Exposures


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Underdressed

Text by Patty Simon | Image by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka

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Dick and I took a day off – which means pool day by the ocean for me at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo.

I wear a one-piece Speedo suit because I am a lap swimmer more than a sunbather so I always feel a tad dowdy sitting around all the bikinis.

I was contemplating all this when my eye catches a sparkle. That sparkle led to a jewel of many jewels and beautiful brocade sewn on white satin draped in lilac voile… stunning! I look up and can’t believe my eyes. Promenading by my chaise lounge is a wedding party, Sri Lankan style – bride and groom, bridesmaids and groomsmen and lastly, adorable flower girls and boys.

Here I was looking like a drowned rat with wet plastered hair in a soggy suit watching a scene out of Cinderella complete with fancy finery of flowing saris, glittery sandals and fragrant flower bouquets.

It was surreal and magical but comical at the same time. Tradition states that a videographer poses the young couple in various settings. This time it means parading around a pool at a hotel.

Underdressed? I would say so! I must buy a sequined suit for future fancy occasions.

 


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Foreign Exchange

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka

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Still at the Buddhist temple, we find a particularly gorgeous Buddha behind glass in glistening gold plate adorned with so much gold memorabilia that you need to wear sunglasses. We both get into shooting artfully composed photos competing on whose are the best!

Dick spies a collection of coin and paper money offerings. I find my own treasure in the pile, a coin wrapped in white fabric offered to “buy” good luck.

In true Dick fashion, he tries and succeeds with very little language between himself and the head monk to “trade” the coins for paper money with a donation thrown in. Dick says, “Takey, Takey?” and the monk says “No problem!” and begins helping us sort the coins. In friendly conversation, we find out our new friend the monk, named Wen Ariyakiththi Tero, will be in NYC in April so we exchange information and hope to connect on a trip to see our daughter at NYU. After collecting the “loot”, we use the toilet, buy two tiles for the museum they are building (just like buying a brick at the YMCA) and collect what I think is “holy water” from a special sink near the shrine.

 


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Protocol

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka

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Remember the saying, ” Do as the Romans Do”? This is our mantra in visiting other cultures. The only problem is what exactly are the customs. We are very conscious of representing our own country showing as much friendliness and respect as we can muster. We found often in Sri Lanka, even in the heavy tourist destinations, that we were the only Americans. There were many Germans and Russians. We did meet one US family living in Afghanistan.

So, the temples seem to have rules that are not quite obvious. We know to take off our shoes. We did not know but should have taken off our sun hats.  What we did not know was shirts are not allowed on men in Hindu temples. Dick was asked to remove his shirt just like the monks. Of course the monks looked good and Dick looked silly especially when he has two huge cameras hanging around his bare chest!

 


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Cosmic Kindness

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka

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I have found that as I travel to different places I start processing my interactions with locals through a “sincerity gauge”. It goes from fake hype to sweet sincerity and lately it feels as if the more foreigners one sees in an area, the gauge descends to anything but genuine. (For the record, I blame the tourists and not the locals)

I left you standing at a Buddhist temple. I remember getting an email the night before from Rox asking me to get a special blessing for herself and daughters.  I spied pilgrims lighting incense and wished I could make Rox’s wish come true. So, I go up to the burning incense, look like I want some and voila! A kind older woman gives me a smile with a sincerity rating of five stars and shares her incense. I take the four sticks, just enough for Rox, the girls and my friend Laura. Surely this woman will be guaranteed an auspicious next life and my friends will surely be blessed. Ah, the kindness of strangers.

 


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Islands Day in Jaffna

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka

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Free day in Jaffna – alone. Our guide has to drive the car back to Colombo (8+hours) because we are flying back. Don’t get me wrong, we love our guide but the idea of being on our own feels good. We arrange a three-wheel ‘tuk-tuk’ driven by a lovely ‘tour guide’ with a few words of English who quickly learns to slow down for every potentially photographable bird, shrine, fisherman or bombed building. The best part was the inside of the vehicle… fully decorated with Catholic statues, pictures of Christ, holy medals, garlands and decals saying, “Jesus Loves You”. He asked if I was Catholic and after I said yes, he made it his mission to stop at every Catholic Church on our way, insist we get out and take pictures!

