A Meditative Thanksgiving

IMG_0184I spent this Thanksgiving at a Buddhist temple in Vietnam. I had wanted to work a little meditation retreat into my trip, and Thanksgiving seemed like an appropriate time for contemplation and reflection. I felt I needed to do something to mark the holiday, to justify spending it away from home.

This was my second Thanksgiving apart from family. The first, six years ago after studying abroad in Australia, included a camper van and three friends as we travelled around Tasmania. We found a pay phone and took turns calling our families, then made stir-fry. Something about spending holidays away from the people you love makes the ones you spend with them that much more meaningful.

Arranging this trip to the temple had taken a bit of effort. Unlike other countries (say, India) where I imagine there is a meditation center on every corner, things aren’t really set up in Vietnam for foreigners to stay and meditate for multiple days, especially if you don’t speak the language. A family friend had suggested I try to stay at a temple with all women. They do take visitors, but it requires a bit of formality and prearranging. I called one Vietnamese temple in California and visited another to meet with the abbess. She recommended I stay at Vien Chieu, the temple she was originally from. The temple is in Dong Nai province, a two-and-a-half hour drive east of Ho Chi Minh City.

IMG_0253The all-female temple is home to 150 nuns and nuns-in-training. My experiences during two nights there can easily fill another blog post, so for this one, I’ll just focus on meditating and eating (in the spirit of Thanksgiving).

To get a sense of the place, it’s worth sharing the daily schedule:

3:00 am: Wake up to the sound of the big bell
3:30-5:00 am: Sitting meditation
5:30-6:00 am: Chanting prayers
6:30 am: Breakfast.
7:30-11 am: Do chores, work around the temple.
11:00 am: Lunch
Noon-1:00 pm: Sleep
1:00-400 pm: Dharma lessons and/or meditation
4:00-6:00 pm: Free time
6:00 pm: Dinner
6:30-7:00 pm: Chanting prayers
7:30-8:30 pm: Sitting meditation
9:00 pm: Sleep.

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The only time I’ve ever meditated consistently was five years ago, during a three-month stay at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington. Those three months were also some of the best of my life, an experience I can’t help but describe as “magical.” Although it was wonderful for all kinds of reasons, I sometimes wonder how much the meditation helped with my mental outlook. What kept me consistent was having a buddy, another girl who sat with me for 20 or 30 minutes every day before breakfast. Being accountable to someone else gave me the motivation to get out of bed a little earlier — which back then was only 7 am or so.

So now consider 3 am. At that hour, it helps not only to have a buddy, but also a giant bell that sounds a like a cross between a gong and an enormous clock chiming. It rings in a low, rhythmic but insistent tone, prying me from sleep. I grab my two cushions, a large, flat square one and a taller round one, and head downstairs from the guesthouse where I’m sleeping.

IMG_0234In the kitchen, a young novice nun hands me a pack of instant sweet coffee and a small glass. She pours in about a quarter of the hot water I normally use. I almost ask for more, then watch her gulp down her own strong glass in a few sips, almost like a shot. It’s time to get moving.

In the pre-dawn darkness, under glittering stars, we head to the meditation hall, a beautiful building shiny with dark, polished wood. We climb the curved wooden stairs. The novices carry cushions for some of the older nuns. The nuns sit in two long rows on either side of the long hall; the novices and I sit on the balcony, facing outwards.

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Before sitting, we line up in two long rows, facing each other, and they chant some prayers. The big bell sounds, someone else beats a drum. The rising and falling tones of Vietnamese lend themselves well to singing. It sounds almost Native American. It’s enough to get your heart going.

We prostrate to a statue of the Buddha three times, then disperse to our cushions. The big bell sounds a few more times. Then, silence. Except, not really. Crickets chirp, a few early morning birds twitter. During the evening sessions, frogs croak in the pond and dogs bark in the distance. Bats flit around the white flowers of the large tree in front of me. There are plenty of stimuli to distract me from the task at hand if I want them too.

The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it as always completely dark.

The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it was always completely dark.

