Colombia 1 Ecuador 0: being there

I have never been to a match like it and doubt I ever will do so again. What memories to cherish! Firstly though, I was fortunate enough to acquire two tickets for the match, just three days before. The result of being able to find willing sellers: I paid COP340,000 for two tickets worth COP 50,000 each.

The whole city builds up for the match. There are vendors selling yellow, blue, white or red football shirts on every street corner. People are wearing them too, the nearer the game, the more wearers. On the day itself, I went for brunch and felt odd not wearing one. Alas, come the game, the hair done spiky red, I donned a yellow one, no. 4 on front and back and the name of Cuadrado: the master playmaker.

Paula’s dad and I headed to the game by taxi. It was baking hot and humid, as usual. Now the yellow shirts outnumbered the plain, especially the nearer we got to the stadium. Embarking near the venue, we walked, sweating, and paused for a beer. Aguila light. Oh yes, cool and refreshing. Continued the walk, sweltering. The stadium comes into view – I’ve been to many, there was not really anything particularly special about this one, but, still, it always brings me a thrill to be walking into one.

Passing the first security, we had to remove our belts. Damn, but thankfully I wasn’t wearing my khaki shorts, otherwise I’d have resembled a young male follower of fashion with underwear showing. Dad sorted out the belts, leaving them at a nearby restaurant. Security let us in holding our cans of beer though. Then there was another security to pass. Then another. And another. Finally we got to the turnstiles, our tickets ripped and we were in.

The first difference from other stadiums I’ve been to becomes noticeable: walking up to the top North tier, our place in the stadium, it’s all ramp. You walk up it and it swirls round. Perfect for those who are ‘stair-impaired’ (a word I just made up). And then into the arena itself: you don’t find a numbered seat on the ticket, you sit where you can. The stadium was glorious, almost too perfect. It doesn’t ‘lean forward’ like the Amex. What an absolute disgrace to think the Amex has like a thousand stairs to climb up to the top.  It isn’t bunched up and ugly like Wembley. It rises at a perfect angle – actually reminded me slightly of the old Wembley, and the view is glorious. It’s exactly what you got to a football stadium for.

So, it’s just before 1.30pm when we are seated inside, 2hrs before kick-off, and our North Stand section is almost full already, with groups breaking out into the occasional song, whistle-blow, clap. I soaked up the atmosphere, and tried to battle off the heat with a makeshift fan. The condensation was filling my aids, they going on and off, so what I heard alternated between the roar and chatter of the crowd and tinnitus. I surveyed my surroundings and noticed that every single spectator was wearing the famous yellow shirt, with a smattering of blues, whites and reds. In all, throughout the game I counted just three people sin football shirts.

Dad pointed to the skies because dark clouds were drifting over and you could feel the menace in them. True to form, it pattered, and then, down it came, all the water of the Caribbean. Then you knew the script, because it was only 2.30. We were under shelter but there were holes in the roof, so rain did get through, meaning we didn’t escape the water entirely. My Mohawk didn’t stand a chance, and was soon dead.

I watched, in exasperation, as the pitch filled with puddles at all sections of the park. I really watched this painting unravel, and the longer it went on, the sicker I felt. All that anticipation, build up, admiring the beauty of the Barranquilla downpours and rivers, reveling in it even. And now, I couldn’t even hate it, just feel my stomach fall. The crowd became silent and I had to take off my aids due to the wet.

The refs came out to inspect the pitch which bought cries of derision. What was going to happen? It was 40 mins or so until kick off. They walked to all parts of the ground, pointlessly. The clock ticked down and the rain didn’t subside; in fact give it half an hour or so and we could all go for a swim. Or the teams could play water football or something.

Some groundsmen came by the pitch and dug pitchforks near the pitch itself: I couldn’t believe what was happening, how could a few little forks save it?

And then a miracle arrived.

Around 3.45 the puddles started to subside, even though it continued to rain, albeit less intensely than previously. How could this be happening?! I had no idea what was going on, but clearly there was some underground heating or drainage of some kind that was activated. Just as I had watched the puddles rise, and felt the sinking feeling within me, I watched them subside and felt a rising again. Down went the puddles, and the crowd began cheering again. By 4.30 it was almost entirely puddle-free; they just had to drain the corners.