We head out on causeway after causeway connecting various peninsulas and islands. We are aiming for a remote island called Delft (from the Dutch colonial days) but like many things here, we can’t seem to get a straight answer on departure times. Bumping along with a cool, balmy breeze pushing away the impending heat from the noonday sun, Dick takes pictures of hundreds of shorebirds… eagles, ibis, flamingo and scenes of fisherman pulling in their night catch and colorful skinny fishing boats. We arrive at the ferry where I find a ‘find’ – bottle caps stuck in coral – so I take a photo and a few loose caps to add to my collection. We soon find out there are no more boats to Delft but we can still go to yet another temple complex on Nainativu. Fate once again has mercy on us. Little did we know the ‘ferry’ would be a local pilgrimage boat jammed with bodies all put underneath like steerage next to an engine decked out with hibiscus flowers (must be some offering to keep the boat afloat!). Nainativu is a mere 20-minute ride as opposed to an hour and a half, which would have been gruesome.

We walk toward the boats spying a blue crab or two, instructed to a shaded sitting area queue with many Hindus and Buddhists holding flower offerings.

Arriving, we are invited to squeeze into the back of a truck by Buddhist pilgrims who giggle. We arrive at a huge white stupa in contrast to rainbow multi gods (including monkeys and elephants) at the Hindu shrine down the road. We get “Buddhism Lesson 101” on differences of faiths. We are told Buddhism is more humanist where God is found in each one of us. One does not worship Buddha but lives by his example. Hindus believe in many gods for many reasons. Both believe in a form of reincarnation.

 


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War Zone Day

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka

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How can I possibly describe this serendipitous sort of day? More than ever, I feel destined day after day to accept what comes and what comes is usually fantastic.

We are now in Jaffna in the northern tip of Sri Lanka. It has just opened to tourism after a 30-year civil war. Dick is particularly interested in driving around and seeing the effects of the Tamil Tiger conflict.

From the little I have gathered (*and I would like to say right here and now… I am not an expert on this war), this was a 30 year conflict between the Tamils (mostly Hindu, who immigrated from India, (one of the southern states in India is called Tamil Nadu) and the Sinhalese (Buddhist and Christian and some Muslim population). The Tamils claim to fame is being the creators of the ‘suicide bomber’. The war was going on until 2009, not so long ago. Reading about the facts of the conflict and why the Tamils were supported by India leads to a similar time in history where another two-state solution happened producing India and Pakistan during the time of Gandhi (watch the movie!). Once again I am reminded that it is all quite complicated. The president now, who for practical purposes, is a dictator, but on the surface seems to have created peace and a lot of business development for a country that for thirty years was under siege. He seems to be like Kagame in that the focus is on the future, the past needs to be forgotten and NGO’s do not seem to be welcome.

So I hold judgment and stay open to all the stories that unfold before my eyes.

We get in the car and quickly find a Dutch residence – beautifully designed but roofless and gutted. Dick starts taking photographs and I find “treasure” in the form of broken red clay roof tiles with words and elephant logos. Next thing I know – two men come up and tell our guide they are Tamil refugees and want us to see their deplorable living conditions.

They tell us the government makes promises but only helps the Sinhalese, not the Tamils. We go to the village recording every word of a makeshift interview.

Supposedly their families went back to India as refugees during the war and came back in 2010. We are taken to open land (there are no leases given so there is no ownership and no fences). They live in put-together shacks made of stray container boxes ironically labeled “Handle with Care”, tin roofing, palm leaf walls, and bits of stray wood. Somehow they are well dressed and when we peek inside, we see a refrigerator hooked up to pirated electricity taken from someone’s legal line. I did notice nice looking outhouses and was told the government built 54 for both Tamils and Sinhalese. They tell us the government will not give them jobs or let NGO’s help either. They say their poor Sinhalese neighbors are given homes, etc.

Now, here is the rub. I notice a nice residential neighborhood and ask who lives there. They casually say Tamils, just like our poor destitute friends who have been showing us around, so I ask the obvious question, “Why can’t they help you?” They say in true Indian fashion, “They are a different caste. They can’t help us.” This is so confusing and frustrating. They are asking foreigners to help when their own people would not.

We are given a photocopy of a list of all the Tamil families living in these harsh conditions. We decide not to give them money or promise anything but do give them our contact info. All of a sudden, two soldiers (or police) come up, take us to their boss, a lieutenant and ask our names, passports and “reason” for snooping around. Dick’s sweet-talking ends up with a friendly photo-op with our new friends.

