Category Archives: Sports and Events

Festival in Chissi, Bolivia

I sometimes make a hobby out of choosing a random side road somewhere in the world and just seeing what I find.    ——       I should make clear that these images are from Chissi, a town far away and very different from Capayque, the village that has been the subject of several recent posts.

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I turned down the dirt road toward the Bolivian pueblo of Chissi just hoping to find a better view of the Lake Titicaca shoreline near the Strait of Tiquina.  But as I drove down the hill into town, I could see some sort of event going on in a big field — with dozens of people all in bright pink costumes.  Of course I drove right toward it.

As the pictures show, the men’s costumes were the gaudiest rhinestone-cowboy looking things you’ve ever seen – even putting aside the fact that they were hot pink.  The women’s costumes were slightly less outrageous – Bolivian women wear those tall “bowler” hats and those broad skirts all the time as everyday wear, so the costume just spruced up their usual wardrobe profile and turned it pink.

It was the day after Easter, and apparently Sunday’s religious celebrations give way to a carnival-like Easter Monday celebration with lots of costumes, dancing, a town feast, and quite a lot of beer.  I parked at the edge of the field and walked toward the action.

Besides my being out of costume, I was the tallest person in town, the only one with light-colored eyes, the only one with clipper-cut hair, and the only one who spoke English.*  It took about 10 seconds before I was invited into their circle, about 20 seconds before I was presented with a cup of beer and about 2 minutes for the crowd to form around me for a group photo, then about another 2 minutes ‘til I was put into one of those pink vests and hats and instructed to pose for more ridiculous pictures.

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The band (trumpets, baritones, drums and a cymbal) would play for 20 minutes or so (and the costumed folk would dance), then rest for 20 minutes or so (and the costumed folks would drink more beer).  At about 1 o’clock, the whole group danced down a path through town; several of my new friends grabbed me and pantomimed “comidas” (food).  We all ate the same thing:  A bowl (no silverware) with a chunk of “carne” (maybe beef, maybe not), a couple of different potato-like things, a roasted-in-the-peel plantain, and some lettuce and tomatoes.  It was a lot of food, but they’d made a big deal out of presenting it to the conspicuous gringo so I stuffed myself as best I could.

The photographic challenges were many.  The Bolivians seemed to be either painfully bashful about being photographed or uncontrollable hams, with no real middle ground.   I was almost constantly being tugged at and urged to take a different picture or try to answer a question.  As is often the case, it was hard to both participate in the event and photograph it.

I showed these pictures to another Bolivian man from the opposite end of the country.  He thought these were Peruvian traditions and costumes – and indeed Chissi is just 20 miles or so from the Peru border.   For those readers who have seen my recent posts from Capayque (in the mountains on the opposite side of Lake Titicaca), I should emphasize that this is a very different area.  Chissi is just a couple of miles from the main highway and — as the cervezas and elaborate costumes reflect — these folks clearly had a lot more disposable income than the people of remote Capayque.

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I stayed about four hours in Chissi – scrapping my plans to visit the ruins at Tiwanaku that day and putting my pitiful Spanish to the test with the simplest communications.   What country am I from?  Yes, I think your pueblo is bien (or was it bueno?).   Smile for a foto?  Comidas?  (Si!)  Mas cerveza?  (No, gracias,  I’m driving back to La Paz this evening.)  I wound up racing back to La Paz mostly in the dark, through a two-hour Bolivian traffic jam coming back into town.

There was a simultaneous celebration going on a few dozen yards away, which seemed to be some kind of harvest festival.

There was a simultaneous celebration going on a few dozen yards away, which seemed to be some kind of harvest festival.

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All this happened on my first full day in Bolivia – driving around by myself before I met the group in La Paz that went to Capayque.   My habit of turning down random side roads in search of something interesting was surely rewarded once again.

I’d like to think that if a Spanish-speaking Bolivian stranger wandered into the middle of a small town festival somewhere in America, he’d be welcomed and embraced to a similar extent, but I don’t know if that’s true.  Let’s hope so.

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Notice the Gringo in the back row.

Notice the Gringo in the back row.

 

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* I suspect I was also about the only adult who was wholly sober, and the only person with any substantial amount of hair on his face or arms.  It seemed like I may also have been in a minority who had no visible gold on the their teeth.

 

 

 

Back to Back! Lady Tigers State Champs Again!

Minutes after the Oklahoma 4A Girls Championship game, I got to hear my niece introduced as “State Champion Grace Parker” for the second year in a row.  Don’t let those pretty blue eyes fool you:  she’s a warrior out there.  The “Lady Tigers” had to win four games in eight days to be the first back-to-back champs since Oklahoma girls started playing five-on-five basketball.

