After a week of language classes, culture workshops, and teacher training, we were pleased to be left to our own devices for the weekend. Thus far, though the prevailing atmosphere is a laid-back one, we have a busy schedule so were eager to take advantage of our days off. We have just arrived in Laos, but our weekend plans took us to two very different sorts of farewells.
In preparing for this experience and answering questions about the country, previous Laos Fulbrighters have been immensely helpful. Through these conversations, we learned that Melia, last year’s research grantee, was in-country until this week. She invited us to her house during the week and we were subsequently invited to a small going away party her friend Aluna was hosting on Saturday.
A few plates of fruit in hand, our gang ventured north to Aluna’s gorgeous house where we were greeted warmly by a mix of expats and English-speaking locals. Most of the expats were scholars, either former Fulbrighters or Luce scholars, and many of the locals had actually grown up in the States but returned to Laos afterwards. While our group of ETAs is great, we are also all eager to branch out and make more friends in the area. This gave us a good chance to connect and even network about potential volunteer opportunities.
The most striking part of the party, however, was the baci. This is a traditional Lao ceremony that is spiritual, not religious, held on special occasions like welcomes and farewells. The elder man leading the baci showed up an hour or two later than expected, but most people didn’t really seem to care about the delay, chalking it up to Lao time. We all gathered around the pah kwan, a silver tray topped with a tower of pandan leaves bedecked in marigold flowers and sticks with short and long white threads tied to them. As we sat, we each grabbed hold of a long thread and sandwiched it between our palms. The elder led a Lao chant that he had written specially for the occasion. Though our limited Lao meant that we didn’t catch any of his rhyming or clever jokes, the atmosphere was relaxed and affable one. People took selfies, whispered comments to each other – or even the elder – and generally didn’t have the gravitas many religious or quasi-religious ceremonies seem to invoke. We then all grabbed the short white threads from the pah kwan and began to tie them around each other’s wrists, giving each other various blessings and well-wishes all the while.
We left Aluna’s house feeling all warm and fuzzy and completely unprepared for what the rest of the evening had in store for us.
Courtney had heard of a free concert at the Russian Circus from some local guy she was talking to on Tinder. In the States, Tinder is a notorious hookup app. My short-lived experiment with it left me creeped out and the people I know that have gone on Tinder dates have not had inspiring stories. That being said, I’m told that the app works very differently here, severing as a way to meet people, especially expats or foreigners passing through the city. I’m still hesitant to redownload it, but anyways, we decided to check out this concert, not sure of what the Russian Circus was or even what kind of music to expect.
The venue was exactly what you’d expect something called the “Russian Circus” to look like. As we walked through the curtained entrance and into the Big Top, we were greeted by flashing lights and a heavyset man in a cape and luchador mask screaming into a microphone: “SEARCH! AND! DESTROOOOY!” We glanced at each other in a mix of hesitance and amusement and as we sat down on the bleachers, Tassos grabbed us all Beerlaos. We kept ribbing C to find her “Tinder bae” and at first she didn’t see him, nor did she have interest in seeking him out. Besides, the scene in front of us was far too amusing to search alternate entertainment. The luchador finished a Metallica cover and he and his band were replaced with a band featuring a man in 70’s clothing – patterned bell bottoms, button up shirt, mop-top hair- singing a metal version of Poker Face. With each new band, our amusement and bewilderment grew.
During songs, small groups of people would go up right up to the stage area, to rock out in front of the band and interact with them in a much more intimate way than is typical of most concerts at home. When a group rapping entirely in Lao, C and I led the charge for us to go down there and join the increasing crowd in front of the stage. As the sets went on and a few more Beerlaos were crushed, we danced along with the crowd (a mix of locals and expats) to a strange combination of reggae and rap. At one point, Courtney spotted her guy from Tinder in the crowd and soon after he actually took the stage to rap… and was really good! We ran into him after his set and he ushered Courtney and I outside to get us more beers after realizing our hands were empty. His name is Loko and he is an Vientianian* with a big, welcoming personality who spends his days rapping and designing clothing. He explained to us how he and the rest of the artists arranged this concert in honor of their friend Cola, who recently passed away from dengue. In the process, they raised about $5,000 USD to donate to research. The last several songs in particular were dedicated to their friend and led to energetic chants of “Cola! Cola! Cola!”. Instead of the sadness that typically accompanies death (in Western culture), this concert was a celebration of their friend’s life.
Melia’s baci and the Russian Circus concert were diametrically different farewells but both were festivities that chose to celebrate their relationships with the departed, rather than fixating on the sorrow inherent in the goodbye. Just because something ends doesn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful and meaningful while it lasted.
* I made up that word. Accepting better suggestions for a demonym for people from Vientiane now.