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 fĂștbol?¨ 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.