Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Jungle Match

View from Foengoe Island, Suriname
No matter where I’ve traveled, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is soccer. Not teams, or players, or the proper name—yes, I know it’s really football to many—but a desire to watch. Or even better, to play.

Finding a game is always an easy way to make friends while traveling. And the beauty is, there is always a match, whether in a remote lodge in Patagonia after a grueling twelve-hour hike, an open courtyard in Jordan while smoking shisha, or a stadium filled with screaming fans in Seville.

But my favorite soccer games took place not in front of a TV, or even in a stadium, but on a grass airstrip on Foengoe Island in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, where I spent six months working with a University of Florida capuchin monkey research project. The matches were always held early evening, since we spent our long, steamy days chasing those monkeys.

We had to arrange the games several days in advance so we could get a pick-up by canoe from Foengoe Island—the park headquarters and our civilization. Or at least a remote outpost of civilization, with tourist lodges and a radio that reached the capital. As for our own radio, it barely reached the edges of our study area, certainly not the island.

We’d talk about the coming game all day while following our capuchins through the jungle, excited to escape our isolated cabin. To have a break from nights reading or playing cards. To do anything new. At the first roar of a boat engine, no matter how distant, we’d race down to the river to watch the dugout canoe, made from a hallowed tree trunk, glide to a stop alongside our rock beach.

Capuchin Monkey
We’d clamber onto the wooden plank seats and the boat driver would steer the canoe’s small outboard motor back into the current. Depending on the season, we’d either fly along the top of overflowing brown water or meander carefully around the jutting rocks of the receding riverbed.

We always docked just above the swirling rapids and climbed the hill to the airstrip. I’d sit in the grass on the sidelines, sometimes alone if I was the only female researcher, the surrounding jungle quiet except for the low roar of howler monkeys and parrots, always in pairs, squawking a noisy greeting as they passed into the sleepy sun tumbling toward the jungle canopy. The air always soft and quiet, bathed in a halo of blue.

But on the field, that strip of grass surrounded by jungle for hundreds of miles, the men screamed and grunted and pushed and shoved, their feet bare, their shadows long and tangled.

It was only ever men. The women weren’t invited to play. I didn’t have a problem with that given I’d gone toe-to-toe with ten-year-old girls in Suriname and been outmatched. Plus I already had my war injury from a barefoot soccer game on the sands of Cadiz, Spain—a broken toe that never did properly heal. And the men played to win. Anything allowed.

They were all researchers or Maroon and Amerindian guides and boat drivers, very rarely a passing tourist. The play was rough and sweaty and taken way too seriously. But always beautiful against that backdrop of a jungle sunset, the canopy shadow stretching to cover us in dark as the moon rose over the river. And always followed by a swim and a cold beer, if one could be found.

Those are memories I’ll never forget, the excitement and beauty of a simple game, in a setting with no match.


  1. Mmm, this is exactly what I mean by "take me with you," Edith. (Well, almost.) Very evocative, nostalgic piece.

    One question -- on your map, is Paramaribo another name for the country of Suriname?

  2. Nope, Paramaribo is the capital. Guess I need a label on the map. ;-)

  3. Lovely post, Edith. I agree that soccer matches can be a great way to make friends. It's a universal game. I used to go to matches in Neuchatel Switzerland one year when the local team won the national championship. My French was minimal, but it hardly mattered. Enthusiasm has no language barrier.