Then on came the guys with the pitchforks to dig up a few remaining resistant areas. A few footballers came on to have a kick about, and then you knew the game was on, even though it was 90 minutes late. It continued to rain. Boo-yah-rasp to the rain.

So onto the game. National anthems were sang and a minutes silence was held for the Ecuadorean forward who had died of a heart attack recently, at the age of only 27. Colombians told the noisy ones to shut up and they did and the silence was respected totally.

Game on, edgy, but Colombia passed around well, although it was Ecuador who came closest, forcing the goalie into a diving save. Colombia were playing towards the north stand, so we had the best view of their attacking action, and a turning point came in the 26th minute when a Colombian player got past the last defender, ran towards goal, and was blatantly brought down from behind. The 26th minute! Immediate red card and the anticipation rose. Soon enough a shot on goal by the famous Falcao could only be hit away by the goalie and James followed up and put it in the net.

Absolute mayhem and ecstasy followed, what an experience, to be there, when that goal was scored and the players celebrated in the corner. I jumped for joy too and the whole crowd rocked and thundered, putting the skies to shame.

The rest of the half was played out, mainly by Colombia keeping possession and making a few chances, and Ecuador holding on until half time. There was a good feeling around the place. The opposition down to ten men; the Colombian side were almost sure to be in complete control of the rest of the match.

Then more drama: when all the players got onto the pitch for the second part, half the lights in the stadium flunked! Blimey, what next?! The same sinking feeling as previously didn’t quite take hold although I did ponder what would happen if they couldn’t fix the lights; ‘it’s not that dark, play the damned game!’ Fifteen minutes later they started to flicker back to life and it was game on.

Emotionally I’d been swinging up and down, left and right, and it was only half time, and as the game wore on early in the second half they slowly, gradually, sank yet again, as Ecuador, quite frankly, took hold of the game. Colombia were struggling, coming up short with their passes, looking laboured, as the opposition zipped all over the pitch. They left gaps at the back, but Colombia couldn’t exploit it, although in fairness they did have a few good chances. By and large, however, it was getting pretty obvious that the tone of the second half was set and Ecuador were the team on top.

My feelings began to churn once again, as although I glowed in utter admiration for Ecuador, I badly wanted Colombia to win. It would be history and bring me some cherries. Then, disaster – and remember Ecuador are attacking at the North end – a Colombian clearly brought down one of the opponents in the penalty area and it was stonewall. It wasn’t a sending off, but the opposition were angered no red card came, so they got set to take their penalty.

Total silence at first, some whistling to try and put the Ecuador guy off, and my thinking was: he is going to score, and if he does, they will deserve it and it’s unlikely Colombia will come back. But, lo and behold, as if some puppeteer was pulling strings from the skies, they missed! He hit it to his left and it didn’t even hit the post, just whistled clean past the outside.

I stayed seated – in sheer relief, but those around me went totally crazy, it felt like I was surrounded by Ecuadoreans and they had scored. As the game played out Colombia continued to create chances, but it was Ecuador who was on top and looked likely to score, but lacked quality in the last third.

When the final whistle went there was total joy on the field and in the stands. Many of the Colombian players collapsed to the ground, as they should because they had been extremely fortunate. Fireworks were set off outside the ground, you could see them crackle, pop and light up the sky, for the result meant Colombia were definitely guaranteed at least a play-off place in the road to Brazil.

So all my emotions were totally churned to pieces, and it was very clearly a game to remember for life for more reasons than the match itself. We watched the celebrations for a bit and then left. It was still raining. We had a small bite, another beer, and walked for a few kilometres to catch a taxi home. The walk was the biggest irritant of the night, for even though I had just been through an unforgettable experience, and even though the rain was not what bothered me, it was chaotic, there were puddles and ragged pavements everywhere you stepped (not to mention people coming in the opposite direction), and it was dark.

