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A Letter From South America

An American accustomed to the richness of sport in this rich land encounters the opposite in an Andean town in which there aren't even dreams to be broken

My first pass on a basketball court in one of the world's poorest countries was too hard and too late—six skips, and the ball had rolled into the riverbed. I ran after it, saved it from the impoverished trickle that is the dry-season river and was about to return to the court, when out of a shack constructed of branches, plastic and scraps of aluminum came tumbling a small boy, crying desperately. Immediately I heard a man's shout from inside the shack. a little girl's shriek and the sounds of a father beating his daughter. I stared for a moment, absently tossing the ball toward the court.

As I turned to rejoin the game, I saw a player from the other team passing the ball inbounds to the man I was supposed to be guarding. He walked in for a layup. So that's how you play here, I thought.

Inside I felt myself turning cold and hard. Now I had the ball at the top of the key. I faked right, drove left, the lane opened and the sun came out and I strolled in, double pumping for the sheer hell of it. Make it, take it. Now I was dribbling on the left side of the basket, doing something 5'11" former high school point guards only do to their little brothers, backing slowly to the hoop, posting up my man, with each step feeling nothing behind me but the thin Andean mountain air. I wheeled, shot, missed, rebounded and scored. Playing in the Third World was like playing in the NBA: no defense!

I came back the next day and the day after, reveling in my dominance. Then I began to grow frustrated. To me, basketball is one of the holy things; once, in a dirt-driveway pickup game in the Ozark mountains, I swarmed my wife so furiously on defense that when she exploded out of her crouch, her head crashed into mine, leaving a preposterous lump on her forehead, a purple moon around my eye. Where was such seriousness here?

They loitered on defense, they giggled at air balls. They lost track of the score. Part of me admired this happy-go-lucky approach to a sport—but that part was in my head, and the game was in my blood. "¡Defensa!" I began imploring my teammates. "¿Dónde está tu hombre?" ("Where is your man?") I stopped taking pleasure from my strolls to the basket—I began passing off instead. And still, every time I raced out of bounds after a ball or stooped to tie my shoelaces, the other team shook off its nonchalance, exploited my disadvantage and scored, indifferent to my protests in sputtering Spanish.

At the heart of my frustration stood Fortuna, a short, dark boy who played in a jacket on 80° days, took siestas on defense and, grinning, chucked 35-foot shots from his hip every time he touched the ball. Instead of scolding him, his teammates fed him the ball. "Fortuna! Fortuna!" they serenaded every one of his heaves, following the ball's are with giddy delight. Every now and then, the ball grazed the rim or the backboard. I wanted to strangle Fortuna.

Some days, in no mood for such blasphemy, I avoided the pickup games and practiced my shot. My eyes had time to wander. More shacks were being built on the riverbed, and not all of them belonged to families. Abandoned children were congregating inside them, selling cocaine in order to live, smoking it in order to forget. One day the police swooped down and flushed them out of the shacks—drug users, gasoline sniffers, venereal-disease sufferers—none of them older than 15.

I stopped shooting and indifferently watched a game of three-on-three. Mostly I was staring at the riverbed. As my wife and I discovered soon after beginning a year of volunteer work—she in a hospital, I teaching English—rotting garbage and excrement were everywhere; there was no adequate disposal system, so people dumped their garbage in the closest empty space. Pigs, sheep, dogs, cows and donkeys nosed through it for useful morsels. Taxi and bus drivers wheeled their vehicles into the sorry trickle to wash them; amid lorries and livestock, women washed their clothes and men washed their hair. People, even animals, moved at a slow, resigned rhythm.

Something about poverty here was very different from it in the U.S., on the court just as on the riverbed. No one's poverty made him burn. People let fate glide past them instead of moving their feet and grunting to try to stop it; they found shortcuts, quick inbounds passes while the opponent or the authorities weren't looking. Here, that seemed to be the only way to survive.

I looked up and saw Fortuna chucking another 35-footer, everyone giggling, the ball caroming toward the river. That was three months ago, and I haven't played basketball since.

Still, I needed to sweat, to extend, to feel my body move. I had played sports since childhood—many things I could sacrifice to live in South America for a year, but this was not one.

Why not jog, I thought. Certainly I would attract attention here, running along sidewalks full of women bent beneath the weight of babies, roosters, kindling, sugar and flour; people dedicated to avoiding a single superfluous step. But in this I was experienced. I had run through Tunis while entire busloads of Arabs reached out the windows to pound the sides of the bus and hoot at me. I had jogged through a zoo in Shanghai, where a hundred Chinese turned their backs on the pandas in order to stare at the white-skinned, brown-bearded animal loping by.

I woke up early and hit the road, maintaining an easy stride out of respect for the altitude. I ran alongside the traffic, swallowing the fumes of automobiles with no pollution-control devices, trying not to stumble over sidewalks buckled by the knuckles of tree roots, blinking away the sting of the dry-season dust roiled up by passing buses and trucks. I came to an intersection, glanced each way and stepped onto the road. A horn blasted, a bumper brushed past my thigh. Stop signs were nonexistent, traffic lights rare. Drivers simply hit their horns just before each intersection and crossed by intimidation or the grace of God. Fools who jogged—let them hit the brakes.

