Fresh off two trips of a lifetime in one summer, Michigan defensive back Keith Washington has gained a new perspective on global culture, policies and general social function.
That’s what happens when you mingle with the pope in Rome and live the life in Buenos Aires — you end up with a wider view of things and a greater overall appreciation of your surroundings.
From Italy to South America, Washington, who’ll be a redshirt sophomore this fall, has logged thousands of new miles on his odometer, all the while making memories and forming new relationships.
“I stayed home for about a day and a half between trips,” Washington said. “Then I packed some stuff, and shoot — I was gone the next day (for Buenos Aires).” He later added, “It was pretty fun, man — definitely a new experience for me.”
In all, Washington spent “at least 20-plus hours” aboard planes and inside terminals, watching Netflix — a series on Pablo Escobar and “a throwback” in Enemy of the State — on his iPad and listening to music on his Beats headphones to pass the time.
He even watched film from the Wolverines’ 2016 season.
Over oceans and mountains, crisscrossing the prime meridian and dipping below the equator — Washington has been everywhere.
“I thought I was going to have a lot of jet lag,” he said of his arrival to Buenos Aires. “But I was actually excited. When I got on the plane, I had a feeling of excitement over me. And then, you know, you touch down in a new environment, everyone looked different in the way they dressed … and certain things like that.
“But I was just excited, overall.”
As part of a nine-student group from the University of Michigan, Washington spent nearly one month in Argentina, studying and learning the dos and don’ts, hows and whys of daily life in Buenos Aires.
The term “a trip of lifetime” probably doesn’t do enough justice, though.
This was an exploration of an entirely new world.
Why go to Argentina? As part of his coursework in literature, science and the arts, Washington has taken Spanish classes. So, of course, traveling to a Spanish-speaking country would only aid his education, right?
But Argentina, specifically Buenos Aires, is different.
“It improved a lot. But they say learning Spanish in Argentina is probably the most difficult place you could learn, because they use a lot of slang talk,” Washington said, noting different dialects and usage, while crediting classmates for their assistance. “But I was there for pretty much a month, so after about a week, hearing other people talk, I started picking up on little things.”
Little thing that actually are big, such as how to properly pronounce words.
“Buenos Aires” rolled off his tongue like he had known the language for years. So did “dulce de leche,” which is “like caramel, but sweeter.”
“She would make us toast,” Washington said of his house mother, Mirta. “Put it [dulce de leche] on the toast and rolls. Those were some new cultural things. She didn’t really cook eggs, you know, bacon, or anything like that.”
Prepared every morning before Washington and classmates headed toward the bus stop at 7:15, Mirta’s sweetly glazed toast and rolls hit the spot.
“They were really good, man,” Washington said.
A professor at local university, Mirta made Washington “feel warm and at home” while in Buenos Aires. Friendly and helpful, Mirta served as a tour guide, showing her students historical and traditional shops and monuments.
The scenery was beautiful, Washington said.
He was particularly impressed with Mirta’s home.
“It was me and two other roommates. They stayed in the out-house, and I stayed in the in-house, so that was pretty nice,” he said. “She actually had like a mini-mansion type of setup.”
A mansion? Yes. And right on the edge of downtown.
“The houses in Argentina are quite different than in America. It was almost like a garage-type setup on the outside, but then you open up the garage, and it’s like, ‘Boom!’ It’s a big, huge house on the inside,” Washington said. “You’d never expect it to look like that, based on the outside. It had an upstairs, and I was on the second floor. It had a kitchen, living room, and it had a little separate out-house for guests and visitors.”
An unassuming sprawl in an ideal location … so far from the United States, yet similar in several ways, too.
“The people I was talking to, some of the residents down there, they pretty much characterized it as New York City of South America,” Washington said of the approximately 2.9-million-citizen metropolis.
And like Washington, those millions of people adore futbol, commonly referred to as soccer by those who haven’t been schooled on the nature of the Superclasico (Super Derby) between the Boca Juniors and River Plate.
They’re not fans. They’re devoted followers.
Never, ever call them fans.
Their allegiance is much, much deeper than a three-letter word.
“Oh man, it was definitely a crazy environment,” Washington said. “They take (soccer) as serious as some people take their religion. It’s nature for them — first nature for them. You’ve got people whose children are 3, 4 years old, already with soccer balls, kicking them around, and they’re molding them to be great players. That’s just fun to see in a different country, and their ways and culture in sports.”
As a toddler, Washington played on teams with children twice his age. As he got older, he fell more in love with American football. Having spent time in Argentina, Washington has gained a new appreciation for the sport. Some people even thought he was a futbol player. At 6-foot-2 and nearly 190 pounds, he was easily identified as an athlete.
“I thought it was funny,” Washington said. “When I told them that I was from the United States, they all… most of the people that I interacted with were really excited that they finally met somebody that was from the United States — that was a fun thing for me, too.”
Washington and his two roommates bought a ball and “kicked it around a little bit” during his trip, which included a tour of the local scene.
“The guys on the tour were mostly just bragging about how great their teams were, and how they were going to beat their rival team,” Washington said. “They gave us a little explanation about how some of the teams kick off their games. I though that was was pretty interesting and pretty crazy.”
Traditions vary from team to team, sport to sport.
With that said, the Boca Juniors have one tradition that really draws attention.
“They actually have, similar to our student section for Michigan football, where the fans, they stand at the top, and wait for the first goal, and then sprint down to the bottom and run and jump up on the gate,” he said. “The gate was actually about 12 to 15 feet in the air, with barbed wire on it, so that was pretty interesting. We didn’t get to see it firsthand, but we watched some videos in our class.”
Everyone, everywhere. Futbol.
Boca Juniors! River Plate!
And you better be on the right side.
“Even with my host mom, if I said a certain team’s name, she’d say, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to root for (her favorite team).’ It’s definitely a huge rivalry. Definitely a huge rivalry.”
He drank coffee. A lot of it. Just like he used to while sitting on his grandpa’s lap. Washington had no idea coffee was such a preferred beverage in Buenos Aires. He made friends, many of whom wanted to know the differences between American football and rugby — their closest visualization, Washington said.
Some of them even became new Michigan and/or college football fans, too.
They influenced him, and he influenced them.
“It really was a great experience, man,” Washington said. “I’ll never forget it.”
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