It was like every other year. On the day before the NCAA tournament began, I was busy constructing my bracket by hand, filling the margins with snarky comments and scribbled notes and contemplating far too many upsets.
Then, an interruption to this tradition: The bus choked as we chugged up the mountain, sending a cloud of black smoke over the sugar cane fields and causing me to smear my Goldy doodle. Beside us was a shantytown, barely more than tin slats thrown over sticks, abutting a mountainous vista in hazy shades of blue and gray.
On paper, yes, it was like every other year. Out the window, though, was Honduras.
Almost five years ago, I wrote in the Star Tribune that Minneapolis had won the right to host the 2019 Final Four. Though it felt far away, I imagined what a highlight it would be for my reporting career. But three years ago, I left my college basketball beat to write about my other loves: Food and travel. Two years later, I left the Star Tribune to become a full-time nomad, freelance writer and photographer. I made both moves with big dreams. For the most part, I’ve never looked back.
That is, except for one three-week stretch of the year — the NCAA tournament.
It’s the time of year that has always made me feel like I couldn’t do anything else, be anywhere else, think of anything else. It’s the season that makes me recall, wistfully, that final game I covered in April 2016 — and the double-moonshot finale of Villanova’s hypnotizing victory over North Carolina.
Now that grand climax, the Final Four, is in Minneapolis, my adopted home of eight years. And I’m farther away than ever — wandering these last few months through Honduras after the better part of a year in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.
That means that besides doodling my way through the matchups, I also had to handwrite the bracket itself, not having access to a printer. It meant filling it out on a rickety bus bound for Comayagua. It meant operating on shoddier knowledge than I’ve ever had (though those of you who recall my Iowa State and Michigan State picks in 2015 and ’16 might beg to differ).
It also meant a rare opportunity to bridge the gap between what was going on in my life and the lives of those I love back home. It can be hard to connect. While many of my friends’ concerns revolve around office and relationship problems, mine have more to do with giant cockroaches in my bed. But during the tournament, that changes.
During that electric first Thursday, I camped out in my Comayagua hotel room, battling with the lethargic Wi-Fi for scoring updates and texting friends in the States — eager to access this rare shared interest. We revered those last-second shots, we groaned about late-game fouls, we still mourned a bracket crushed and extolled our veritable expertise after an upset.
It felt like old times. Almost.
I purchased extra cell data to ensure I could follow the play-by-play while writing in cafes and wandering through markets. Occasionally, though, I lost track of the action — so far removed from what once dictated my days. Here, even when the games were peaking, the street vendors still sold doughnuts and bags of fresh green mango; colorful streets still compelled my camera; kids, at sunset, still flocked to the central fountain, the golden light bouncing off the water droplets they tried to grab.
I found that even in this time of year, well, I could do something else, be somewhere else, think of something else.
At the start of the second round, I met another American journalist and we trekked to a golf club on the edge of town, a place, we were told, where we might find such exotic sporting events. The bar staff let us scroll through some 800 channels ourselves. We found a feed of Michigan-Florida, but were crushed about four minutes later when the TV signal crashed. We crashed a second TV searching for the Minnesota-Michigan State game, and by then our welcome there had significantly diminished.
So, we gave up. We flocked to the terrace of a local beer garden, not a TV signal in sight, and observed a different kind of excitement: The plaza below growing vibrant as dusk bled to dark.
During the Sweet 16, in Tegucigalpa, I ventured to a Chili’s — yep, that Chili’s — in search of the tourney. I caught overtime of Tennessee-Purdue before all but one of the dozen-plus TVs crashed. The flaky signal, the texts back and forth to the States, all mixing with my exasperation as one of my Final Four teams surged, then collapsed.
Gleefully, that part — the communion — was the same as I remembered. What I’ve always loved about basketball — its capacity to bridge distance and circumstance, to bring us together to debate and cheer — felt especially salient now, something seductively familiar during a time in which almost everything is new and different and remote.
But it wasn’t like every other year. It couldn’t be.
Beyond this oddly nostalgic Chili’s bar was a new season of my life. The factors that drew me closer to this moment were the same as the ones that pulled me away.
On the road to Comayagua, filling out my bracket, I knew this. Still, I relished the moment, the anticipation of all that would play out on the road to Minneapolis. I pondered an alternate universe, one in which I was still there, in my old seat, covering the Madness.
An hour later, the bus turned into town, and all else that awaited.
Amelia Rayno covered college basketball for the Star Tribune from 2011 to ’16 and food and travel until 2018. She’s a freelance writer now globe-trotting in faraway lands. Follow her adventures at instagram.com/ameliarayno.