Friday, December 21, 2007

Playing in the Prison

San Pedro Prison sits behind San Pedro Plaza--a bustling square in the center of La Paz. Couples sit on benches around a fountain, kids chase futbol pelotas in the grass, and women set up stands for the Thursday through Sunday bread market. Our hostel is on the side of the square opposite to the prison.

At the infamous San Pedro Prison, the inmates are in charge. Though the guards patrol the outside, they do not enter the inside. Within the high walls, San Pedro inmates run their own society. There are wives and children, market stalls, and men selling ice cream, toy trinkets and cocaine. Like the outside world, you need money to get by. Even cells must be bought--if you have no money, you sleep beneath the starry sky.

Our first morning in La Paz, we sit on a bench and watch the gate of the prison and the guards who surround it. It’s hard to find the nuances of language to convince an armed guard to unlock the gates for you and let you wander in with your video camera.

Carrying our snazzy postcard, we stroll up to the men with green uniforms and guns, attempting to explain the merits of our project and why the San Pedro inmates would want to be a part of it.

We are not outright sent away--we feel encouraged. Speaking enthusiastically, he points us to a side door where we are to talk to a director. A man at this door does outright send us away. He chases us out as he speaks in fast Spanish we can’t fully understand…though we do make out something about the US Embassy.

Dispirited but not defeated, we take a cab to the US Embassy. While things are often closed on Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes even Mondays or Fridays, nothing is ever closed on a Wednesday…except, we discover, the US Embassy. Apparently, if you lose your passport or have your child abducted on a Wednesday, you must wait until Thursday.

So we return to our hostel and continue to gaze at the prison across the square. We wander downstairs to the Internet Café and spend enough time researching to make good friends with the owner. He shows us pictures of himself dancing in traditional clothing and we tell him about our desire to play futbol inside San Pedro. At this, he walks to the doorway, whistles at some men in uniform, and gestures them toward us. Five minutes later, we are being escorted by soldiers to the director’s office.

The director writes down directions to the Bolivian Ministry of Prisons on a pink piece of paper. “You need to speak to Alejandro. If he gives you permission, you may talk to the prisoners.” He tells us, “It is difficult, but not impossible.”

At 8am, we sit at a long conference table and find out Alejandro (who has an awesome scar running the length of his face) is an avid futbol player. Within fifteen minutes, we have permission. “But,” he clarifies. “You must talk with the prisoners--they decide.”

The following day, three elected prison leaders listen with rapt attention as Rebekah and Luke explain our film. They are enthusiastic and make insightful comments about the connectivity of the world’s game. They nod with approval and then they say, “And now for the painful part…what it’s going to cost you.

“We want fruitcakes for one-fourth of the prison.”

Luke and Rebekah are puzzled. “How will we carry 300 fruitcakes?”

“You give us the money and we buy the fruitcakes.”

So by “fruitcakes” they mean cash. We do some tallying in our heads--if we continue to eat bread, ham and bananas, if we buy the cheapest bus tickets to Peru, if we don’t have any unanticipated expenses, we’ll have enough to shell out $400 so we can play with the prisoners. This is how San Pedro works.

The following day, we hand over an envelope of cash and walk through the prison to the futbol court. We walk by throngs of men who send up a chorus of low whistles as we pass.

Over the court, there are double balconies that hold an audience of men who voice both approval and disapproval. On the court, there is no excessive dribbling--they play it to each other in sharp, quick passes that show how well they know each other and how often they play. It is the best soccer we’ve seen in South America and it also the most intense.

To finish our tour of the continent, we head to Peru, where we play on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca; in the high mountains in the Andahuaylillas district, where cholitas play in long layered skirts and bright hats; and on a concrete court along the shoreline in Lima.

And on December 18th, we headed home, dreaming of clean clothes, Christmas cookies, and squishy pillows.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us--from the families who donated to the families who took us in, from Rancho Alsaciano in Brazil to Casa Andina Hotels in Peru, from those who fed us to those who carted us around, from those we played with to those we played against.

For the next three months, we’ll be in Durham, editing, finding money, and planning for leg two: Africa and Europe. If you know of a story or a city that can’t be missed, send us an email at

Friday, November 30, 2007

Adventure in Bolivia

In 1984, Jorge placed fourth in shooting at the Los Angeles Olympics. He's a Colombian living in Bolivia who owns a cattle ranch and a dove-hunting lodge. In and around both places, everyone-- but him--plays futbol.

The cattle ranch is twenty minutes outside of a village of straw-roofed homes in the basin of the Amazon. Every afternoon the men play and the village of San Fermin gathers around the tree to watch. At half-time, the women dip coffee mugs into a utility bucket full of corn water and pass them to us. Someone else pushes out a wheelbarrow full of neon soda pop for the kids who are wrestling on the surrounding grass.

After the game, Chichito drives us out to the cattle ranch. The next day, while we are out on horseback, rounding up cows in the jungle, Gwendolyn shoots a rifle at an alligator. This makes her very, very happy, even though she is closer to hitting the parrots in the surrounding trees than the alligator.
Afterward, we leave for the lodge, driving down dirt roads that cut through the Bolivian jungle, stopping occasionally to let buffalo pass. After a day of rain, the roads are mud and we slip and slide from one side to the other as Rebekah and Gwendolyn hold their breath. Luke says ¨What, haven't you ever done doughnuts before?¨ Rebekah says, ¨Sorry Luke, swerving around in a car isn't usually a girl´s rite of passage.¨ When we nearly lose control of the car, fishtailing off the road, we hear a loud thump on the roof. Ryan, who is up top filming tracking shots, has narrowly escaped being thrown off the Landcruiser and into the trees.

