As any one of the students will tell you, there are few things I love more than some good, fun competition. During our weeks in Peru, we have experienced no shortage of opportunities to engage in recreational rivalries. Whether locals met in passing, sandal-clad kids, or our familiar trekking chefs, Peruvians have proved themselves to be eager and altitude-immune game-players.
The familiarization of our own games, be they childhood recess rituals or national pastimes, obscures the mythical nature of contests. In learning new games – Peruvian games – I have been reminded of the ways games teach us about societies. Games are magical. Legends and morals and lore – all that stuff we call culture – all surface when we play games.
During one afternoon on our trek, a few of our students found themselves in a pasture, encircled incidentally by a handful of young girls. The girls were playing a game, of course. Our students attempted to join in, but quickly discovered they did not understand the rules. They determined a pattern of sorts – a pair of girls would clap hands or grasp each other’s wrists and whisper one to another, a leaping or hopping of sorts would follow, then the sequence would restart. Though their efforts were sincere, the particularities of the game continued to elude our students. They remained subject to the points and giggles of the girls, who recognized the specificities of each of our students’ failures.
Returning to Urubamba after our trek, we were given another opportunity to prove ourselves in a game we had never before played. This time, we played with our climbing guides. They kindly explained to us that the game was similar to dodgeball, before promptly striking us with the thick-skinned fútsal ball we’d hauled for the duration of the trek. Slowly, we understood that the game was a bit like dodgeball – two teams, one throwing, one dodging. In the Peruvian variation, however, the throwing team forms two walls on either side of the dodging team, trapping the dodgers in a pinball machine with a human-made perimeter. In the midst of the ongoing thumping, a thought occurred to me: those who know the rules hold the power. In that way, a willingness to play unfamiliar games is the ultimate surrender, the final and fundamental means of communicating respect for someone else’s way of being in the world.
And finally, there’s the game that is in itself a universal language. Fútbol. Though I could speak at length about the splendor of the game – its purity, its capacity to create friendships and produce spontaneous moments of joy – I will limit my reflections on our opportunities to play soccer with Peruvians to one spare and ruthless point. We got our butts kicked.
I love this about the beautiful game – that the US, even among western countries, has no decided advantage. In this single regard, the established global hierarchy does not favor us. So while we walk off the field – or dirt patch or court or mound of soggy grass – with our heads hung in defeat – defeat (!) that I so regularly despise – after a game of soccer I also feel a small bubble of glee. A butterfly of correctness flitters in my stomach. We lost, and in that way I am reassured that some things remain right in the world.