A Piece of Euskadi in Orlando

One of the things I love about Florida is how Latin culture moves up on you like the waves on the sand. You can smell the Cuban coffee in the morning — and night.  At major league games, instead of brats, you can bite into a warm cheesy arepa. When your car is waiting at a red light, you can buy a bag of sweet and slightly crunchy churros.  The folks wearing guayaberas and smoking hand-rolled cigars are not just older men, but GenX guys — and gals.  The Latin heritage is eclectic, sometimes with a strong hint of Spain.

There’s a beautiful vestige of the old world in Miami, Dania/Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa/St. Petes and Orlando. Jai Alai is a Basque sport, known as the world’s fastest ball game. Since relatively few Americans have visited Basque Country, much less even know where it is, going to a Jai Alai game in Central Florida is a great way to experience the uniqueness of the Basque culture.  Despite what some people may want it to be, Basque Country, or el Pais Vasco, is not a country, but a region in northern Spain and southern France. The Jai Alai players often bear surnames that are neither Spanish (Castilian) nor French. They’re Basque and their language is Euskara, and they call their land Euskadi.

Players named Zuetxea, Goikoetxea, and Ithurria parade onto the long narrow frontón (court) to the sound of music reminiscent of the start of a bullfight. The men wearing, colored and numbered shirts to identify themselves, strap on a long tailor-made cesta made out of chestnut.  The cesta is woven and wrapped in a manner so perfectly that the players can scoop up a rubber pelota and hurl it at speeds of up to 150 miles an hour.

Each game lasts about ten minutes. Some are one-man volleying against another. Other games are two against two, much like how a doubles tennis match is played.

Just as tennis has special terminology, like slice and chip and charge, to reflect the swing or the path of the ball, Jai Alai has its own coined words. Carom, Cortada, Chula, Chic Chac are ways to describe where and how the ball bounces. Rebote seems to be the one that the announcer mentions the most. A rebote is when the player catches the rubber after it hits the back wall, like a rebound. Similar to horse or dog races, you place wagers on the Jai Alai players. You can put your money on your favorite to Win, Place, Show, or for a Quiniela, Perfecta or Trifecta. Minimum bets are just 50 cents for Perfectas, Superfectas, or 100 Place Pick 7s. Other wagers are $1 and up.  The odds are posted and between each game, as the players warm-up, you can place your bets from automated machines or a teller.

Orlando Jai Alai is actually not in Orlando, but in Fern Park, and is seasonal.  For schedules, visit http://www.orlandoliveevents.com/fastestballgame/.

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