We leave perplexed by it all. What is the truth?

We spend the rest of the day visiting Hindu temples – a treasure trove of colorful reliefs of many gods that make up a belief that is so complex.

We shoot photos of hundreds of destroyed buildings, go thru checkpoints, and are turned back for reasons we don’t understand.

By the end of a very long day, photo weary but happy eating the best Tandoori chicken ever and only seeing 2 other foreigners, we decide that northern Sri Lanka is ripe for tourism being a fascinating mix of history and a culture which includes three of the world’s oldest religions living side by side.

 


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The Morning On The Water

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka

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We found ourselves in a magical haven tucked into the countryside of Sri Lanka. I am writing this entry in honor of my dear mermaid friends whose love of nature; water and birds find me wishing they were right with me this very minute.

This is our second day. We knew yesterday at breakfast, as we were dining on the open terrace overlooking the pool and rice paddies watching pairs of brilliant blue and green parrots and black-hooded golden orioles fly back and forth, that we were in ‘bird country’.

We are so lucky. We end up at the right place at the right time. Little did we know that the two lakes surrounding this property turn to mud in the dry season around August and therefore there are no shore birds or lush green topical plants to see.

The sounds… ahhhh, the symphony of sounds – the catlike call of the peacocks in the trees looking for mates, the cuckoo, parrots and hundreds others that impart a very different melody than at home. I wake up early just to go out and listen!

As we were biking yesterday, a very sweet “recreation guide” approached us… led us on a bike ride skirting the lake right at sunset to look for birds and watch a local put an inner tube in the water to wade out a long fishing net he would leave all night, catch the fish in the morning to sell at the local market. He convinced us to take an early morning kayak birding expedition the next day. He didn’t have to do too much convincing.

***But before we get to the next morning, I must tell you of our magical dinner. The resort calls it a “Signature Dining”. We could pick anywhere “outside” to dine alone… well, not exactly alone – a BBQ chef, a waiter, a ‘helper’ and, of course, the general manager magically appear to see how everything is – we tell him “heaven” could not be better – and, for Dick – not one mosquito!!! This puzzles us as we are surrounded by lots of water everywhere so we ask… answer… since this resort is “green” (solar panels, methane gas from compost, hot water from air conditioners, fiber building materials, organic food and filtered water coming out of taps) they put fish in waterways and rice paddies to eat the mosquito larvae…it works! Dick is in his own heaven. We dine under the stars and moon and paper lanterns to a feast of grilled prawns, fish kabobs, chicken sausage, drumsticks, grilled fresh pineapple and tomatoes with homemade BBQ sauce (Dick ate a bowl of it!), jacket potatoes with sour cream, and something which for me is gold… an array of cooked vegetables including pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots and more. The whole time you are eating, you wonder where on earth do they get all this to a resort which is so deeply remote. Dick had mentioned it was our 30th anniversary so after two desserts of homemade strawberry ice cream and cheese cake, they present us with a Linzer torte cake with “Happy Anniversary” written in chocolate and lined with fresh strawberries. The lit candle only made the evening sky that much more brilliant.

We wake up early… the pastel cool air drawing me outside to just listen and look. Our guide shows up with binoculars and we set off… on the way seeing a male peacock fly up in a tree (a first!) and all sorts of birds. I have to apologize to Lidia right now. I cannot remember many names but will research the bird book and give you a full report. I see two kayaks for 4 people and panic… I want to paddle not be Cleopatra… so Dick has a very sweet way of making this so… I am happy as a clam… Dick has his great big camera and skirts the shore shooting thousands of juicy shots. I get to paddle across the lake to an island to see the prize… a pair of pelicans with their fuzzy grey heads and baby cormorants nesting in the tree. We see flocks and ducks and big and little… the next exciting sighting is a flamingo… pink, white and black with its deep yellow bill… 3 types of blue and red kingfishers with their massive straight bills, tons of egrets so pure and white… and flycatchers with the long red tails.

*** Another confession… sometimes I get tired of being “guided”. I like the quiet, the exploring, and the being in a place without having to know the facts. My kayak guide picked up on this immediately. He gave me a few facts and a lot of “space” – just to experience the peace, the quiet, and the beauty.

