During week one we could only find a crew of small high school kids on a dusty blacktop struggling to get the ball into the same area code as the netless hoops. Week two offered a small full court that (sketchily) doubled as a throughway for fruit-laden pick up trucks. In the third week we discovered the jackpot, though it was impossible to realize from the beginning just how perfect Parque Araucano was.

It took a few more weeks of trial and error to discover the popular days for pickup basketball at Parque Araucano, but we eventually discovered Tuesdays and Thursdays to be the busiest. And so, not coincidentally, Tuesdays and Thursdays quickly became my favorite days of the Chilean week. After impatiently foot-tapping my way through morning classes, I’d hop into basketball gear and meet a classmate outside of the Metro to head for the courts.

About a 45-minute trip from our IES Abroad headquarters, Parque Araucano is a sprawling metropolitan park, complete with an weirdly varied assortment of exercise equipment and odds-n-ends. Directly in front of the main entrance sits a roller derby track, (I was previously a little unsure whether roller derby was actually a real thing, or just a confused figment of my imagination spawning from the worst movie of all time). To the side of the roller derby is a private BMX park, complete with an 10-foot half pipe and an assortment of jumps. On every Saturday morning the owner of this course can be found passing the hours either washing and detailing his ancient Cadillac or roping innocent passersby into conversations about his ancient Cadillac.  On the other side of the roller derby sits a rugby/soccer field on which city and school teams practice daily. Every Thursday it’s a pretty entertaining to watch these players scatter mid-drill as a coast guard helicopter repeatedly swoops down from over the nearest buildings to practice small-area landings. The narrow park extends for more than a mile—all walking paths, exercise equipment and playing fields, but on weekends it’s hard to find much clear grassy space as the city descends on the parks to attend free concerts and throw picnics.

One of three in the park, ‘our’ basketball court is typically overrun by high school kids until around 6 pm, at which time the older guys come out to play. Ranging from 25 to 45, the majority of the competition that typically shows up is either athletic with a dearth of basketball knowledge/skill, or a skilled player with a limited set of physical tools. All in all, the general level of talent could be compared to mediocre US high school play, but with bigger, stronger players. Occasionally, someone will show up who clearly has no business playing in casual pickup games. One such experience that can’t help but come to mind was highlighted (lowlighted) by a guy from a Chilean pro team dribbling between my legs and then getting up for a reverse dunk. Not my proudest of moments. But experiences like this are few and far between at Parque Araucano, and in general games are fairly competitive.

But as valuable as it was to discover an outlet into which I could release my perpetual excess of energy, the physical benefits of playing basketball there were definitely outweighed by the confidence in my speaking abilities that I gained there. On the courts, the context of conversation is mostly basketball related, and so it’s easy to speak with confidence, without having to worry much about following abrupt topical changes.

Not only was the court the place where I was first able to use Spanish to communicate satisfactorily, but that was also where I also made my first Chilean friends. I’ll only keep in email contact with one or two of ‘em, but it was still nice to begin to bump into a friendly face here or there, get some dap and chat for a bit, then leave with a Nos vemos a la cancha.

As simple as an experience as it was, playing at Parque Araucano was one of the crutches upon which I leaned most heavily to find comfort in Chile, and I’m positive my experience there wouldn’t have been nearly as complete without it.

The courts

He wanted us to let everyone know that he is the tallest Chilean we encountered.