Shade, Kaia and I trudged up the windy cobblestone hill, our feet morphing into heavier and heavier stone slabs with each step. Having just played ultimate frisbee on the local school’s concrete basketball court/playground and with the last rays of sunlight receding into shadow, we were on a dead course for each of our respective homes and cozy beds. But as we passed one of the village’s 4 hole-in-the-wall convenience stores on our right, the slow pulse of some alien-sounding music grew louder and louder. Quickly peeking inside the house that we’d identified as the source of the music, I briefly made eye contact with my host mom as she danced with 12 other women in what I instantly associated with a ladies’ Zumba class. “I think that was my host mom in there,” I said to Kaia and Shade as we continued up the path, carefully navigating the streaks of horse manure that checkered the road. Before either could answer, we were halted in our tracks by “nii men lai, nii men lai” (come, you guys, come!), my host mom standing with a wide grin on the threshold of the dance party house. Shade and I quickly exchanged glances that said, “I’m tired, how do we get out of this,” but unable to think of a plausible excuse we could communicate to her with our limited Mandarin capabilities, we acquiesced and entered the house.
A common theme of this Mekong semester has been that the experiences to which I’m initially the most resistant or skeptical have often been the most rewarding or special. I remember my 10 year old host brother in our Don Dohn homestay waking me up with a headlamp and two plastic water bottles, eagerly dragging me into the rice fields for a reason that in the moment was beyond my comprehension. Only when he bent low to the ground, shot his hand at an invisible target and stood up smiling with a cricket in hand did I finally understand what was going on. 45 minutes later, with both water bottles filled half-way with crickets and cicadas, my host brother and I couldn’t stop laughing as he mimicked my inferior cricket-catching skills all the way home. From that night on, my host brother and I spent the afternoons joking around, playing a capture the flag derivative at the beach, and watching his favorite videos of WWE and John Cena. I’m positive that if I’d turned down his ambiguous offer that night, we would not have formed such a close relationship and my homestay would have felt more like a vacation than an immersive experience.
When the instructors first posed the possibility of staying in a Thai monastery for 3 days, I remember taking a vote on the balcony of our guesthouse in Kratie and realizing that I was the only one in the group to raise their hand in opposition to the idea. Having seen how our group reacted to a lack of snacks on our boat ride X-phase and worrying about the physical toll the hours of sitting meditation would take on my damaged right sit bone, I wanted to spend more time in the cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane than fast in a monastery. However, peer pressure has always been an effective motivator for me. With my objections noted and discussed, we chose to visit the monastery. And wow am I thankful to this group for talking me into the idea of the meditation retreat. That three day, two night stay served as a valuable opportunity for me to reflect on how my past experiences had led me to that present moment, to ponder what values and people were worth suffering for in my life, and to overcome a physical challenge to reach a point of mental clarity that I’m not sure I’ve never ascended to before. There’s something special about removing yourself from your inhibitions to be vulnerable in someone else’s world; this monastery stay epitomized the concept of stepping out of my comfort zone and finding value in the panic zone.
When we timidly walked through the doorway into the house’s open-air courtyard and saw 12 older women smiling and eagerly waving us into their dance troupe, I had a feeling that the night was going to be special. At the front of the group, raised on some concrete steps, stood a speaker machine with a video screen that displayed a complex dance tutorial. My host mom led us into the fray and within seconds we were laughing and dancing along to the music that evoked a graceful coordination in our hosts and playful exuberance in us. After about 15 minutes of learning this first dance, they stopped the music and through a combination of hand gestures, Mandarin, and broken English, convinced us to round up the rest of our friends. We immediately set forth to roost those who had retired to their homes for the night and the group that had stayed at the school to play basketball with Rob’s younger host brother. With our squad assembled, we returned to the dance party reinvigorated by the energy of these old ladies. If they were able to frolic in the midst of a trying funeral and after a day of feeding the entire village, how could we possibly turn down the opportunity to escape with them through the music?
The customary Naxi (pronounced Nashee) dances that they taught us were not simple. Each of the older women had the routines down to perfection, but as we tried to put together the footwork and the body movements, most of us were stumped by all but the first dance. But perfection, or even accuracy wasn’t the point. What we lacked in technical skill we made up for in laughs, freestyle dance solos, and moments of pure joy that we were able to share with our host mothers. While Josie and Julia nailed down the intricacies of the 3rd and more complicated dance, Shade and I kicked a ball with a cute baby whose mom was swinging him like a fooseball player to kick it back to us. Rob stayed long after many of us had left to continue dancing with his mom, who was the rockstar of the troupe. I’m sure every member of our group who was there the other night can share a small vignette from the dancing that will remain special to them moving forward. But for me, what will last is the lesson that has been taught time and time again on this trip and one I love to relearn: an open mind and eager heart will lead you places you could never have dreamed of.