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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.


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The People of the Kumbh

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon


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


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”.



Kumbh Mela – The Event

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon



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.



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!