The nuns practice zen meditation, which, in theory, appears deceptively simple. Observe your mind. Notice when a thought arises. Realize it is just an illusion. Let it go. Return to observing your mind. Simple, until you realize just how incessantly and thoroughly your mind fills with thoughts. Thinking about people, places, events that have happened or have yet to happen. These thoughts that bring about our happiness and sadness—they don’t really exist. They’re just projections that prevent us from truly experiencing the present moment.

The first evening I sat with the nuns felt like the longest hour ever. My thoughts jumped all over the place. I felt almost afraid of quieting my mind, afraid of the emptiness I would find if I let go of my world of thoughts. I felt myself tensing up, thinking that all of this was hard work, how exhausting it was to watch my mind at every moment. And sometimes, in fleeting moments, I felt myself relax. I’ve read that sitting on the cushion should just be an extension of your real life. Your mind should be in a similar, watchful state at all times. Except on the cushion, there are fewer distractions. It’s the training ground—and it can be challenging enough.

There are distractions aplenty for an untrained mind. In addition to the sounds of nature, I found myself puzzling over a periodic, wooden sound, thwack, thwack, THWACK, like two blocks hitting each other. Was it some kind of ritual happening behind me? Then one of the walking nuns knelt next to the woman sitting next to me, who rubbed her shoulder slightly. The kneeling nun proceeded to whack the sitter on the back with what looked like a wooden flyswatter. Thwack, thwack, THWACK. Clearly this was welcome relief for a cramping muscle, because the sitter acknowledged the thwacking with a little bow. But for me it brought to mind the image of Catholic nuns wielding rulers in the schoolroom. I couldn’t help but tense up when the walking shadows passed by. Don’t hit me, don’t hit me, don’t hit me… Kind of funny to think about it now.

IMG_0227Sitting for long periods can definitely cramp up your body. After thirty minutes, the cushion felt as hard as a stone. Trying to shift my crossed legs discretely was a challenge —like the nuns, I was dressed in a long shirt and pants, with an outer tunic-like dress over that. And I was sweating. My legs and fabric and everything felt stuck together. The sun wasn’t even up. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to sit here at the height of summer in its muggy, humid glory.

On the second morning, it dawned on me as the bell sounded and we settled down to sit, that for everyone except for me, this was the real deal. This wasn’t some special event, and certainly nothing staged for my benefit as a tourist. Every single morning and evening, these women sit and confront the true, stripped-down nature of their minds. And though I admired them for it, I found myself relieved, almost desperate, to return to my familiar world of distractions. It’s one thing to acknowledge that the sensory pleasures of the world actually bring you suffering in their impermanence. It’s another thing to walk the talk, to renounce them entirely.

IMG_0393A little wind chime over my head faked me out once or twice during the sessions into thinking the meditation was over. Another time, I stole a glance at my watch and it was 4:59. The session ended at 5 am—couldn’t I have held out for just one minute longer? The bell sounded to mark the end of the meditation, and the nuns spent a good five or seven minutes stretching and massaging their faces, necks, backs and limbs. I always felt relieved.

Altogether, I sat five times over the course of three days, for an hour or an hour and a half each time. Each time was a challenge, though it got easier. And in the best moments, it became clear how many of the things that cause me stress and distress don’t really exist. That I can have more control over what runs through my head. That I’m mentally stronger than I think I am.

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And now, a few words on eating. The vegetarian meals I ate with everyone in their common area—breakfast and lunch—were marked with ceremony. Once everyone has piled up their food, buffet style, and filed into the cafeteria, the nuns recite some prayers and bless the meal.

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The Buddha instructed five basic points for monks and nuns to contemplate while eating in silence. Huan, my translator, broke it down for me like this:

1. Think about all the people and effort necessary to bring this food in front of you.
2. Contemplate your virtues: have you worked hard enough to earn this food others have given to you?
3. Guard against being greedy in your eating.
4. See the food as medicine to nourish your body (more than a source of pleasure)
5. The purpose for eating this food and nourishing your body is to study the Buddhist path and help yourself and others reach enlightenment.

To me, these seemed like fitting reflections for Thanksgiving. The nuns recite the contemplations, then bless their bowls of rice. You balance the bowl on three fingers of your left hand and hold it to your forehead.