And at the end of the ride, as I was coming to shore thru the water lilies… just for an instant but long enough to feel wistful… I felt as if I was at Tunk with all of you! But instead, was given a beautiful lotus flower by my guide to take back to our chalet.

 


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The People of the Kumbh

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
India

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Arriving back exhausted to our tent camp 12 hours from 1 in the morning til 1pm, I just witnessed the largest gathering of humanity celebrating spiritualism with a capital “S”!

After a rest of 15 hours, I wake up contemplating how I would describe something so enormous, so overwhelming to all the senses even down into your soul.

You see, I am an artist and wonder what medium I would use… Dirt, representing the riverbank where the Kumbh is located? Water, representing the sacred river for bathing in the Ganges? The Gates of the Gurus complexes… all unique in design… A collection of Prayer Beads and Shrines… representing all the gods revered or would it be a moving Procession of Gurus atop silver palanquins and embroidered umbrellas.

My mind says “No!” to all these ideas. It should be about the millions of People… Individual Portraits of each visitor, follower, foreigner and holy man. Each one framed beautifully and lined up row after row in a nice, neat grid – just like the Kumbh Mela. If I could work magic, I would give the viewer an opportunity to gaze at each person’s soul and spiritual journey… the yearning to be better, to live together in peace, love and harmony.

That is the Kumbh Mela to me!

 


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The Kumbh and Love

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
India

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The Kumbh Mela would teach me a lot about what it means to be a traveler. Simply, a traveler goes from place to place. Sometimes it is researched and planned but for me it is all about the mystery – the “not” knowing.

The Kumbh is so BIG, so overwhelming to the senses, so mystical that even my photographs and my humble attempt with words and drawings seem inadequate. Little did I know that my path would ultimately be about LOVE.

I am an artist. For several years my goal has been to spread love all over the world through a project, “You are Loved /Pass It On”. I wondered if everyone truly felt ‘loved’ in a deep soulful way, how could that change the world.

I printed my cards in Hindi, packed my bags and set off on what would be a spiritual journey.

Arriving in Mumbai, I am overwhelmed – the population, the intense busyness, even the traffic.

I don’t know what to do with my Love Cards. It just does not feel right. The card does not make sense. It puzzles me. Everyone needs Love. Right?

But, I am on my own journey and I have learned to accept whatever happens.

I arrive at the Kumbh and finally, it a makes sense. I realize that who would better understand my project than all the holy men, the gurus and sadhus. So I begin to give a card to every revered leader riding on a palanquin, sitting by a fire or performing an Aarti ceremony. Despite a language barrier, I see each time, their eyes brighten, their facial expression turn into a smile, the sweetness of love permeates their soul and, one time – a very quiet answer back, “I Love You”.

 


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Kumbh Mela – The Event

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
India

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Expectation

How can I get my head around a place which will hold 100 million bathers in 45 days? Words like” chaos”, “suffocation”, “claustrophobia” and “stampede” come to mind. Even so, curiosity gets the better of Dick and I and we must see it with our own eyes. We also secretly wondered if any of the faith and spiritualism would rub off on us.

 

Arrival

There are several bathing days that are peak experiences and since we could not stay the entire time, we had a difficult time deciding on which days would be optimal. Teesta, our travel agent, laughed when we kept asking, “But will there be people there?” Her response? “This is India – where are there not people?”

We decide to go at the beginning because I was very curious to see the “expansion” or I should say “explosion”. I also just could not understand how an event of this magnitude could be planned. People eat, sleep, poop and walk… 100 million of them!

We arrive at night. The scene is surreal – dusty, beige monochromatic dotted with electric lights lining the roads – all ‘temporarily’ constructed on the silty banks of the rivers (the Ganges being the dominant one). Monsoon season floods immense sections of land leaving behind in the dry season a perfect flat plain on which to build the Kumbh. Well, not so perfect as I notice tens of thousands of 3×6 foot iron plates bolted together in parallel lines making all the roads in this massive complex. Without them, no type of transport can deliver the building materials, food, fencing, etc.  Next, water. Yes, I know there are rivers but still the water must be piped into the interior. I wonder about sewage but after visiting a makeshift toilet shed – basically a shallow hole with two bricks to step on, I decided not to go down this path of thinking about 100 million pilgrims pooping and peeing. I am just grateful for my tent camp with my own makeshift ‘flushing’ toilet.

