Last weekend, while my friends and family were enjoying the beautiful Pacific Northwest’s early start to summer weather, I boarded an airplane for La Crosse, Wisconsin.
While I love to take photographs in and around the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane areas, I am always super stoked when I have the opportunity to join a wedding party in another state (or country) on their special day. This was just such an occasion!
It all started in early Spring 2014 when my fun-loving bride and groom (Matt and Kelly) drove over four hours from their home in Montana to have me shoot their engagement photographs. What a rad couple! We had many laughs throughout the day and realized that we all shared a love of fine spirits and beer … these are my kind of quality folks.
We instantly hit it off and had a blast during the photo session. The couple was surprised to learn that I encourage out-of-town wedding inquiries. In fact, I like to remind people to consider hiring me (a photographer they are already familiar with and trust) for destination wedding events. Often times the price paid to me for my photography session and travel is LESS than hiring an unknown photographer at the destination location.
Wherever I travel I try to find interesting ways to catch some of the local culture and night life. I was stoked to be able to catch a Devil Makes Three and Old Crow Medicine Show concert the night I flew into town.
My bride and groom-to-be were perfect in every way! Matt and Kelly graciously invited me to share the fun of their rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, and made me feel like ‘one of the gang’. I got to experience some great fun and lots of really flavorful craft beers.
The day of the ceremony went off without a hitch. The bridal party and I took our time playing and taking pictures. We spent a good portion of the day off gallivanting even before the ceremony’s festivities began.
The couple was spontaneous and gladly let me work my creative magic. I feel that the images I delivered of their day show the true celebratory vibe of their special day. With very little direction, Kelly and Matt knew I would deliver a product that was beautiful, joyful, and captured their love for each other. I have to say that I believe we ended up with just what they wanted.
We had lots of time to incorporate quirky picture settings and take candid shots of the bride, groom, and wedding party outside of the formal ceremony. This is so important for a couple like this who wanted to make a day of the celebration. This was their day and they loved every minute of it.
During the ceremony and reception I could really feel the love and happiness that wrapped around the couple. They are blessed to be supported and cared for in such a deep and meaningful way. By the way, did I mention that these people could get their groove on? Oh, yeah. That happened!
Thank you again to Matt and Kelly for making my trip to La Crosse such a blast! I am a lucky guy to get to spend time with cool lovebirds like them, and capture amazing portrait memories for them in the process.
This is why I love being a destination wedding photographer!
We expected that breakfast would be served in the same location. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the Sky Lounge the room was dark and a single attendant stood ready to usher us onto another elevator. Seems that this large, completely empty restaurant is not suitable to serve the same purpose two days in a row. Nope. We need to find a new spot for this morning’s shindig (sarcasm implied).
I can’t decide if the shell-game hotel management plays with the morning food is some cruel joke, or a logistical strategy so I shut my mouth and just climb aboard.
Our food was just as varied and flavorful as the day before. We even had a system for gathering complimentary foods in fewer trips…and the soup! I wish I had a pot of this stuff on my stove at all times.
Today, Jeremiah is a determined man. A couple we met had given us their hi-tech map of the area (complete with more street names and fewer pictures of temples) and explained the waterway transit system. This waterway thoroughfare leads right to within walking distance of the Siriraj Medical Museum. Remember? The same Siriraj we spent half of the prior day walking the streets of Bangkok searching for.
We learned that approximately one mile from our hotel was a depot, of sorts, for this local, riverboat commuter transit. All we had to do was navigate our way to the tributary and pay the fare; creepy forensic museum here we come! But first, the dreaded streets of Bangkok.
A vast sea of humans and vehicles all pushing in different directions, and each vying for priority. We mentally braced ourselves as we exited the elevator on the ground floor. The contrast between the quiet, solitary elevator and the sardine-packed lobby is absurd. I have never been surrounded by so many people in my life!
We, again, leave the taxi queue area and head west toward the river. The first half-dozen streets crossed were not terribly hectic, but still crossing made us anxious. We watched in wonder as the locals fearlessly stepped into oncoming traffic to cross the roads unharmed and without incident.
