High and Dry: Ultimate in the Peruvian Andes

by | April 29, 2016, 6:30am 0

Harold Illidge remembers the day a girl broke his heart: May 3, 2013. That night he sat in his bedroom, darkness broken by the blue glow of his computer screen, staring at Facebook. His friend was online; they began chatting. The friend suggested Illidge forget about the girl and try this new game he’d just discovered, called ultimate frisbee. “You have to run and jump,” the friend explained. Nothing too complicated, especially for someone who’d grown up playing soccer. One thing was for sure, at least: Illidge needed to get out of the house.

He smirks when recalling the story today. “And I forgot about the girl.”

We are sitting in a small fried-chicken restaurant in Arequipa, the second-largest city in Peru, 7,600 feet above sea level. Illidge, a Colombian native, works at the restaurant part-time when he’s not engaging communities as a Pentecostal missionary. These are his two life’s passions: frisbee and God. He has no religious tattoos, but on the back of his left leg, the word “ULTIMATE” is prominently, permanently inked.

I first met Illidge in October 2015, after moving to the Andean capital of more than one million people to freelance full-time. I started playing the game back in Toronto and didn’t want to get rusty. After searching for local groups online, I found Illidge’s was the only one in town. I messaged him, and he told me they were meeting that Friday at a cement court with broken basketball and soccer nets beside a police station a half-hour cab ride from my house, in a poor district called José Luis Bustamante y Rivero, at the city’s edge. I was surprised when only three other players showed up: Illidge, muscular, dark-skinned and in his early 30s; a small teenage boy; and Illidge’s girlfriend, Maria, wearing a business skirt and high heels.

I was more surprised when we began the evening with 90 minutes of drills, practising flicks and accuracy. It was messy. I was partnered with Illidge’s girlfriend, and he demanded we swap 20 consecutive backhands and forehands without once dropping the disc. It took us half an hour. Illidge wasn’t particularly hard on me—I’m not great at flicking the disc—yet he was as harsh with his girlfriend as, seemingly, anyone else on the team. He yelled when she dropped it, bellowing “Lo mejora!” when throws flew awry. In this way, his dispassionate bluntness distinguished him as a Latin American man: he is as bold and macho as any of them, but relentlessly unprejudiced.

I expect this is the sport’s doing. Latin soccer fans tend to be loudly passionate, often over too many beers, as the announcer’s endless screams of “GOOOOOAL” are drowned out by the banging of fists on the bar. But ultimate is a calmer sport, and not popular enough for Illidge to afford scaring off newbies. Case in point: Once, while playing a small three-on-three game near the police station, an older man and his teenage son asked what we were doing. Illidge paused the game to explain the rules and invited them to join, which they did. He deliberately threw to his new teammate, quick passes he wanted instantly returned, and disoriented my team. When it worked, you could see the excitement in the old man’s eyes as he hobbled to catch the disc. We didn’t go easy on him; it wasn’t the way of things. And when the old man dropped it, Illidge yelled at him, as if he had been playing with us for months.


Ultimate frisbee is, by nature, a democratic sport. There are no referees, and it’s often played co-ed. This casualness has appealed to South Americans in a way that soccer, a mainstream lifestyle, never could. Frisbee has grown popular enough across the continent that there are international tournaments that teams take days-long buses to play in—Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Chile all have rec leagues in most major cities. In Colombia, it caught on two decades ago, including in Ibagué, Illidge’s hometown of fewer than 500,000 people, which alone has more than 25 teams.

Colombians were attracted to the cleanness of the sport, the spirit and accessibility. “Teams are like family,” Illidge explains.

But Peru is different. It has no representative in Latin America’s ultimate association. “They don’t sell frisbees in Peru,” Illidge says. That alone has curbed the game’s popularity. There are small groups in Lima and Cusco, fuelled by larger expat numbers and an open-minded younger generation, but elsewhere in the country—in Arequipa, for instance, famously the intellectual birthplace of Mario Vargas Llosa—the sport is all but nonexistent.

Yet there is still interest, particularly among the city’s youth and other foreigners, and that has allowed Illidge’s team to grow. It all began after a few teenagers from his church asked what his tattoo meant. He explained the game and asked if they wanted to learn. Later on, a Venezuelan man named Pablo found the team, bringing more discs and experience that helped teach the Peruvian kids the rules of the game. Gradually the kids improved; they began practising in a yellow-grass field next to a cuyeria, a restaurant specializing in deep-fried guinea pig, that sits across from several acres of farmland. I’ve personally arrived at that field to find it populated by stray dogs, sheep, drunk Peruvian men and, once, in January 2016, a small herd of cows that had recently left large, wet piles of shit everywhere. Weeks later, we moved to a green-grass outdoor stadium where the father of two young team members is the field caretaker. They live there, in a white concrete box off to the side of the field, beneath a Catholic church with a 50-foot-tall statue of Jesus.  


Illidge’s dream, a three-year plan, is to create a frisbee school in Arequipa. Though he has no designated field, few cones and not enough discs to go around, he’s hoping to set up free after-school programs and demonstrations to get the public interested. When I ask him how he plans on finding new members, he shrugs. “I’m not a marketing expert,” he says. “What do you think I should do?”

Fostering a community in Peru is tricky. It’s still largely a pre-Internet culture, and most communication is handled by word-of-mouth. (If you want to rent an apartment, a good bet is to walk around your desired neighbourhood and ask shopkeepers.) Lima is a 16-hour drive north from Arequipa, and Illidge has only played there once, challenging any meaningful national  cooperation. He once put up posters in Tacna, a dry border town near Chile, but nobody responded.

Despite all this, his Facebook group has grown to include more than 60 members—even though rarely more than 10 show up each week. It’s a modest but confident start, mostly evolved from people he meets at church. The closeness of the team reflects that—these people did not find each other because they share a superficial love of the sport, but rather because they began as friends.

In that way, it’s fitting that Illidge is growing Arequipa’s frisbee scene out of a church; his two passions are not mutually exclusive. You have to play the sport honestly, he says. Although there is no physical referee, you play as if you believe someone is looking down upon you. “You can’t lie. You still have to play by the word of God,” Illidge says. “It reminds me of Him.”

As we wrap up our conversation in the fried-chicken restaurant, I hand Illidge a battered regulation frisbee I’d brought with me from Toronto. “Una donación,” I say, and he smiles and thanks me. He’s always looking for more discs, more players, more support. He tells me he’s planning a trip back to Columbia this summer, and though he’s looking forward to seeing his mother for the first time since his wedding, and to playing some ultimate with his old teammates, the trip comes with one major bonus: when he gets back to Peru, he’s bringing new discs.

Michael Fraiman is the online editor of Outpost Magazine, a Canadian travel magazine. His debut book, “A Long Way Back: Stories of Travelling Home,” is available on Amazon.

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