Eight hours later, we arrive at the hunting lodge. There´s a crocodile skull in the fire place, giant anaconda skins stretched across the wall, and bright, rare hammocks knit by an Indian tribe in
Colombia. Jorge tells us stories about free diving in the Amazon among the piranhas and catching a grouper so big he could fit his five-year-old inside of it...there´s that picture, plus the picture of his daughter Daniela making friends with a jaguar.

At 6pm, all the workers take off--Ryan´s back on top of the Landcruiser, filming the two players hanging onto the back and the motorcycle behind us hauling a cart full of players out to the field. When we arrive, there are approximately three giant mud puddles. One guy takes a bucket and begins to scoop out some of the water. Luke, trying to be helpful, grabs a soup can from the trash and begins to go at the water as well, like someone using a thimble to scoop up the ocean.

The game revolves around two objectives: 1) score goals, and 2) do everything you can to avoid the mud puddle. There is much sliding, skirting, and screaming, but there is only one total capsize into the mud. There´s a Mennonite colony nearby and they crane their necks to watch as their horse carts pass by.

After our adventures in the middle of nowhere Bolivian jungle, we decide to head to the middle of nowhere Bolivian Salt Flats. We book a 26-hour bus to Uyuni, with a one-hour layover in Sucre. The city of Sucre, however, goes on strike. Jorge will not let his daughter´s friends head for the danger. So we take an all-night bus to Cochabamba. There is no air-conditioning and it is pass-out hot. We are sweating as though we´ve just been thrown into a pool or just played a ninety-minute summer game in Texas. Luke, the only one with access to a window, switches seats with Gwendolyn so she can have a turn sticking her head out to the world, desperately gulping in air. She wakes up to a thunderstorm in her face. She whips her head inside, fleeing pelting raindrops. Ryan, who is sitting beneath an apparent leak, is also in the middle of the rain. All night, we watch the violent storm, the lightning, the cracking thunder, wondering if the bus ride will ever be over.

Eventually, we arrive at our next bus station. Ferg eats an empanada filled with suprise beef stew that makes her sick on the next bus ride. It is her turn to have her face out the window. In Oruru, we have a ten-hour layover. We scout each bus to Uyuni and choose the company with the friendliest ladies and the prettiest posters. We go watch a terrible Evan Almighty that is dubbed in Spanish, then return to the bus terminal. We listen to the jukebox that plays both Enya and Ja Rule and watch the Cholas who've wrapped plastic bags around their top hats to protect them from the rain. When we are about to board, the friendly lady who no longer looks friendly briskly takes our tickets and switches them out with new tickets. The Uyuni bus companies have apparently consolidated and there are ten or so people who have to stand in the aisle as we take off for our all-night bus ride. We head to the city described as ¨climatically-challenged¨ in our guide book...without heat and with the sudden realization that the window in front of us is broken and won´t close--we clutch the jackets we bought at a secondhand market in Santa Cruz tightly around our throats, pull our handwoven beanies down over our faces, and try not to die.

A man gets off the bus and one of the seatless Cholas sits down next to Ryan. She touches Ryan´s cheek and says, ¨Frio?¨ Ryan nodds vigorously and she says, Poor Child, nuzzling his face into her bosom. She wraps him into her blanket and drapes her legs across his. We are all very jealous of Ryan.

At 4am, they drop us off in a deserted town. While they told us there was a nice, bright bus station with always-waiting tour guides, there is absolutely no one around. They kick us out of the bus company office and we walk through the streets. It is colder than South Bend. (It is the close of Gwendolyn´s birthday, and the three bus-rides from hell have made it memorable.)

The next three days, we drive past flamingos, red lagoons, volcanoes, Salvador Dali's desert, and cactus islands. We play a game in the Salt Flats: miles and miles of blindingly white salt. When the ball is shot wide, it rolls forever. It´s a surreal world and we love it in that foggy, mystical way that happens when you have not slept.

When the trip ends, we head for La Paz, one of the highest cities in the world. We have our hearts set on playing in San Pedro Prison.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mendoza: Playing in Wine Country

On the grassy area outside the bodega, between the Malbec grapes and the Cabernet Sauvignon, where Emilio's sister got married and where the ducks come when they are tired of the pond, we play a partido as the sun sets behind the Andes.

Emilio and Antonio unwind the garden hose into one sideline, the vineyards serving as the other. Overturned buckets act as goals. When they pick teams, they tell us, "This is our tradition." Raul and Miguel walk towards each other from about twenty paces apart like they are on a tightrope or in some kind of reverse duel. With every step, Raul says, "Pan" and Miguel says "Queso." Pan, Queso, Pan, Queso...until Raul's foot lands on Miguel's and he gets first pick.
When Luke rockets a ball into the grapes, they joke, "Dont worry, it´s only a couple thousand pesos worth of Malbec."

They are a group of guys brought together through wine: Emilio is a landscape artchitect and grape consultant, Raul is an economist and professor who analyzes wine tourism, Antonio is a bodega architect, and Lucas and Paulo develop vineyards. Some grew up on vineyards, learning the art from their grandfathers, others came to it on their own. Together, they want to one day make their own wine. For now, the play futbol, have post game asados, and tell us, "It is better to drink wine after the game than before."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Buenos Aires - A Love/Hate Relationship

This is why we love Buenos Aires: The men hum tunes to themselves as they whisk by us on the sidewalk and the women wear leather high heels in distinctive colors. Bookstores and trees line the sidewalks. There´s the corner bakery where we buy a bag of french baguettes for two pesos and there´s the old cafe where Jorge Luis Borges came to write. When we wake up, we sit on our balcony and drink cafe con leche while watching boys hang out the windows of the school across from our apartment.

This is why we hate Buenos Aires: we get robbed on the Subte (Ryan´s wallet deftly removed from his pocket); the trees spit on us (yellow gunk plopping onto the side of our faces); the bookstores boast of novels in English but only carry Sweet Valley High; and worst of all, we can´t find any futbol.

But it´s only a wallet and not a camera.