I was fascinated with the behavior and watched closely. I noticed a trend in pedestrian protocol. Pedestrians stop at a convenient location along a road and wait for an adequate number of ‘reinforcement’ pedestrians to also stop at the same spot. As passing vehicles lose momentum, someone will spearhead the crossing effort. The hand facing traffic goes down at a “V” angle (we were told not to point directly at someone as it was considered rude) and you step out into the wild beyond. And when one goes, so does the reinforcement group that had been forming as you waited. How so much movement comes to an unspoken stop, all in harmony, is beyond me; but it does.
At the riverboat depot we boarded to the back, left of the vessel. I sat next to the water and looked at the riverbank overrun with plastic debris and trash of all sorts. (We saw so much natural beauty ruined by man’s waste and ignorance to the impact of the handling of the waste.) The boat sat virtually empty for several minutes and then, as if on cue, a swarm of commuters shuffled down the plank and quietly onto the boat.
The aging man two rows ahead of me tugged on a rope which ran through small pulleys up the side of the boat. The rigging was attached, finally, to a plastic shield off the side of the boat. The shield was raised as needed to keep the spray from passing riverboat traffic off of passengers. The engine roared to life and the anchor tossed aside.
Once moving on the water the air cooled and the tree canopy allowed us some reprieve from the climbing midday sun. The homes alongside the river were no more than twigs for frames, uneven plank boards for flooring, and corrugated plastic or metal serving as roofs and siding. For some dwellings tattered curtains were the only shield from the elements. More often than not, the Buddhist shrine in the courtyards glistened richly with golds and reds while the hovels beyond lay decaying.
When the boat finally reached its last stop we climbed the adjacent stairs to the walkway along the street above. Jeremiah and I took turns reading the map and leading the expedition toward the museum. I can only assume how foolish we looked while we buried our noses in the map as we walked, pointing and looking confused; often the only white people on the street.
Persistence paid off! Not only did we find the entrance to the museum, but a wonderful street market lined the road just outside.
We must have made a dozen stops on that road before we ever made it inside the campus. Decadent cakes, beer, gooey hazelnut crepes, several varieties of kabobed meat, clothes shopping, more beer, and so much people watching.
The Siriraj Medical campus was buzzing with activity. All along the open air hallways and green spaces between buildings people milled about reading, talking, and laughing. No one we stopped spoke English, so we found a campus map and made our way to the forensic building.
The entrance was unmarked and unmanned; it’s a fluke we found it at all! We knew we had arrived, though, just by the corridor’s appearance. Fluorescent lights hummed overhead and filtered light through specimen-filled formaldehyde jars. Several tiny ceramic figurines sat vigil next to the base of one such jar; a touching yet eerie reminder of the life-force that once inhabited the body of the baby inside.
The room we entered housed row after row and aisle upon aisle of human anatomy specimens. Curiously enthralled, we crept our way past remarkable oddities in the human body, early stages of anatomy mapping technology, and the wonderfully preserved lacework of the human nervous system.
Although not for those with weak stomachs (#nuffdeadbabies), the forensic museum was fascinating and well worth two days of effort to get there. Another visitor we happened upon in the exhibit explained to us that there was a whole other area we had missed. Jeremiah was giddy!
Back down the wide, curved staircase, across a courtyard and into an identical whitewashed building; oops! This had to be where we were intended to begin our tour. A curved wall guided us to a ticket counter and, beyond, highly interactive display rooms. This part of the museum housed a creepy display of parasites and related afflictions (I seriously could have lived all my days without sharing space with a life-size mannequin plagued with testicular ringworm). On the other hand, I was intrigued by the naturally mummified cadavers; fascinating stuff folks! We both appreciated this up-close and unfiltered look into the human body.
Surprisingly enough, we were hungry again! We left the orderly confines of the campus for the harried Bangkok streets in search of food. Conveniently, we found a taxi with little trouble. We hopped into the back seat and named our destination. The driver nodded and we drove on. A block into our ride we asked what the price would be. We knew it should not be more than 80 baht. When the driver told us his price was 200 baht we refused. The nerve! We may be tourists but not stupid ones; we tried to negotiate to 100 baht. After all, there had to be a happy middle-ground. Irritated the driver pulled to the side of the road and shooed us out of the taxi.
