Since World Cups only happen once every 4 years or so, it was time to step up my game.
My options were to stay in Hat Yai or to take the scooter my teacher friends and I were sharing to George Town in Northwest Malaysia, capital of the state of Penang, second biggest metropolitan area of the country and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The more I thought about biking to another country to watch the final with people I know (who, admittedly, weren’t the biggest soccer enthusiasts though), the more the wanderlust rose in me and I decided to go for it.
The Roadtrip Route: Straight South.
Since the game wasn’t until 2 am Malaysian time, I had all Sunday to get to George Town. When I left at 3.20 in the afternoon, the sun was shining, I was wearing my new 580 Thai baht (~20 $) Germany jersey with number and name of one of my favourite players (Bastian ‘Schweini’ Schweinsteiger) on the back, and my new playlist with World- and Euro Cup songs from the past decades was delivering the soundtrack.
Hat Yai is Thailand’s biggest city in the South. Click to enlarge.
Armed with music and delicious snacks I had gotten at the Hat Yai Food&Fruits Festival the day before, I was ready for this adventure, whose course was anything but certain. Yet, as I like to say: where nothing’s certain, anything is possible!
It took me about an hour to get to the Thai-Malaysian border, where I got another stamp on top of the 2 I had already collected when I went to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Awesomeness Fest (read my blog post here) and again to Kuala Lumpur in June.
Tank’s full, spirit’s up!
About 2 hours behind the border, my buttocks started hurting, the sun began setting and I was nowhere near George Town. I had reckoned I could master the 210 kilometers in about 4 hours. Needless to say, I couldn’t. The good news was: I pretty much had to go straight the whole time. The bad news: I was already on the road for almost 5 hours, it was almost dark and I had no GPS (my Malaysian sim card had decided to stay in Thailand …). Was I headed in the right direction?
At a toll station (scooters don’t pay anything, yay!), I found out I was only 3 exits away from the city where I’d witness Germany become world champions for the 4th time (as you can see, I had the utmost confidence in our team). Score!
Before I knew it, I was driving over the 13,5 kilometer-long Penang bridge that connects George Town with mainland Malaysia. Worn out and not knowing how to get to the Couzi Couji Party Hostel my friends stayed at, I parked at the first Starbucks I saw, recharged my batteries with a delectable banana smoothie and used their Wifi to figure out where the hell I was at. As it turned out: only 2 kilometers away from the hostel!
Sounds like a piece of cake? Well, it wasn’t. At least not for me. After driving in circles for a good 20 minutes, I started asking people and got gradually closer, before I finally made it to Little India, the hostel’s neighborhood. Although my friends weren’t there, they had left me a message, so I made my way to the restaurant where they were supposed to have BBQ. In spite of a map and a straightforward route, I ended up driving way too often around the 65-storey Komtar Tower and even ran into a police checkpoint. After some initial worry (“Your American driver’s license isn’t valid here!”), we bonded over the upcoming game and suddenly, my license was valid :-). They even told me how to get to the restaurant.
Long story short: my friends weren’t there, so I rode back to the hostel (where was it again?!) and finally reunited with my teaching buddies. After a shower and a well-deserved beer, we made our way to a local bar that featured a big screen, about 70 Malaysians (most of them wearing Argentina jerseys), 2 Belgians supporting Germany (“Argentina kicked us out – we’re counting on you”), and a French backpacker who wanted Germany to win almost more than me.
My final crew: 2 U.S.-Americans, 2 Belgians, one Malaysian and one French (who was really a German).
When you travel, there are always moments in which you question the purpose of your journey and second-guess the benefits of your wanderlust. Naturally, part of me wanted to watch the game with loved ones in familiar surroundings. How great would it be to celebrate Germany’s victory (again, I had complete confidence) with thousands of like-minded supporters. I wanted to experience public viewing, honking car convoys and stoked people waving flags and doing unreasonable things.
But I wasn’t in Germany. I was on the other side of the world with 2 people I got to know 5 weeks earlier and 4 others I had just met. And all in all I have to say: I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Being a nomad may entail missing a few big birthdays back home, but being on the road gives you something that makes more than up for it: a sense of freedom and the often tantalizing anticipation of the unknown; the feeling that anything can happen at any time. And the knowedge that not being able to plan everything out usually has more benefits than drawbacks.
So here (or there?) I was, watching the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil from Malaysia with 2 U.S.-Americans, 2 Belgians, 1 French and a horde of Malaysians. And all that with delish Indian Chicken Masala and naan in my belly. Story of my life.
You can’t watch a World Cup final without proper food!
There’s no reason to talk much about the game, as we all experienced it. During half time, I took my new French friend to my hostel to pick up my spare jersey so there’d be more people representing the right colors in the face of Argentinian dominance. (Not on the pitch, in the pub. Although me, the two Belgians and the Frenchman were louder than the 70-something Gaucho-supporting Malaysians).
By overtime I was a nervous wreck. Yet, when the final whistle blew, the players were rejoicing and we had really, positively, actually won, the elevation made me forget all that in a hearbeat.
WELTMEISTER — WORLD CHAMPIONS !!!
In 1990, the year of our last victory, it was still West Germany who defeated Argentina in the final of Rome. That was more than 2 decades ago, and I was only 3 years old. And though I wish I’d remember something from that game (my first national team soccer memory is the ’96 Euro Cup victory over the Czech Republic), I suddenly realized the significance of this minutes-old World Cup victory of my country: There are just shy of 200 countries on this planet, and only a dozen of them have ever brought home a World Cup trophy in its 84-year history. That means that even if you were alive for all 20 tournaments, your chances of being from one of the 12 victorious nations are extremely small.
