Football in Guatemala, Now Back in California

I am back home in California. I had a safe and comfortable trip from San Pedro to Guatemala City, then on to San Francisco by three American Airlines flights stopping in Dallas and Los Angeles.

In Guatemala City, I got to go with Ben, his girlfriend and her brother to the World Cup qualifying game between Guatemala and USA. Ben and Maria had a Guatemala jersey for me to borrow, so that I wouldn’t stand out too much as a gringo and get us all killed. They also asked me several times pointedly who I was going to be rooting for. (I assured them Guatemala!) The reason for their concern is that they had bought preferred tickets for the Guatemala section. The stadium is laid out into several sections. The cheap seats are on each end. They go for Q50. Our section was on the sidelines on the far side from the sky boxes and the TV cameras. We paid Q150 ($20) for our seats. There was a tiny section devoted to the visiting team’s fans (in this case, about 35 ex-pat Americans, flags waving proudly). All of the sections had huge barbed-wire fences bordering them. The visiting team section also had a line of guards protecting it on each side. Also, there was a huge fence with several layers of barbed wire and concertina wire between the stands and the game. You actually watch the game through chain link fence. There were security guards with riot shields on the edge of the field. There were emergency exits out of the chain link cages we were in but they were chained closed. There was a fireman stationed at every exit who’s job was to stand holding the release device on the chain for the entire night.

OK, with all the scary part out of the way, we can get to the game. It was really fast! Everything moves so much faster in real life than it does on the TV. The ball is tearing around the field, and the tackles are happening at full-out sprint speed. It is 100 times more exciting to watch football in person than on TV.

Despite a security stance that would have been way more expected in a prison than a sports arena, the crowd was incredibly peaceful. They got really excited and pumped up, and they had the foulest mouths and poorest sportsmanship you could possibly imagine, but their behavior as far as violence was concerned seemed to be above reproach. The poor sportsmanship was only really a one level above the obnoxious behavior that’s taken over basketball in the last 20 years. For instance, the crowd made an immense amount of whistling noise whenever the Americans were setting up and making a kick (corner kick, penalty, etc). They also sometimes chanted “fags”, like when the Americans showed up on the field.

As buff as the American football players were, it seemed to me to be a complement to all fags everywhere, but I guess that wasn’t what they meant. They used to say I threw like a girl in school, but when I watched my sister Lindsey pitch for her softball team I felt a lot better about my throws!

The game itself was great. The teams were agressive, but respected the rules and didn’t get hot under the collar. The only yellow card was to a Guatemalan, but even that offence wasn’t too bad. The officiating seemed pretty fair, though the last time I studied the rules of football, I was still in grade school, so who am I to judge? At least the Guatemalans didn’t get too mad at the officials. The teams were well matched, too. The Guatemalans didn’t allow the Americans to intimidate them, even though to a man the Guatemalans were shorter than the Americans, sometimes by as much as 8 inches or a foot!

There were a number of incredible shots. And as I mentioned before, because everything seems so much faster in real life, it was especially exciting to watch the goal keepers make the saves.

The game ended in a tie, 0-0. That was disappointing because Guatemala didn’t win (and they really need the points to make it ot Germany). It was also disappointing because I really wanted to experience the feel of the crowd after a goal. I don’t actually know anything about the matter, but if I was in charge of FIFA, I would make a rule that all games had to end in an absolute win. But actually, that kind of sucks too, because when you watch a hard fought game go through two overtimes and it is still tied, and it ends up being decided by a penalty shootout, that’s a real drag. (Why? Because the emotion is just not there in a penalty goal. Suspense, maybe, but not the genuine mix of surprise and excitement of seeing a goal attempt shoot out of the disorganized mess of attackers and defenders!) It is not so bad watching a 0-0 game for 90 minutes straight, because interesting stuff happens; shots get taken, tackles reverse the balance of the game, penalty shots get taken. But as it comes down to the end, you just dread that there will be no resolution to it. And then the final whistle blows, and it’s over, and it all feels like a big waste of time.

I had a great time, and would recommend to anyone to make sure to catch a World Cup qualifier if you can. It’s pretty intimidating mingling with such a big crowd in a big cage, especially when you know that people have died in that very cage at other games. So find a way to have a bunch of locals take you to your first game, like I did! I wasn’t scared for a second, but I would have been had I been there alone.

