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Ancestry Papers – Ashes & Bones – Eunuch Blessings

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

One day I found myself standing on a bridge in Haridwar, looking down at little vignette scenes only found in India.
One scene showed men sitting cross legged on a platform writing in long thin ledger books – 500 pages thick – recording and updating genealogical histories of families. This practice (only found in Haridwar) is handed down from family to family and no one knows when it started – could be thousands of years. This info includes those who immigrate abroad.
Another scene showed a husband with marigold garland performing a puja with incense burning just before taking a red bundle of ashes and bones and slowly releasing his loved one back into the sacred Ganges river. He then performed an act of charity by giving the deceased clothes to the poor.
My favorite scene was quite a show. At first it looked like any pilgrim gathering at the Ganges… grandparents, aunts and uncles and little children all dressed up and enjoying themselves. Looking closer, I see two little boys in the laps of loved ones crying while having their hair shaved off by local barbers with straight razors. I held my breath hoping I would not see blood. What was this all about? Our friend Sanjeev explained this is a tradition with all boys before the age of 5 to bring good luck in carrying on their ancestry. Looking even closer, I see a transvestite dressed in a deep pink sari (our guide calls a eunuch), giving their blessing over the child’s bald head. It was explained that people born with both the masculine and feminine have an even higher energy that is respected and sought after. He did say, though this is true, they still have very hard lives.
We walk away thinking – this is just another typical day on the Ganges.

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The Bed

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

Dick and I were very excited to have dinner with Lily, our sons friend, who is now working in Delhi. We asked her how she was settling in. She said she could only afford an apartment that was unfurnished and had no kitchen appliances. She said, so far, she only has a bed because it was an all day affair. She had to go across town to the market and  find a bed builder who custom made her a simple bed. Arranging delivery must have been a sight to behold. Having been to the market myself in all the crazy traffic, I imagined Lily’s bed tied precariously on a bicycle rickshaws dodging in and out between people dogs, the sacred cow, cars, motorcycles and potholes. I wondered how many people were knocked over to get Lily a place to sleep.
Fast forward to a tribal village named Gujarat outside Haridwar, where we visited once nomadic families raising cattle, who are now given land within the national park. The only furniture they possess in their stucco homes is a bed woven in beautiful designs.
Fast forward again in the city where you will find the bed outside merchant stalls for reclining and makeshift tents of the poor.
I came to realize that home is where the “bed” is! One needs nothing else.

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Pondering Beggars

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

I spend a lot of my time in India walking the streets looking at beggars or, I should say, looking at the poor.  I am very interested in learning their stories, just like I do in Boston with the homeless. How does a human being find themselves so destitute?
India is much more complicated than the US because of its own social order, colonial history, religious beliefs and economic problems around huge populations.
But, none the less, I am still trying to understand not only their lives but my responsibility to that life… especially when they ask me for money.
One day I asked our guide about the beggars we were walking by and their answer surprised me. “Begging is a sin. These people are not trying to help themselves. They want something for nothing. And, furthermore, it is a sin to encourage them to keep begging.”
I kept rolling this around in my head as I do in the US. I have learned the matter is much more complicated – poverty, lack of education, mental health and disability, and lack of familial support system. But in India, another issue is “karma” – their faith telling them they were meant to suffer for past life transgressions.
On the flip side, we visited an ashram which feeds over 1000 sadhus a night. Not only do they get good food but new clothes and even cash from wealthy families. Sadhus decide at some point in their life to give up all material things and ties to family. Basically they give up everything, even the right to be cremated. So, they are considered holy and worthy of gifts.
Both these groups are given things. Both these groups are needy but for different reasons. So, who are we to judge? I see these people and my heart just wants to take over and relieve their suffering. My intellect kicks in and reminds me I can’t help everyone but I can still try to help in some small way.

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The Cure for Grey Hair

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

At home in Boston, I distinguish myself apart from most of my friends because of my grey hair. I have been called my daughters grandmother several times and one my husbands mother (Dick, my husband, is my age with no grey hair!). In a culture where most women dye their hair, I stand out. I stand out also in India surrounded by all the beautiful women with their coal black hair.
On this trip, I began noticing many older people with grey hair… partially grey because they use red henna  to “dye” their hair. Why that particular color? Are they trying to go punk? Is it a fashion trend? Is it a sacred marker?
I got many answers. One person said it caused a cooling effect (useful in hot unairconditioned summers). One said it was simply fashion.
I guess we are all the same in the end!

