Travel Stories: Abbie Kozolchyk finds herself on an unlikely quest to buy soccer jerseys from Bolivia to Bhutan
07.08.10 | 4:28 PM ET
Upon arrival in Leticia, a steamy backwater in the Colombian Amazon, some visitors fear close encounters of the cartel kind. Others, strangulation by the town tourism ambassador—a geriatric anaconda periodically trotted out for gringo-swaddling purposes. Me? I feared souvenir failure.
In almost two weeks on the Mighty River, I’d found only the weakest of gift prospects for my neighbor, Max. And had he been just any boy next door, sure, I might have settled for the standby piranha statuette. But he happened to be my all-time favorite 12-year-old—the kind of kid who cooked for fun, took up Italian in middle school, and always kissed both parents goodnight.
A grinning wooden fish wasn’t an option.
But what was? With only one day left on the Amazon—and no ideas of my own—I turned to one of Max’s contemporaries: a California girl named Hannah who’d been traveling on the same ship.
“What would your guy friends want?” I asked as we were docking in Leticia. And after brief but careful consideration, the Gen-Miley oracle spoke: “soccer jerseys.”
No sooner had I turned off the port’s muddy main drag—and into the local shmata district—than I unearthed the holy grail: a size L Colombian soccer jersey, a bit dirt-smudged, but otherwise perfect. And apparently, the best gift ever: Three days later, Max tried it on, and pretty much never took it off.
Pajama top, knock-around shirt, party attire ... whatever his sartorial needs, this jersey seemed to fill them. So on all subsequent trips, I knew exactly what to get him. What I didn’t know was how much I’d learn in the process.
After days spent searching in vain for a local jersey, I finally spotted one on a guy in Luang Prabang and made a beeline for him.
“Excuse me, sir,” I began, feeling admittedly weird—but totally determined: “Do you happen to know where I could buy one of those shirts?”
He laughed. “You can’t.”
“But you must have bought yours somewhere,” I countered.
“These are only for players,” he explained. “The only way to get one is to be on the team, like I was.”
Holy shit. Had I stumbled upon the Laotian Pele?
But then came the even bigger surprise: “And we had to pay for our own uniforms.”
Turns out Team Laos couldn’t afford to outfit its own players, let alone mass-produce replica jerseys for fans.
Momentarily taken aback, but not ready to give up, I asked whether he knew of any former teammates who might be willing to part with their jerseys. At which point, for the first time in my life, a man literally gave me the shirt off his back.
Yes, he unhesitatingly stripped on the sidewalk, and I had no idea how to respond.
Could I let him simply hand over his jersey? Clearly not, but what would a fair price be? In the past, I’d bought only replica jerseys—never the actual, game-worn variety.
Unable to come up with a price myself, I awkwardly asked him to name one.
Evidently surprised by the question, and perhaps realizing that he was about to leave himself shirtless, he suggested that we walk back to his family’s home while he pondered the issue.
Upon reaching the front door, he named his price: “One dollar.”
Even having gotten a clear sense of Laos’s poverty by then, I felt my heart sink at that number.
“How about twenty?” I countered, as I noticed how many people seemed to live in this tiny house.
And in a bizarre display of reverse bargaining, he tried to get me down to $10.
I told him I couldn’t take the shirt for less than $15.
Lesson learned: Soccer jerseys are an economic indicator.
My trip to Bhutan was an altogether different matter. Once again, I found myself searching the country fruitlessly. In every town and village I visited, I asked the same bizarre question at least once: “Do you happen to know where I might be able to find a soccer jersey?”
But here, the shortage had nothing to do with a cash-strapped government. The real issue: No one cared enough about the national team—nor, for that matter, soccer—to create a demand for souvenir jerseys.
I eventually found out that if I really wanted one, I’d have to commission a full set from the government’s official supplier—and pay for all 12 in cash. And as crazy as this quest had clearly made me, even I had my limits. Sadly, I conceded defeat.
If, however, I’d been in the market for an archery souvenir, I’d definitely gone to the right place.
The official sport of Bhutan, archery not only trumps soccer, but dominates the national landscape. Of all the surprises I found there (and in a land whose patron saint is best remembered for slaying demons with his magical member, the wonders never cease), the ubiquitous roadside archery contests took the cake.
Lesson learned: Soccer isn’t always the international obsession it’s cracked up to be.
But then, there’s Bolivia.
Soccer-crazed under any circumstances, the country had whipped itself into a total frenzy during my first visit. The national team was on a hot streak in some World Cup qualifying series or other (I never understand them), and naturally, there was a run on official jerseys.
Everywhere I looked: sold out.
Though I might have resorted to the man-on-the-street trick again, my guide Mauricio was confident enough in his shopping prowess that he assured me I wouldn’t have to. With each luckless day, he’d say, “Tomorrow, we’ll definitely find you that jersey.”
And so we passed the entire trip.
On the final morning, as we were blowing through La Paz’s witch market on the way to the airport, we even asked the ceremonial llama fetus vendors if they happened to have shirts. Alas, I went home empty-handed.
Several weeks later, however, a package arrived. It was from Mauricio, who’d enclosed a green Team Bolivia jersey with the following note: “Thank you so much for entrusting me with such an important mission. Sorry it took me a while.”
After I got over my shock, I tried to think of some way to reciprocate—and the best I could come up with was an I HEART NY onesie for his newborn daughter.
I sent a package off within a few days—and several years later, we’re still in touch.
Lesson learned: If green polyester garments can forge friendships, anything can.
Meanwhile, Max has gone off to college, I’ve moved out of the building, and the jersey quest has faded from my travels. But during the past month of World Cup play, as so many of his jerseys have reappeared on my TV screen, they’ve also reappeared in my memory. There was Team Argentina, which took me (and my friend Lisa) such a long time to find in Ushuaia that we almost missed our boat to Antarctica. And Spain, where a total stranger walked God knows how far out of his way to show me where I could find the elusive Team España jersey. And of course, South Africa, where I was bummed that the yellow home jerseys were sold out, until I learned—upon presenting Max with the green away jersey—that green was actually his favorite color.
Not that he was ever the sole beneficiary of these jerseys. The real gift, in hindsight, was the quest for them—and the people I met along the way.