Eventually, however, we got a cab and got home, wet, but I started to feel the joy once again. We’d left home at 12.15 and were home almost exactly nine hours later; and that’s a local game without any long stops at pubs or restaurants either way.

And so, I have seen the Colombian national teams play three times – the first two were the women’s Olympic team at Glasgow, vs North Korean and the USA. Now I’ve been set to go to games that were called off due to poor weather – snow in Brighton in winter, for e.g. – but never sat at delayed games (ok, maybe one or two were delayed 5-15 mins for one reason or another), but never for so long. The Colombia vs North Korea game was delayed for around 90-120 minutes because the North Koreans were upset over the flying of the South Korean flag, and at Barranquilla it was the rain and failed lights that delayed it.

Still, I have the remainder of the ticket and a head and heart full of memories of a lifetime, all because, to quote Sir Alex: ‘football, bloody hell!’

See also: Rain fails to dampen spirits as James Rodriguez puts Colombia within one point of Brazil 2014

The Rivers of Barranquilla*

It does rain heavy in the city. But only torrential rainfalls, no piffling spitting and short showers here. Nothing quite prepared me for what I witnessed yesterday though.

In the evening, it poured and poured and poured, relentlessly, and soon, not only was water dripping into the flat in all kinds of places (except the bedroom thankfully), it turned the road outside into a river. I’d been told this is what happens. Indeed there are road signs that warn of cars getting floated away in river filled roads. But to witnesses the slightly dipping road outside transformed into streaming torrent of water than seemed as if it was never going to subside was utterly gob-smacking. It was also kind of beautiful in its own way.

The people do have a good sense of humour and fun though. This is Barranquilla, the happiest place in the world after all. As the water streams down, many sit on the roads, lay flat on their backs and just let the stream run over their bodies! Most of the men are walking around in shorts and just soaking it all up. That’s understandable given that for most of the time it is so hot and humid the only respite is in air-conditioned malls or homes. It makes sense, therefore, to celebrate the rains.

So here I am spending a week in the city on various errands, and hoping to obtain a ticket for the Colombia vs Ecuador World Cup Qualifier for Brazil 2014, that takes place on Friday. To confirm the Colombian sense of humour, they hold it in this baking hot place, starting the match at 3.30pm, given it’s to their advantage! Well because of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, etc, I was able to obtain two tickets. So I will not only witness the match, but maybe see history happen, because if Colombia wins, they are through to Brazil next year. Anyway, I’m just so happy to have got these that I can barely express or feel my joy.

Much the same feeling overwhelmed me as I sat and salsa-d and sloshed down the Aquardiente (FireWater) at La Troja bar for mine and Paula’s birthday’s last Saturday night and Sunday morning. I did get tipsy but it was a nice warm kind of lightness. Unlike exactly the same time last year, I didn’t end up being hauled into a taxi (which I have no memory of) and puking up in the morning.

So the drama outside right now continues; flashing lightning and roaring thunder (yes, it can be felt) as I drift into sleep, continuing the process of becoming a resident of Colombia. I’m also beginning to experience some of the frustrations, and having to learn to cope with them. The pace of life here is just so laid back, and nothing is ever going to happen when it’s expected to, that you can’t do much but go with the flow.

One thing does feel odd: it’s gotten into September and I don’t have to think about the long dark night’s drawing in.  It feels dreamy to be here, still unreal, and it is. And when you’re carrying out a day-to-day routine and you suddenly spot little bright green parrots flying around in the wild, what else is there to feel but the beauty that is life?

*Apols/thanks to Boney M.

A human ‘Iguana’ in Colombia, and why bridges are a good idea

“Iguana, Iguana, Iguana!” the little girl shouted, pointing to me. I laughed and bought a little bracelet off her for 1,000 pesos. I’m living amongst Mohawk-reptiles, bats, wild parrots, many other bird species, and ants. Zillions of them. They populate the dwellings of Cali, Barranquilla, and right here, invading kitchens and pouncing at anything sweet. Humans cook and eat the bigger ants [they taste like popcorn apparently], so they are obviously getting their revenge.