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The Golden Rule

Text by Patty Simon

Delhi, India

India has many religions – Hinduism with  33 million gods and goddesses, Buddhism with the teachings of Buddha and Christianity brought in from the western world.
As we were driving around Delhi, our guide quickly mentioned we were passing a Sikh temple – all in white marble. I knew nothing about Sikhism so we asked for a tour.
Before I describe what I saw and learned, I want to say that religion in this country is a spectacle and quite spectacular!!! Outside I see what looks like overpopulation on the streets with many poor, homeless, disabled or barely getting by folks who are hauling, hawking, or begging to stay alive. Inside the temple is white marble, crystal chandeliers and at the center is a solid gold shrine draped in marigolds and roses holding the holy book. There is no god, just a book filled with many teachings.
Now, we were graciously given a tour and told many interesting facts about the history and nature of this belief system but I am not an expert so will refrain from becoming a teacher.
What I want to tell you is this. Next to the main prayer hall are several rooms for feeding the poor. Volunteers of every socio-economic group (even the very rich) come to make 3 daily meals to feed over 20,000 every day. Everyone is welcome no matter what the belief. Our guide said you can’t be expected to pray if you are hungry. There is a kitchen with pots big enough to cook me, an automatic naan maker spitting out 800 kg. of bread a day and a sweet made of wheat, caramel, sugar and oil. There is a room where other volunteers shine everyone’s shoes. There is a bar outside where men are continuously pouring glasses of water for the crowds (not quite to our hygienic standards!).
I don’t know that much about Sikhism and I’m not all that religious but the amount of good they do for the needy each day was so heartwarming that I ended up giving our guide a big hug.

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The Women’s Car

Text by Patty Simon

Delhi, India

India is one of those cultures where so much happens on the street. I see everyone mixed up from all walks of life – from the rich and poor, young and old, secular and religious, laborer and educated, to the tiny shop owner and corporate executive. They all live together and fuel this enormous machine of a country.
So in the Metro, it was a surprise when our guide suggested I segregate myself and join women in the first car of the train designated as “The Women’s Car”. I almost blew him off. I thought to myself it can’t be that interesting!
But it was! Imagine being thrown into an instant sisterhood – a sorority of sorts. I told Dick it was like going to a fashion show. I was certainly the most underdressed. I literally could feel the “beauty”, the feminine energy and a subtle air of self-confidence all around me. Lots of shocking pink, ruby red and pungent orange in patterns and paisleys mixed with brocades and jewels in rainbow colors filled the train. Of course there were jeans, sandals and high heels with handbags and nose rings and lots of bracelets… Indian fashion mixed with American fashion but probably all made in China!
Magical moments happen when you least expect them. I exited the train with a big smile on my face. I may have been a foreigner in this country but I was one of THEM for fifteen minutes!

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The Wires

Text by Patty Simon

Delhi, India

I’ve been to India several times and have grown to love it. The chaos of people, colors, and religions overwhelm me at the same time they are seducing me. It’s like an addict needing a fix. I always want to come back for more.
I was so eager to go back that I went to the airport a day early. This lack of knowing what day it was would continue for several more. I flew 12 hours to Dubai – leaving in the dark and arriving in the dark – connecting to Delhi and arriving at 3 am. It took 18 hours. Dick greeted me with red roses + 1 yellow rose of Texas and then I fell asleep for 11 hours. I was so grateful for the sleep but so regretting the day wasted.
Our guide picks us up and we sludge through the beeping and dashing traffic. I laugh as the driver runs red lights that everyone ignores (lanes also). The traffic is like NYC or LA with one big difference. Not only are there cars and bicycles but bicycle rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, 2-wheeled skinny flatbed carts, bicycle carts and people with padded heads carrying tiny takeout cafés to steel parts for trucks. We change our plans and decide to take the metro which is much faster.
So far my experience felt like any other big city until I walked out of the metro. I felt myself smile as I saw an unbelievable sight.  A mishmash entanglement of hundreds if not thousands of electrical wires are bunched up and hanging off of every  building corner and stretching across streets. The “wires” are the symbol of the new industrialization and overpopulation that this country uniquely possesses. First they brought light and electricity to power light appliances but now they are charging every cell phone and computer and fueling the high tech industry. They mimic the chaos of the traffic found on the streets. I stop and take a moment to watch the incredible number of near misses that happens each minute between everyone – everywhere. Somehow, it turns into a perfectly orchestrated dance of moving forward in the world of globalization.

