He tells us about his latest 1,800km humanitarian motorcycle adventure
ALEXANDER Souri is the Founder & Executive Director of the humanitarian adventure-travel company Relief Riders International (RRI) and in January he launches his first ever motorcycling trip.
Relief Riders International has already been running horse-riding trips through remote areas in India, but these trips are more than just an adventure – attendees actually get to provide humanitarian aid to local people.
Alexander designs and supervises each relief mission and coordinates work of the core team.
He was born in New York, to a French mother and an Indian father, and has always had a global perspective on life. As a young boy he was educated at a boarding school in India and he continues to travel there frequently.
Riders on the inaugural motorcycle relief ride will be on 500cc Royal Enfield bikes and will ride on an all-encompassing tour of the Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s a 1,800 km road trip, spanning most of the length and breadth of the land of the Maharajas. Riders will travel through the Aravalli Mountains on stunning serpentine-snaking roads leading to the Thar Desert’s single lane rural desert roads.
The work of RRI fits in nicely with the current trend of ‘voluntourism’, and offers motorcyclists (and horse riders) an adventure in India while also being able to give something back.
We caught up with Alexander to hear a little bit more about how RRI started and his plans for the future.
Alexander, when did you first get in to motorcycling?
“Having partially grown up in France. I was, at a very early age introduced to Mopeds, and by the age of 16, and much to my families dismay I somehow managed to come home with a Honda CB 500. A fairly large motorcycle for a young lad! I managed to convince an older friend of mine to lend it to me for the summer as he would be in the French Navy for a year tending to his military service requirement.
“What really sealed the deal for my motorcycle passion was a couple of serendipitously notable events through my first job out of college. I got hired to be a Musical Director/Orchestra Conductor’s assistant based off of an intense conversation (which started off with “What are you doing with your life?” that took place in a supermarket isle).
“The long and the short of it is that a couple of months later I convinced the musical director to produce a benefit fundraiser whose theme was an art gallery, and aptly named “Art For Music” where we would sell the art of well known artists to donors, which would in turn raise funds for the orchestra. It was my idea, and my first producorial event. I was 20. As one could imagine, I had no idea what I was doing, yet somehow it all worked out.
“Towards the end of the night of the opening party, the vice president of our local bank approached me, and remarkably asked me “What do you want to do with your life?” Having heard some version of that a few months back in a supermarket isle, and being completely euphoric by the success of the fundraiser that evening, I responded by saying, “It’s funny that you ask. Right now I would like to buy a 1968 Harley Davidson Electra Glide (the old Police motorcycles) and ship it to France this coming summer where I will resell it for a small fortune.” I had recently spent a year attending college in Paris, and Harley’s were in vogue everywhere in Europe. They were fetching unusually high prices. He responded by unflinchingly saying, “Come see me in my office on Monday morning”. I had no idea what to expect.
“What ensued, was that he co-signed the loan that gave me the opportunity to buy the motorcycle and ship it to France. Organising the freighting logistics was a remarkable journey to say the least. I won’t mention the paperwork involved, but I will share with you my memory of putting what seemed like the world’s largest crate containing my motorcycle onto the smallest pick up truck known to man.
“The three hour drive down to JFK airport, was seemingly (at that point in my life) the adventure of a life time where sneezing or a butterfly’s flatulence, somewhere on the other side of the planet ran the risk of toppling this little truck over. I flew on a direct flight from New York to Nice, France with my crated Harley Davidson below me in the cargo hold. There is nothing quite like that feeling, of a mixture of disbelief and a whole lot of inspired wonder as to how my summer was to magically unfold.
“Once I had cleared customs, and picked up my bags, I headed over to the cargo customs office, took care of the needful paperwork, uncrated my motorcycle, topped it off with gas, and drove off with the customs officers allowing me to store my bags in their office till I could come back later that afternoon to pick them up with a car. They actually waved at me while I rode off. Life was different back then. Keep in mind 9/11 was 11 years away and you probably could have sold hot dogs from a hot dog stand inside the customs hanger without a license, and be truly appreciated for the effort.
“I rode my heart out that summer, practically pinching myself at every kilometre marker along the way. Driving at all hours of the day and night, up and down the French and Italian rivieras for the next three months having the time of my life.
“In the end, I was not able to sell the motorcycle for the amount that I had originally expected. In matter of fact I was lucky to have sold it for the cost of the motorcycle, and close to what the whole three months had cost me, allowing me to re-pay the loan back, and most importantly, keep true to the promise I made to the vice president of the bank.
“What I was left with, and unknowingly at the time, was my first experience with Alchemical gold. The affirmation of stepping out of the main stream, connecting to a passion, and willing it to fruition, this, and meeting and acknowledging all of the important characters or gatekeepers along the way. The people who showed up at the right time and place, and who held the gate open, but for a little bit, only giving you a hint of a direction, and a sense that you had to take that chance, all the while making sure that it was your decision to make, would in turn be the first steps that led me to where I am at today with Relief Riders International.”
How did RRI first come about?