We walk watching the hundreds of guru complexes being built with fanciful gates of paper mâché horses, Hindu gods, draped with colorful satin and lit up with Christmas lights (I name the main drag the Las Vegas ‘strip’).

But the image that still remains with me is not the lights or pageantry. It is the huge billowing cloud of smoke set against the black horizon. Well, not actually black. The evening air is actually like pea soup, with tiny, fine dust particles reflected against the jarring fluorescent streetlights. Add to this soup, a toxic insecticide being sprayed from a tanker truck coming our way and knowing there is no escape. Just like there is no escape when they heavily spray throughout the cabin on every flight to a new country. Dick says for all we know it is DDT. Even before this night, I have wondered why my lungs have not rebelled into a coughing asthma attack. But, once again all I can do as a traveler is smile and “do as the Romans do”.  But with one precaution, I discreetly pull my scarf over my face.

 

Bathing Day

I could go on and on about the processions where holy men are paraded in silver palanquins giving candies and blessings to throngs of followers or watching 1000’s of poor pilgrims being fed free and given medical care at the more prominent guru complexes, the hundreds of locals who smile and ask “From which country you come from? Oh, America!”

I could talk about the notion after witnessing so many poor that I am now convinced I don’t need much in this world… A piece of tarp for a home, some rice and dahl and a sense of family and community. That’s about it.

But no expectation prepared me for the bathing day.

Waking up at 1 AM, we put on layers against the cold knowing by midday it would be sweltering, downed a cup of tea and a biscuit and set off on our own pilgrimage, walking 4 km to the Kumbh (no cars allowed this day foe safety and security).

First stop, the Nagas – the naked ash covered holy men who never cut their hair and are stoned with hashish most of their lives. (How else could they stay “holy” and withstand the cold?). There are many types of Nagas – one has stood on one leg for over 10 years and another has held an arm up until it is atrophied and ‘stuck’ in place. My personal highlight was giving my Love Cards out to any holy man I saw and seeing it accepted with a sincere smile.

There are thousands of them. As Dick said, “I have never seen so many penises in one day in my whole life!” I could not have said it better.

We are taken to an important ceremony that looks a lot like Iwo Jima – that is, if the soldiers had taken off their clothes and rubbed ash all over their bodies. The Nagas ceremoniously raise a flag pole (with the help of a modern machine called a crane!) and thus begins their own procession, decked in marigold garlands and Christmas tree tinsel, a bit frenzied and very happy to run to the river behind their naked leaders riding bareback own white horses.

 

The River

As we approach the river, we find a little corral where all the foreign press are staged. They are squeezing together like sardines to get that ever so famous shot of the Nagas taking the first plunge in National Geographic! Our own young guide sheepishly asks me I’d I would watch his clothes so he could participate in his first Kumbh. Quite poignant! Wave after wave of naked Nagas go by, running, jumping for joy – eager to get in and just as eager to get out of the freezing water. One amazing sight was watching them warm up by doing yoga, head stands, calisthenics and contortions of all types.

The fence would prove very useful, as police would warn us of a particular violent Naga group carrying sticks to beat anyone who comes near them.

I was impressed by how incredibly well organized the police were and how compassionate they were in working with enormous crowds of believers only using very shrill whistles to effectively control the crowds. Also, the holy men are segregated from the common pilgrims who were right on the other side of the fence… millions of them.

There is one unforgettable event on this day for Dick and me. By 10AM, we had been standing for 9 hours with nothing to eat. Dick announces he needs a brief power nap and convinces me that there is an open plot of land to do just that. We go there only to realize it was an open air public toilet where Indians have this uncanny way of privately but publicly just squatting and peeing. Nothing deters Dick so we find a “dry” section and plop ourselves down. Our guide, who had been told to stay with us every minute, thought we were crazy and went off to find a hunk of cement to sit on in a more civilized way then his wards. Dick closes his eyes, head in my lap as I am writing in my journal when I scream, “Wake up, NOW, RUN!” Approaching out of nowhere in a cloud of dust are hundreds of naked stoned Nagas stampeding our way to get to the water! So much for Dick’s nap!

Finally, we are watched out. Our souls are tired witnessing the spiritual journeys of others. At the end of it all – a spectacle the likes of which I will never see again – brings me to one more final question. Why did human beings evolve needing such rituals and beliefs? But BELIEVERS we are! Well, at least, most of us, anyway!