Each winter season in Jyrgalan is never like the other; snowfall levels and conditions change, people that travel from far and wide to rip up the powder bring their unique blend of talent and stories, and the tirelessly hard working staff of Ryce Travel can draw in bright new team faces keen to get out free riding every day. But this season something extra special happened that no one could have predicted, and undoubtedly, no one wants to go without again. Our close knit winter crew at Ryce Travel got a touch of summer vibes while we enjoyed some Volleyball! We jumped and dived and hit the ball like our lives depended on it. But not just among ourselves, we had the opportunity to meet with and get to know the students and teachers of Jyrgalan School, and it was one of the highlights of the season for everyone involved.
We first entered the school’s gymnasium with its shiny basketball court floor and the smell of polish filled our lungs. Not long after, three young school boys filed in orderly and things seemed a bit tense at first. At one side of the court stood us; Westerners who smile way too much for the local culture. At the other side, them; kids avoiding too much eye contact presumably in order to be polite. It was a cultural stalemate. We didn’t know how to connect to one another. The only thing either side had in common at this stage was we couldn’t speak the others language. Luckily, habit kicked in and the school boys got right to their usual set up routine. One boy adjusted the volleyball net in the middle of the room, and the other fetched a ball. And wouldn’t you know it? After just a few moments of playing Volleyball together laughter had filled the otherwise silent room. We went from strangers to friends within a few serves; the only tense presence in room was the air in the ball itself. Eventually the room became filled with students and a bigger game of volleyball started to take place. It didn’t take long to realize that these kids- as polite and respectful as they were- meant business. A faint memory of hearing that this particular school has the best players in the region rang in my mind. We were being shown up, embarrassingly. Our clumsy, floppy hands fired the ball in all the wrong directions while the kids over the court had well practiced manoeuvres that just about guaranteed their winning of points each time. What was supposed to be a friendly match turned quite competitive very quickly- our pride was at stake. The Ryce Travel crew were supposed to be extreme sports people; riding terrain that takes skill and strength. Some of us also represented Westerners (that are seen as quite “soft” around these parts) and didn’t want to be made fools of by 15 year old school children! Good, I thought to myself, this is where the fun really begins, no need to go easy on them.
The gymnasium was full of life, the children were gifted players and the untrained Ryce Travel crew were hilarious to watch. The Ryce Travel crew knew we’d be playing against the school children, but what we didn’t see coming was that presumably every teacher of the 300 pupil school was also in attendance, not only to watch the disjointed match but also to join in! It was a beautiful scene to watch as the teachers and the students played on the same team together, there seemed to be no barriers between them. At my old high school the teachers basically stood over us with a whistle in mouth, barking orders like the game was some kind of army drill rather than a fun sport to be played by children. But here, teachers and students alike were a team, they truly laughed and celebrated together and helped one another other be their best- triumphant high fives and supportive pats on backs throughout the whole match. I couldn’t believe how much the scene resembled more of a family get together on a Christmas day than an orderly, hierarchal institution. The same kindness was extended to us too, of course. Everyone that found themselves in that room were one community all together to play a sport that brought out the best in everyone. We all beckoned the more shy students to stand up and play and cheekily laughed at the older teachers when they couldn’t move quite as fast as the rest of us. Shrieks and laughter and applause were all anyone in the gymnasium could hear for an energetic two hours. We played five games and lost the first four. That was a success in my mind.
The evening was enthralling and engaging and broke barriers between the young and old, the local and foreign. We had already stayed way longer than we anticipated, it was so much fun that time got away from us all, and although we wanted to keep playing, our legs had started to cramp and out mouths grew dry, it had gotten dark outside. Everyone was spent. We smiled and shook hands with the locals and one of the students who could speak broken English said, “same time next week?” And it was the beginning of ritual for the rest of the winter season. The Westerners had entered that courtroom in the beginning of the snow season feeling like strangers, but by the time the snow had melted, we knew we were friends with the locals. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend time with a community than laughing and playing sports together. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t speak each other’s language much or that we were from completely different parts if the world, the only barrier between us was the net in the middle of the room.