“Relief Riders International was founded in 2004 with a unique mission to combine an extraordinary adventure travel experience with the opportunity for our travelers to deliver life-changing medical care, educational supplies, and livestock to below poverty level villagers in Rajasthan, India. Both the riders and our rural Rajasthani friends are transformed by the experience. Since 2004, Relief Riders International to date has delivered much needed aid to rural India and has helped more than 24,700 people, of which 18,400 were children. In 2010 we unexpectedly received the United National NGO Positive Peace Award, for which we felt very honoured.”
Which countries have you ridden motorcycles in?
“I have ridden motorcycles in France, Italy, Turkey, India and the USA.
Will you offer Relief Rides in any other countries? For example, Nepal?
“We are currently in the planning and development stages of designing a couple of new horseback Relief Rides. We are currently setting our sites on South America. The first being a hybrid ride that will have us travel through both the Andean and Amazonian areas Ecuador, and the second that will take us further down the continent, possibly to Chile or Argentina. As for our motorcycle Relief Ride offerings, we are in the development stages for a Himalayan Relief Ride on 500cc Royal Enfields.
Tell me your best memory/experience from the past 11 years of running RRI?
“That is truly a difficult question to answer. It’s just like asking a parent to choose their favourite child. So many of my most powerful and meaningful experiences, have happened throughout my 11 year experience with Relief Riders International. I say this because so much of me has matured through the years, what seemingly was one of the most powerful experience 11 years, ago weaves itself into a larger, more elaborate part of my over arching experience with RRI, which only renders my latest experiences with RRI more vibrant and magical.
“I will answer your question in more detail, with an experience that happened 12 years ago, at the end of my first medical camp. During the first four years of our Relief Rides, we would perform three eight hour medical camps on each Relief Ride. These medical camps would offer free treatments by six medical specialists consisting of a General Physician, an Ear Nose and Throat specialist, a Gynecologist, a Pediatrician, an Ophthalmologist and a Dentist.
“Pandemonium, dust, anxiety, lots of noise and an ocean of people would make up the ambience of our medical camps. I remember having to send a rescue party for the four riders sitting at both the men and women’s patient registration table. The riders at these tables would take down the name, age and ailment of the patients, and these tables took the brunt of the medical camps energy, as every patient had to be registered. The riders spent most of the day surrounded by anxious patients six people deep on all sides, impatient and worried that they would not get treated. At times the crowds seemed barely manageable, and nothing one could really do about it but gently and efficiently direct the flow as best you could so that everybody got screened and treated. An intense experience, but par for the course for India.
“In the first four years of our Relief Rides, our medical camps averaged 500-700 patients per camp, at the time this was a number that left village and medical officials speechless, as the administrative expectation was an anemic 80-100 patients per camp (many of the patients at our free medical camps had illnesses or medical cases that had only been seen in medical books during medical school, by a lot of the western Doctors who have ridden with us over the years).
“Now back to the most powerful experience I had with RRI during my first medical camp, on my first ride ever! It was late in the afternoon, the large crowds that had electrically charged the air in the walled courtyard of the pilgrim hostel our camp took place in started to subside. In my exhaustion, I slowly turned to take in a panoramic view of the camp, amazed that we had ridden 120 km to get to this particular village, treated 559 patients, and wondering whether the work we did satisfied all of the people that attended the camp. In short, worrying and wondering when I would be able to put my proof of concept moment behind me when a young woman came up to me handing me what seemed to be an object wrapped in a very dirty blanket.
“To my surprise there was a four months old baby in the blanket. She unwrapped the blanket and exposed the baby, who had an even dirtier clothes lightly bandaging it’s back. At this point I was not sure what to expect, but knew it was not going to be good. She pulled the dirty clothes back, with difficulty, as it had fused to the puss covered laceration on the baby’s back. This wound covered over 60 per cent of the baby’s back. I had never seen such large and intense wound on such a young being.
“I immediately called the Pediatrician over, and handed him the baby. He cleaned and bandaged the wound, and prescribed an antibiotic for it. We asked the woman to stay a few days at the pilgrim hostel, where her baby could remain under supervision by two nurses who worked the one room PHC (Primary Health Care Center) in the village. These devastatingly underfunded infirmaries are in such poor condition, that by rule have always had me plan my medical camps in other locations such as Pilgrim Hostels or local schools. In this case, this was all we had to offer, as the mother refused to receive proper treatment in a larger city. She was scared, and from her viewpoint, understandably so.
“I later learned that the mother had traveled 100km to get to our camp, the first part on a tractor and the latter part on a camel cart, and that had we not treated that child on that day, the chances of her surviving the week, were non-existent. I always wonder about that baby, and how we happened to ride through that particular region, stop at that village, hold a medical camp, and be at that time and place to offer help. On one hand I am reminded of Schrodinger’s cat, and on the other hand I am deeply overjoyed, that a concept that I put into motion, one which I could have easily doubted and walked by without acting on, ended up helping a mother and daughter at a dire moment in their lives. It was at that point that I knew I no longer had to worry about Relief Riders International’s proof of concept. It worked, and It is my hope that as an old man, (while on horseback!) that I will run into that little baby in some far flung village as a happy and healthy woman living her life, on yet another ride.
RRI’s inaugural motorcycle trip, titled the ‘Royal Enfield Desert Relief Ride’, is taking place from 16 to 28 January, 2016.