I love basketball. It's probably the best sport known to man, and I've spent way too much (or possibly not enough) of my adult life playing it. There were times when I would be at the courts three hours a night, every weeknight. It's just that great.
I happened upon a pickup game in Warsaw once, when I heard balls bouncing in a gymnasium I was passing. So I introduced myself to one of the guys, asked if I could get next, and hopped on. Language barriers didn't matter -- we got sweaty together and had a fun time. We went out for drinks after, and I got into a discussion with one of the men about the Polish word wolność, which means freedom.
"There is a phrase in our national anthem, 'Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła / Kiedy my żyjemy,'" he told me. "It means, 'As long as I am alive, Poland is still fighting.' Because wolność is a very important word to us."
The eagerness and sincerity in his eyes is something I'll never forget. Who knew I'd come to glimpse something so dear to him... because of basketball?
He took me with him to the historic town square -- which had been transformed into an outdoor gym, with several games of 3x3 going on simultaneously. A tournament! I wanted to play.
Most of the rosters were set -- but one guy knew of a team that had a no-show. He introduced me to the captain, who looked skeptical.
"In Poland, when we play koszykówka, we are..." And then he made sort of a violent gesture with his hands.
"Tak. Yes. We are very aggressive."
"So am I."
I could see that he was still a little uneasy. After all, I was the only female in sight, and I didn't know much Polish. Regardless, they needed a third man, so they added me to the roster. But once we started playing, he saw that I could hold my own -- I wasn't the best person on the court, but I wasn't the worst, either.
It was one of the funnest days I had in Poland. Although I didn't see new sights or try any new foods, it felt authentic. I met a lot of people. Each had something interesting to say -- about the tournament, or about Polish perceptions of America, or about where I should go after Toruń. And I loved doing I was so accustomed to doing, but in a completely different environment. My captain was right -- Polish ball is very physical. And there were other, often subtle, differences in how they played that I had to recognize and adjust to. Which possibly, incrementally, made me a better player.
Then there were the games I played in St. Thomas. The US Virgin Islands are a United States territory with our same official language, but it's a different world down there. I believe their official motto is, "You can't make this shit up." (Ask me about the Grass and Go gas station.)
I'd met a woman named Jennie, who coached the girl's volleyball team at the local high school. Since I'm tall, she invited me to help her coach and scrimmage with the girls. Which was an experience in itself -- one that deserves its own post.
"Saturday mornings at 7am, right here," she told me.
When I arrived at the high school gymnasium that Saturday morning, it was loud -- balls bouncing, shoes squeaking, people shouting. But the moment I walked through the door, it went completely silent. Finally, someone asked, "Are you here to play basketball?"
"Yes," I answered.
And everyone started laughing.
I wasn't sure why. Perhaps because, not only was I the only white person, but I was also the only female person. Perhaps it was something else. But the laughter actually only boosted my confidence: I realized that, no matter what I did, I couldn't possibly be worse than they already thought I was. So I had nothing to fear, in spite of being double stereotype-threatened.
Assuming I would suck, the other team put their smallest guy on me. So I posted up on him in the paint and scored the first basket of the game, about six seconds in. Next possession, the guy gave me too much space, and I scored an easy jump shot. After my third basket, they finally decided to switch defenders, and things got interesting.
It was a high-level game, and I had a blast. I loved watching the other players resolve conflicts, in a way that seemed simultaneously good-humored and aggressive. I loved the quiet words of advice and encouragement from one of the more experienced players on my team. And I loved hearing Caribbean English, which I normally only hear on beaches and in reggae music, in the familiar setting of a basketball court.
Mostly, I loved interacting with local people in an informal and social setting -- as opposed to a formal or professional one with screwy power dynamics. I loved doing something we both loved doing... together.
I could talk about basketball all day, but I think I should get to the point. I'm all for trying new things when you travel. Take a ski lesson. Learn to scuba dive. Do a food tour or a wine tasting. Do some extreme adrenaline adventure. These are all incredible life experiences and are absolutely worth doing.
But don't forget to spend some time interacting with locals as teammates and peers, rather than souvenir sellers and service providers. Look for opportunities to do your sport or activity wherever you are in the world. It might not be possible, but stay mindful. When you hear balls bouncing in a gym, poke your head in. When you see a woman with a yoga mat or an instrument, ask if you can join her -- worst case, she'll say no. If you see a flyer for a race, event, cook-off or tournament, write down the information. Look for opportunities to get involved.
Playing basketball while I travel has opened unexpected doors and led to repeated interactions and lasting friendships. Doing what you do at home while you travel can help you do the same. It may be one of the best ways to connect while you travel. One of the best ways to make the unfamiliar familiar... and the familiar a little unfamiliar.
Note: Due to the fact that there is (according to evolutionary psychology) no intersex competition, I acknowledge that it *might* be easier for me to hop into basketball games and other male-dominated activities than it would be for a dude. That's just one of the advantages of traveling while female. But I still think that with the right sociocultural awareness and sensitivity, any traveler can get involved in local activities.