And we eventually stumble into a bookstore with shelf upon shelf of English novels (Jack Kerouac´s On the Road, written on the original scroll, a photo series of Hemingway in Africa, plus Charles Bukowski, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michael Chabon, and Truman Capote). Gwendolyn and Rebekah, who have not read much since we´ve left the country--studying Spanish and logging footage in any downtime--return to the boys and the apartment with guilty faces and books there won´t be time for.

And, after a few days of showing up to empty fields even though it is the prime soccer hour when work is over and the sun is soft, we learn the way of the portreros...

We are walking down the sidewalk, feeling disheartened, grumpy and ready to expose the giant country that is supposed to be a futbol fiend as the least pick-up oriented country in South America. Then we see a cluster of men wearing shinguards and turf shoes and giving every sign of having been recently engaged in a futbol game. Rebekah asks, ¨Donde esta la cancha?¨ and they sling their thumbs behind them and say ¨Aqui.¨ We look in the direction of their thumbs and see only a restaurant. We look again and see a court hidden behind tables.

Instead of dance floors, Buenos Aires restaurants have futbol courts (except for the tango restaurants, which have both). There are clubs throughout the city and we wander into them. In Club Eros, the court is a checkerboard and the tables in front of it have white and green tablecloths, candlelight and bife de chorizo. Unlike Brazil, where you play for your right to stay on the court, in Argentina you need a hundred pesos to rent it out for an hour. Luke and Gwendolyn are aghast, ¨100 pesos? For the two of us?¨ No, no, they tell us, you need eight or so friends. We dont´t have eight friends; we have two, and they´re both behind the camera waiting for us to make something happen. When Gwendolyn asks to join in a ensuing game, a group of guys tell her, ¨Sorry--we´re full.¨ She doesn´t know whether this is because they assumed she´d be bad--in which case she hates them--or because they don´t want to give up any playing time--in which case she respects them. Again and again, Luke and Gwendolyn fail to get into games. ¨Well, where do we find games then?¨she asks, annoyed. ¨Surely there is some place you dont have to pay." (And places where having friends isn´t a prerequisite.)

¨Well the real futbol happens in the villas. But you can´t go into the villas.¨

We go into the villas. It feels like the favelas in Brazil, but this time, we know nobody on the inside. They´re not as organized and there is no non-profit group we can email. We know it´s not an intelligent decision but we want futbol, real futbol. We ride the blue Subte out to the last stop and we don´t take much. We ask the banana man where Villa 31 is. ¨Very, very dangerous,¨he says, while pointing out how to make our way. We walk down the train tracks into the shanty town that sits directly beneath a major highway into the city. It´s a Sunday, and it´s the neighborhood championship, so most of Villa 31 is piled around the sidelines of the villa´s main road that is doubling as a field. There´s the smell of barbeque, a man selling a parrot who is plucking at his buttons, kids playing with stereophone--it feels friendly, we watch futbol and make a friend who tells us we can play with him the following day.

We go back the next day, feeling a bit more confident, like maybe the banana man is an exaggerator.

While we are filming under the watch of Gustavo, a policeman stops us, warns us, and then says, ¨It´s your life, not mine.¨ Another policeman tells us to leave. Gustavo still says it´s safe. A third policeman tells Luke, ¨Last week, channel two came and they stole their cameras and bashed in their heads.¨ This statement carries the most weight. We hope it is just the policeman telling us lies that will scare us enough to leave. But the fact is confirmed an hour later by the sister of one of the guys we played with. Another guy calls out to us, ¨They´re going to rob you.¨ But we´ve made friends with the guys we played with and hope their presence will be enough. We film and then get the hell out of there--heads still in tact.

(While in Buenos Aires, Gwendolyn also decides she wants to play with Maradona. Luke, the only one obligated to humor her, accompanies her on her search. Having read in a 2006 online article in The Guardian that Soul Cafe is his favorite bar and Eh Santino is his favorite restaurant, they go, to the poshest part of the city, saying, ¨Excuse me, do you happen to know Maradona?¨ It´s an unsuccessful mission.)

Finally, we take an all night bus to the wine region of Mendoza. On the ride, we´re offerred sherry, an appetizer, two glasses of wine, dinner, dessert, and a glass of Tia Maria or scotch. Totally confused, we press a button that converts our chairs into beds and fall asleep.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Uruguay: A Search for Gauchos

Uruguay---the country that seems small enough to fit in your hand. We decide to rent a car. Like Cuba, Uruguay is filled with old-timey classics---we imagine ourselves driving through the countryside in a 1960s Ford or a muted-color Fiat. We drive away from the rental lot with a bright yellow Euro box.

We take off for the interior of Uruguay, listening to the tribal music Anderson gave us. We have no idea where we are going. There´s Route 5, Route 7, and Route 31 and we can go anywhere. We head north, down dirt highways, past cows and more cows. When there is a town, we drive through it--along the tree-lined square, past the church and the school. Every few miles there is a field, a horse often framed by the goalposts, cows grazing near what would be a sideline if there were any sidelines. We play with fifteen year olds and a church group and keep moving. We want to play with the cowboys...the gauchos...the legends.

We are not quite sure what a gaucho is. Our guidebook tells us they wear sombreros or berets and baggy pants tucked into high boots. Our Uruguayan family friends tell us they used to roam the countryside, getting in shoot-outs over land until the goverment made them put up fences. With the fences came the end of a certain type of gaucho and we´re not sure what we´ll find.

We drive past an agricultural school where there are two handfuls of twenty-something-year-old guys wearing berets and sitting on benches. (We find out later that they are actually seventeen and eighteen, but this is hard to believe as their confident, sun-worn faces look so much older than our own.) They all have their legs crossed like intellectuals and they hold thermoses of Mate tea: a green, grainy drink that looks like someone emptied out a lawnmower bag. Something a witch or a hippy would drink. They pour it into glasses that look like sanded-down coconut shells.