I searched for quieter streets, shaded lanes where the people with a little money lived. The dogs lived there, too. Every few houses, just when my mind was beginning to lose itself in the motion, a German shepherd or Doberman pinscher—keepers of the status quo, guardians of the gap—would hurl itself at a fence, barking ferociously, its muzzle protruding between the bars, its teeth gnashing, unable in its fury to distinguish between a trotting have and a thieving have-not. My breath hitched, my legs trembled, my feet leapt into the gutter. The activity designed to prevent my having a heart attack at 66 was bringing one on at 33.

Human beings are adaptive miracles. I threw in my lot with the mad dogs, the autos and buses, doubled my wits at intersections and continued my jogs. An awareness began to set in about the people I was running past, more unsettling than the intensity of the starers in Tunis or Shanghai. There were no starers. Nowhere should I have felt myself more an object of curiosity; nowhere had I stirred less. No one looked at me, waved at me, honked at me, hooted at me. Invisibly I weaved my way through them, a spirit among the dispirited. Did the extremes of poverty take curiosity from a man, too?

Here and there I passed a few children kicking around a soccer ball, but far fewer than I had expected. Mostly they played marbles or killed time. Why didn't destitution drive them to the courts, the fields, the boxing rings? Why didn't it ferment athletes as it did back home?

I concluded, at first, that poverty was simply a heavier and blunter instrument here than on the playgrounds of Harlem or West Philly—it bludgeoned desire instead of whetting it. Then I found myself stopping to chat with the children on the streets. Who were their heroes? I asked them. Who did they want to be like when they grew up?

"Rambo," they said.

"Chuck Norris."

"Bruce Lee."

"What about athletes?" I said. "Which ones do you admire most?" A few mentioned Pelé, a few others Maradona. The rest remained silent. I began to list other athletes I had supposed to be known by 13-year-olds worldwide—Larry Holmes, John McEnroe, Carl Lewis. They stared back blankly.

They had no role models here; they had no ladder. No high school, university or professional leagues, except for soccer, where the average player earned $4,000 a year and knew better than to keep reminding children that they could do it, too. They had no concept of sports as a ticket out of hell. Few of the children even realized exercise might prolong their lives. Few looked as if that was something to strive for.

Weeks passed. Jogging grew more joyless. I had run the dirt roads of black townships in South Africa, past crumbling, overcrowded tenements in Bombay, some days observing, some days dreaming, but every day having fun. Why was it different here?

One morning I ran past a neighbor whom I knew to be a teacher. I began to calculate. The $40 it cost to buy my sneakers was two months' income for him. I ran by a post-office employee trudging up the steps to his work; the price of my jock was his weekly salary. I passed a nurse walking toward the hospital; one of my sweat-soaked socks was twice her daily wage. In Africa and Asia I was a one-week visitor. Here I was living for a year, talking to people, entering their homes, reading, learning. Here I knew.

I spun around a corner and felt something strike my chest. The arm of a wrinkled beggar, outstretched. He reeled against a wall. I stopped, put my hand on his shoulder, apologizing. He extended his open palm.

I tried to explain and turn away. He tugged on my $15 warmup jacket and mumbled. Finally I pulled free. The men who sleep on sidewalk grates in New York City—they know not to beg from joggers.

Sports are a luxury. The activity I once considered to be a necessary function, as natural as the breathing in of oxygen and the breathing out of carbon dioxide. I now saw as one for people who could dream where it might take them, for people with spare time, energy and money.

I went to a sporting goods store to buy a basketball net for some kids who shot now and then at a crooked rim. The price was the equivalent of $12. I asked about a decent soccer ball: $27. A regular pair of sneakers: same cost as in the U.S. A canister of tennis balls: $7.50, three times what it costs back home. How could they possibly afford it?

I bought the tennis balls anyway and went to my closet for the racket I had brought from home. The town's clay courts were isolated, enclosed by a fence and bushes.

I had taken up tennis only a year before. My wife, a former university player, thrashed me regularly. I cursed my mistakes, praying no one nearby knew English, but still I paid dearly. One morning a powerful forehand stroke, all on its own, missed the ball and hit my mouth, which bled for an hour and swelled to the size and color of something you could float down the Snake River.

Every time I played, I noticed an odor. It wasn't my forehand. Just beyond the fence lay a pile of garbage where men gathered to pick through the scraps for food and to defecate. My curses mocked me. While I fretted over my second serve, men a few feet away gnawed on potato peels.

I pushed that from my mind, consoling myself with the teaching I was doing, and slowly my game improved. One afternoon I trailed my wife by only 5-4. Never had I won a set from her—here, perhaps, was my chance. She hit a ball low and deep to my backhand. I swung and hit the ball off the rim of my racket and high into the air. It soared over the fence and landed where it belonged—in the pile of garbage.

"Chico," I called to the little boy scavenging there for food. "¿Puedes lanzarme la pelota?" ("Can you throw me the ball?") If we lost this ball, we would be down to only one.

The boy picked it up, looked at me, then turned and began to run. That little sonofa. . . . I dropped my racket, raced for the gate and tore after him.

He ran two blocks, turned a corner and scrambled over a fence. My god. I hadn't seen spunk like this since I had arrived. I chased him through a lot and back onto the street, the green ball pumping in the little brown hand at his side. As I was closing the gap, my feet slowed beneath me. He had a $2.50 ball in his hand, half his dad's weekly salary . . . now he could toss it against a wall with his friends. My feet came to a stop, I turned and walked back to the courts.