Ecuador v Poland from Quito 9 June 2006
Four years should have been enough time to prepare. Enough time to plan a route, learn the language, buy the equipment and work out how to use it. But no¦. only four weeks out from the Cup, we started booking our tickets.
And the night before out departure, we sat in our flat with boxes of unopened, untested, technology galore. The rush of it was awful, but we took comfort from anticipation of one luxury: membership at the Qantas Club. Its something I find hard to reconcile or explain, but lawyers, it seems, get free counselling and home loans and guilty pleas ' and we also get cheap Qantas Club. So, we figured we might as well buy ourselves some comfort in between flights.
It was a blessing and curse. In Sydney, the blessing was one great open bar. The curse came in Dallas Texas in the form of a photocopier in the Admiral Club lounge. I could not believe my luck! It was just the tool I needed to knock off the work that I had been dragging all over the globe. I was growing tired of apologising to Sal for still having it on me. A little photocopying and postage, the task would be complete.
I worked the photocopier. I worked two photocopiers actually, side by side, watching our plane out the window as I worked. I was full of confidence waiting for our boarding call. None came. No calls at all. And so when Sal could not stomach my photocopying delay anymore, we scurried downstairs to the gate. Flight closed.
I cursed. I cursed the Admiral Club. I cursed American Airlines and Sal's (not) dodgy watch. I cursed the low quality smudged ink on my new photocopies. And we booked in for the next plane more than three hours later. We had to beg for more vouchers for more drinks from the bar. Missing a plane in Sydney could be a delight, but in Dallas, I grew so very bored. I wanted to photocopy my butt. One photocopier per cheek.
American airports are not fun. Iris scans, finger scans and serious X-Ray machines. In Quito, at our first South American airport, the sign said 'The National Polica cordially welcome you. They did, waiving us through immigration and customs and even checking that we had the right bags. This was a first for me. It felt a comfort, but was the first instance of a security culture that came to both reassure and unnerve. We took a taxi to Quito's New Town where the foreigners tend to stay. The air was thick, cloudy and moist from smokestacks and mist.
"Get out of my side of the taxi, I said to Sal as we pulled up.
There were some dubious characters on the footpath. We came to realise they were everywhere, all about. Quito is scary at night. Bloody frightening I tell you. There are armed guards on every corner in the tourist zones. They were young men with guns and no smiles. I did not know whether I should feel safe or afraid, but at night the latter clearly prevailed.
We drunk many cervazes on our first night in Quito, holed up in our room two sleeps before the start of the World Cup. We chatted admiring the mildew on our curtains and walls ' special additions care of our private bathroom costing only a few extra bucks. We slept heavy on our bed that sunk so deep in the middle.
The next day, we could see the full tourist splendour of Quito that justified so many armed guards. The place was awash with Americans there to go climbing, learn Spanish or visit the Galapagos. Ecuador uses American dollars. In the New Town the menus aggressively adopt the same stance. And everyone assumed we'all was from the US of A. That morning, we went photocopying again and when I asked 'quanto questa' - how much? - I thought I heard $5.10, so I thrust forward ten bucks.
"No! cried the woman "its forty one cents!
"Oh really? So cheap!? I said trying to normalise, somehow rationlise, what felt like audacious behaviour. I followed it up with a more honest display¦
"We've only been here a day.
I wanted to go on and also explain that US dollars didn't mean much to me ' its not just the prices that were new to me, but the money as well. I'm not a dumb yank. I'm just dumb.
"Just take it easy, okay, said the woman.
"I know. I will.
But I never do, and that afternoon, strutting the streets with my head dancing in thin air, I fell in a sink hole - a stink hole of a sink hole! I had one leg deep in the hole, wet almost up to my knee. School girls giggled and pointing at me. I stood a foot shorter, a hell of a lot stinkier, in a hole full of water and junk. And oh what a stench!
We slopped home to wash my jeans, shoe and foot - only for me to have to wear all three again when we went shopping to buy Ecuador shirts for the upcoming match. It was a big day. Again we slept heavy on our sink-holey bed.
"Could you move over? Just a bit?
"Is that better?
"Can you get your foot just a bit further away?
We awoke, on match day, with sore backs and one still smelly foot. The night before, I had been sending out last minute emails to everyone who I knew. I went to sleep with faux confidence. I woke with pure nerves.
The Ecuador match was scheduled for 2pm local time. Sal and I hit the streets in the morning looking for action. Our first interesting stumble was upon a guy from the radio who seemed to be out seeking the same. He accosted me for my views, but the best I could offer was mimicking him into his mike. I'm not sure what he wanted or quite what we said, but he seemed happy, or at least most bemused.
Our first bar was a place that I thought must have been a soup kitchen, judging by the surly sundry types gathered around. Inside, we realised it was a police station, full of strange offices and even a bar. A woman noted our Ecuador shirts and nodded up to the screen where Germany had started against Costa Rica. We shook her off, with still a few hours to explore.
We walked from the New Town towards the Old Town, leaving one tourist haven for another, dodging hawkers selling lighters and lollies and little trees. A guy offered me the hat off his head ' a large, garish, Ecuador hat ' and I bought it to complete my look: the look of a turkey, a fool, a tall un-Ecuadorian man in full Ecuador garb. I felt like the joke of the town. Passers-by laughed and cried 'Ecuadorrr' with great rolling 'rs'. I retorted the same, trying my best to roll back.