My flight home was uneventful, but long. American Airlines flew two out of the three flights at less than 60% capacity. The next time American begs for some more handouts of your tax dollars, call your congressperson and complain. Tell them Jeff says American wasted money and doesn’t deserve to be bailed out yet again. On the other hand, though they waste money here and there and whine about it later, at lest they ran all three flights on time, almost to the minute.

Every single checked bag at Guatemala City airport gets an extremely thorough hand search. It took forever, but they were very efficient about it. My pack was carefully packed in layer after layer of Guatemalan cloth, so it took the guy forever to dig down through it and then repack it. He did an OK job or repacking it, but it ended up a bit of a mess. I suspect that the TSA has made requirements they have to meet to fly to the US, and as with everything in Guatemala, instead of paying for the expensive machines we use in the states, they just hired and trained a bunch of bag-searching guys.

This morning I called up my home chapter of Red Cross and decided with them that it made most sense for me to do my paperwork via the Palo Alto Chapter of the Red Cross. So then I headed in to Palo Alto and turned in my paperwork. I hadn’t finished it all the way so I sat in the lobby working on it a bit and also got the lay of the land there. I figured out who was the key person and got her to understand my situation then got her to give me an interview on the spot. That took almost a week delay off the processing time, as they have a backlog of 400 applications that I jumped in front of. One reason I got an interview today is that I am already trained to the level they want me. I “passed” the interview (I guess… seemed to me it went OK) and Karl tells me they have already called him for a reference check (of course, he’s biased, because he probably just wants me out of his house!) Nonetheless, the next step in the process is next Thursday night, when there is an orientation. Alas, I missed the one they the night I arrived. So between now and Thursday I just have to hang out and find something to occupy myself. As usual, that’s not too hard.

I worked the rest of the afternoon in the Red Cross office at the front desk. I learn fast (and make up what I don’t know even faster, a key skill in the Red Cross organization) so I was able to pretty much get a handle on the job in a hurry. The funniest call I got was from a sweet old lady who wanted to donate several jars of coins. I knew damn well that if I let her bring them in on my shift I was just going to get stuck counting them, so I told her about the CoinStar machines in Safeway and asked her to take the coins there first. I also took several people’s applications to be deployed. And talked to lots more who wanted to know the status of theirs. A difficult question to answer, so we at the front desk prevailed on the volunteer coordinator to get a list made of the applications she is processing, so that we could at least give them a definitive confirmation that their application is in the queue. They will make up the list over the weekend, and when I go back to work Monday morning in the office, hopefully at least that answer will be easier.

Alas, the most common call was “I have stuff to give you, where do I take it.” And the answer has to be the same one I gave the other day here: we can’t take stuff, it has to be money. One of the other ladies had someone insistent on the line and eventually came up with the idea that she should hold a garage sale and donate the money. Seemed like a good enough plan, at least good enough to satisfy the caller and get them off the phone.

We had a mom bring in two kids who had gathered over $100 doing various things, including a lemonade. I got the executive director to come give them a special thanks, and took a picture of them with my camera phone. I passed it on to the executive director, who will hopefully print it out and post it in the office. The mom commented that she had thought about taking the kids’ money, writing a check and sending it in. But she decided to have them bring the cash in themselves so they could see with their own eyes what happened to it. A very cool mom.

I am simultaneously investigating talking with some teams who are deploying wireless internet to Red Cross shelters in northeast Louisiana. I’m considering working for them, but the best way for me to do that is probably to drive out there, and the fuel cost will be over $600 for the round trip (I used $4 a gallon as the average price of fuel. It is $3.10 here in the Bay Area, and I’ve heard that closer to LA it hits $5). I’m still contemplating how to fit that into my increasingly stretched budget, and how the trade off between doing Disaster Services work for the Red Cross versus doing wifi work breaks down. I sense another sleepless night coming on…

At the Palo Alto Chapter, we have had several clients come through. They have made their way here from New Orleans, God alone knows how. I suspect (or at least hope) that they have stopped at Red Cross chapters along the way to get help with the trip. They have relocated themselves to the Bay Area because they have family here. I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of them because things were so crazy at the desk when they were in. We have two extraordinarily dedicated and expierienced Client Services workers on hand, who did a great job of listening to their story and making a plan for how to help them, now that they are our guests here in the Bay Area.

This weekend, Karl and I plan to do some yard work and maybe take a hike. I might work for Red Cross in the office if they get slammed, but right now my next shift is Monday morning.

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