We roll down our windows and Ferg asks, ¨Juega fútbol?¨ They give us a kind of snort and point to the field. ¨Claro,¨ they say. We play in a game that involves lots of beret throwing and guys chewing on the tips of corn husk cigarettes. It´s forceful soccer, when tricks fail, they are still able to power the ball through the mess. The game ends with a rainstrom and we return to our room above a bar. It´s a giant building with high ceilings and hallways that face each other, like an orphanage out of a film. We sit on four identical cots, listening to the rain pound against the roof, water coming through the shuttered window by Ryan´s bed.

The following morning we meet the cowboys at 7 am. They wear v-neck wool sweaters, berets, and what look like old-fashioned baseball pants tucked into brown boots. At 7:30, they push an old Mercedes work truck and hop in two at a time as the engine kicks over. We follow them deeper into the countryside through a low, thick fog that hides the cows and the trees, everything except for the truck in front of us and the dirt it kicks up.

Twenty kilometers out, we turn down a private road into a farm. All the guys in the back of the truck laugh and point as they watch our mini car leaping through water and taking the punishment of big rocks.

None of the four of us have ever seen sheep shaved. Ryan and Ferg film, Luke and Gwendolyn stare.

Every so often a sheep makes a break for it, turning suddenly and scampering in the wrong direction. The four of us lean against the wall and root for it secretely, the voice inside our heads saying, ¨Go, go! You can make it.¨

For lunch, we eat lamb chops.

In the stretch of grass in front of the barn, we play 5 v 5, each team occasionally going down a man when someone had to sit and pick the thorns out of his feet. Our goalkeeper is a true gaucho--the fifty-something-year-old who knows the sheep, fattens the pig and teaches the agricultural students how to work the land. He wears a sombrero, an unbuttoned flannel shirt--big belly out and about--and pants with rips up both sides tucked into leather boots. He looks like the legend.

For the weekend, we head back to Montevideo and play in the games that fill the city. Our favorite spot is in the Old City--the beautiful buildings forgotten and ghost-like, soot in the crevices and carvings of stone. Cement blocks filling in the great windows so no one can find their way inside.

After we play in games up and down the Rambla, we take the overnight ferry to Argentina, arrive at 7am, and walk through downtown.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Day We Found Paradise

All of a sudden, we found ourselves standing on top of a sand dune. There were mountains, a winding shoreline, and a harbor with fishing boats lilting to the right. The water was teal and there were islands in the distance. It was as picturesque as the Virgin Islands or any other top tourist destination, only it was empty--except for the horse cart in the distance and the dog at our side.

We'd taken an all night bus ride to Curitiba, a four hour bus ride to Floripa, and another two hour bus ride on a local bus down dirt roads, stopping every so often to pick up school kids. We knew we were headed for a pousada in a fishing village where they have pick up games on a sand bank formed where the diverging river meets the ocean. We did not know it would feel like paradise or that a small tan-colored dog would follow us everywhere: when we went to the grocery store, she patiently waited outside the door; when we played and filmed within the yellow goalposts further down the beach, she sat beside our camera bags; when we returned from a day out, she ran down the beach to greet us.

Our second day, Anderson--the musician and pousada manager who took us in--drove us the five minutes to Guarda do Embau, the beach that was even more scenic than the one we were on. As we pull up, there is a man sweeping in the road. Ryan turns back in his seat to watch him and says, "I'm pretty sure we know him."

While in Santos, a man who looked like Jesus with a short hair-cut approached us on the beach and handed us fruit that looked like kumquats. (Though we aren't quite sure what kumquats look like.) Luke engaged in pleasant, friendly conversation, we said good bye, and never expected to see the man again, certainly not sweeping on cobblestone streets in a 500 person village a good ten hours away from Santos.

His name is Ilson and he tells us he's a shaman. He strolls over to us, as though seeing us is an ordinary thing. He offers to take us out on his fishing boat. We walk around fifteen steps to the beach, climb into a yellow wide canoe and Ilson uses a bamboo stick to guide us across the river to a beach. He and Anderson then lead us as we climb over rocks, up a hill, and pause at the top of a cliff. From our viewpoint, we can see three or four different landscapes--there's the green grass/boulders of New Zealand, the teal water/islands-in-the-distance of the Caribbean, and the sweeping-sand-dunes of the Middle East. Ilson randomly starts doing capoeira moves and trying to engage Luke in battle. Luke, who took a few classes in Rio, shocks everyone and actually looks like he knows what he's doing. Gwendolyn compliments Ilson's leather necklace, forgetting that if you compliment someone in Brazil, they automatically give it to you. She now owns a necklace that once belonged to a shaman.

We then continue our hike, following Ilson as we repel along the side of a cliff in our flip-flops. He tells Gwendolyn to climb onto the King's throne: a rock suspended in the air, waves crashing against boulders twenty or so feet down. (The King also has a boat that only Ilson is allowed to go on.) We return back to New Zealand-scape, hike through a herd of cows grazing above the beach, head up the sand dunes, climb through some jungle, dislodge thorns from our heels, all while listening to Ilson talk about his parents abandoning him on the beach as a baby. Luke scratches his head and tells us, "Uh, he's feral. The wolves raised him on the beach until he was four." Ilson also tells Luke that Jean Claude Van Damme is his brother's father.

