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War Zone Day

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka


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


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.