Volcanoes In Ecuador: Thwarted But Happy

Climbing volcanoes in Ecuador has been a long-held dream of mine. From January 13th to the 19th of this year, I took a few baby steps toward realizing it: I traveled to Machachi, Ecuador to try to hike and climb Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest volcanoes. I failed; both volcanoes were not prepared to receive me on their summits; the weather did not co-operate and was well and truly ‘socked in’ with persistent rain and snow higher up. I traveled partway up Cotopaxi, returning from 5300 meters after snow conditions were deemed unfit for us to continue; the Chimborazo attempt was called off before commencing thanks to reports that avalanche conditions prevailed on its slopes. Still, I managed to squeeze in hikes–of varying levels–of three other volcanoes in the region: Corazon; Illiniza Norte; Ruminahui. I also spent a rewarding week at a lovely hostel–the Hosteria Chiguac–in the town of Machachi, and a wonderful weekend in Quito with an old friend. Like all occasions to travel, this one changed me emotionally and physically; I fell in love all over again with the mountains and renewed my gratitude for the folks I meet when I travel,–this time around, a pair of fire fighters from Idaho, Canadian climbers, English schoolboys, a German young man–who fill my heart with their affection and amaze me with their kindness. The world is a big place, and I will remain in awe of all it contains.

I arrived in Quito on Friday, January 11th, and after being picked up by Manuel from Andes Climbing, was driven to Machachi to check in at the Hosteria Chiguac. Next morning, my guide Marco arrived to accompany me on an acclimitazation hike to Corazon. The hike begins from a parking lot at 4000 m above sea level and continues on to the summit of Corazon–with a funky little rocky scramble requiring some care along the way. The summit is at 4780m; we were accompanied by a dog–Senor Perro–who proved to be a remarkably skillful scrambler and hiker. After a quick lunch, we headed back down, or rather, we were chased off the summit ridge by an impending thunderstorm. The next day, Marco and I headed off to climb Illiniza Norte, the less-technical of the pair of Illinizas. This is a class 3 scramble that turned into an alpine adventure thanks to the fresh snow; the most excitement came along the traverse ‘El Paseo De Morte’ and in ascending the final couloir to the summit; we roped up and Marco expertly belayed me on a couple of sections. After the summit, we ‘surfed’ our way down a scree slope to pull off a little slippery, slidy, shortcut. After a day’s rest, Marco and I attempted to scale Cotopaxi.

The day before our attempted climb, Marco and I drove to the parking lot for the Jose Rivas Refuge, and hiked up to the refuge, our jumping off point for the summit push. We ate an early dinner, checked our gear and turned in for the night at about 630PM. Wake-up was at 11PM; I drank a quick coffee, geared up, and headed out. One indication of the trouble we were to face was that we had to put on our crampons at the refuge itself, as opposed to the usual ‘crampons-on’ point at the the glacier forty-five minutes up the slope. Later, the snow grew deeper, wetter, and slippier, making progress up the slope harder and harder. Two hours and 1300 feet up the slope, our luck ran out, as Marco and other guides with other parties decided that snow conditions made it too hard to carry on. Our Cotopaxi plans having fallen apart, so did our Chimoborazo ones; besides, scouting reports made it clear avalanche risk was too high. I settled for a substitute hike to Ruminahui Central on a day which summed up the weather for the week; it began and ended in dampness, and we were chased off the peak by an approaching storm.

My hiking concluded, I moved to Quito for the weekend to meet an old friend and spent a couple of days of blissful indulgence, eating ceviche and various barbecued meats, strolling around, drinking delicious black coffee with coconut oil and sugar, and enjoying, all over again, the sensation of being amazed by this world’s offerings. The mountains did not co-operate this time around; but I’m patient. I’ll be back.


Soccer’s Clubs and Countries

Once the hubbub and the desperate hopes of the group stage have died down, the World Cup slowly settles down to normal service: the upstarts fade away and the big guns play on. Now, at the semi-final stage, the match-ups look decidedly familiar: Brazil versus German, Netherlands versus Argentina. (The final could be any one of a set of classic encounters: Brazil versus Argentina and German versus Netherlands being just two of them.) The World Cup is a tournament, which, thanks to its qualification phases, allows for plenty of dreaming–but it is also very efficient in providing brutal awakenings: underdogs can promise a great deal, but not for too long.