In the next couple days, we boat across the river to play in games on the island with the fishermen. Two look like Fabio and wear teeny-weeny bikinis. At one point, we look up and discover that the sky that was brilliant blue had suddenly turned black. As other beach goers flee, we continue to film, not wanting to abandon our most scenic game yet. Ferg keeps panning the camera, trying to capture the lightening bolts, until Ilson says, "We must leave." We listen to our shaman, board the boat, and fly across the water as we begin to be pummeled by bullet-like rain drops. Like everyone else, we take cover in the hut-bar-restaurant. It begins to madly hail. The bar owner uses the ice from the sky to make caipirinhas in a pail. As the fishermen play, "No Woman, No Cry" in Portuguese, the pail gets passed around the bar. It is the best caipirinha we've had. When there is a lull in the storm, we walk back to Pinheira, Ilson acting as our protector. Halfway there, thunder begins to boom loudly. We are racing the storm, lightening all around a purple sky. Gwendolyn, who used to run fitness on the beach for Santos during storms, wonders why she's always on a beach when there's lightening in Brazil. As the wind makes howling noises, we make it back to our pousada and our dog.

Our four-days in an ethereal utopia comes to an end and we head for another all-night bus ride...this time to Uruguay, home of the first country to win the World Cup.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sâo Paulo: Nenê's Court and Pelé's Supermarket

In São Paulo, we search for Nenê, who played with Gwendolyn for Santos Futebol Club. We take a ten-minute taxi to the metro station, ride for fifteen-minutes, change lines, take another thirty-minute ride, exit at Jabaquara, have an hour-long bus ride to Ferrazópolis, meet Nenê at the station, and catch a bus to her house. "If this were Europe, you'd have gone through three different countries," Nenê's mom says. "Here, you are still in São Paulo."

Her family--mother, father, eight brothers and sisters, and a dozen or so nieces and nephews--live in the two houses next door to each other. When they ask about our families and we convey that they are spread out, they ask us, puzzled, "Why?" We all feel kind of stumped.

From the roof of her house, you can see down on a small enclave of São Bernardo and the concrete futebol court. Growing up, she'd come up here to see if there was a game going on. Now, 25 years-old and having quit professional soccer two years ago for a steadier job to support the family, she comes up to the roof to scout a game less often. As we watch people play, she tells us a violent personal history that makes us feel like boring, sheltered Americans.

In the morning, we follow her to work at a toy factory. Wearing hair nets and ear plugs, we film...the visuals are so interesting it's hard to pull Ryan and Ferg away. When her shift ends, she goes out to the concrete court and checks to see who is playing before giving us the okay to pull out the cameras. The translation of the graffiti on the side of the wall: "Who is alive always shows up." At times she still has it, flipping rainbows over the younger guys' heads. At other times, she hangs around in the back, watching the game from a distance and looking like her mind is somewhere else. As we congregate in the kitchen after the game, her mother tells us, "I was always against it. She should live for God, not futebol. But I was at work, what could I do?"

On Sunday, we leave for Bauru, the small city Pelé grew up in. (Wikipedia will tell you otherwise...born in Minas Gerais and groomed since he was sixteen in Santos, Bauru's often forgotten, but not to those who live in Bauru.) We meet an old man who was close with Pelé's father. "He never did the same move twice. Even back in the days of peladas they'd carry him off the field."

"I'll drive you by the spot the legend used to play," Antonio tells us. He brakes in front of a construction site for a large super market. He turns around in his seat and gestures angrily. "No respect for history." Soon, you'll be able to buy dishwashing detergent and cheese in Pelé's old stomping ground. (The supermarket swears they'll have a commemorative corner.)

That night, we drive out to a game on the outskirts of town. "The best peladas are where the poor people play," our friend tells us. It's one of those schizophrenic, Florida-esque kind of skies: lightning and thunderheads to the right and sunshine to the left of the field that would look forgotten if it weren't for the thirty-odd people playing on it. There are sporadic clumps of grass and trash dotting the orange clay. Some men wear shoes, some wear socks, some wear one sock, some wear one shoe, most play barefoot. It's fifteen against fifteen, the type of game where you play against the other team as well as your own--everyone fighting for the ball. This game, like every game so far in Brazil, they call Luke "Alemão," which means "German." "Vai Alemão! Boa Alemão!" The goal is a foot-by-foot metal box and there are three guys standing in front of it. There is pretty much no chance to score. We play for two hours, nobody scores, and nobody seems too upset.

Our Brazil time is dwindling...Luke's consoling himself with rumors that Portuguese to Spanish is an easy transition, Ferg's studying her 501 Spanish verbs, Ryan's saying meekly, "I got an A in Spanish seven years ago..." and Gwendolyn has just resigned herself to being the language dummy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Santos: Long Walks and Old Men

In Santos, we worry our movie will be about us getting fat around the world: here we are in Trinidad, all fairly lean, here we are in Brazil, showing signs of being fed extravagantly by unbelievable hosts. To combat the massive intakes of food, we nix taxis and buses and go on 6 or 7 km walks between destinations. Santos is divided into regions by seven canals and we count each of them as we walk along the beach garden, ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest of its kind. Gwendolyn steps in wet concrete, literally leaving her footprint on Brazil. Ryan's stepping-in-something story is worse: as Rebekah starts shooting a game, Ryan walks off to scout out a wide-angle shot. He stands there for some time, pondering different angles of the quadra, questioning the inclusion of a tree, studying the light. He turns to walk back, feels his foot slip, and realizes that for the past ten minutes, he'd been standing in a pile of dog poop, the only pile of dog poop anywhere around.

On Monday, we're given press passes to watch the Santos men: we note that there are way fewer tricks in a professional pactice than a pelada. When a coach who decides your fate is watching, people are less keen to try and rainbow their way out of the back.

The following day, we play with the Santos women on the beach. While Gwendolyn is usually the only girl playing with guys, this time Luke is the only guy playing with meninas. None of them played on organized girls' youth teams. All of them learned their tricks na rua, on the street. You can see other games up and down the beach--goals made out of anything from upside-down bicycles to flip-flops, sidelines drawn into the sand.

