San Sebastian, Spain;
July 1st, 2013
Neeta Kumari looked out of place.
She stood on an elevated stadium platform alongside several white-skinned teenage girls wearing ultra-short shorts and t-shirts. Neeta wore her mother’s traditional red-and-white sari—her hair carefully adorned with plastic flowers and colored sticks. A man in a suit coat flitted around them with a microphone. He gave a quick introduction, and then passed the mic to Neeta. She squared her shoulders to face her 6,000-person audience.
In clear Hindi, she welcomed the audience to the 2013 Donosti Cup. Her voice was huge within the stadium walls.
In her finest sari, Neeta exuded a reverence for the ceremony and her place in it. Her teammates elected her as assistant captain based on her positivity, honesty, kindness, and ability to unite. She has been leading others on the football field and in the Yuwa classroom since she joined the program five years ago, faithfully finishing her housework early everyday to attend practice. At 14 years old, she has already resisted her family’s requests for her to enter into an arranged marriage, as two of her teenage sisters have already done.
Neeta was proud to be representing her team and her country—they were, in fact, the first team from India ever to compete in this massive international tournament. Suddenly it was the other girls on the platform, with their casual dress and bored expressions, who seemed out of place.
Out of India
The days of travel that led up to the Opening Ceremony of the Donosti Cup were a steady stream of new discoveries, surprises, and celebrity treatment. If you’ve ever traveled with a child, you know how their curiosity about the world can make the ordinary seem extraordinary. Everything is new—and therefore, fascinating. Now imagine that this child has grown up in an isolated village, has never encountered the sort of modern wonders that have become so standard in our society that we no longer think about them. Escalators. Moving sidewalks. Electronic hand-dryers. Miniskirts. Motion-activated sinks. Lip and eyebrow piercings. Metal detectors. Subways. Obesity. Hummers. Elevators. 8-lane interstate highways. Vending machines.
It was a joy to see these things through the girls’ eyes. Sometimes I tried to explain when they asked about something new and foreign. Most of the time, I would just laugh with them at the absurdity of it all. Because they were right. Electronic hand-dryers are funny.
There were challenges, of course: those we anticipated, and others that came as unexpected surprises. Because the girls have had next to no variety in their diets, it was a constant struggle to coax them into eating foods they couldn’t even identify (Pork cutlet? Stroganoff? Cheese sauce?).
As the official bathroom chaperone, I’ll say without going into detail that there was a serious learning curve in acclimating to the Western-style toilet and toilet paper. I’ll also say that I’ve never laughed so much in bathrooms as I did on this trip.
And then there were doors. In Jharkhand, the girls live in houses with heavy, wooden doors that—if they are ever closed—must be shut forcefully. It took longer than you would imagine to teach the girls to stop unintentionally slamming doors.
From the moment the Supergoats arrived in Kolkata, they were treated with a startling amount of respect. The Kolkata police force arranged the team’s transportation, lodging, and meals before the international flight. We bumped around the city streets in a police bus, the girls crowding the windows to glimpse the sidewalks chock full of fruit vendors, the yellow taxi cabs, the crumbling British architecture. The police chief himself met the girls; shook their hands, expressed his congratulations, admiration, and good luck wishes.
Even in the safety of the police escort, it was difficult for me to let my defenses down and relax. Out of practicality, I had developed a distrust of almost everyone while in Jharkhand, so that (especially when traveling with the Yuwa girls) I was constantly poised to bite someone’s head off. Or to be more literal, shoot someone in the face with pepper spray. I hadn’t slept on the overnight train, nervous that someone would try to mess with the girls.
I was still on edge when we arrived at the Salt Lake Stadium for lunch. The 22 of us were seated at a long table draped with a white tablecloth and set with silverware. Several police officers hovered around the table, ensuring that the girls were comfortable. As our plates of rice and chicken arrived, I thought the officers would sit down at a nearby table and eat as well. But as the girls dug into their rice, the officers continued to hover. They acted as attentive servers for the entirety of the meal—refilling water glasses, spooning mango pickle onto plates, dolling out generous second helpings.
I don’t know if the girls realized just how ironic the scene was… These grown men, in positions of great authority, were serving food to them in the same way the girls were always expected to serve everyone else.
The day in Kolkata was a whirlwind of media. The largest corportate sponsor of the Supergoats, the Spanish wind turbine company Gamesa, organized a massive press conference in a room of the city’s finest hotel. The event was complete with decadent bouquets of flowers, a spread of deserts and snacks, and access to the hotel’s five-star marble bathrooms (an adventure in itself). Journalists from magazines, newspapers, television, and online sources flocked to hear and tell the girls’ story. The amount of photographers was surreal—like something from a red carpet event. Eventually, the girls got tired of smiling and I got tired of reminding the girls smile. Sleep was a welcome relief.
The girls noticed our flight attendants immediately. Several of them tugged my arm to point them out. As we stood in Kolkata airport security lines, the tall women in red hats clicked by us in high heels. With their pale skin and dramatic make-up, these women looked otherworldly, like they had just walked out of some mythical tale. Their presence added to the feeling that we were about to do something really magic: fly across the ocean to a land where all would be new and marvelous.
For months, the Yuwa staff (Neha—their mentor and teacher, Franz, Sonu—their coach on the field and in life, and myself) worked daily to prepare the Supergoats for what to expect in Spain. I wasn’t nervous about their ability to adapt and thrive, I realized as I watched them help each other fill out their customs forms. That said, I had more or less stopped trying to get them to correctly pronounce “Spain”. Despite persistent efforts and frequent repetitions, the Supergoats continued to say the name of the country in two syllables: es – spain.
After many hours of in-flight movies, picking at the packaged meals, window-watching, and lots of sleeping, our plane touched down in Madrid, Spain. The biggest dramas on the flights had been: learning the importance of popping one’s ears, spotting the pyramids as we flew over Egypt, a photo-shoot with the girls donning the flight attendant hats, and utilizing (en masse) the air-sickness bags tucked into the back of each seat.
In the next day, we would meet the individuals responsible for raising the funds that made the trip possible. Within two days, the Supergoats—most of whom have played the game they love six days a week for over five years—would walk onto a real grass football field for the first time.
Thanks for reading! More adventures–including the Supergoats’ Donosti Cup matches–will be up within a few days… Remember, if you’d like to continue supporting Yuwa’s efforts to put girls in charge of their own futures, please visit our Crowdrise site here.