a wonderful childhood—no negativity or bad experiences—but unraveling the conventions of …childhood…getting back to myself. It was the real reason of me starting these trips. It’s been a five-year journey and it’s still continuing and it’s wondrous.
If we go into finding out why this, why did I try to create this experience, it has also to do with my sense of freedom. I have an interest in being free, both in the mind and the body and also on the planet. Being able to jump out of the mainstream and say I’d really love to go to a beautiful place and see if anybody needs help, and if so, create a system to provide that. It’s part of what I am, the archetype, the ability to jump on a horse or a motorcycle or [pilot] a plane always gives me a sense of replenishment and nourishment.
I LOVE THAT. FOR MANY PEOPLE, THE IDEA OF JUMPING ON A HORSE OR MOTORCYCLE OR PLANE SEEMS LIKE A WAY OF RUNNING AWAY OR ESCAPING, BUT YOU KEEP GOING BACK TO THAT FOR ENERGY, TO BE REFUELED.
Exactly—I think it goes back to the old Vedic texts and thoughtlessness. To be thoughtless as I ride through the woods or on a small backroad on my motorcycle or to fly through an incredible landscape. Those particular moments provide a thoughtlessness, not an irresponsible thoughtlessness but a mindlessness of being able to experience nature without being manipulated by “me.”
WHAT OBSTACLES ALONG THE WAY ALMOST STOPPED YOU?
It’s a great question and I have to take a moment—three or two years ago I would have answered it completely differently. Given where I am and how I feel, I really think it can be answered by saying that the only obstacle in my way was pretty much myself. That was a gift to figure out and address. When you see what we have to do to get a relief mission done, you might say, “Wow, I can’t imagine what it takes to put this together,” but in the end it is really all just details. The biggest obstacle was believing. The dream was so big and my enthusiasm was so great in the beginning that I qualified for it initially—but that’s just getting in the game—it doesn’t mean you’re going to function. Being able to address my own obstacles was a real privilege. There were obstacles that made me stop at times, but really it was just being able to be with that and move on and watch as they disappear.
WHEN PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER, DID FAMILY AND FRIENDS SUPPORT YOU OR THINK YOU WERE NUTS?
I think I was supported with disbelief. All my life I’ve come home with projects, and my mom and my dad would look at me in stunned disbelief, “You’re going to do THAT? OK…” My father was really cool and told me he’d support me in anything. I remember I was wanting to go scuba diving when I was 12 and my mom said “No, absolutely no way.”
My dad said, “Look, let him go. He’s got to have that experience.”
Finally in the end I was allowed to do it…and other things. I crossed the Atlantic four times in a single-engine [plane] when my parents were living in France and I showed up there at four in the morning, and my mom was stunned and crying that I had done that. There is total love and support, AND there is total disbelief. Not in a negative sense, but just the worrying and care, so on a family level…my sister works for the U.N. so she scrutinized the details more and wanted to know, “Are you sure you’re going to be able to do that?” She knew what I was getting into and was really supportive.
As far as friends, I’ve had a history of working on wonderful projects in film and special events and others, so I’m constantly changing…themes. People tend to say, “Well, what’s on the plate today, Alex?” I came back from my research trip to India in November 2003 and I remember saying to a friend “Hey, I’m working on this project—I’m going to ride horses through the desert and help people who need help. Poor people. Bring them medicine and food” He looked at me and said, “That’s great. Why don’t you call me when you wake up.”
It’s interesting—I think people really want to wish you well and support you, but the fear is when they put themselves in your shoes. You’ve come along with your intuition and all the steps down the path, but they don’t have that. They instantly put themselves into the idea and think, “Oh my God, where would I start?” But they don’t have the benefit of all you’ve already put into it.
Professionally I also had incredible support—people gave their time and effort for free because they believed in it. It was humbling to watch their experience of being a part…people want to help somebody as much as I do. We were pioneering something. Being able to say, “Look, this is all possible.” Doing the trips is important, but as important is sharing the fact that it can be done.
ANY ADVICE FOR OTHERS WANTING TO CREATE A SERVICE ORGANIZATION OR CHARITABLE EFFORT?
Just do it. If you think you don’t know enough now—you can easily change that by just doing it. Small, great ideas that come up are people-based expression where you don’t get lost in a huge corporate current and lose your identity. This kind of thing comes from you. We just need to unravel the layers. It goes deep down into yourself to figure out what will benefit the planet. What do I have to let go of to make sure what I’m feeling is creating a natural, positive effect? Go out, do it, it’s all a learning experience. I had no idea…I came from special effects and then was riding horses in the desert and dealing with politicians and tour outfitters and the Red Cross and dealing with life…
IS THERE AN IDEAL CLIENT FOR AN RRI/RWI TRIP?
I don’t approach work that way. I feel like somebody found me and had the courage to come on one of these trips—it’s my responsibility to open it up to them as best I can. I’m fortunate that most of the clients who have come on my trips have become great friends. I never look at the “perfect client.” Being at all these Adventure Travel summits and conventions and meeting all these adventure travel consultants, I always get asked, “Who is your demographic?” Thankfully it’s really a mix of wildly interesting people with a common purpose. Certainly there are some attributes that brought them to the place of being willing to set sail and say “I want to have a new, inspiring experience that will shift my perspective and allow me to open up.”
IF NOT THIS, WHAT? (WHAT MIGHT YOU BE DOING IF NOT RRI AND RWI?)
To date this has been incredible. I’ve wanted to work on great projects and somehow they’ve manifested. They don’t just pop up magically—I set my intention and go after them, and there are blocks and challenges, but they do happen, and I’m exceedingly grateful for that. On a certain level I’d like to be like a Sadhu, on a horse, that just roams the planet. I guess I have this modern day version of it. I’m always curious about those Sadhus and the ascetic monks of India—the sense of freedom that they have…they just eat and breathe and they’re just kind to people who come up to them and offer words of wisdom. I think that would be cool. That or the Richard Branson kind of Let’s-do-projects, let’s-make-it-happen way that is so unconventional. I love people and humanity and what humanity can become—I like being part of that.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BEST REWARD FOR THE WORK YOU DO?
It’s dimensional. Initially and still to this day, one of the most powerful experiences was to look at a concept in my mind, and then to be traveling on horseback, and to have done our first medical camp and have a woman come into camp with a 6-month-old baby with an infected laceration on the baby’s back. Being there, not knowing what to do but knowing it was critical, and calling the doctor…she’d covered the baby’s wound with a rag dirtier than a mechanic’s rag…and being able to offer that baby antibiotics—to shift that baby’s opportunity and circumstances in life. To grasp that I could have just driven by this concept from the outside and looked and said, “Sure—that’s a great idea…” But we were doing it. It can reduce me to tears every time—the largeness of the collective effort. To just open up to that.
One of the things…I get hundreds and hundreds of emails and messages from people that don’t know how to ride horses—cannot come to India, but profoundly thank me for what this is and what is being written that allows them to see something in a different way. That’s very healing that people are inspired.