Exposures


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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).

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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?

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Gorillas – Being face to face with these massive ‘cousins’ in the wild in Rwanda is definitely a top life experience.

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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.

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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.

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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…)

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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!

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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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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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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.