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Bird Poop / Mustard Scammed in Buenos Aires

Text by Dick Simon

Arrived in Buenos Aires at 4am to spend the next 10 days with Katie Simon and her boyfriend Michael Garate. After a nap, emerged and within 5 minutes on the streets of BA, we were being ‘helped’ by two people who ‘discovered’ that we had all been covered in a foul smelling bird poop from the trees above. They started to help us ‘clean up’ with some napkins, which they just happened to have with them. Michael, vigilant and also having read about this scam, immediately said thanks but we need to go back to our room to change. The perpetrators were a couple of thieves (ladrones) and silk tongue sweet talkers (chamuyeros) looking for opportunities to take advantage of the unsuspecting traveler, tourist or local alike.-They spray a foul smelling mustard vinegar liquid on unsuspecting victims, then pick pockets. THANKS MICHAEL for your vigilance, as we escaped smelly and dirty, but otherwise unscathed.

The only time I was successfully pick pocketed was on the Paris Metro Champs-Elysées. Guess I better stick with safer places to travel to like Iran, North Korea and Cuba!

Listed on the Official Buenos Aires tourism site – http://landingpadba.com/buenos-aires-tourist-scams-and-crime/

Buenos Aires tips to avoid scams, fake money, the bird poop scam and the dangerous areas in the city.


Amazing Organizations We Experienced

Text by Dick Simon

We visited with and learned about NGO and social enterprise organizations doing amazing work. Explore their websites and see the differences they are making in the world.

Akilah Institute for Women – Kigali Rwanda – Akilah is the first women’s college in Rwanda and offers a 3-year Business Diploma with majors in Entrepreneurship, Hospitality Management and Information Systems. 97% of Akilah students are the first in their family to attend higher education. Akilah seeks to “build future generations of women leaders and professionals in East Africa” by connecting its graduates directly to the workforce.” Founded and led by Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes (Elizabeth@akilahinstitute.org).

ASYV (Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village) – Rwanda – ASYV is a magical village less than two hours from Kigali for orphans of the genocide in a boarding school environment with top teachers, world-class facilities and emotional support. ASYV’s mission is to “enable orphaned and vulnerable youth to realize their maximum potential by providing them with a safe and secure living environment, health care, education and necessary life skills.” Founded by Anne Heyman (anne@asyv.org)

Dakshana – Dakshana – Kottayam, Kerala, India and 5 other locations throughout the country – provides an intensive, final two years of secondary school for economically disadvantaged, extremely bright youth with high potential from rural villages to prepare them for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance exams, completely changing their potential life course. Dakshana’s mission “is to focus on investing in the delivery of world-class education opportunities for exceptionally gifted children from impoverished rural backgrounds in India.” We spent time with CEO, Colonel Ram Sharma (rsharma@dakshana.org), and founder and major funder Mohnish Pabrai (mpabrai@pabraifunds.com) is an amazing individual and friend.

Free the Children (FTC) – Udiapur, India with development programs in China, Ecuador, Haiti, Kenya, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka, as well as empowering youth in North America and the UK.  FTC is the largest network in the world of children helping children through education, health, clean water & sanitation, agriculture & food security, and alternative income generation. Their Adopt-a-Village model has been cited as one of the best in the world for lifting people out of poverty and addressing the Millennium Development goals. It was an inspiration and pleasure spending time with Scott Lloyd Hanoman (lloyd@freethechildren.org) who runs India for FTC or contact Executive Director Scott Baker (scott@freethechildren.org).  I am honored to be on FTC’s Board for the last 5 years, and to know and have the opportunity to work with the amazing Founders, Marc and Craig Kielburger.

Gardens for Health International (GHI) – Kigali, Rwanda – “Provides lasting agricultural solutions to the problem of chronic childhood malnutrition.” GHI partners “with rural health clinics to equip families facing malnutrition with seeds, livestock, and know-how for greater self-sufficiency.” Their investment has enabled over one thousand farmers to “have the resources to feed themselves and their families in dignity.” GHI’s founder is Julie Carney (Julie@gardensforhealth.org).