On the field beneath our window, the old men play on Sunday mornings. At 6am, they begin to show up, sitting on the ledge of the canal. At 6:30, they walk through a fruit and vegetable market to a corner cafe, stirring sugar into their coffee and arguing over the Corinthians game. At 7, they walk through the gate to the field and sit at plastic tables at the not-yet-open bar. At 7:30, they head for the locker room. We wonder how many locations they can squeeze into pre-game. At 8am, the game finally begins.

They play well, they play hard, and they fall frequently, making wild hand-gestures and fighting over whether the tackle was clean. When Gwendolyn comes on, they laugh and smack their thighs, as though she is the unusual sight, when they are the seventy-year-olds shimmying down the field, their knees only occasionally buckling. They shout in each others' faces: "You just passed it to my knees," "He's a trashcan, he's a trashcan, pass the ball to me," "This game will be shown all over the world and that's the ball you play?" They're highly opinionated, as they all have over half-a-century of playing experience.

In the locker room after the game, there are many wrinkled butts and they are not at all camera shy. Ryan does his best to avoid full frontals. We don't want a senior-citizen schlong to leave us with an NC-17 rating. They talk trash and tell Luke that it's time for the third half--cervejas and a barbecue. We share toasts with the veterans and leave for São Paulo...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Brazil, Part 2: Nicknames & The Never-Ending Cab Ride

For the next three days, we go in and out of Rocinha. A gunman greets us at the entrance one day in English. “Hello my friends. Welcome to Rocinha, the most beautiful place in the world.”

Around 9pm on Friday night, Ferg and Ryan take establishing shots of Rocinha while Gwendolyn and Luke wander over to the field. Luke scratches the back of his neck and asks the group of guys sitting by the fence if they are about to play. One burly guy in a green and blue striped t-shirt seems to be the center of the show. He wears a long gold chain and a bright pink stopwatch around his neck and everyone calls him The Boss. This guy, Anderson, is the leader of Família Valão. Valão, which means both “big sewer” and “common grave” in Portuguese, is the name of the street in Rocinha they all live on. Anderson divides the guys into three teams by tossing out red pennies, blue pennies and jerseys that say Família Valão in a font made to look like dripping blood. We play until midnight. The lights are dim and it is too dark to film.

The following night we pursue the story of the waiters. We film and eat at Pizza & Grill Gambino, which offers 180 different pizzas with toppings ranging from sushi to stroganoff. At 1am, when the garcons have put the chairs up on the tables, washed the floors, and taken out the trash, they change from yellow vests and bow ties into floral board shorts. As we pass other restaurants at closing time, they call out to waiters through the open windows and signal toward the field. On the benches beside the concrete court, they uncap jugs of homemade caipirinhas and pass out small plastic cups. We down the lime, sugar, and cachaça, Ryan and Ferg head to different camera angles, and Gwendolyn and Luke join the Pizza & Grill team. We can hear the waves.

At 4am, the game winds down and we sit. Gwendolyn asks the head-phoned waiter who watched from the sideline what he was listening to…he gives her his ear buds and takes her through the Rocky theme song and Kelly Clarkson. By 4:30am, we walk down empty streets and the waiters stay with us until they can put us in a cab.

By 7:55am, we are back in Rocinha, wanting the story of the street. We meet Anderson in a narrow corridor of Valão. His family—uncles, aunts, parents, cousins, and grandparents—live in a three or four story building, a different generation on each level. We duck into his room, the first level. He shows us a row of large futebol trophies and a corner full of kites. Our guide, Emerson, says, “The big man is a little boy. Always flying his kites.”

Anderson slings his knapsack across his chest and we leave, winding through the maze of narrow passageways. The morning papers are hung out on a laundry line. He shuffles behind a group of men until he can see the headlines: Marta, Marta, Marta / Brazil 4, Estados Unidos 0. Motorcycles honk as they weave through the crowd of people striding toward their mornings. Anderson stops into his grandfather’s bar. His grandmother is behind the counter, shaking coffee through a water filter. He eats a baguette, chugs down his cup of coffee, and we leave. As we turn our back on Valão, he points out words that have been painted over but which you can still see: Família Valão, good at futebol, funk, jiu jitsu, and women.

We part ways at the foot bridge—Anderson heads towards his job delivering hospital supplies and we head toward a beach game in Ipanema. As we leave, we know Família Valão won’t make it into the film. In the end, we weren’t allowed to pull out our cameras enough in Rocinha to tell the full story. We think about the Flannery O’Connor quote about having to kill your darlings. Rocinha is our first killed baby. In the next few days, we’ll also catch our first virus and have our first travel glitch…

The virus
While walking through the fields of Flamengo, we stop and watch a thirteen-year-old girl nicknamed Ronaldinha. The nickname fits: she’s got his charisma and flair both on and off the field. We drive an hour and a half to meet her in her favela in Nitteroí, where she’s played in peladas with boys since she was four. We play and film at the dirt field twenty or so yards beneath her house. Luke realizes he’s going to be that guy who got beat by a very small girl. She is very, very good.

Ronaldinha and her friends nickname Ryan “Michael Jordan.” As he is neither a basketball player nor black, we assume it’s because he is (kind of) tall. Ryan eats up the only time he’ll be called something that cool. Disappointingly, Luke garners the nickname of neither an athlete nor a handsome black man. They call him Macauley Culkin. (In Trinidad, they thought he looked like Bill Clinton—we’re not sure how these two mesh…)

We sleep on the floor of Ronaldinha’s house. At one point Ryan is told to go sleep at another house, wakes up there to a drunk man kicking him out in Portuguese, and promptly returns to Ronaldinha’s house. At some point in the night, in one of the two houses (which one we’ll never know), he acquires pink eye. Ferg, who shares the camera’s eye piece, has begun using the LCD screen more frequently.

The glitch
We calculate the price of four bus tickets from Rio to Santos and then try to find a taxi-driver who will drive us down the coastal route at the same price. Neco, who got out of our cab ride at one point to show us how tall his seventeen-year-old goalkeeping son is, decides he’s ready to see the coast for the first time. We see a whole lot of the coast…and realize that taking a cab driver out of his familiar terrain is not necessarily the best idea.