There we were again, dejected and walking to our hotel halfway across the city. Luckily, we were close enough to the waterway transit to make our way back. We stopped at a rooftop cafe, cooled down with another few beers and ate an early dinner. The water sparkled as brightly as the golden temple rooftops on the opposite bank.
This was a good day. We had managed to successfully navigate our way from one end of this gigantic city to the other; we were proud and contented. Although this was the last day we planned to spend in Bangkok we found ourselves wishing we had just a little more time to explore, a theme that would become common to us along this whole adventure. We laughed at our mishaps so far and planned a trip to the night market later for foot rubs.
As the sun cast an orange-red glow across the Chao Phraya river we dreamed ahead to jungle temples and exhilaratingly dangerous Cambodian lands. We had seen so much, had our senses and comfort zones assaulted, and eaten some of the most remarkable foods already…could it get better? Were we at all ready for this? I think, yes!
We woke early with the curtains drawn wide. The day was starting off a bit hazy, like our minds. We aren’t so much tired as we are disoriented in our surroundings. City rooftops and massive roadways covered the landscape like body armor. Only small patches of the natural, living planet below the armor are visible.
What we learned is there are two independent elevator systems which only run to certain floors. It did get confusing. But wait, there’s more! Beyond the two main systems ran a third short elevator shaft up to the Sky Lounge and observatory. It took us a couple tries to find that little side trip, but we made it and the buffet was glorious!
The room was a ring of silver clad food offerings at its inner point, and tables with window seats looking out over every direction of the city-jungle that is Bangkok. We took turns scouting out culinary finds and returning to our table to share the spoils (and the view).
Jeremiah and I lingered at the table, sipping espressos and broadly smiling at the prospects of the day before us.
We left the restaurant and headed for the staircase to the observation deck above. The hallway was poorly lit and had a strange antiseptic smell to it. In a short amount of time we became accustomed to, and even enjoyed, the smell as it was so much more pleasant than the sewage odor out on the streets. The glow of the light at the observation deck’s door was blindingly strong against the black star-scape painted on the interior walls’ facade.
We blinked hard as we stepped out into the daylight and onto the metal grated floor of the deck. I looked toward the outer handrail and beyond to the miniaturized size of the city below. My head spun and I retreated to the safety of the inner edge, happy to hold the rail behind me and look out (and up). Jeremiah, on the other hand, was in heaven! He walked along the outer edge giddy and observant.
Eventually I decided the whole thing wasn’t going to fall out of the sky if I let go and I moved across to the outer rail for a better look. As the observation deck slowly rotated around the body of the hotel we tried to make mental note of the direction we would travel this day. We knew we would be heading toward the river but we didn’t know the exact route or duration of our journey.
Bangkok is an enormous city and we had places to see; The Siriraj Medical Museum to start! We had a vague understanding of the direction to travel for the museum, but the map was lacking. It showed temple locations as primary information and all other streets were unimportant. Bummer.
No bother, we figured we could at least point to our map, nod, smile, and be whisked away to our destination. The taxi transaction would then end in an exchange of baht (Thai currency). Right?! After all, many travel sites boast of Bangkok’s English-friendly ways. Ok. Ready, go!
Back down the exchange of elevators and out to the city streets teeming with life and activity below. We pass the tourists waiting at the hotel’s door and travel down to the next block. There we approached the back, curbside door of a hot pink taxicab and open it. Jeremiah smiles and states the name of our sightseeing destination to the driver. The driver smiles and says only, “temple” with a nod. “No. Museum. Siriraj Museum. Prannok Road.” Jeremiah said slowly and deliberately. “Look. Here. On map.” He pointed to our circled map reference. The driver glanced up, smiled and shook his head and hand in union saying “No.” We backed away befuddled and the driver drove forward. We tried upwards of 15 variations of the same exchange … all ending in the same result.
There we stood, deflated and hot, for a quarter of an hour until finally one driver nodded when we stated the museum’s name while pointing to the map. We hopped in the car with no further questions asked; and away we sped!