On Friday morning, around the time many people back in the US gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, I sat down to a breakfast of rice, greens, eggplant—and, to my great delight, butternut squash. Golden and delicious, and one of my holiday favorites, it felt comforting to eat thousands of miles from home. We also had a bright pink broth, the color of beets (or cranberries) that looked festive, but was rather sour, and I think flavored with some kind of fruit. Bananas for desert.

All in all, it was a holiday unlike any other, and one I’ll remember for a long time. And I even made it back to my cousin’s house on Friday after an eventful bus ride (25 people crammed into a 12-seater van, the woman next to me throwing up into a plastic bag…) to Skype my family at the end of their Thanksgiving. After being “away from it all” for a few days, there’s nothing like technology to bridge the distance of an ocean.

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Butterflies

If you don’t count the markets or the zoo, I haven’t seen much by way of wildlife during my trip—that is, animals on their own terms. I suppose that’s inevitable when staying in cities—although even there, the geckos are constant, if uninvited, houseguests. But one group I hadn’t expected just knocks itself out in fleeting but breathtaking displays, reminding me that Southeast Asia is, in fact, a tropical hotspot of biodiversity.

I’m talking about butterflies. Some are orange-and-black Monarch look-alikes; others wear pale green with black stripes, dark blue or light blue, white with orange markings, bright yellow. Aside from the occasional Monarch flutter-by in Santa Cruz, I’m not used to spending so much time in their winged company. Whenever a butterfly zips past, it feels like an event, calling to mind trips to an orchid greenhouse or the rainforest exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences. Adding to my excitement, each new butterfly was usually different than any I had already seen.

Can you see me?

The abundance of these pretty insects signals their ability to survive in urban areas, but undoubtedly their habitats here are changing. As we drove to visit a village in Laos, I would watch a passing butterfly try to power its way above us, only to get swept up and sent sailing in the drafts of air the cars created with speed.  A four-lane highway becomes a non-stop death corridor—not to mention the clearing of vegetation on either side. Watching a derailed butterfly go tumbling away, I could only hope it would recover, that it hadn’t collided with our windshield.

As much as I marveled at these wanderers, I had pretty much given up hope trying to photograph them. I grew up playing the computer game Amazon Trial, the more modern, ecologically conscious cousin of the famous Oregon Trail game. Rather than trying to shoot buffalo (or those annoying squirrels), the goal in the South American version was to shoot photos of rainforest wildlife. If an animal like a butterfly darted across the screen, you just had to click it with your mouse-based “camera.” And presto, a perfectly framed, focused picture of the animal appeared on the screen, as if it had kindly posed for you. Even at the time I had a sneaking suspicion this type of photography was a notch easier than the real thing. Here, as I watch the butterflies darting around, I am definitely pining for that kind of Go-Go-Gadget-style camera magic.

From the back…

…and the underside

Happily, the bushes and flowers at the Vien Chieu temple, where I spent Thanksgiving, turned out to distract the butterflies just long enough for me to sneak up on a few and snap their pictures. Poised with my camera instead of a net, I felt like a modern day insect collector, tracking my flitting quarry from one branch to the next, usually in vain.  These are the successful encounters—hopefully you can extrapolate from this small sampling to their amazing and colorful diversity.

And a moth, so as not to be too biased.

And on the subject of moths, one startling one from Laos.

The Ancient House

I fear that from this point forward, my blog will be pretty far from chronological and anything near “real time,” but such is the tricky balancing act of travel writing: trying to do noteworthy things, and finding time to actually write about them.

As a quick recap of my roughly four weeks in Southeast Asia, my first week included a trip to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, followed by a week in Ho Chi Minh City, and a weekend volunteer trip to the outskirts of Long An province west of the city. I travelled to Laos last week, and am now back in Ho Chi Minh City for my last week.

I want to circle back to my week in Can Tho to write about one of my favorite sites, something a bit off the beaten track. Our hotel listed a few local attractions worth seeing besides the famous floating markets, and among them was “Binh Thuy Ancient House.” Something about the name intrigued me, so my cousin and I rented a motorbike on a free afternoon and, armed with a map, traveled to the general vicinity about 15 minutes outside of town.