So, here we are, down to the usual South America versus Europe line-ups, down to the usual contestations of Best Continent for Soccer. But the hunt for the Best Continent for Soccer is a silly one. For this World Cup will prove, as usual, that European clubs and leagues, are the heart of modern soccer: that that is where talent is given its professional wings, paid an adequate wage, and thus nurtured and developed. South America, Asia, and Africa, still produce talent by the bushel; they have not been able to produce a suitable political economy for soccer just yet. The economics of the sport remain as important as ever–as important as ball control, heading, dribbling, shooting, goalkeeping, corner kicks and all of the rest. It is in the league, in the club team, that the fledgling player grows into the hardened professional; his closest co-workers are his club mates, not his compatriots.

In the world of professional soccer, players are professionals first, not patriots. After the Cup is over, after one nation and one national system has been appointed winner, it will be time again to acknowledge the actual champions of world soccer: the professional leagues and clubs that permit a world labor market of soccer players who ply their trade without regard for national borders. In international soccer, nationalism plays second fiddle to a more local allegiance, that of club.

Realizing this little fact about world soccer helps put the World Cup into helpful perspective: it calls for a temporary cessation of normal soccer conflict, in favor of a more classically staged one; it asks clubs to offer up their most moneyed investments and to subject them to the risk of expensive injury (and as in the case of Luis Suarez and Liverpool. a possible extended suspension); when the Cup is over, national flags will be put away and club colors will be donned again; opponents will find themselves back on the same rosters.

That underlying importance of the club helps highlight the central irony of the World Cup: it is the sporting world’s greatest celebration of nationalism–matched only by the Oympics–and yet, most of all, it helps showcase the importance of the transnational professionalization of a game. Without the modern sporting club, without its free agency clauses, without the modern sporting contract, there would be no World Cup as we know it either.

Why I Watch The World Cup in Spanish

The reasons are quite straightforward, and as might be expected, not exceedingly deep. They are only interesting because, I, like many others who watch Spanish-language broadcasts of the 2014 World Cup, do not speak Spanish. (At least, my Spanish has never risen above some minimal fluency.)

First, the most superficial reason of all. The Spanish language broadcasts on Univision are called by commentators considerably more animated than the ESPN crew: they are more voluble, they string together extended descriptions of play, each infused with a great deal of passion; the pleasurably interminable calls of GOOOOOOAAAAALLL are, of course, a bonus; when a game is running late and a team is desperately pressing for an equalizer, the crowd sounds plus the increasingly frenzied play-calling can build to a pleasurable crescendo. At the most basic level, watching a Spanish-language telecast of a World Cup provides ample and repeated confirmation of the Cup’s standing as the world’s premier sporting event; this year, the Cup is being held in South America, and watching in Spanish provides a better virtual connection with the venue. (Besides, I’m in New York City; watching the World Cup in Spanish seems like the right thing to do in a city in which so much Spanish is spoken on a daily basis by so many of its residents.)

Second, Spanish language broadcasts seem especially appropriate when watching South American countries play. In the catalog of pitiful attempts to construct the right kind of atmosphere for soccer watching, watching two Spanish-speaking countries go at each other accompanied by a Spanish commentary soundtrack will always find honorable mention. You can even fool yourself, for a second or two, that you have attained a deeper understanding of a more ‘natural’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘skillful’ way of playing football. You can close your eyes and paint a picture or two in your mind of a game played far away, with a far away sensibility. (This past weekend, I watched part of the Brazil-Chile game on ESPN-Deportes; the commentary was in Portuguese, and was a particularly appropriate accompaniment to the game’s action.)

Third, perhaps more seriously, the primary sin, in my eyes, of the various combinations of British commentators that ESPN subjects us to is that they cannot shake themselves free of a dominant set of stereotypical and archaic narratives. To wit, to put it just a tad crudely, South American, Asian, and African teams are overly excitable, poorly disciplined, lackadaisical, more prone to psychological meltdowns; their brand of ‘instinctive’ soccer always somehow needs fine-tuning when coming up against the systematic execution of game plans by European teams.  This flavoring of the commentary can vary in its subtlety but it is unmistakably present. It equips the English-language commentary with a very particular evaluative frame; the average South American, African or Asian player is subject to a persistent exoticization, one which carries it with a heavy burden for its subjects. They have to perform to a standard of sporting and moral rectitude that they seem blithely unaware of. But which I seem just a little sensitive to–perhaps excessively so, but for the time being, watching in Spanish will do just fine.

Note: There was a time when I used to think watching Spanish language soccer broadcasts would improve my spoken Spanish, but I’ve given up any hope of that.