Down wide and narrow concrete byways, and through the hordes of people walking every which way. At no time could we make out the direction of the water or find a recognizable street name on our pathetic map. We were 100% dependent on our taxi driver to know the way to go from a glance at our tourist’s map. As the car slowed into side street parking we knew that dependence had 100% bitten us in the ass.
The driver deposited us at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Well, at least he heard “museum,” he just missed the small detail of which museum we were aiming to tour. We decided to find a place to collect our bearings and situate ourselves with our map location. We also decided that this place needed to serve beer.
We ate lunch at a little streetside cafe offering free wi-fi and overpriced iced coffee. We ventured a try of a green curry and eggplant dish and a version of the tom yum soup with milky broth and shrimp. Both were exceptional!
It turns out we are on Ratchadamnoen Nai Road just outside the Grand Palace. Wait, what?! We had no intention on touring the Grand Palace. We had never even Googled it! It also turns out that we are several miles (and a boat ride) from our intended adventure. Oh well, time for a new plan.
We made our way back to the street and navigated around halted tour groups, street beggars, merchant tables adorned in brightly colored linens, hanging baubles, and shiny trinkets for sale. The grounds of the Grand Palace are surrounded by a formidable whitewashed wall, and every visitor enters and exits through massive, rich wooden gates flanked by guards.
Peaks and domes glisten golden in the early day’s sun. We couldn’t believe our eyes… So. Much. Gold. Thousands upon thousands of tiles are leafed in it and throngs of religious statues embellished richly.
That night we went in search of “Thai hot” food; easier said than done. Jeremiah and I love hot food. I think Jeremiah is excessive in his zeal at times, but he loves me anyway.
This little woman ground several ghost and Thai chilis with her mortar and pestle. She added this ground hell-fire to fine pad noodles, assorted vegetables, broth, and shrimp in the wok and wove her spicy voodoo magic. Finally, we received: one bowl of steaming goodness, one fork, and one tissue to share between us.
The days leading up to our departure were a blur of checked tick marks on to-do lists, last minute necessary travel supply purchases, and crazy domestic mishaps.
The first day of our trip started early…like the day before early. I know it may seem strange to consider the start to our trip occurring before departure, but this was the longest trip either of us had embarked upon and we wanted to be comfortable and safe.
Travel Tip: Buy quality compression socks (my preference is the long, over the knee style) and wear them! Embrace the fact that you look goofy as hell in them and ride the wave of leg and foot comfort all the way to your flight’s destination.
How do you retell an adventure? I am glad to share the experiences Jeremiah and I had on our trip through Thailand and Cambodia this past month … but how to start? Well, let’s lay out a map of Southeast Asia and I can better visualize the travels, ok?
After all, 20-someodd days of living life on the other side of the world is long enough to forget a little bit; and if you know me, it’s long enough to forget what happened yesterday.
I can tell you that the bright-eyed (if not a bit groggy) people who set out on this adventure were in no way anticipating the journey that would come to pass. But isn’t that the way life goes? … Plans have a way of changing mid-flight.
We intentionally, painfully, liberatingly planned to: travel light, travel cheap, and let the experience lead us.
In hindsight, we did alright on the ‘light’ and ‘cheap’ points, but we excelled at letting the experience lead and change us! I know we both can say implicitly that we have grown individually and as a couple by leaps and bounds. I have always mused that you really get to know your partner during projects and travel … that theory was tested during our month apart from the people and life to which we are accustomed. You cannot help but change.
As we settle into being home, hang out with family, spend time with friends, and jump head-long into the mounds of ‘adult to-do’s’ we end up often mentally slipping back to the days and weeks we spent in a land made of red dirt and lush greens. A layer of rubbish, plastic debris, and dust was prevalent in most of the places we visited, but the beauty and magic of the land is undeniable … and the spell has been cast. If you sit long enough with either Jeremiah or me you will likely be told a story from our trip. We can’t seem to help ourselves, please do be patient with us.
Over the next few weeks I will share some of the memories we have made and try to take you to the unforgettable sites we have seen. We hope to spark your interest in Thailand and Cambodia, and in international travel of all kinds! We will offer the feeble advice recently acquired from a ‘learned it the hard way’ perspective. And, finally, we will show you some marvelous images photographed by Jeremiah Andrews Photography (not to mention, a few snapped by little ole’ me).