Not knowing exactly where the house was, we pulled over at a pagoda that looked promisingly ancient to see if it was our destination. My cousin asked an old woman selling food outside the gate, and she waved her hand vaguely at a road across the street, as if shooing us away. “She says it’s that way,” my cousin reported. As we made our way down the narrow street, lined with vendors and shops, I started doubting the accuracy of our less than detailed directions, certain we’d never find it.

But the house was in fact on that street, though we drove past it once before we realized it. The large blue iron gate was closed, except for a side panel wide enough to ride a motorbike through. I expected at least a sign. The beautiful tile courtyard was empty. My cousin talked to some workers doing some repair on the side of the house, then parked the motorbike and headed around to the other side of the house. I followed him, assuming we were in the right place. We rang a doorbell and peered through a screen door into what looked like someone’s darkened kitchen. After some time, an old woman appeared, spoke to my cousin briefly and shut the door.

“It’s closed, isn’t it?” I said. But no, she was simply unlocking the main room for us. Stepping through the green shuttered doors into the dim interior felt like entering a long unused room in a mansion from the Secret Garden—or maybe the big library reveal scene from Beauty and the Beast. As the woman opened one pair of shutters and then another, a high-ceilinged room slowly appeared out of the darkness, crammed with breathtakingly ornate artifacts from another time.

I suppose “ancient” is a relative term for describing the house, which was built in 1870 and remodeled to its current state in 1911. The inside revealed a blend of Eastern and Western styles. Tile floors, beaded chandeliers, carved hardwood chairs and tables, ceramic vases, wooden wall panels with exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay. Carved ivory tusks of an elephant long dead. Most staggering were the intricately hand-carved wooden borders that framed each entryway, a true artistic masterpiece of deer, birds, and flowers.

I wondered aloud how the owners had made their fortune to pay for such luxurious things, assuming my cousin would translate for our guide. “Our family were rice and salt merchants,” she replied in perfect English, with clean diction. With surprise, we learned that the woman, whose name is Lien, is a retired English teacher. The house belonged to her own family, who had lived in the area for six generations since the 18th century.

Our visit suddenly became infinitely more personal—a trip to someone’s home rather than a stuffy museum. Lien was delightful: gray hair pulled back in a neat bun, graceful features, soft eyes, a kind smile that revealed a few gold teeth. She seemed like the perfect grandmother.

Lien, a descendant of the house’s original owners, is worth the visit on her own! Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

She and about 10 members still live in rooms behind the main house, but in the old days, she said, there were many more. The land surrounding the house used to be much bigger too. Now most of the family lives far away, and I sensed a grandmother’s sadness when she said this. In a framed group photo of a family reunion at the house, Lien is positively beaming with a small child in her lap.

It was easy to imagine the family dissipating over the years, the fortune crumbling, the precious artifacts and tracts of land sold off one by one to pay for debts, taxes, bribes. One black-and-white photo in a booklet Lien gave me showed a baby posed between two absolutely enormous elephant tusks from the family collection. The caption contains a poignant parenthetical: (missing already). The remaining family treasures are now collected into the house’s main room in a shadow of its former glory—with a single woman invested in keeping its memory alive. Perhaps I identify with Lien because I am definitely one nostalgic for the past, someone keen for preserving history who often cringes at modernization.

I found myself taken with a photo of the actress Jane March hanging on the wall. A scene from the racy 1992 French film “The Lover,” which I hadn’t heard of, was filmed at the house. The lead actress is a mix of Vietnamese and European ancestry, though I was disappointed to learn that she plays a French girl in the film. The film is set in 1929, during Vietnam’s French colonial period—it would seem only fitting to have a character that acknowledged intermarriage. During my time here, I sometimes find myself wondering by the shape of someone’s nose or other facial features whether they have any European or American blood. I studied Jane March’s face with particular interest. I know many multiracial people, but have met only two or three that are specifically part Vietnamese like me. As a minority among minorities, there’s something to be said for finding people who “look like you”—in the sense that they have similar roots.

Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

I asked Lien how many visitors she gets at the house. Some days are busy when a tour group might come, she said, but most weeks are like today, only a few visitors if any. On our way out, I gave her a small donation to thank her for opening the house, about $5. She was so pleased, and asked if we would like to see the garden. My favorite photography subjects are flowers, so here I was in bliss. So many bright tropical orchids!  Wandering through the garden reminded me of my own Vietnamese grandmother’s, beautiful and slightly cluttered and in need of repair. A cat and some bony kittens stared at us with skittish eyes.

Lien came out to give me a small booklet on the history of the house, written in Vietnamese, English and French. She had even penned a dedication in it. She returned to the house, then ran back out, smiling and flustered because she realized she had mixed up “From” and “To” in the dedication. Endearing. Then, as we were leaving, she ran out again to give us a bag of sweet cooked plantains. A woman truly after my own heart.

Consider this my full endorsement for visiting the Ancient House if you should find yourself in Can Tho, Vietnam—if for no other reason but to meet its charming proprietor.

To Market, to Market

Forget the mall. My favorite kind of shopping is visiting the farmer’s market.  Or here in Laos, it’s simply “the market.” There are no big chain stores for produce here in Vientiane where I’m visiting the FISHBIO office. So for fresh food, including fish, head to the sprawling maze of vendors under tarps or umbrellas in one of the city’s many outdoor markets.

Luckily, I’m in “window shopping” mode only on my visit—even for an open-air market fan like me, the selection is overwhelming. Piles of bright, colorful food usually tempt me into buying way more than I need. And next to the food there are stalls and stalls of clothes, jewelry, incense, toys and other things for sale. How anyone does their shopping here without getting lost is beyond me.

Chickens spin on spits, fish flop in vats of water, workers push carts of ice through the narrow aisles. Vendors, mostly women, swish sticks with air-puffed plastic bags over their tables to keep the flies at bay. And they scrape fish scales and yield cleavers with deadly efficiency.

My co-worker Mout and I meandered through three different markets so I could film the different species of fish for sale.  And I have to say, some of these fish from the Mekong are huge!  Catfishes two and a half feet long. Granted, that’s nothing compared to the true Mekong giant catfish, a species that can grow more than ten feet long. Still, these big guys are far larger than anything I’ve seen at any grocery store. It’s impressive to think how many of these hefty fish are swimming around in the river­—and how there were probably even more, even bigger fish in the past.

And what do the vendors do with the fish they can’t sell? Dry them or ferment them. Nothing goes to waste. Although based on the smell, I’m guessing that fermented fish is probably an acquired taste…

The Pineapple and the Coconut

Plenty of pineapple at the floating market.

My saga to learn Vietnamese continues…

I took one Vietnamese class during my junior year of college, the only time such a class was available at any of the schools I’ve attended. I remember feeling frustrated at all the time and emphasis spent on the six Vietnamese tones or accents. I wanted words! I wanted to understand things! The tones just seemed like semantics. Plus, they are really difficult for a self-conscious speaker with a thick tongue.

But in a tonal language like Vietnamese, the tones are the key to understanding and (correctly) saying anything. It’s not enough to learn the general shape of a word, the pattern of consonants and vowels strung together that make one word distinct from another.  This approach, which helped me learn English and Spanish, doesn’t apply here, where the same word can have six different meanings depending on its tone. So it’s back to the basics of inflection for me.

Many of the Vietnamese words I’ve accumulated until now revolve around food. I’m pretty solid on fruits (at least, common fruits in the US), but for the life of me could not remember coconut or pineapple. Now I’ve realized it’s because the words are spelled exactly the same, with only the accent mark and the inflection of your voice to tell the difference. Pineapple = dứa, and coconut = dừa. Oh, and to make it more fun, the “d” is actually pronounced like a “z” if you’re from the North of Vietnam, and like a “y” if you’re from the South. Keeping all that straight?

During a floating market tour in Can Tho, we walked through a garden with a pineapple tree (plant?) growing near a coconut palm. Our fellow tourists from Germany expressed surprise that pineapples grow out of the ground. That’s it, I thought. Pineapples (dứa) grow up from the ground and have an up inflection, while coconuts (dừa) fall down from the tree and have a down inflection.

