Soccer and Mud

When there’s so much to write about, there’s less time to write. So where do I begin?

Since I last wrote, I killed my amoeba, the US won against Algeria, the US lost to Ghana, and I trudged through mud for six hours in the paramo (alpine tundra that only exists in the Andes) of Papallacta. I’ve made a few new friends, I’ve had lunch with an Ecuadorian family, and I spent a Saturday afternoon eating popcorn surrounded by chanting, drumming Quitenos at a Liga Ecuador soccer game. I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s been all good in Quito since I last wrote.

Paramo hills. Papallacta, Ecuador.

Even though the moment has come and gone, I need to write about it; the possibility of making World Cup history has floated above us (the US) only to pop in all our faces and drop like a limp balloon one game later, but I need to acknowledge the moment Landon Donovan scored, giving the USA a little something our country seems to thrive off of: hope.

How did it feel? It felt like the very reason we WATCH the World Cup. The game certainly had me going. I was sitting in a metal chair, in an outdoor plaza that is full of cafes, a wine bar, and overpriced restaurants. My coworkers and I bartered to get the first two hours of the day off (game started at 9am here) so we could watch the US play. One by one, my coworkers appeared. The cafe had three or four flatscreen TVs, which were divided between the England game and the USA game. During the first five minutes, only the England game had a signal. We Americans started to get a little flustered, and took turns looking around for surrounding bars or restaurants that were open and playing the US game, not the England game. There may have been some slight panic. Americans (strangers) were tying to work together… “Hey, did you guys check the bar around the corner?” “I heard there’s no signal anywhere…” “I think this Irish bar has it on a few blocks away…” Finally, we had a signal. We settled into the brisk mountain morning with the Pichincha volcano to our left, and let our little hearts fill with hope as British fans oohed and ahhed next to us. The two games were going on simultaneously, to countries hoping for a win, side-by-side, Ecuadorians passed through the morning on their way to work. They’d pause to watch us get excited and then let-down every time the US approached the goal, only to toss away our dreams one wide-shot after another. We knew the score of the England game simply by the screams that came and went nearby.

The minutes passed quickly. We sipped cappuccinos and fresh squeezed juice in the cold. By the 70th minute, the sun was beginning to come out. I was tense, but I never felt like we were losing. We had so many chances, so many failed shots on goal, one of them HAD to eventually go in! It’s math! But shot after shot, our optimism began to deflate.

Then it happened. In the 92nd minute, Landon Donovan — with one kick — saved the US’s soccer dreams. When that ball hit the net, the whole cafe full of Americans jumped out of our chairs and SCREAMED. I instantly imagined this happening all over the world; I imagined my friends in America, in Africa, in Argentina, all jumping out of random chairs around scattered across the globe screaming with excitement at that very same moment. For a second, I knew everyone was connected. We high-fived, we screamed, we smiled, we hugged…. The English glanced over at our screen to see what had happened in our game… and we DID IT. We WON. We won. We won. HOLY f-ing SHIT. I’ve gotta say… I know this seems like a long time ago — an oil spill, a recession, a slew of disapproval ago — but it reminded me of the moment Obama was projected to be the next President of the United States. That same hope, that same belief in the impossible, in the American Dream, burst out of us, and we had done it again.

I knew that no matter what happened for the US after that goal, we had gotten our World Cup moment, and we were going to have to savor it for all it was worth, because it was doubtful to come again.

Sure enough, it didn’t. I met up with my coworkers to watch the Ghana game at a bar Saturday afternoon. I wanted them (us) to win so badly, but there was a part of me that knew how important and special it was for Ghana to win, too. The US doesn’t have soccer, but we have many other victories. Ghana – Africa – deserved and needed this one, on their own turf. The world didn’t want to see the US win, I know that. But we had to cheer, we had to hope, we had to believe we could.

Hike through Papallacta. Ecuador.

As the game dragged on, I knew it lacked the magic of the last one. I could feel it in the crowd. Yet still, when that whistle was blown and the possibility of a win was killed like my amoeba, I had to sit for a second and let it sink in. Americans are spoiled: sometimes, we expect the impossible too often. We expect the happy ending. But we lost. The game, and our World Cup, ended for me in an Irish pub, surrounded by disgruntled Americans on a beautiful sunny Saturday in Ecuador. The few Ghanaian fans were all smiles. We knew how that felt. But this time, it was for them, not us.