Ikirezi Natural Products – Kigali, Rwanda – This fantastic social enterprise creates jobs and economic vitality through sustainable and organic essential oil production utilizing Fair Trade principles. Ikirezi “partners with small farmers in Rwanda to harvest plant leaves for essential oil production. Ikirezi primarily works with widows and orphans in a holistic effort to resort their dignity, improve their livelihoods, and rebuild their communities.” Nicholas Hitimana (nicholas@ikirezi.com) runs the company and we were introduced through his partner and fellow YPOer Dennis Overton (dennis.overton@aquascot.com).

Project Healthy Children (PHC) – Kigali, Rwanda, as well as Burundi, Honduras, Malawi, Mali and Nepal. PHC works with the governments to develop micronutrient fortification requirements, strategies, standards and programs to address, on a very cost effective national scale, the effects of devastating micronutrient malnutrition. As a small nonprofit, PHC “assists government and industry in designing and implementing countrywide, market-based, mandatory food fortification programs.” Contact David Dodson (ddodson@projecthealthychildren.org). I am honored to have served on PHC’s Board.

Reality Tours (Global Exchange) – Mumbai, India – Global Exchange “is an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world.” As an “education and action resource center, Global Exchange seeks to “empower locally and connect globally to create a just and sustainable world.” Reality Tours offers “experiential educational tours, connecting people to issues, issues to movements, and movements to social change.” Reality Tours gave us fascinating and inspirational insights into Dharavi, featured in Slum Dog Millionaire, presenting to us a real behind the scenes look at the incredible people and economic enterprises active there. Every visitor to Mumbai should experience Reality Tours.  Contact Alessandro Isola in the Reality Tours Department.  Alessandro@globalexchange.org

Rwanda Genocide Memorial and Museum – Kigali, Rwanda –Stands as a living memorial to the million Rwandan Tutu genocide victims slaughtered over a 100 day period, honoring their memory and providing current awareness and education to ensure that horrific events like this never occur again. “The Centre in Kigali was created by a joint partnership of the Kigali City Council and the UK-based Aegis Trust. It contains a permanent exhibition of the Rwandan genocide and an exhibition of other genocides around the world.” Built on a site containing the graves of over 250,000 Rwandan victims, it serves as “a clear reminder of the cost of ignorance.” Honore Gatera is the amazing Manager for Kigali Genocide Memorial. (honore.gatera@gmail.com).

Uthando – Cape Town, South Africa – Uthando creates a bridge between visitors to Cape Town who seek to learn more about the Townships and make a difference, and inspiring community based organizations. Director James Fernie (jamesfernie@uthandosa.org) leads Uthando South Africa, “a unique and innovative nonprofit and fair trade in tourism accredited company, with the aim of raising funds and other forms of assistance for community development projects in South Africa.” Every visitor to Cape Town should experience Uthando and the incredible organizations it is allied with.

Video Volunteers (VV) – India – VV “envisions a world in which all disadvantaged communities have their own locally relevant and locally produced media that celebrates their culture, voices grassroots concerns, and stimulates dialogue to find solutions to endemic problems.” VV acts to empower the poorest citizens of the world to become “players in the global media revolution” by providing “disadvantaged communities with the journalistic, critical thinking and creative skills they need.” Jessica Mayberry’s (info@videovolunteers.org) Video Volunteers “train marginalized communities to produce news, watch it, take action and devise solutions.”

WasteLess – India– This non-profit social enterprise has developed Garbology 101, an “interactive, interdisciplinary, multi-age educational kit for children from 6 to 12 years of age, providing a unique perspective on waste and its responsible management.” Garbology 101 provides the children of today the information on waste management they need to make informed decisions for tomorrow, using a “participatory approach with a high level of involvement from teachers and students.” Founder Ribhu Vohra continues his work on effective waste management, working to make this waste education a worldwide habit.

Women For Women International (WfWI)– Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan – Women for Women International “provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.” This work helps “women go from victim to survivor to active citizen and provides financial aid, job training, rights awareness and leadership education.” Antonina Kayitesi (akayitesi@womenforwomen.org) operations in Rwanda, an office we had an opportunity to visit and learn about their work in the socio-economic transformation of Rwandan Women, truly changing the world one life at a time.

YPO/WPO Social Enterprise Network (SEN) – The SEN Summit in Chennai, India was an initiative of SEN Ambassadors, business leaders around the world, celebrating the spirit of ten outstanding Indian social entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas and commitment to solve specific social issues close to their hearts.  This amazing conference was the brainchild and very hard work of JK Jhaver.