It’s so hot that walking out my front door every day is just like walking into an oven. It hadn’t rained for almost a year down this way, and yet in just three days it has poured down twice. It was tropical rain following thunderstorms, or a warm welcome for the Englishman, it’s hard to know. I’m a Deaf English guy living amongst hearing people in a small village and so far, after many socials, shopping and beach trips, all is going well and I have made some friends.

It only struck me when I was there, on the gorgeous, picturesque, sandy, Caribbean, virtually people-free beach of Mayapo, that these are places north Europeans would normally only head to for a holiday break. Here, for those of us fortunate enough, it was a ‘local’ beach visit. [Ok it did take a few hours’ drive to get there.] There was a hammock and after a dip in the warm ocean, I swung on that for a bit while reading Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. The visit reminded me of being a boy and within a stone’s throw of Brighton and Newhaven beaches; only it was less humid and often cooler. There were no hammocks there but they were good times nevertheless.

The drive to the beach [and to Rioacha, where we shopped and ate the weekend before last, and the one before that] is rocky driving for the first half hour. Thereafter the roads are kinder. You can stop by the roadside and buy sweet products for sale in tubs. Beats many chocolates I’ve tried in my lifetime. A lorry was overturned in the road, resting on its side, which was a reminder of the haphazard driving around these parts. Our driver often drove on the left because the right side was full of holes and bumps. It was all a breeze, though, compared to India. We passed a military tank on one of the streets last weekend, not sure why it was there. Far more common is the gasoline for sale in plastic containers or steel tanks, no doubt obtained from across the border in Venezuela. The people selling the petrol are always busy, unsurprising given this product is so cheap. [Fun fact: Venezuela petrol/gas is the cheapest in the world.]

Now when I write ‘hot’ it’s always over 30 degrees centigrade during the daytime – often it’s in the mid-30’s or above. Humidity is difficult to measure, but it’s pretty dense. Always. Respite outside comes at evening, where it drops to around the mid-20’s. Thankfully, we have air-conditioning; otherwise it would be a struggle to survive.

I run at 5am in the mornings, but last week managed a 5pm run, albeit for only 25 mins. Nearby, there’s a nice quiet road to run down, over a rail track and around a golf course. So one morning I passed over the track and turned left, and ran 1km beside said course, turned left again to run across the track, only it was blocked by a *very long cargo train* going *very slowly*, so I headed back to where I had originally crossed but when I got there the train was still struggling. The rear of the train was near, however, so I stopped and waited for it to pass. This experience is an example of why bridges and underpasses are such a good idea.

There is still a lot to do since moving to Colombia over two months ago. Write up the research articles that have been building up for years. Learn Spanish, especially. Get used to the culture of the ‘north coast’, as my partner calls it. Obtain my visa to enable me a long term stay. One of the highlights, so far, is the film nights; largely alternative, non-Hollywood. We went round to watch the remarkable film ‘Cloud Atlas’ a couple of weekends ago. It didn’t have English subtitles, but the guy’s son kindly downloaded them so I could enjoy the film amidst company. Cappuccino and a lovely Italian-style cake were served, one of many such nights one hopes. In between we can access the gem of a website, which puts up subtitles of English language films.

Now I do miss Bristol and friends at home, as well as some of the English cuisine, especially baked beans in tomato sauce. But with the abundant delicious fruits one cannot really complain. On that note I squeezed 12 large oranges via a juice extractor which made 1.5 litres of fresh juice. Grapefruits are scarce, but the local shop was selling them so I eagerly made a purchase of a massive three. Half a litre.

Things have not been all hunky-dory; there have been numerous frustrations with bureaucrats, faulty shopping products and some utterly pointless security checks. And yucky ‘potable water’ that leaves dirt taste in the mouth. They will surely be taking up blog space in the coming months ahead. But with a gorgeous Novia, juicy fruits, ice cream, ‘jet’ chocolate, endless hot days, an easy-going pace of life, friendly people, and excellent fun football Friday’s, it’s been a great and happy start to my new life in a South American village so far.