Exposures


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Belief

Text by Patty Simon | Image by Dick Simon
India

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Dick likes to tell everyone that this trip is about spiritual journeys and justifies why we headed to the largest religious gathering in the world at the Kumbh Mela in India. My gut cringes each time I hear because I am not very “religious” so when I witness various “religions”, it does not do much for my own spiritual journey. But, I let it go and try to just be open to whatever happens in these countries with such intense, varied belief systems.

We have gone from Christianity to Hindu to Buddhist to Muslim and back to all four living next to each other side by side.

So here is where my journey has led. In terms of religion… Nowhere. Though I have always respected others beliefs, I find myself foreign to it all. I think I have a gene missing. When I go into these sacred shrines, all I see is decoration and fascination for what these gods look like or how they are honored with offerings. Even the Christian churches feel foreign because all I can think of are missionaries imposing foreign beliefs on an already embedded belief system of thousands of years.

As an artist I have always been obsessed with shrines. I take pictures of every one I see (well, in India this is impossible as they are every 50 feet and we could never get to our next destination). I collect offerings. I study design and what qualities make a “shrine”. I have wanted to do an art installation but I get snagged by one problem. Because of my lack of religious belief, what would I pay homage to? I have thought about this year after year and it keeps me from actually producing the show. (An invitation to anyone reading this, if you have any ideas, please let me know)

So… Belief! If not religious, what would my belief look like?

I’ve decided my belief is about what God creates… the beautiful natural landscape and the people that exist in this huge world. My belief is wrapped up in their belief that life is worth living and struggling for – in the everyday and the tiniest of kindnesses.

 


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An Artificial Utopia

Text by Patty Simon | Image by Dick Simon
India

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Realities come in all shapes and sizes.

The layers of a culture are twisted and tangled.

I include the United States.

Dick and I are traveling on a more expensive level, which means we are sometimes separated from the local culture. Literally by walls and gates at exclusive resort properties but also by differences in cultural moiré. We balance this by ditching our guides and walking the streets talking to the locals and mixing where we stay. Right now most of the guests at our hotel are local Hindus here to see a famous shrine and the bathroom has no shower stall.

One of my favorite things to do is driving in a “protected” car and watching the world go by. It is like watching a movie. Everyone is outside living everyday life so it is so rich visually. Sometimes I just make a list… every living vignette, interaction, business, shrine, clothing, sign, sound and advertisement.

So, I find myself in different utopian situations. This came home to me yesterday in the car. I decide to listen to David Benoit’s song “If I Can Believe”, ironically off his “American Landscape” album. I am listening to music that always triggers an emotional reaction and none larger than today in India. Tears are rolling down my face as I am overwhelmed by my good fortune in witnessing all this. I always feel lucky in finding little pieces of heaven in these beautiful walled resorts but today the utopia is witnessing the people on the streets. Most don’t have much but they have enough to be included in the base reasons for living – work, shelter, food, family and community.

I now know my utopia is found on the streets of every culture we visit.

 


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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.