Luckily, I still have Argentina. I am not going to write too much about that until after this next game. If you remember, Germany took us out in penalty kicks last World Cup. Nah-ah, NOT this time Alemania! Now I am going to stop talking about the game before I get too nervous about it.

This past Sunday, I did something I’ve been hoping and planning to do since I got here: I WENT HIKING! That’s right. I haven’t gone hiking since college, and it was more than time to get out there. Of course, I had some concerns: we were going to be hiking at over 13,000 feet, it was a 5-hour hike through steep and muddy ups and downs, and I had a bad knee to worry about (ugh, so over this injury. Two years and counting). My Birtish boss, Paula, was going to lead the hike, and my coworkers Libby (from Ohio), Desiree (form Oregon), Clemence (from Paris), and Chris (from Ohio) were all going too.

We met at the Rio Coca bus terminal to catch the first bus to Cumbaya, then waited for about 25 minutes to catch the second bus to Papallacta. You know you’re up high when you are ascending for over an hour outside of Quito. We got out of the bus, adjusted, and started walking.

The hike began with a very steep incline, stepping through shrubs and cactus-like plants, using your hands as much as your legs to go up. As Paula had warned us, the hike started with a bang. It’s not easy getting out of a bus and immediately trekking straight up through mud, but multiply that with the altitude (4,000 m/13,000+ ft) and we’re talking some heavy huffing and puffing.

It was foggy and cold. We could see our breath, and the ground felt like a giant sponge that slowly soaked us through. When it began to POUR, whatever patch of us that may have been dry was instantly drenched (I put away my camera at this point, so I failed to capture the muddy-wetness. Darn). The scenery was beautiful; rolling green hills and the occasional lake made it unlike any scenery I had ever seen. Paula set a very fast pace, which we followed willingly, especially in the rain. But as the hike went on (for HOURS), it got colder, wetter, more slippery, and more challenging.

For several ascents and descents, we were literally hugging walls of spiky bushes, using our hands as much as our soaked legs to get us through sections. There were some steep drops, and some portions of the trail where we were ankle deep in mud and water (by hour two, my gortex sneakers were irrelevant), but everyone was in good spirits and enjoying the exercise, as well as the challenge. But boy was it a challenge! Sometimes, the best way to get through a section was to walk straight through the prickly plants, which rolled my ankles left and right and, combined with the mud, had us all slipping and sliding while fat rain drops pounded us from every angle. My pants were so wet I was worried they wouldn’t come on or off. Peeing was NOT an option, and stopping to eat lunch was not going to happen until we were desperate.

By that time, my fingers were all cut up and numb from grabbing sharp plants for support in the freezing rain. I had to get my friend Desiree to open my water bottle, and luckily my friend Chris lent me his high school gloves. When we finally arrived at the dirt road we were promised, I was starving, shivering, and soggy as heck… But boy was it gratifying to get there (4 hours later).

Libby and I take a break after we finally find the road. 2/3rds through hike. Wet, cold, hungry! Papallacta, Ecuador. (Photo: Desiree A.)

All that was left was a long walk through the mountains to our final destination: the Papallacta hot springs. Of course, the home stretch seemed never-ending. It’s like the 1,500 meter mark of a 2,000 meter rowing sprint: you keep waiting for the coxswain to yell “POWER 10 to the finish! 1!!!!…. 2!!!!!!…. PUSH IT, this is IT!!!!…. 3!!!!…” etc. but in life, as I’ve learned, you’ve got to be your own coxswain. And even though my knee was aching, I knew we had to get to the finish line.

I can’t think of a better way to end a hike than with a dip in some natural hot springs. Of course, I gashed my thumb somewhere along the way and had blood literally dripping onto the floor for a few minutes there, but it was ok: we had made it, all of us in one piece, and even though we dreaded the moment we had to put our soggy jeans and mud-filled shoes back on, we had earned our reward, and let the hot water of the thermal pools wrap us up in relief.

It was a great day, even if – at times – it is miserable to be soaked to the bone in the middle of some mountains with more unfinished freezing rain pouring down on your tired body. But sometimes you’ve got to trek through mud to get to the hot springs.

I think I’m finally getting there, here, in Quito.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Soccer and Mud

  1. libby

    I love that picture Tavel! So silly.

  2. Susana

    It must have felt soooooo nice to reward yourseves with a nice, warm curative bath at the end of the soggy hike! Did the waters smell like sulphur? How did you get back down to civilization?

  3. geordie macleod

    Poor ghana. What a devestating finish.

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