On this beautiful, cloudless February day it seems as if we are a million miles away from the hospitals, labs, and uncertainty that has plagued this family for the past 10 months; but the truth is … uncertainty is now an ever-present, unwelcome addition to their lives.
Early May 2014 a spunky eight year old Bella fell while at play during school recess, and no one questioned the source of the pain she felt in her ankle. However, the pain from the fall did not subside, it grew worse. Bella began experiencing progressive pain from her ankle, up her leg, and into other extremities. Bella’s parents, as would be expected, turned to the little girl’s primary physician for further investigation and answers. Standard tests revealed nothing alarming, and the family was sent home with no resolution or explanation for the little girl’s symptoms.
As the weeks progressed and Bella’s healing did not, the family became increasingly uneasy. Several more visits to the primary healthcare provider proved frustrating and ineffective in aleviating Bella’s suffering. By the end of May Bella began experiencing motor skill loss in her hands and was unable to write.
Weary and dejected, Bella’s parents finally circumvented traditional medical protocol and took the ill child to the emergency room at Sacred Heart Hospital. Bella’s mother was not insistent or overbearing; she did not run through the litany of medical poking and prodding Bella had already undergone; and she didn’t even attempt to speculate as to the nature of the beast plaguing her child.
As her mother retells the story of that specific outing, I am struck by the sadness still evident in her voice and eyes. I catch myself mentally stepping into the shoes of the medical provider she met with that day. I imagine looking into her tired eyes and listening to her voice catch as she implores, “There is something wrong with my daughter. I don’t know what it is, and no one has been able to find it. Please, help us.”
The hospital’s staff heeded the intuition of the frightened mother and set about trying to help.
Bella’s mother shuttled her little girl between multiple specialists in a dizzying attempt to put the puzzle of her child’s failing health into perspective. During the process Bella stayed strong. She tolerated innumerable X-rays, blood test, and even two MRI’s.
In fact, an error in collecting the desired image during her second MRI proved serendipitous. The image peered into an upper area of Bella’s thigh which was not suspect at that time. As the family would come to find, the cancer was only visible in the image at a point that would not have been captured had the MRI been executed as ordered.
Relief, remembrance, and intensified concern wash over Bella’s mother’s face as she speaks to me of the fateful phone call that would forever alter her family. Over a month had passed since Bella’s initial fall. The pediatrist who read the MRI results was not a regular player in the cast of medical providers, so it came as some shock to Bella’s mother when the doctor called her to urgently discuss treatment. She was lunching with Bella at Olive Garden … She was not prepared to learn that her daughter had cancer while eating lunch at a cheery restaurant full of boisterous people.
I have to gather myself and deliberately close my shocked mouth. I cringe to think that such impactful news was not delivered in a more personal setting. Seeing the emotions of my reactions cycle across my face causes Bella’s mom to chuckle. She answers the questions running through my mind, “No. It wasn’t expected. And it didn’t really bring any answers.”
Immediately Bella began heightened testing to determine her specific type of cancer, and further still, how to beat it. Bella was diagnosed with leukemia. Initially, doctors could not identify the type of childhood leukemia she had, and precious time ticked away. Frustrating yet familiar; The family now had a name to put to Bella’s assailant, but without determining the type and subtype of the cancer they were not able to effectively battle on her behalf. Bella began aggressive acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) treatment in hopes of halting the disease’s progress. Meanwhile, testing never ceased.
Blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm leukemia. Only 33 documented cases in the world. I sit, numbly, rolling the minuscule number around in my head. Those aren’t the kind of stats one would be excited to learn. How could they build a team of ‘experts’ to champion Bella’s recovery with so little information to be had? Again, my musings are muted by the impromptu response of Bella’s mom. “Want to know something amazing? Bella’s body has cells that are ‘natural killers’ for the cancer. She has some ability to fight the cancer on her own. That isn’t the case most of the time!” I can’t help but warmly return her smile.
I see that hope never left this woman. It is the glimmer of hope that is more infectious than the cancer cells plaguing her daughter. It is hope that is needed most.