At 1pm, he glanced at the map, did a mini-samba, and told Luke that we were doing well and should be there within two hours. At 11pm, we pull into Santos. After four or five times asking for directions, we count: we asked twenty-one different Brazilians for directions. Neco wipes his head with a handkerchief about once a minute and tells us that we have taken him very far away. At times—on very dark roads—he turns his lights off. While we’d worried about the safety of our cameras on public buses, we now realizing driving a cab from Rio de Janeiro at night time could be a much worse idea. Finally, we arrive at our destination. Ryan’s sister has recently married a Brazilian and we are staying with her in-laws. Understandably, Neco wants a rest. Ryan wonders if asking his new family if the taxi driver can sleep over will affect his first impression. Luckily, Neco decides he’s had plenty of time with us already and gets on the road…leaving a contagious eye disease as the only thing that will mar Ryan’s first impression.

(Also, you never know how many barking dogs there are until you are trying to film.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Brazil, Part 1: Rua de Lazer

You hear about Brazilian soccer players from an early age—they are the inventors, the magicians. While Americans learn prescribed moves—the scissors, the stepover, the fake kick—Brazilians make them up, coming up with it as they go along. And while you know all this beforehand, nothing prepares you for seas of eight-year-olds who can do loop-de-loos over your head.

Arnaldo greets us at the airport and drives us to his father’s home Nova Iguaca, a ghetto suburb of Rio. It’s probably not where most tourists end up. The Brazilians look right in your face as they speak—like they are extremely considerate, wanting you to be aware that they are speaking to you, for you…even though you can’t understand anything they are saying. We nod and wait for Luke to translate. Arnaldo drives to the grassroots newspaper that tries to bring news to the million residents of Nova Iguacu. From there, a journalist and a musician take us to the small favela they both grew up in. We walk over an open sewer and into narrow corridors covered in bright graffiti. A mix of kids, teenagers and forty year olds play in the widest street—occasionally pausing for cars, old women carrying bags of groceries, and bicycles with soft horns. Construction cones serve as temporary goals—their real goals got run over by a drunken truck driver the previous week. The favela graffiti artist leans against one of his drawings—a woman with large red lips—sketching in his notebook as he watches the game. He gives Gwendolyn a drawing of a woman in very short soccer shorts. After the game, we duck into a neighborhood bar and drink Guaraná juice as a television plays highlights from the Brazil/Australia women’s game.

The following morning we play in Mesquita with old men. They are forty, fifty, sixty-year-olds who play on the dirt quadras every Saturday morning. After the game, we walk over to the outdoor bar and sit in plastic chairs, sipping on Antarctica beers as the men tell us about Brazil. We follow one player to his church kitchen where he chops meat for a barbeque. As he pulls massive shanks of beef out of a tub, he tells us about his life: his parents’ death, meeting his now-pregnant-wife when he was eleven, the hernia at age seventeen ruining his early professional career.

On Sunday evening we head back to Mesquita, where they block off certain streets for peladas (Brazil’s word for pick-up.) A sign hangs on a rope saying Rua de Lazer: street of leisure. Ryan has a posse of kids following him, regularly yelling into the microphone to watch him flinch. Another pack of kids is chanting Rebekah’s name: Hebekah, Hebekah, Hebekah. Gwendolyn is pulled through a doorway and fed chopped up hot dog (she thinks) and grape soda. Women—mothers, grandmothers—watch the games from patio chairs on sidewalks as they sip on beers and smoke cigarettes. They are the organizers of the closed-off streets; “We are old school,” they tell Luke in Portuguese.

By Monday night we have moved into the city of Rio. We go to the field beneath the apartment Luke lived in while he studied abroad. It’s raining and it’s been three years since he’s played here, but when we show up at 7, nothing has changed: it’s the same group of faces, the same tri-weekly pelada, the same slow walk out to the field. “Lukie!” they yell, smiling. “Onde que tá o cabelo?” one guy says, rubbing Lukes buzzed head. (If you google Boughen and Notre Dame you’ll see a roster pic that explains why opposing fans called him Brillo pad.)

We walk up to the group of guys sitting beneath the shelter and Luke taps his belly and says, “Cadê o gordão?” Everyone laughs and Gwendolyn waits for Luke to explain that this guy, who gives no signs of being anything but stereotypical Brazilian beautiful, used to be fat.

Monday was also the first day we ventured inside Rocinha: the government-shunned slum built onto a hillside and somewhere in the narrow range of 40,000 to 400,000 people. The only time you’ll see police there is during a raid. We have to get ok-ed by the drug lords first; they are the ones who run the favela, providing medicine, paving roads, and keeping the crime rate low. One professor emails us that he could not get us permission to enter. We finally meet two guys, Rogerio and Washington, who grew up there and agree to take us in. We plan to meet them at 3:00 at the bottom of the footbridge right outside the favela, and we get there early to ensure we don’t miss them. Our promptness backfires: they aren’t there yet, and we are now four tourists hanging out at the entrance to a slum. Ryan and Gwendolyn—with their darker features—try to create some distance between themselves and the blonde hair\fair skin of the other two. Ryan is comforted by each elderly person that passes by—the rationale goes, “if she has lived this long, surely we won’t get murdered in the span of a few minutes.” At 3:15 Rogerio shows up and escorts us in. Rebekah walks beside him, wearing her I-have-some-place-to-go face. Gwendolyn walks behind them, wearing her I’ve-been-more-afraid-before face. Ryan and Luke chat in the back as they take in the place that feels like a movie-set, with exposed wires hanging over our heads. There are men on both sides of the road with guns so big they look like toys. They send Rogerio an inquisitive look—he returns a thumbs-up and a nod, and we file into the narrow alleyways.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

