Take Me Out to the Ballgame

November 26, 2009

Unique experiences motivate me to keep traveling and learning about the world. They are also what I most enjoy to share on my blog. Recently I stumbled upon a fascinating event that surely cannot be found in any tourist guidebook: The Bolivar Games.

Sucre, Bolivia

The elegant Bolivian city of Sucre was the setting for this quadrennial “mini-olympics” held for the six nations liberated by Simon Bolivar (Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). By pure coincidence, I happened to arrive in this year’s host city right when the two-week event was about to begin. Local residents were bursting with pride and excitement. I may have had no idea what “Los Juegos Bolivarianos” were before I came, but I became so wrapped up in the games that I ended up staying in Sucre twice as long as I had originally planned!

Thanks to Bolivia’s socialist president (who just happens to be up for reelection soon), most of the events were made completely free for spectators. I took advantage of this opportunity to cheaply see international-level competition in sports I had only before seen on TV.

Juice Ladies in Sucre Market

By the end of my time in Sucre, I had settled in to a comfortable daily routine. Wake up and have complimentary breakfast in the tranquil courtyard of the hostel (private room: $7 a night). Relax, play the guitar, use the internet, or read for the rest of the morning. Walk to the market and have a filling lunch with the locals ($1.50). A delicious fresh squeezed juice for dessert (70 cents). Explore the city in the afternoon. And to cap off the day, hop on a jam-packed microbus (25 cents) on route to one of the evening’s raucous sporting events.

 Hanging out of the open door on the Microbus

In true Bolivian fashion, everything about the games was an adventure. Finding out at what time events were held was a challenge that often came down to relying on word of mouth. Competitions were often delayed or canceled because equipment hadn´t arrived. Venues newly constructed for the games were only partially complete. The indoor coliseum lacked sections of exterior glass, ladders were haphazardly strewn about the building, and lighting in corridors and even the bathrooms was nonexistent! I’ve never been forced to pee in the dark at a sporting event. The Olympic sized swimming pool had no water in the diving pool. And most precariously, the edifice had not a shred of landscaping around the exterior. In order to get to the venue, you first needed to navigate sections of felled barbed wire and large metal rods in search of the entrance. Next, you had to scale down dangerously steep dirt slopes while keeping your distance from the (perhaps rabid?) fighting wild dogs. Finally, you were there. As Borat would proclaim, “Great Success!”

Olympic Swimming Venue

My favorite event to attend was fútsal. Fútsal is five-on-five indoor soccer that plays like a combination of traditional soccer, basketball, and hockey. Every player has to be incredibly skilled on the ball as well as offensively and defensively capable. The venue was always full and the crowds were passionate. While at one evening’s matchup, a tremendous storm suddenly began hammering down. Would the arena be able to contain nature’s fury? Soon, we got our answer. A large group of spectators in the upper section scampered away from their seats as a fierce wind blew in freezing rain on their false sanctuary (oops, should have installed that upper glass!) The ceiling promptly started leaking water down all over the stands, and even onto the court! In the end, the game had to be delayed for over an hour to let the storm pass and allow the cleaning crew to dry the playing surface! But still, the good-natured fans stayed inside and patiently waited. Hilariously, I observed several people taking out umbrellas inside this supposedly “indoor” coliseum! Wish I had gotten a good picture of that.

The final fútsal match was a gold-medal matchup between the Colombian and Bolivian men’s teams. Bolivian fans were so enthused by this opportunity to see their team off as champions that the coliseum was full well over two hours before kickoff. And by full, I mean, completely, absolutely, positively, PACKED. There is only bench seating inside, so everyone was shoulder to shoulder with the person next to them. At one point I got up to go to the restroom, and realized that the aisles had now disappeared. Fans had mistaken them for seats. So much for crowd control! Bolivia ended up losing the match, but I have to admit I was more than a little relieved to get out of that overcrowded disaster-waiting-to-happen.

In my ten days in Sucre, I saw international boxing, soccer, fútsal, volleyball, table tennis, and swimming. I hardly observed a single other gringo at any event. Bolivian fans were usually curious as to why I was there, and as a result I made many local friends at the games. So, the next time someone brags to me about attending the Olympics, I’ll have a response for them. That’s fantastic, but have you heard of “Los Juegos Bolivarianos”?

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