“Little gringo,” says Aurelio, “You’re marking the Big Chief”.
The Big Chief is Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President. I’m the little gringo, a scruffy backpacker who’s been kicking around the Sun Island for a few days. Aurelio, the captain, is pencilling me in to mark him because, at five foot ten, I’m the tallest member of the scratch football team being assembled for a match to promote tourism on Lake Titicaca’s prettiest island. We’re representing the Sun Islanders against members of the Bolivian congress.
“The game is being screened on national TV,” Aurelio adds.
Climbing up a flight of stairs at 12,500 feet is difficult enough, let alone playing football against a man who, in his younger days, represented a Bolivian second division team.
“Not long ago,” Aurelio continues, “Morales poleaxed an opponent with a knee to the crotch during a charity match.”
“Really?” I reply anxiously.
“Yep. He said afterwards the opponent was a CIA spy sent to antagonize him.”
Would Morales think the same about me?
Perhaps more worryingly, I speak Spanish with a thick Chilean accent after studying in Santiago. Bolivia is one of South America’s two land-locked countries, and lost its Pacific coastline during an ill-fated war with Chile in the late nineteenth century. Morales has recently been making vociferous claims for his southern neighbors to return Bolivia’s access to the ocean, and relations between the two countries are strained at the best of times.