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Grace Parker with the Championship Trophy

 

If you want to see some disciplined, composed 17-year-old girls, head for Fort Gibson.  The Lady Tigers were down by as much as 16 late in the third quarter.  Moms and dads (and uncles) in the crowd were quietly starting to remind themselves that second place is still something to be proud of.  But the girls had different plans.

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Oklahoma Class 4A Girls State Championships, State Fair Arena, just before the half as Fort Gibson trailed by 12.

They whittled the lead very gradually, but with about three minutes to play, Anadarko still had a 7-point lead and the ball.  In what one newspaper called the “key play of the comeback,” my niece, Grace steals the ball from one of the Anadarko star players, drives the length of the court, makes the layup and draws a foul for a three-point play that made it a four-point game with lots of time left.  Suddenly, they were back in the game.

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A couple of minutes later, some great play by teammates Desiree Phipps and Savanah Gray had tied the game with about ten seconds left.  Grace’s lifelong best friend Allie Glover catches a pass just over the midcourt stripe, dribbles up a few steps, and launches a nothing-but-net 30-foot dagger that brought the house down and the gold hardware back to Fort Gibson for another year.  (That’s Allie smooching the trophy in the picture below).

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Allie Glover, minutes after she sank a game-winning three point shot with four seconds to play in the State Championship

Fort Gibson has been to the finals 7 of the last 9 years; they’ve won three of the last four.  One tradition they’ve developed is that after a Championship win, the Seniors hop aboard the large bronze horse statue in front of the State Fair Arena.  That may have been an ominous sight for Fort Gibson’s competition:  the back-to-back defending State Champs had just one senior (Savanah Gray) on the team.  Grace and Allie and Des and Jaymie and Cheyenne and Susie will all be back next year.  Get ready for the Three-peat in March 2015.  I’ll be there.

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Fort Gibson’s lone Senior Savannah Gray — a State Champ three of the past four years — celebrates with a gold ball and a bronze horse in front of the State Fair Arena

As always, I hope the rest of the team will forgive me for ‘focusing’ on my niece, Grace.  The team has plenty of stars and is loaded with great girls.  As I said last year, I hope each of them has an uncle just as proud of her as Grace’s.  In that vein, the picture at bottom may be my favorite from the whole trip.

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New Orleans Mardis Gras 2014: Bon Temps*

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Shane Merz tosses highly-coveted hot pink beads to the Mardis Gras crowd along St. Charles Street.

Riding a float in one of the big New Orleans Mardis Gras parades isn’t like you probably think.  Everybody seems to ask me the same question:  I’m sure I threw at least 2,000 strings of beads, cups, toys, or footballs (roughly one every five seconds for over three hours), and never saw a bared female breast.  That happens over on Bourbon Street – but not much on the parade route.

I did see lots of kids having great fun, usually with their friends, parents, grandmas or grandpas close behind.  People on ladders so they could see above the crowd.  Lots of college kids acting silly.  Groups on balconies in sportcoats and party dresses.  Lots of pretty young girls, and lots of not-especially-young-or-pretty girls.  Grown men and women jumping up and down, genuinely delighted to get even a fifty-cent trinket thrown at them from a masked man on a tacky float.  I’m sure a large percent had had a bit too much to drink, but happily it was hard to tell from my perch up on the top deck of Float #20.

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One of my float neighbors, Houstonian Tommy Miles, ready for the Bacchus parade with beads organized atop our float

You don’t just sling beads at the blur of the crowd.  The vast majority of those 2,000 strings of beads I threw were aimed at a specific person with whom I’d made eye contact before making a targeted toss.  They break eye contact to catch the beads, then usually look back up with appreciation so we could jointly celebrate our successful connection with a mutual fist pump.  You’d have also been impressed with my bead-flinging accuracy – even underhanded, leaning over the rail atop a moving float, throwing gangly strings of varying weights, a majority went to the intended receiver.

Here’s a side note to you 20ish-year-old males out there:  If you stand near a little kid, a grandma or a pretty girl and jump to intercept beads being thrown to them, you’re an idiot (and something that starts like “dude” but rhymes with “swoosh-tag”) – and the gods of Mardis Gras karma will ensure that none of those pretty girls out there will ever even speak to you. 

 Another of the riders on my float – a guy from somewhere in central Louisiana who (initially) stood right next to me — had a different experience.  I didn’t learn much about him – he passed out about a quarter of the way into the parade.  This is not especially uncommon, so we just left him on the floor.  I didn’t drink anything but Diet Coke and a bottle of water (and fueled myself with a couple of mid-route Powerbars), and I’m very sure I had a lot more fun than he did.  Maybe I should have explained to him the hilariously ignored New Orleans Ordinance prohibiting drinking on the floats?

