I stepped onto the 160 bus on Sante Fe Avenida with my water bottle and basketball shoes after waiting “patiently” for 30 minutes on the bustling sidewalk. As I uttered the final destination to the driver, “Ciudad Universitaria”, I noticed that the demographic of this crowded bus was quite different from your average, demographically-uniform bus in Buenos Aires. On the 160, students were pouring over large pdfs with highlighters, others were meditating to music, and others carried large architecture dioramas that seemed too fragile for the given environment. I squeezed next to a guy who was also carrying a gym bag and mustered up the courage to ask him in Spanish, “When is the stop for ciudad universitaria to get to the gym? It’s my first time going there.”
Originally, the Ciudad Universitaria of Buenos Aires was meant to house all of the schools of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), but the university has expanded to buildings all over the city instead. However, all sports took place in this remote campus in the northeast of the city so I had to take the 20-minute ride to get there. As I stepped out at the last stop, Leandro, my boy from the bus, led me to the gyms and pointed me in the right direction. “Good luck!” he said as I climbed the stairs. It was a dark building, with a courtyard in the middle that was situated just north of the city airport. In the courtyard, younger kids were having handball and basketball practice on the courts as airplanes roared over them about to land.
I made my way back to the main gym and found the obvious group I was looking for: The UBA women’s basketball team. A group of girls were casually shooting hoops on the middle court between what looked like men’s volleyball and coed handball. I deduced that the one man on the court was probably the coach so I approached him and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Linnea and I’m interested in playing basketball on your team.” As he began explaining the practice times, as a student who considers herself advanced in Spanish abilities, I was blown away by the level of incomprehensibility I had when this man spoke. He muttered more than my teenage host brothers, he faded his sentences, and he had an accent that was even more foreign than the normal Buenos Aires accent I had gotten used to. Fabian Cubito reminded me of my old basketball coach from high school. Slightly balding and a huge fan of yelling, this coach blew his whistle to begin the practice as if I were just another girl on the team.
I introduced myself to the girls between passes and tried to retain their names the best I could: Lulu, Lau, Pau, Fer, Emi, Euge, Maga…these girls’ nicknames were harder to grasp than my Spanish geography terms in my university class. It was fun to get back in the game and slowly learn the vocabulary for different parts of the game. Falta was foul, pívot was the post player—this was the ultimate Spanish comprehension test.
Ignoring the fact that I was slightly out of shape, running these quickly-changing drills was so complicated because in the first 30 seconds, I couldn’t understand the Spanish directions and couldn’t understand the point of the drills! By the time I connected the explanation of red to the English name of the drill “Three-on-two-on-one” (a drill I understood completely), the coach had stopped me and had sent me to the back of the line. Next, when the girls called out the play puño (fist), I mistook it for the play uno (one), and messed up the entire passing sequence. Being lost in translation in my own familiar world of plays, drills, and basketball was upsetting. Each time I made a mistake, I wanted to speak out to say I knew what I was doing! I just couldn’t understand things quickly enough!
There were moments when I considered leaving practice early. There were several Tuesday and Thursday afternoons where I would reason with myself that I could exercise on my own and not face the unfamiliarity of Spanish-speaking basketball. There were times when I nodded off on the 160 bus back home, more mentally exhausted than physically. But regardless of this negatively, the patience and positivity of my Argentinian teammates and the intricate baskets we did score together brought smiles to my face. While it took time, patience, and the confidence to let myself look stupid at times, putting myself in the difficult situation of playing a sport in a different language and culture helped me be more flexible, calm, and comfortable with not being in control. I didn’t learn how to play basketball in Spanish, I learned how to play basketbol—and it took more than looking up new words in the dictionary.