As I was sitting in the bar, refusing to leave and trying to take it all in, I thought about how’d I tell my children about this night one day. The victory definitely has the potential to become a flashbulb memory for many (including me) and will certainly become a part of our collective consciousness.
One moment in time…
With the bar empty and everybody else hitting the sack, I knew I couldn’t go to bed just like that. Thinking of the madness in Germany at that moment and how badly I wanted to be there, I decided to recreate the atmosphere and bring some of the German exuberance to Malaysia.
And so I hopped on my motorbike and started driving without a destination, just the desire to make the exaltation last. Wearing my 2014 jersey and waving the 2006 one like a flag, honking, smiling from ear to ear and singing to the songs of my playlist, I drove through George Town and was happy as can be. I had no idea how people would react, but at 5 in the morning (it was still dark), there were quite a few people, scooters and cars in the streets. In the next 2 hours, I spotted at least a dozen people wearing Germany jerseys and I even got most of them to at least smile and some even to rejoice with me. It was beautiful.
Although not the same as going nuts with hundreds or even thousands of German supporters, my night had all the ingredients of an unforgettable World Cup experience. I did (almost) everything I would have done in Germany. Just alone. But I didn’t care.
After picking up some McDonald’s, I found a friendly Malay who I followed to the waterfront, where I watched the sunrise, ate and listened to 2 songs from the playlist I had skipped everytime they came on until now: We are the Champions by Queen & Tage wie Diese by Die Toten Hosen.
When serendipity strikes, you have to see it!
Enjoying food, music, the view and the knowledge that I just added another tradition to the German heritage of this place (see picture), I thought about what it would be like to come back to this same spot 20 years from now. Would I remember how I felt on July 13th, 2014? I think there’s a good chance I will. You see, memorable moments and experiences don’t just happen. They are made.
Actually, I believe you can purposefully decide to make any moment memorable. We tend to only deem extraordinary circumstances like an epic party or a spectacular sunrise memory material. Yet, there are no ordinary moments. The purest joys are available to all of us, all the time. With the right attitude and presence of mind, you can convert whatever idea or feeling you may have into action, however unreasonable and crazy as it may seem. If you switch off your mind and listen to your heart, you can easily turn an average experience into one that’s awesome. While doing that, don’t forget to pay attention to your emotions in every moment, because an experience that goes under your skin is an experience you will remember. If you do that, the reward will be a long-lasting memory worth reminiscing about that will seem like it happened yesterday. Even 20 years from now.
It must have been 8 am when I got back to the hostel, but I can’t even say that I was tired. I still couldn’t help but smile. Enthusiastic Facebook posts about the German victory were my lullabies…
The day after
In spite of only 3 hours of sleep, I was (almost) as energetic as I was when I went to bed. Still grinning, I packed the few things I brought, checked out of the hostel and was already in high spirits when I left at noon to make my way back to Hat Yai. The weather on Monday, July 14th was weltmeisterlich (German for world championly). As I drove through little India, I picked up some traditional Indian snacks that I stored by my feet and ate at every red light.
99-second-red-light-periods never tasted so good!
On the Penang Bridge, I spontaneously stopped at a bus bay to make another memory: this time in the shape of a picture!
That’s the passion I’m talking about!
As the highways were A LOT more crowded than early in the morning, I had ample opportunity to show the world my colors, bask in the German victory and let others be a part of my ceaseless celebration. At one of the endless red phases (up to 99 seconds!) at a traffic light, for instance, I chatted with a Malay on the scooter next to me (“You can be proud of yourself!”) about Germany’s tactical finesse. At a highway restaurant, 3 Malaysian women were so enthused about the game and Germany that I had to give each of them a high-five. Goes without saying.
If motorbike seats weren’t so uncomfortable on long-distance trips (or maybe I’m just not used to it), I could have driven all day and all night – that’s how happy and energized I was, thanks in large part to the music (I must have listened to each of the 68 songs on my playlist at least 3 times by then).
The story of the rest of the trip is quickly told: I crossed the Malaysian-Thai border around half 3 and arrived in Hat Yai with the sun being low on the horizon.
An unforgettable 26 hours
Back in my apartment, I realized how dirty and smelly my jersey was after wearing it for 26 hours straight, 8 of those on the road. If there was any doubt left if going to George Town was the right decision, now was the point where I established that I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome.
As I sunk into my bed, I started wondering how these 26 hours would have played out if Germany had lost the game. Would I have been significantly less high on emotion? Yes, certainly. I may not even have written this blog post. But would a German loss have tarnished the experience? Would it have been less memorable? I think the answer is no.
It would have still been my 26-hour World Cup extravaganza. Maybe not the roadtrip to victory, but still a memorable roadtrip, just lacking the “right” outcome; but that’s not why you travel in the first place. You don’t leave your comfort zone because you expect something specific to happen, and if it doesn’t occur, the value of the trip is halfed. No, you travel to be amazed, to see where your curiosity may take you and to experience the unexpected.
The victory was a bonus, the icing on the cake, the part of the trip that gave me that more-than-I-could-have-ever-hoped-for feeling that only travelers get.
And, as you know, the outcome of the game was never in much doubt anyway ;-).
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