These moments (or, how I fell in love with soccer)
When people hear of my travels, they almost always ask – ‘which country was your favorite?’. They probably want some simple answer, but instead I rave about trekking in the Himalayas, the kindness of strangers in India, the food in Vietnam, the unbelievable beauty of Patagonia and the Andes. I talk abut how I’ve left parts of my heart in South America and Southeast Asia. My answer is as rich and complex and passionate as I found each place I visited.
And their eyes glaze over….
If they wanted a simple answer, ask a simple question.
Instead, if they had said – ‘tell me a story. Tell me of your favorite moments’ – that would be easier to do.
I’ve thought about these moments a lot lately, as I’ve been caught up in the World Cup, spending hours at bars, on the edge of my seat, anxious with anticipation, rooting for the US of course, but also Colombia, Argentina, and Mexico. High-fives with strangers over amazing goals, shared disappointment over tough losses. And hearing this, you’d think maybe I knew something about soccer. Nope. Not much. But, the kinetic, graceful, sometimes-overly-dramatic game appeals to me in ways that few other games do. (And did you notice how attractive the players are?!)
Two of the moments that are especially poignant for me took place around soccer. The first was in India.
I was living the good life in Varkala having randomly shown up there (it had been a toss up a few days earlier when I could not decided if I was going north or south and went to the bus station and hopped on the first bus out. Verdict? South). I spent my days reading, walking on the beach, drinking coffee, napping. It was hot, so hot that the only time I could really be out and about was early in the morning when I would go running on the beach – sprints up and down the beach. There would be a crowd out there – women walking, men also running or doing yoga. I was the only westerner out there.
One morning, after I finished my work out, I gathered my shoes and headed back up the beach. It was still quite early, but a group of Nepali young men had gathered, with a soccer ball, playing a loose pick-up game. The ball headed my way and I playful jumped into the mix. For the next hour or so, we played a messy, sandy, sloppy game of beach soccer – unable to communicate much, but cheering over goals, lamenting over failed passes (which were many), and laughing a lot. In a place where gender matters, this was a moment when it fell away and was replaced by simple play. The joy of engaging in a game, simple as that.
The game ended as the young men had to go to work, being the backbone of the tourist industry, and the heat of the day was coming on. Vague promises about playing again were made, but I never saw them again in the following mornings on the beach, but the pure fun of that moment kept a smile on my face.
The next moment happened appropriately so in South America. I was in Potosi, a high-altitude mining town in Bolivia. A friend and I set out one day, a Sunday, to climb to the top of the mountain that gives Potosi it’s namesake. The weather was grey, overcast and chilly. As we weaved through winding streets up through the city, we came across a ball field. I convinced my friend to sit and watch, and before we knew it, we had spent the entire afternoon watching the matches.
Potosi is a mining town. The job – dangerous, long-hours – is one of the few for locals. Most of the men work in the mines at some point in their lives. For some, it is a rite of passage before they move on to other jobs, and for others – it is a way of life. That afternoon, as we sat in the stands, we watch club after club play – all mining collectives. First the young men played – all glory shots and no team work, then we moved on to the older men – not quite as agile, but more passing – finally to the eldest collectives – beer bellys and a slower, much sloppier game. They were also wasted, as we watched crate after crate of Potosi Pilsner being carried in, but it only added to the level of overly dramatic falls and emotions.
Us, two grings, in the stands garnered some attention, but as we cheered on goals, and lamented missed ones. The day stretched on, people laughing, enjoying their one day off – being around family and friends, playing soccer. After the final match, we were invited to go drink beers with the collectives – which would have been fun if many of them weren’t stumbling already. Smiles were shared around as we all waved goodbye.
I head to Boston this afternoon (right when the US plays) and tomorrow I head out to Peru to lead a group of teenagers for two weeks. I am thrilled to be going back to South America, even if for a brief moment, even if just for work. And I am thrilled to be there during the World Cup and hope to sit in a local establishment, watching a match or two, cheering on the ‘home’ teams.