Charity Begins . . . on a Horseback Tour of India

by Katherine Connell

“I loved the idea of visiting India’s wide-open, windblown spaces, far from its congested cities and the paths of other travelers,” wrote Sarah Gold in a piece of inadvertent satire appearing in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. “The vision of literally riding to the rescue also appealed to my inner drama queen.” The vision appeals to enough wealthy Westerners that there apparently exists an entire “voluntourism” industry to cater to their desire to combine off-the-beaten-path travel with the opportunity to play Lady Bountiful in third-world countries.

Ms. Gold participated in a ten-day trek on horseback across the Thar Desert as part of a tour organized by Indian Relief Riders International, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that, among other charitable initiatives, enables tourists to canter up to poor Indian villages and shower gifts on the smiling and grateful populace. As Gold puts it:

Relief Riders International, would bring me and eight others across nearly 100 miles of sandy terrain. Along the way, we would enjoy spectacular scenery—immense dunes, tiny hamlets, lonely temples topped with fluttering flags—and do good too, by undertaking humanitarian projects in remote villages.

If that sounds too strenuous or dusty, not to worry: the Relief Riders aren’t required to rough it:

By the time we slid off our horses, exhausted, it was almost too dark to see the row of elegant canvas tents that had been set up for us. Inside, our beds were made up with sheets and fluffy duvets; there were even bathroom enclosures with cold running water and—miracle of miracles—flushing toilets.

I had only a moment to marvel before a steward arrived with a bucket of hot water for bathing. . . .

The following morning, after getting a daytime look at our camp (where staffers were busy tending to our horses, cooking elaborate meals with just a couple of gas burners and keeping our water running by hand-filling a truck-mounted water tank), we prepared for our first day of community service at two village schools.

This community service amounts to distributing school supplies and vitamins to schoolchildren. Ms. Gold does worry that “showing up at threadbare local schools to bestow gifts seemed a cursory sort of outreach,” but her doubts are assuaged by the organization’s founder, who assures her that his group undertakes other more substantial ventures as well, and that the particular value the voluntourists provide is “introducing local children to cultures outside their own.”

The aid is not limited to school supplies, though:

In the afternoons after school visits, staffers would drive truckloads of goats—prized for their milk—into village squares, where we would distribute them to needy residents.

The group’s “humanitarian pièce de résistance” is “the all-day eye and dental camp that we held at a community center in the village of Kakku.” By “we” Ms. Gold means a group of Indian doctors hired by the organization. “My fellow riders and I handled intake forms, ferried supplies to the doctors and filled prescriptions” she writes. ”It was hard work, but by the time we closed up shop, our tallies showed that we had screened and treated 585 patients.”

All that for only $7,450 per person, excluding airfare and gratuity. The whole piece is worth savoring.

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