It was a lovely afternoon in the the port village of Pak Beng, Lao. Pak Beng lies along the Mekong River and is basically one street lined with guest houses and eating establishments. It’s in the dead center of a well traveled two day slow boat trip frequented by backpackers. Travelers float one day on the slow boat, stay in Pak Beng one night, then catch the boat to complete the second day of the trip. I have been here for almost two weeks. This afternoon I laced up my shoes and headed up the hill away from the river for a good long walk.
Cresting the hill, I found a tent covering one lane of the narrow road. It was filled with cheerful partiers sitting around a long table enjoying the unmistakeably universal sounds of pumping and blastin Karaoke. I passed on the other side of the road smiling at the crowd as I went. That’s when my walk was cut short by a happy little man enthusiastically waving me into the party. That was all I needed. Not one to miss a party, I joined them.
The little man, Sid, was so happy to have me. He sat me down, grabbed an already used clear plastic cup from the center of the table, and poured me a cup of beer. Beerlao is the only beer available here and is akin to flavored water…maybe similar to Miller Lite.
At first me being at the party was Awkward.
The other guests seated beside me looked at me and… kinda smiled, I looked at them and kinda smiled back.
Did they all want me there or was Sid the only one who wanted me there?
But then one of the women, seeing I had finished my Beerlao, decided to take care of me by making sure I had plenty more. She refilled my cup. Again. And again. Each time she did, the whole table went through a ritual of clinking plastic cups and toasting and having a swig. They were so happy I was joining in then and the party, for me, started.
I didn’t know what kind of party it was but I guessed it was a birthday party. I had pegged the birthday girl as a rotund and boisterous woman who seemed to be the leader of the pack and all-time hoarder of the Karaoke microphone. She was pretty smashed and screamed into peoples faces, laughing loudly. She was making it somewhat Awkward for everyone, which was great for me because then I felt less awkward. She seemed pretty funny so I started laughing. Everyone else laughed too.
But, by this time, Sid, my host, was being very attentive. Sitting close, wanting to engage in deep conversation even though we could not understand each other.
Through sign language he introduced his daughter. She was the one making sure I became properly inebriated. If I wasn’t drinking my Beerlao fast enough she would challenge me to shoot the cup of beer with her in one gulp. A couple of rounds was ok. After that I began to worry about all the things that might happen if I reached the state of drunken stupor. None of what I imagined was O.K., so tried to figure out how to empty my cup unseen. (Awkwardly funny).
Praise be to God for the food! I didn’t know what the food was, and I was required to eat it out of a community spoon, but by this time, (thank you Beerlao), nothing really seemed awkward at all. As a matter of fact, things were quite, quite fine.
UNTIL, Sid decided to feed me with chop sticks.
(Even with the happy Beerlao, this seemed really awkward).
He picked up food with chop sticks and wanted to put it in my mouth. I tried to take the chop sticks from him and feed myself, but he would have none of it.
Then! I had the brilliant idea of asking him to sing Karaoke. Since the microphone was still being used by Smashed Birthday Girl, he got up and did a little dance while she belted out the best worst Karaoke i’ve ever witnessed. Haha
(Probably Awkward for her the next day but great for me in the moment).
At this point I had forgotten what “awkward” even meant and had begun my own dance moves to delight the crowd.
But, THEN they wanted me to drink more and more Beerlao and I didn’t want to.
“No more no more!” I said and motioned “no”.
“I’m finished. Finished!”
They were obviously displeased with this announcement and continued dumping beer into my glass while issuing more beer shooting challenges. Sadly, and though I wanted to stay longer, I had to leave lest I not be able to walk home.
Later I was talking to my son Jackson and he said “Yeah, I don’t know why, but the locals are always trying to get you liquored up.”
Maybe it’s because of a Mystery of the Universe: “It’s Awkward-Until it’s Not.”
If I can just hang in with the awkward until it over, it pays off in big ways. I’ve learned so so many cool things. And, though I don’t recommend it, the whole “becoming unawkward” process can be sped up a bit with liquor, if your short on time.