Never mind that I could just use another word for pineapple (thơm) that sounds nothing like coconut. I was pretty proud of myself for that one. But creating mnemonics for every Vietnamese vocabulary word? Fat chance. So it’s back to my little book, hoping that writing things down will help me recognize and remember new words. I need to sort and catalog them into different mental bins for the different tones. Learning to read, write and speak a word all at the same time seems like a tall order, but I’m realizing I can’t really do one without the others. The only way I’ll be able to navigate this language is knowing which way the tones go.

Writing it down….Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

A Familiar (Fish) Face and the Language of Science

Why hello, Chaunacops coloratus!

It’s always comforting to see a familiar face in a foreign country—especially when the face belongs to a deep-sea fish. I had the surreal experience of “bumping into” an anglerfish from the Monterey Bay area while visiting some fish researchers at Can Tho University.  One scientist had the latest copy of a Vietnamese aquaculture and fisheries magazine on his desk, and the front cover bore the mug shot of a fish that resembles an adorable pink grapefruit.

I’d know that whimsical tilt and “smiling” face anywhere. I passed it many times on a scientific poster hanging on the way to my graduate advisor’s office at Moss Landing Marine Labs. My advisor, ichthyologist Greg Cailliet, recently co-authored a research paper about the first live observations of this anglerfish, called Chaunacops coloratus, with researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. (I’m guessing this paper is why the little angler is now a Vietnamese cover model. )Thanks to the technology of underwater robots and cameras, they were able to describe this fish going about its business in its natural habitat at an incredible depth of 3,300 meters (11,000 feet). The MBARI website has a great story about the fish, and even video of it swimming around and hanging out.

Needless to say, there was something so comforting in seeing my culture and my field of study intersect in this unexpected way. I don’t know if I adequately conveyed to the Vietnamese researcher why I was so excited about this fish, but he gamely let me photograph his magazine.

In my first post, I mentioned how I wanted to cultivate a relationship with Vietnam through the lens of science and the environment. My Vietnamese is rudimentary at best, but once we start speaking the language of science, I feel right at home.  Getting a tour of the facilities at the university’s school of Aquaculture and Fisheries was a chance for me to comfortably lapse into full geek-out mode.

Bubble bubble…vials of algae soon to become shrimp food.

I learned that students and faculty at the university study diseases and parasites that afflict farmed shrimp and catfish. That they isolate and culture different species of algae to feed baby shrimp and mud crabs. That they are researching methods of integrated aquaculture, using plants to filter the waste from catfish farms. All very cool.

An experiment to see if these plants can clean up farmed catfish waste water.

A highlight: the researchers invited me to check out some tiny planktonic animals called rotifers—both marine and freshwater varieties— that they grow for aquaculture feed.  As I sat down at the scope and adjusted the eyepiece, suddenly all the barriers of this foreign country dissolved. For my graduate work, I spent more hours at a microscope than I care to count, trying to identify bits of fish guts. Suffice it to say: a microscope is familiar territory.

We’re on home turf now… Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Staring at the little critters zooming about tapped into a deep-seated feeling of wonder and appreciation that usually bubbles up when I’m reminded about the incredible diversity of life. Another time this happened was in the seventh grade when I, also seated at a microscope, first watched a paramecium ambling around a drop of water.  My thirteen-year-old self had no way of knowing what direction my future would take me, but I knew I wanted some connection to that experience of awe, as the natural world opened up to me under the lens of science. It’s humbling to think how all the paths I’ve taken and connections I’ve made have overlapped and intersected to bring me to this point.

Erin Taking Pictures

One of the perks of traveling with my cousin, a professional photographer, is that I come away with some top-notch photos of my vacation. I’m also a big fan of taking pictures, though I’m not studied or practiced enough to really consider myself a photographer (yet!). After sorting through my cousin’s photos from our recent trip to Can Tho, Vietnam, I realized he’d taken a lot of pictures of me, well, taking pictures. (Or in some cases, video, which explains my odd posture in trying to stabilize the camera.)

I thought putting some of these together would be a fun way for me to familiarize myself with the “galleries” feature in WordPress. Hope you enjoy! I’ll also put in a plug for Quan’s work as a wedding photographer: If you or someone you know is getting married in Southeast Asia, check out some of his photos!