Posted by: trevormeers | July 10, 2010

High on Futbol

(The first in a series of reports from a recent missions trip to Peru. 12 days, 21 Gringos, 7,800 Bibles distributed. Plenty of stories.)

High in Peru’s Andes Mountains, the Quechua people do without a lot of things. Flat is one of them. To walk the Quechua world is to go up or down. The concept of moving in level space must be like the idea of movies and shopping malls to these people—they know it’s out there, but they haven’t seen much of it. Andes farmers cultivate hillsides that Iowans would plant in ground cover and leave to the pheasants. Their adobe houses clutch slopes like cliff swallow nests. As a gringo visiting from the flatlands, you find yourself weighing the worth of even small trips. Almost anything you want to retrieve or go see starts feeling like that magazine you realize is on the third story of your house. You have to seriously question whether you want it badly enough to go to all that effort.

But even with level ground being at such a premium, every Quechua village we visited saw fit to budget a big chunk of it for the same purpose. Futbol. Soccer fields in the Andes are like Casey’s stores in rural Iowa; you can’t have a town without one. So no matter how canted the terrain, villagers carve a soccer pitch out of the mountainside, stick two vertical wooden poles at each end, cap them with horizontal poles and roll out the spotted ball. We visited fields that doubled as plazas among adobe-and-stucco school buildings. We stopped at fields gripped by a cliff wall on one side and a precipitous face falling away on the other.

When our trekking team of 20-plus people and a supporting caravan of burros showed up at a town in the afternoon, the soccer field turned campground and town square. We pitched tents from goal line to midfield, sometimes finding fairly soft turf for our tent stakes, but mostly bending the pegs against hard-packed ground. While we made camp, local kids showed up to watch the traveling gringo circus set up. They bent over to look inside the tents, squished their fists against our inflatable sleeping pads and cackled at the sight of themselves on the screens of our digital cameras.

But it didn’t take long in any town for attention to turn to the field’s true purpose. A brave kid would ask, “Pelota?” and we’d dig the soccer ball out of the cooks’ tent. Or an older boy would show up with a dust-stained ball worn smooth as an eight-ball by countless hours rolling along the mountain soil. Most of the gringos couldn’t resist the opportunity. Sport makes an easy bridge to kids standing on the far side of a language barrier. Not to mention the value that playing soccer at 11,500 feet adds to every guy’s running list of Interesting Stuff I’ve Done. Game on. (Full disclosure: This reporter, who was nursing an upset stomach and memories of an abortive high-school soccer career marked by at least one yellow card, remained safely in the press box, claiming, “Someone needs to write this all down.”)

In Rayan, a teenager tried to talk the gringo captain into betting a few Peruvian nuevo soles on the match, but for the most part, the village kids seemed content to play for international pride in the midst of World Cup season. After several nights of matches on the rocky fields, Peru held its head high. South American kids grow up with soccer balls attached to their feet as surely as American kids have cell phones stitched to their ears. Every night, the revolving faces of Team Quechua put on a similar show. They trapped 60-yard free kicks with a twitch of their toes. They lasered passes through mobs of opponents. They made 90-degree turns at full speed while dribbling the ball. We’d have been about as smart to wander into Rucker and challenge the locals to some hoops.

And the kids did it all in conditions closer to a barnyard than a suburban soccer complex. Besides the countless small rocks and dirt patches and Gringo tents, the games played out among regular mounds of burro poo. In the town of Paron, chickens wandered through the penalty box like obstacles in Frogger. The parking lot for our convoy’s burro train was the far quadrant of the field. In Rayan, attacking the west goal meant facing the fired-up stud that had been chasing our caravan’s mare for the last few days. Kick the ball too hard out of bounds, and it bounced over a small berm, down a steep hill and into an irrigation canal that was probably dug during the Inca empire. About half the kids wore sandals to the matches, and only one showed up with cleats during the week.

The gringos brought enthusiasm, at least. Huffing under the strain of the thin air and the day’s hike, they took on waves of kids that generally stood waist high. Core strategy: Kick it hard and kick in whatever afterburner you have left if the ball’s headed for the cliff. Heading the ball proved a secret weapon since heading by the far taller gringos meant keeping the ball away from those deadly little feet. In Game 1, the gringos even picked up a little hometown help when four Quechua girls volunteered to guard the gringo goal between two duffle bags. One girl took a neighbor’s shot on goal straight to the chest, then bounced back to her feet. The gringos tried to congratulate her on the stop, but there’s apparently no High Five in Quechua culture, so the Americans stood smiling with their palms in the air while the girl stared blankly back.

At nightfall, the soccer fields took on one more role as our native camp wranglers stretched a white tarp across the goals in preparation for showing The Jesus Film at the evening service. The Quechua kids settled in under their ponchos to watch the film in their language while the gringos huddled in the dark in fleece hats and jackets. As Jesus taught the masses in Quechua, the gringos couldn’t help rehashing the night’s events. “Man,” said Mike the geologist, “we got killed by a bunch of 8-year-olds.”

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Responses

  1. Awesome baby. That sure was fun…until I resprained my ankle on the last night of ball…

  2. Since I’ll be called out if I don’t say it I’ll just go ahead and throw it out there. That’s a legit blog yo.

  3. By the way… It looks like me and Mike are kung-fu fighting in that photo haha.

  4. Truly amazing how language barriers are broken down with a little physical activity. Awesome trip with Peruvian faces that will be remembered for years (although, they may be fuzzy due to the lack of oxygen)

  5. nice post !


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