T&T, Part 2: Trinbagodians

While out on the Queens Park pick-up fields, we are introduced to Carlan, a steel pan player for the government. On slow days--days when there are no diplomats to play music for--he rides his bike out to the field, orders a snow cone with condensed milk and watches practices and pick-up games. On Friday night, his friend Andre picks us up in Chaguanas and we drive to meet the other drummers in Barataria. As we drive by roti huts, Stag beer stands, and swarms of people waiting to catch the next Maxi Taxi, we see people playing through a high chain link fence. Andre pulls over for us and we play with local street guys on one-half of a basketball court. The game is good, the guys hanging out in the run-down bleachers are loud, the lighting is right--it's the kind of pick-up game we think will make the final cut. On Monday, we head for the island of Tobago where we hear life is slowly paced. We rent a car for two days and Ryan is elected as our left-side driver, navigating the aggressive T&T drivers, winding roads, and absence of cliffside guard-rails. We only almost die twice - once when we barely squeeze between a semi-truck and a ravine, and once when our car, for reasons unknown, decides to completely shut off while driving at full-speed. We turn the car immediately back on, and head for Store Bay where we play with guys from Trinidad, Guyana, and South Africa. It begins with a juggling circle, but as the sun starts to go down, the Trini with Rastafarian dreads points to the sky and says, "The candle's going out." So we move quickly to playing, sticking driftwood into the sand for goals. Ryan and Ferg rotate between shooting the game and killing mosquitoes on their faces as the sun dips below the ocean's horizon. On the ferry back to Trinidad the next night, we run into some of the same guys and play Gin Rummy as the boat pulls into the Port of Spain. Port of Spain is a busy city and we feel proud of ourselves as we stride towards the City Gates terminal to meet the bus (as though we know what we are doing.) We buy tickets for the busride home to ChaGUANas, try to board the bus to ChaGARAMas, therefore missing the correct bus and having to take an alternate bus route home. Around 10 pm, we are dropped by the side of the highway. A black, tinted-window SUV pulls up behind us and we meekly turn around, wondering if we are about to regret doing exactly what our hosts have told us not to do: walking with all of our expensive the side of the night. The window rolls down and we have an anticlimatic end to the story: it is Ian, our host, who'd somehow known to come retrieve the Americans who'd become a little too flush with self-sufficiency. The unknown SUV is apparently what he drives during his night shifts as a bank courier. He drops us off at the house, lifts the lids on the pots and heads back to work as we pile goat, coconut milk, and cornmeal onto our plates. With Ian's daughters we watch Digicel Rising Star, Trinidad's slightly lower-budget version of American Idol, with a little bit of gospel, break-dancing, and a new musical twist on Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings."

We pack up and get ready to head to Rio...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Trinidad, Part 1: Garlic Pineapple

At 3:30 AM, we finish packing, Gwendolyn loses her passport, and Ryan thinks he's gone blind. By 4:15 AM, Gwendolyn found her passport, Ryan discovered he stuck two sets of contacts in his eyes, and Ferg is waiting by the car, worried about time.

By 4PM, we are eating okra and pig's tail in Trinidad, with the family of Gwendolyn's club coach. Louis, a cousin, takes us walking around the Burroughs of Chaguanas. He wears a beanie with a brim, a red wife-beater, and Lugz boots. We walk by fruit stands, bunches of bananas hanging from string, men with machetes cutting open coconuts. There's a troop of stray dogs following us. We buy salty, spicy, garlic pineapple, though we did not know it would be salty, spicy, or full of garlic. Luke, who doesn't like to waste food, keeps offering the plastic baggie to people who walk by. Everyone rejects him, like he is the creepy guy at Halloween who offers poisonous candy to children. Trinidadians drive fast and without fear--aggressively nudging their way into intersections. Louis has the same approach to crossing traffic when on foot--he slings his arm out to the side and the four of us follow like little ducklings into the middle of crossing traffic. Once it turns dark, Louis says, "Without me, someone will put you in a car and steal you. I'll protect your life." We smile and nod.
At home that night, Gwendolyn talks to a friend of her coach, and he tells us to meet him at the Royal Bank at 10am. We have no idea what for. He takes us to a training session of a team trying to qualify for the semi-pros. Training sessions are exactly what we're not looking for, but we don't have the heart tell our boisterous, gold-toothed host. The team has lost two games in a row, so they run sprints all practice--Gwendolyn and Luke don't want to be the Americans who are too cool to run fitness, so Gwendolyn is sprinting her face off to keep up with long-legged Trini men. After practice, we again explain what we're looking for.
At 4pm, we arrive at the Queen's Park Savannah, the giant park filling up the largest roundabout in the world, where we hear people play pick-up in throes. At 4pm, we see zero pick-up's only teams in uniform. It's also raining, so Ferg and Ryan are hiding with the cameras beneath a large tree. At 5pm, right as we are starting to feel defeated, hundreds of people--old and young--show up to play. There are different pockets of games going on and every one of them plays until it is too dark to see your hand in front of your face.
In the middle of the roundabout, there are large trenches that used to be a horse track. Ryan falls knee-deep in the water-filled ravine. Ferg makes fun of him. Approximately thirty seconds later, Ferg tries to kick a ball back into play, slips in mud, and bites it hardcore. Ryan asks, "Is the camera ok?"

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Beginning

We leave in September for our first leg: three months of playing and filming in Trinidad & Tobago, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, & Peru. We'll have a rough cut for you to see in March, provided we don't get robbed and shot for our equipment, arrested for filming in areas we're not allowed, or devoured by piranhas in the Amazon. (But if that last one has to happen to one of us, we hope it's Rebekah.)

In the meantime, we'll be honing our foot skills in Asheville parking lots, using youtube to track down South American tricksters, trying our best not to break ridiculously expensive equipment, and of course, raising more money.