Playing hard at 10,000 feet:
Peruvian Porters Kicking Ass at Futbol
Here’s what I remember most about P.E. class in school: the Mexicans were the toughest opponents. Two brothers, Mario and Carlos, in particular couldn’t pass science, math, or anything else, but during their reign of the fourth through sixth grades at Kiva Elementary School, they were first pick for every team sport. They knew they were poor at the academics, and they often were embarressed by it. But at recess and P.E., the Mexican immigrant brothers taught us gringos about competition.
Mario and Carlos lived in an old suburb in south Scottsdale behind the European car dealer and the Zorba’s adult shop. The houses in this neighborhood had mostly dead grass and old, peeling paint.
Hell, and Mario and Carlos didn’t even speak English beyond the standard assortment of foul language that every boy learns in school. During a kickball game, Mario nearly destroyed the ball by whacking that thing over the third baseman’s head; but he was thrown out on a slide at second. “Fock it” he yelled, not bothering to dust himself off.
Coach Conklin heard, and his face turned tight and red as usual. “Mario! Give me two laps, goddoggit!” We loved the way he wanted to really curse, but restrained himself with these pathetic phrases instead. “I know you can understand me, get to it! Otherwise, I’ll take your darned green card away. Yeah, you know exactly what I’m saying, don’t you?”
Coach laughed, but always said, “Don’t go telling your parents I said that.”
Mario grinned and ran the laps. For this, and their appetite for kicking serious ass in sports, we loved Mario and Carlos.
* * *
I parked myself within the shade of a tree at Wayllabamba when we connected with the Inca Trail from Salkantay. I was content relaxing my legs after 4 days of hiking, and I watched our guide, Marcelo, kick a soccer ball around with our cooks, Julio and Wilfredo. These guys had been doing all the real work on the trail: setting up camps, cooking, tearing down, loading the horses, cooking us lunch, hauling loads…
And here was I, pathetic gringo, tired and impressed that their idea of free time was playing futbol.
After ten minutes of bouncing the ball on their knees and heads, Wilfredo looked at me and asked, “Marquito! Futbol?” He pointed at the ball and motioned for me to come play on their team. From growing up going to school with Mexican immigrants, I knew better than to go in a game against a hot-blooded group of Peruvian porters on their only day to play soccer in a week.
I smiled - and frankly I wanted to play, to show Wilfredo that I appreciated his extension of friendship – but I knew I’d get pounded. “Soy muy chico! No gracias, amigo. Pero voy a mirar.” He laughed and nodded.
When I watched the game, the first thing I noticed was that everyone on the field played with ferocity. I was glad I wasn’t down on the field. I’ve watched – and participated in – pick up games of basketball; and we norte americanos are quick to cry foul at the slightest elbow. But the Peruvian guys are different. They seemed to play clean, with the exception of one guy, I call him Cristal. He wore a light blue jersey with the name Cristal, a local beer, on the front. He often tripped and pushed, but the other guys just played harder without crying foul. Cristal took the ball down to score a goal and creamed the ball at point-blank directly into the face of the goalie, William. William is a young porter at 17 years old. His nose split open and he went down on the ground in a puddle of blood. He crawled off to the sidelines, Cristal spat on the ground and didn’t even blink. Another young kid hopped in the goal box, and the game carried on. William sat on the sidelines bleeding, holding his face.
Ten minutes later, William went back into the game.
The team that my guide and cooks comprised lost the game. A day later, along the Inca Trail, I mentioned the futbol game at Wayllabamba to Marcelo. “That guy in the light blue jersey sure does play hard.”
“Yes,” Marcelo grinned and chuckled. “We play that team every year at Wayllabamba. Every year we lose.”
I don’t understand the lure of futbol – soccer – to the Latin Americans. But I do love to see it. Mike and I hung out with Wilfredo and Julio one night after dinner. We learned that Wilfredo has a wife and two children. Julio has a wife as well, and a baby at home. We asked how their families cope with them being gone for a weeks at a time. Put simply by Wilfredo:
My wife doesn’t like me being gone, but she likes it when I get paid. And I like working on the Inca Trail because it makes my legs strong for futbol.
Go get yourself a glass of pisco sour and raise it high....to the porters on the Inca Trail.