Sal and I continued up the hill to the Old Town swinging into a restaurant/bar called El Penon Parrilladas. It had a promising life-sized print of Ecuador's team on the window and a giant screen. It was now about two hours til match time and the room was, to my mind, surprisingly bare.
There were a number of tables marked 'reservado' and a small group of yellow shirted men having a drink. Both offered hope. Young waitresses wore headscarfs in red, yellow and blue. They fussed all about us, seating us, offering us good seat for the screen. But we weren't there to watch football quite yet. We ingratiated instead. I took a cerveza and Sal a cafÃ© con leche and we left a mighty big tip. We also spoke with the boss and put down some money to 'reservado' a couple of seats of our own. And with an hour until kick off we strolled the streets with our yellow costumes and cameras. The streets were also dabbed yellow. People gathered outside television stores. They waved flags from their cars. They chanted at us walking by. We accepted face paints on our cheeks while cute, grubby, girls gathered and laughed. Charmed, as we were, we gave out a couple mini-koalas to the cheekiest, grabbiest, girls. It caused a little girl storm as we were swamped with hands reaching up and people moving closer. There were all sorts of bodies against Sal and I now.
The video camera was out. We had wallets and passports; sound gear, cameras and such ' it felt far too much to protect. Fear, delicious, exhilarating, blanketed us.
"We gotta get out of here!
We rushed back out of the Old Town, back towards El Penon Parrilladas with a kindly police officer in tow. He watched after us all the way and cautioned us about pickpockets and worse. Then the good gent straightened my hat so the Ecuador crest pointed the front instead of to the side. If we insisted on getting ourselves robbed, at least we should do it with dignity if not style.
Back at the bar. Much busier now, with real rhubarb in the room. As soon as we walked in, I spied the sign on our table: 'Reservado - Anthony Jucha'. A great souvenir - or at least would have been had I been sober enough to collect it.
We dragged our special table alongside that of the gents we saw drinking on our first visit. And then, before we could even order, two grande cervezas appeared on our table. They were bought for us by our new amigos next door. We shuffled our table closer again. Sal sat next to the boys ' they were pleased - and I sat by myself on the end. It felt great. I felt so lucky for us to be there in this classy dive of a restaurant or bar in Quito with our first World Cup match just about to begin.
We ordered and ate something of rice, beans and bananas. The anthems piped up. The Ecuadorians stood and some sang in good voice and when kick off came, the room was all riveted save for one waitress who stood 'doing cutlery' in the corner. A standing ovation came early, the locals happy with an Ecuadorian attack. They seemed happy about everything really. This place was getting seriously drunk. Grande, longneck sized, cervezas bucketed over the bar.
It was rowdy and infectious and, with Sal running around filming, I reflected on my Ecuador garb and my allegiances ' or lack thereof. I am part Polish and the 'Jucha' part of me panged inside my new yellow shirt. I felt like I'd just informed on my family when I stood to cheer for the first Ecuador goal.
"Ecuadorrrr, Ecuadorrrr, Ecuadorrrrrrrrr they rolled and jumped around.
Scotch bottles now. They sloshed around tables being drunk only with water. The drunk were an honourable lot. They applauded good defence and not once did they have a go at the Poles. Maybe it was because they felt that they always controlled the game as it seemed to me that they did.
There was one man who sat solo in the room. He had thoughtful eyes and seemed to feel the match in the same way as me. While Sal moved around, we exchanged our thoughts on the match with our eyes. I felt he too enjoyed drinking alone with so many.
Half time came. Sal and I had planned to run off to investigate another venue, but the rain conspired against us and locked us down in this room. I was glad for the excuse to stay put. The cervezas were still flowing for us. And now the scotch deliveries had started as well. We reciprocated with a few kangaroo pins we had brought on the trip. Again, we caused a slight jealous uproar. We wanted to give more, but with two down we were now left with only eight pins. We should have brought more! You would not believe what affection a kangaroo pin will buy.
When the game recommenced, I felt the bar staff were enjoying our cervezas as well with our unfinished bottles seeming to walk. It mattered not. We were hardly short of a drink, the kangaroo'd ones delivering too many scotches (and cuddles and squeezes for Sal) for the whole rest of the game. I know somewhere in there Ecuador scored again, and the crowd leapt for the moment. I did too, but I was too full of booze to know when it happened or anything much.
I have begun to detect, at this early stage of our journey, that this whole drinking thing could become a slight problem. Sal and I both do rather like a drink, but we did not count on the locals insisting on getting us so very drunk.
There was a final whistle to madness. With Ecuador victors, Sal and I both became heroes. We were lucky omens, mascots, and our amigos insisted we return for the next match! But alas, we had to leave for Buenos Aires that night. The boss man invited us to the front and we made garbled speeches, posed for photos, and then ejected ourselves, so very drunk. Well, I was anyway. I actually nearly wet my pants on the street. Very nearly. Very, very nearly. Well¦ok¦ I'll admit it. I did wet my pants. Ever so slightly until I rejoiced in that great male freedom of watering a tree.
We grabbed a taxi back to the hostal with one hour to get our act together, eat a sandwich and change our pants. Well¦ ok¦ I'll admit it. Sal changed her pants. I didn't change mine at all. They were stinky-holed anyway!
We found another taxi and crawled out of Quito through the beeping traffic to a dead still airport where happy security guards waved as through and we boarded our plane. We had a full night of flying, off to our next match, thousands of miles and less than twenty-four hours away. We were sad to leave Quito, so scary and yet so warm and celebratory that night, but onwards we must go to Buenos Aires¦