Exposures


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“Sun” Day

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
India

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We all know the sun rises and sets. This is why thousands of locals and foreigners come to Kanyakumari to see this natural occurrence at the southern tip of India where the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea all converge.

But it’s what happens in the middle that is so interesting.

Highlights:

– Meeting an Indian couple on the roof at sunrise and the next thing you know she is reading my palm and proselytizing. She has a sister in Dallas, which peaked my interest. She asked for payment to make this prophecy come true so I give her a Love Card in Hindi. She reads it but looks puzzled. She can only read Tamil so I switch to English which she is well versed in but not Hindi. Go figure!

-We head to the beach where Dick is consumed by colorful fishing boats in great morning light. I take my own pilgrimage out on a jetty I saw from our hotel room. I am drawn to water like a bee to honey so I set off. From far away the jetty looked like rock and dirt but it turns out it is a landfill with pieces of ragged plastic fabric, tile, glass, mortar and “things” that are not biodegradable. Typical India… more garbage, though this trash is put to a very good use as it helps make a bay and provides the fisherman a place to cast nets. I walk and walk and finally give into picking up colorful shards to add to my bottle cap collection. I end up at the very end where it is just the tumultuous sea and me. Heaven!

-Dick finding a “Pay and Use” Public Toilet for 5 cents

-The shocking pink cotton candy vendor. The fresh limejuice seller. The roasted peanut and deep fried chili “chefs” in their open air stalls. The Silk Sari merchants. The ice cream carts with bells. The cooks frying dough in all shapes and sizes who have to tolerate two kinds of sweltering heat from the frying pan and the sun.


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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!

 


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Another Kind Of Journey

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
India

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There are so many reasons to travel but the best is when you slowly and surprisingly realize the purpose.

I always thought it was about seeing new and different places…

Checking off a list of sights and getting to know people in unique cultures.

But I am beginning to see a connection to what I am drawn to and it starts with my last few years at home.

I find myself always hungry to go into the next slum so I can witness and understand firsthand poverty and suffering.

I say this at the risk of being a downer. At home, the last couple of years have pushed me in this direction. My quest for understanding the homeless population in Boston has led me to the horrific Rwandan genocide to Apartheid townships and now the slums of Mumbai. I feel like I am drawn to the streets, the poor, the struggling – the question of “who” they are, how they got there and the million dollar question – what is the most effective way of helping these people?

There are many experts on this subject, many people already doing great work to chip away at this enormous problem and people like me, who find it overwhelming. One finds an air of “acceptance”. I have often wondered why foreign NGO’s are doing a lot of the work that the local rich could do. Many are… And I admit my exposure is very limited.

What I come away with are more the philosophical big universal questions like a Why does it exist at all? Why does it continue?  Why does it become invisible to our consciousness?

I pose this to you and would love to get feedback! All of you have your own wise thoughts that might help me put this puzzle of puzzlement together.

I look forward to hearing from you.

 


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Varanasi – City of Death

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
India

Have you ever been to a place almost 30 years ago and go back and feel like nothing has changed?

I remember the first time I went to Varanasi, it was all about fire and water and little clay pots.

We are here to watch the open-air cremations (2-300 per day) by the sacred River Ganges. All Hindus wish for this end, the most holy, and the best opportunity for nirvana.

It is all quite dramatic! As I wander thru the narrow lanes of the old city splashed with offerings on shrines found in every nook and cranny and vendors selling strings of marigolds, incense, shrouds woven with gold and tins of ghee to rub on the deceased for better burning… I watch families of mourners carrying their loved one’s body (one every five minutes).

Night seems to enhance these ancient rituals. It also conveniently covers up the “impure” habits of these wonderful people… The idea that garbage of any kind should be left anywhere and everywhere.

So, I prefer the darkness. It highlights the stacked pyres of wood (there is actually a rule governing how much wood a family is required to buy inI order for the body to be burned down to ash). I know there is a body burning but the blackness protects my sensibility and I only see the beautiful reflection of the flames on the water along with tiny tins of flower and votive offerings – one of which was mine! This is all quite charming in water that by day is full of trash, excrement, cinder and an occasional coin or gold necklace that was wrapped in the body and a scavenger will find the next day with a magnet fishing pole.

The cremations are the focus along with a beautiful ceremony, called Aarti, held at the edge of the river on platforms holding red-robed priests blowing conch shells, ringing bells, burning incense and brass pyramids of tiny candles chanting blessings galore.

As if this is not enough to burn a lifetime of memories into our minds, the next day brings another boat ride viewing pastel buildings of the past, the ‘ghats’ (steps leading to river) where locals are washing themselves, even brushing their teeth (remember in the same water as the night before!), and washing their clothes (beating the dirt out on a stone slab). Oh, and did I mention the sacred cow or two that seem to be using the river too!

Still, one can’t help but fall in love with the color, the ritual, and the seduction of the Hindu faith in the afterlife where life always gets to a better place.

 


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India Arrival and First Impressions

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
India

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Capetown to Dubai – 9 hours
Layover in Dubai – 4 hours
Dubai to Mumbai – 3 hours

I was apprehensive, curious and excited to be going back to India. What I remember is a place of dense population and colors everywhere mixed with a smog made of dust, automobile exhaust, humidity and poverty with a touch of the rich and famous (Dick’s friends from HBS and YPO).

In the last 2 days, we have dined in luxury… had incredible conversations about slum rehab and doing business in China from an Indian’s point of view… Visited Dharavi – the slum of “Slum Dog Millionaire”… Driven thru Kamati Pura – the red light district hearing the horrific stories of sex trafficking… Learned about “Pavement Dwellers”  – whole families literally sleeping on the streets and if you are lucky, under a piece of ragged plastic or fabric… Dhobi Gaat – the historically famous open-air laundry where “only” men use 730 cement vats to wash and line dry laundry… And lastly, the famous delivery of 200,000 lunch boxes daily by white capped men to all parts of the city. (Harvard Business School has done a case study where there is less than 1 mistake in 6 million deliveries.)

I am overwhelmed by the air pollution “thick as soup”, the crazy traffic, the garbage everywhere, the professional courtesy of the staff at the Oberoi, the thousands if not millions in poverty, the crumbling buildings, the makeshift shack stores, the opulent wealth, the ugly underbelly that every city can have but this major city shows too much of it, the marigold garlands adorning the doorway for good luck and the industriousness of making recycling big business in the slums.

I seem to be always attracted to the struggling, the poor and the history of how they got there. In every instance, I have been pleasantly surprised that our view of “slums” now includes the term “work” and “upward mobility”. These people are still stuck and it is not happening fast enough.

I had a strange experience. When I landed and took a taxi to our hotel, I was so overwhelmed by all of the above. Then I went to the slums which are ten times worse and looked at the same hotel route with new eyes- all relative.

Which brings me to my final thought… All this ultimately forces me to look at what ails our own country – our poverty, our policies, our homeless and unemployed. We are all in this together!