Cockfights, of course, aren't exclusive to the equator. With a little patience you could probably dig one up in Anytown, USA. What you won't find there is juego de la gallina enterrada, Ecuador's "game of the buried chicken." The object of this festival pastime is to pluck a chicken that's buried up to its neck out of the ground while speeding by on your bike or horse. You lose if you grab Henny Penny too gingerly and come up with a handful of feathers. You also lose if you grab too robustly and come up with just a head.
THE THIN BLUE LINE
Without a line, discipline would be discip. And without a baseline, tennis would be something like pelota de guante (gloveball), an Ecuadorian sport that barely has guidelines. The wearying, semi-lethal gloveball is a best-of-three-sets affair (four points to a game, six games to a set) played on long, narrow patches of dirt. One player serves a four-pound grapefruit-sized solid rubber ball over an imaginary net at midcourt—a line that is constantly moved to wherever the last return landed. (At a recent game in Ibarra, the line judge marked the "net" with a blue Popsicle stick.) As in the tennis played by norteamericanos, the ball can bounce only once on your side of the court. Although the game has sidelines, it lacks baselines, which means that a ball can be swatted out to the Galápagos Islands and still be in play.
The swatting in gloveball is done with 24-pound mitts massive enough to have cushioned King Kong's fall from the Empire State Building. Studded with a dozen iron mushrooms, the gloves look like the kind of torture device you might have picked up at a yard sale during the Spanish Inquisition. Complaints of guante elbow may have hastened the recent creation of pelota de tabla (boardball), a sissified sister that has surpassed gloveball in popularity. Guante's unwieldy mitts have been replaced by eight-pound wooden planks sporting 18 rubber spikes. And rather than hitting leaden grapefruits, boardballers smack hollow, half-pound rubber balls inexplicably embossed with ampersands, asterisks and parentheses.
Asked to explain the popularity of this new sport, one old-timer said, "If you get hit with a tabla ball, you're dazed. Get hit with a guante ball, and you're dead."
A LINE IN THE SAND
The lumpiest, humpiest event on the equatorial sporting calendar is the Maralal International Camel Derby, a series of dromedary dashes that unfold amid the rolling savanna and mud-hut villages of northern Kenya. Before galloping off into remote scrubland, camels and jockeys are funneled through downtown Maralal, past the Pop-In Hotel, the Fitwell Tailoring Shop, the Nanua Ice Cream Pia, the Santa Salon & Boutique and the Kisima Camel Improvement Group Butchery, where, presumably, losing mounts are "improved" into camelfurters.
Camels have long been synonymous with Africa. Proud, with periscopic neck extended and obliquely angled knock-knees flexed in a loping trot, the beast exudes an ungainly elegance as it shambles across desert that stretches to the horizon. Major Aussie Walker, the derby organizer, says he inaugurated the races in 1990 to demonstrate his deep, abiding love for Kenya's peoples and camels. (His love for Kenya's money is also deep—he gets a percentage of every entry fee.) The Maralal contests, which range from seven to 30 miles, depend as much on stamina as on speed and are open to all comers. The derby rule book includes sections on random doping, spray painting to prevent camel substitutions and a stipulation that "wild animals have the right of way."
On race day the course is flanked by hundreds of Samburu and Turkana tribesmen, immaculate in scarlet sarongs, their plaited hair caked with red ocher and festooned with shells, beads and giant safety pins. "We Samburu believe camels are a cross between giraffes and lions," says Iddi Lewarani, the reigning 30-mile champ. "The gelding I ride—Chap—is the golden color of a giraffe and has a roar like a lion. He also belches and farts, so he may be part human, too."
Lean and hewn, the 26-year-old Lewarani has dauntingly world-weary eyes and a leathery, bass-heavy voice. "My ancestors were camel people who moved from place to place," he says. "I am also a camel. I was brought up with them, drinking their milk mixed with their blood, and eating their meat, which tastes very salty, very sweet, very soft." Some Samburu compare the taste of camel meat to ibex; others, to kudu or wildebeest. Nobody says it tastes like chicken.