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Top Experiences List

Text and Images by Dick Simon

Most of the writings about our experiences have been from Patty, who has been GREAT at being prolific and sharing.  I have been busily photographing, and those images are used in conjunction with her writings throughout the blog.

I love to reflect back on a trip or experience by thinking about the Top Experiences.

For me the overall best was spending the special times with Alex, Ben and Patty in Africa, and Patty throughout this journey (and sharing all of this with her, including helping with her collecting discarded bottle cap project).


In terms of specifics, my highlights would include:

JP sharing his deeply personal genocide experiences, and helping us imagine the unimaginable.  In Kibuye, Rwanda we walked through the market in his village, realizing that many of the ‘nice’ merchants has been directly involved in slaughtering their friends and family; and seeing his home and the houses of the neighbors still living there, who had murdered his family. This surrealistic scene also hit me at a soccer game the first night in Kigali – ‘normal’ people cheering their teams – how did they become mass murderers?


Gorillas – Being face to face with these massive ‘cousins’ in the wild in Rwanda is definitely a top life experience.


Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India– Being in the midst of millions of Pilgrims coming from all over India, and thousands of Sadhus, or wise men, the first night photographing everybody walking around in a cloud of DDT, the 2am bathing day wanderings with the Sagers and being swarmed by hundreds of naked, ash covered Nagas racing in a stoned frenzy to the river.


Ulagalla Resort – The ultimate Peace Dividend in Sri Lanka –developed immediately after the war, the only Sri Lankan hotel included in a TripAdvisor Top Ten list, and for us coming at the perfect time when we needed a break. We took walks, did bicycle explorations, watched fisherman at sunset and took a morning kayak to see and photograph birds, and spent 3 days of eating our Anniversary cake, which we first got at a magical anniversary dinner on their Observation Deck.


Spending time with the Maharana of Udaipur, India in his amazing palace to brainstorm ways of working together to improve lives in that region of Rajasthan, which his family has been Custodian of the region through over 70 generations and 1400 years.

Really joining celebrations – There is something about being a foreigner with a camera which I experience as license to be in the middle of everything going on, rather than a well behaved bystander – being the only white face in the Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) parade and celebration in Cape Town, and being invited to climb onto the parade floats with the most esteemed Hindu Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela procession (our guide said people did good deeds for a lifetime to achieve that honor – ignorance is bliss!)

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In greater Kruger National Park, South Africa – coming upon a pride of resting lions at night, who gave blood curdling roars.  (I know that for some inexplicable reason we were ‘safe’ from these apex predators in our open sided jeep, but really…)


The slow pace of traveling by houseboat in the Backwaters of Kerala.

Mumbai-with its overall intensity and contrasts, from arriving to Suki’s Protocol Officer and a sumptuous dinner in his amazing home and another with YPOers leading many of India’s major companies, to touring the slums and largest open laundry in the world, and the magnificent Hotel Oberoi as our oasis from the frenzy.

In Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, heart of Tamil Tigers during the war, befriending the officer sent to check out and potentially punish us for taking photos.  Once he became convinced we were not with an NGO there to embarrass the government, we became buddies and I took our picture together!

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Watching groups of monkeys diving from the trees into the lake at Cinnamon Lodge – I never knew they could swim!


YPO SEN Summit in Chennai and the synchronicity of the timing working out perfectly to participate with this fantastic group of business leaders and social entrepreneurs.

In a more general sense,

I love the serendipitous encounters made possible by creating space and time in travels – fisherman, watching crocodile in the ocean, happening upon the Tsunami photographic museum in Sri Lanka.

I love how photography gives me purpose and connection to what is going on around me, and really helps me ‘see’.  While I am not fond of long days in the car getting from point A to Point B, Patty has helped me see that as a movie unfolding outside our vehicle, and I have been working on a Through the Windshield photo project.

I love the fascinating people we randomly met, including Japanese photographer Dan Honda who taught me the good thing about Leica’s ‘unusefulness’ and reminded me to take long walks and shoot closer.

I love the continual learning about the world and about complexities – Does post-conflict really exist? Is the conflict over with ongoing random killings of Tutsis (Rwanda), racial strife (South Africa) and soldiers (Sri Lanka)? What was and is India’s involvement in the Sri Lanka conflict?

I love the flow of travel – multiple experiences constantly juxtaposed on each other, with a pace, intensity and stimulation on all dimensions which I rarely experience in other environments.