By: Matthew Jones
Adventure Expert at Universal Dialect
The hot Thai sun ducks in and out of the clouds as I putter down the road on the rinky-dink motorbike I’ve rented from a guy in town. Rain is likely, but I’m not too worried. The road in front of me is clear, and the air is warm. The afternoon...it’s mine.
I have no real destination. Yesterday I saw the temples that make this town famous, so right now I’m just out for an adventure. To see what’s out there. I have no plan. The best plan.
I’m approaching an intersection. I’ve no real clue where any of these roads lead, but I suspect everything will eventually bring me back to the main town. I don’t want to return just yet, so I look both ways and then take a left.
My bike screams in protest as I go up an incline, but it gives way when I twist the accelerator knob, pulling me slowly up the hill.
Things flatten out after a few-minutes ascent and I let up on the gas. The bike quiets. Rice paddies are tucked in behind the trees. A few homes are hidden in the bush next to the road. There’s no one in sight.
I cruise along enjoying the view, and after a while I arrive at an intersection where there’s a small general store selling all kinds of cold drinks and imported snacks.
Wanting a break from the bike, I pull to the side and park in front. The man sitting outside looks up but doesn’t move. He’s watching a video on his phone. We flash hello smiles at one another and I go inside.
I return with a bottle of water. “How much?” I ask politely.
“10 Baht,” he replies. I reach into my pocket and hand him a coin.
“Ko pun kahh,” I say, which is my version of “thank you” in Thai. He smiles, dips his head, and motions for me to sit at the table next to the door.
I sit down and crack open my bottle. The only sounds I hear are birds chirping and the distant hum of motorbikes. I raise the water to my lips and let the cold liquid slosh in my dry, dusty mouth. It cools me as it slides into the depths of my warm body.
After a big slug, I put it back down and stare out in front of me, admiring the peace and quiet.
Then the silence breaks. I can hear something around the corner. The unmistakable sound of children laughing. It’s getting closer, and before I know it, a group of nine children is right in front of the store. A few of them are kicking a soccer ball back and forth. They are all shouting and laughing. I can’t understand what they are saying. But it doesn’t matter.
One of the boys kicks the ball to his friend and looks towards the store. Our eyes meet. A huge smile breaks out on his face. He thrusts his arm into the air and begins flapping his hand. I can’t tell if it’s a wave or an invitation, but I know I can’t go wrong if I approach.
I take another sip from the bottle and put it back on the table. When I stand up, the giggling gets louder. Then I signal for the boy to pass me the ball. Everyone is laughing. So am I.
The kid with the ball gently pushes a few of his friends to the side and sends it my direction. I stick my foot out and stop it under my flip-flop. The kids explode with laughter. What would they have done if I missed? I thought.
I nudge the ball to my left to make some space, and before I know it, all six kids are spread out, each one yelling something I can’t understand. But the words don’t matter. I don’t need to speak Thai to know what they’re saying; when you’re a kid, you always want the ball.
Not wanting to play favorites, I pass in the vicinity of two of the boys. Both rush towards it, and they fight playfully for a second or two. When one gets it, he passes it back. Another kid runs out into the open and begins jumping up and down and yelling. I pass it to him, and he flicks it up into the air and juggles it a few times on his thighs before letting it fall back to his foot. He lets it bounce and then tries to volley it to me, but he overshoots and the ball sails over my head.
I turn and jog towards it as fast as my flip-flops will allow, and when I return, I see a few of the kids in the group have taken off their shoes to form goal posts. They’ve placed the “nets” about 25 yards apart from one another, producing an instant field.
The kids are split into two groups, and one is yelling for me to join their team. I go over to them and one of the boys, who seems a bit older than the rest, is barking instructions to everyone. Then he grabs the ball and places it halfway between the two goals and motions for me to start the game. What an honor, I think. I’m nothing like them, but now I’m part of the gang.
My first pass is back to the older kid who was serving as the official. He stops it and immediately starts yelling at us to move up. I’m two feet taller than anyone on the field, but they are all much better than I’ll ever hope to be.
He passes me the ball, and two members of the opposing team swarm me, but I roll it behind me and pivot, freeing myself for just long enough to pass to one of the other boys.
When he gets the ball, he makes a fast break for the other end of the pitch, moving toward the right side. There are no sidelines. We’ll know when he’s gone too far.
As the defenders approach, he lays the ball off to another boy, who drives it to a teammate our opponents neglected to cover, and who is waiting on the other side of the field. When the ball arrives, the wide open winger deflects it between the two shoes.
“Goal!” I scream along with the rest of my team.
The goal scorer starts running around with his arms spread like an eagle. He’s soaring across the pitch with a panoramic smile stretched across his face. If we’d been playing on grass, I’m sure he would have slid on two knees, just as he’s seen countless pros do on TV.
When he comes to a stop, I run over and offer him a high five. He jumps a little to reach my hand, and then we each go back to our assigned positions.
We play for about half an hour. Most of the time I hang in the middle, receiving service and distributing it to the other side of the field. I had a chance to score, but whiffed slightly, sending the ball just wide of the makeshift net.
After our team scores for the fifth time, it’s clear we are the better side. Everyone is getting a little tired, and rain clouds are swirling overhead. My window to get home before the storm is closing. When we pause, I yell, point to the sky, and then to my bike, and motion with my arms that I must be on my way.
Everyone comes over to me and we exchange high fives all around. I say “thank you,” which they understand and are able to repeat. I look over to the man in front of the store, and he’s smiling too, but no one can beat the grin I’ve got plastered to my face. Not in this moment.
After our brief goodbye, I fire up the bike and push it towards where I need to go. I give one final wave, and then I speed off.
The children keep yelling as I put dirt road between us. My smile is not fading. It’s growing. It’s become one of those smiles that cuts through time. In fact, it’s on my face right now, years later, as I write these words.
Soccer does this to people. You can make friends all around the world playing this simple game. Most will call it football. But that doesn’t matter. It’s all the same thing.
However, that half hour spent playing pickup soccer with random kids in Thailand helped clarify an important truth: the connections I felt that day, and the bonds I’ve made playing this game with people around the world, actually have little to do with soccer.
Instead, they come from the joy of adventure, that sense of not knowing what’s going to happen but also not really caring. That afternoon produced happiness because for both the boys I met and myself, it was an adventure. It was a chance to explore the connection between us, and to feel closer to one another than we could ever hope to be.
This is because being happy is a language we all speak. It’s a Universal Dialect, one that eliminates barriers and brings us closer together.
Adventure makes happiness easy. It reminds us of the joy of experiencing and learning, and of what it’s like to be a kid. It doesn’t matter if the adventure is a pickup soccer game in faraway lands, or an afternoon walk in an unknown part of your hometown, it all produces the same effect.
In my life, soccer has produced so many adventures. No matter where I go, a soccer ball can instantly turn a bad day into a good one. It gives a child joy and wonder, and it frees adults from worry, allowing them to be truly present. But any adventure can make us happy, especially when it brings us together.
At Universal Dialect, we make it easier for people to have daily adventures so that happiness is never too far away.
We don’t think joy is something you have to earn. We think it’s a right. But sometimes people need a little help, so we’re here to offer it.
Will you join us?