Most of the pictures here are from my day riding a float in the Bacchus parade.  You spend an hour or two organizing your “throws” (mostly bags of beads), then get your costume mid-day.  The masks are mandatory; you can literally be fined for not wearing one.  You also have to wear a harness underneath to clip yourself onto the float (for reasons perhaps made obvious by the prior paragraph).  Our float was assigned alligator costumes.  It takes a pretty strong sense of tradition to get a big group of straight Southern men into matching costumes with sequin sleeves and a crazy pink collar.

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Bacchus parade riders, in costume, inside the Rock Bottom Lounge on Tchoupitoulas St.

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The floats roll mid-afternoon to the staging area — a neighborhood right next to the Mississippi River with several tiny local bars that probably don’t see a lot of middle-class white guys any other week of the year.  Imagine 1500 or so grown rednecks dressed in those satiny, sequin pajama-like costumes converging on an urban neighborhood.  It takes another three hours or so to navigate the parade route through the Garden District , downtown along the edge of the French Quarter, and through the middle of the already-booming party in the Convention Center.  We arrived at the party after 11pm.  It’s a formal “gala”-type event where ladies must wear floor length gowns, but only half the men are in tuxedos and the other half are in those goofy costumes.  Styx played at midnight, and everybody headed to the casino around 3:30 a.m.  I saw more than one New Orleans sunrise on this trip, and I surely never got up early.

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In 2012, I told the stories of how the Mardis Gras “krewes” put on the parades here, of how – even amidst the chaos – New Orleans can be as civilized as you choose it to be, and how you calculate the day and time of these Mardis Gras parades. This year I had higher hopes for my Mardis Gras photography, but much of that proved incompatible with the preference to spend most of my time hanging out with the couple of dozen friends that were in town for the festivities.  These won’t win any prizes, but hopefully they’ll at least give a good feel for what it’s like to see and to ride in a big Mardis Gras parade.  Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler*

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*Of course “Mardis Gras” is a French term (“Fat Tuesday”) and its events are centered in the French Quarter; “Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler” is a popular Mardis Gras slogan, French for “Let the Good Times Roll.”  “Bon Temps”: good times.

SCUBA School! San Pedro, Belize

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When I started planning this trip to Belize and mentioned that I’d try to get my SCUBA certification while I was here, pretty much every person I said this to responded, “What?  You don’t already have that?”  So I guess this was something I was supposed to do (or to have done already).

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If you’ve ever been tempted to learn to SCUBA, let me endorse a plan.  I did the “written” part online (at home), then did the pool sessions in two afternoons in Houston.  Then I did my open water qualification dives in some of this hemisphere’s best SCUBA country — the reef just off Ambergris Cay, near San Pedro, Belize.  We covered the required skills, but 80% of the time, we were just swimming around enjoying the sights.  I got paired up with a group of fun Canadians who made their living building fancy vacation homes in zero degree weather.  They were happy to be in sunny Belize.

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Yes, those are sharks.  We saw several — I’d been in the water about ten seconds when I saw my first one.  They’re harmless (to us) nurse sharks.  I liked the yellow turtle the most:  that thing was nearly three feet in diameter!  All in all some pretty amazing sights to be seen just 60 feet or so below the waves.  A big shout-out to my instructor, Gilbert, at Chuck & Robbie’s Dive Center in San Pedro.  (That’s me in the last picture in the grid — photo credit for that one goes to one or the other of my underwater Canadian buddies.)

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Camera folks:  I used my “pocket” Canon S100, and bought Canon’s dedicated WP-DC43 underwater housing — which is not expensive at all relative to a DSLR housing.  It’s got at least a dozen buttons and knobs, so literally every menu and adjustment is available, down to 130 ft.  It worked great for my purposes.  As you can see, when you get deep, it gets very blue, so you MUST shoot in RAW and crank the white balance a ton (add lots of yellow and a ton of magenta!).  Get super-close.

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Houston Swoncert — Swon Brothers in Houston

I got to crash a private party in Houston this week where the Swon Brothers were performing a small just-two-guys-and-their-guitars concert.  I’ve talked about the Swon Brothers before here — they’re from eastern Oklahoma and have lots of connections to my home town.  I enjoyed the ‘small’ show even more than I’d enjoyed the big flashy version I saw a few weeks back.  Thanks to the brothers and my buddy Greg (their tour manager) for letting me join the fun.