Bella’s medical team shares her family’s hope and determination. How could they not? This family bursts with attentive, present love and appreciation for each moment they have with one another. Even after more than 12 rounds of chemotherapy in eight short months their resolve is unbroken.
My mind wanders again, and my eyes travel around our intimate little circle of conversation to Bella’s beaming, young face. She softly stroke her mother’s arm as she rattles off overwhelmingly long procedure names … and proudly adds that she has undergone all three kinds of chemotherapy. When her mother’s looks turns even the slightest bit melancholy Bella is right at her side to offer comfort. She is not asking for pity, or remorse, or sadness. She just offers light and love. This is one magnificent little girl; Again, I am moved to the verge of tears.
My own heart swells with appreciation for life; my life, my children’s lives, and for the lives I have been touched with over the course of time which seemingly parallel the lives of this family today. I am reminded that no one asks for the trials set before them … the best we can each hope for is that we handle our tribulations with a fraction of the grace and resolve Bella has shown.
I can’t help but wrap up our time together with the only question I can muster. “What do you want people to know about you?” Bella shoots her mom a quick glance that I cannot read and shyly smiles, “I love lipgloss and shopping. And, I really want to be a gymnast when I grow up.” A hearty laugh escapes each of us at the simplicity of her statement.
Somehow, Bella has transcended her physical circumstance and is not living as a slave to her disease’s shackles.
This bubbly (now) nine year old is not only celebrating over two months in remission, she is celebrating life! Bella visits Sacred Heart regularly, even though she is not currently a patient, and partners with children undergoing similarly frightening medical battles. She is quick to share her story when asked about the sweet doll, Cassidy, she hauls along with her everywhere. She and her mother regularly bring comfort items to the labs and hospital wards that have become like second homes to them in hopes of brightening other families’ hearts. Wherever a need exists, this family is trying to fill in the gaps, and many, many lives are better for it.
Bella tugs at her mother’s sleeve as a subtle indication that she would like to leave, and my glimpse into this remarkable life comes to a close. We exchange hugs and thanks, each of us sure we were the one to have gained the most from our shared time. Perhaps we are all richer for the joint experience.
Simultaneously, I am humbled and exhilarated. I have seen the face of an angel today … not an intimidating and awesome cherub of fire and brimstone, but a gentle and unassuming champion of hope and love. Bella is that champion.
If you would like to learn more about Bella’s battle, her type of cancer, or to offer your support to her family please follow this link: http://www.gofundme.com/9yelp8
I had the opportunity to work with the most amazing little girl this week and I cannot wait to tell you all about her inspiring story.
Bella and her family are fighting a battle with a rare form of leukemia … but they are already champions! Bella’s story will inspire you and make you reflect on what really matters in this life: hope, support, courage, and love.
Please check back next week for my post and more pictures of this precious little girl.
How do you know when you’ve found ‘true love’?
Soapbox philosophers and lovers throughout time have grappled with this question and, as far as I know, even the most sincere responses fall flat of truly embodying the electricity love creates.
Each of us has an ideal vision of love, and many of us struggle to lay hands on the elusive emotion, but it is never the words spoken on the subject that convince us love exists (and that it’s actually attainable).
As a veteran engagement, wedding and family photographer I’ve had the privilege of retelling many love stories; adoring, passionate, nurturing, and even playful … I have witnessed love manifested in innumerable hues and tones.
What have I learned from it all? Without a doubt, love does have a ‘look’. I recognize the twinkle when an engaged couple tells me the story of their first meeting, the reassurance in a mother’s gaze as she gently comforts her shy toddler, and the willing surrender as a husband embraces his new bride for the first time.
This look can never be forced or contrived, and is more precious than gold when captured.
I am fortunate to have the opportunity to share these glimpses into another person’s most personal and true heart; an honor I do not take for granted. I have held the feeling of that ‘look’ close when my own life seemed less magical … knowing all the while that each of us has the capacity to love so deeply.
I hope that in capturing this ‘look’ through my images I can offer the same hope and reassurance to viewers. True love is real. I’ve seen it in others, I’ve experienced it myself, and I want all of my images to celebrate it.