What do steel projectiles, screaming men, and explosives have in common? The answer is the national sport of Colombia: tejo.
Never heard of it? It's lawn bowls on steroids, or badminton with hand grenades - a refreshing mix of adrenaline, testosterone and gunpowder. And the proper way of playing, it’s said, involves consuming ludicrous amounts of beer as you go. What could possibly go wrong? And why does a sport as innocuous as bingo have to involve the potential of dismemberment in crazy Colombia?
Tejo is based on a game developed by indigenous warriors more than 450 years ago in Turmeque, in the Boyaca department, where it was often played to earn the right to wed a spicy maiden from an opposing tribe. Gameplay consisted of hurling golden discs into a hole approximately 20 meters away. Some of these ancient gold discs can be seen on display in regional museums, but most were melted down by the Spanish in their tireless quest for the precious metal. However, the conquistadors did make their own subtle improvement to the game - they added explosives to the mix.
The sport's current incarnation features dense steel discs, thrown into a box measuring one meter square at the far end of the tejo lane. A small paper triangle packed with gunpowder sits on the lip of a plastic circle in the center of the clay-filled box.
Players score one point for getting closer than their opponents, three points for lighting the gunpowder on impact, six points for getting their tejo disc in the circle, and nine points for doing all of the above (surprisingly, no points are awarded for retaining your fingers during the entire game).
Many rural pueblos sport tejo fields, and locals are all too willing to shame you in front of their girlfriends. But don’t think this is just a man’s sport: muscly Colombian chicas are also happy to trounce you in the art of exploding lawn darts.
To improve your accuracy, copy the locals' wrist-flick - it gives the disc a spiral movement like a football and makes you look less amateur. Put some Shakira hip-action into your throw to distract and amuse; it might be your only chance. If all else fails, accuse your opponent of cheating mid-game or throw a rock at his lower back just as he tosses, to unleash an alcohol-fueled rant and release some tejo-tension.
But mind your digits when you fish your tejo disc from the clay. Sometimes the gunpowder goes off without warning, and tales abound of players losing eyes and fingers, yet continuing to play their beloved game into their 90s.
Youth leagues practise on the weekends, with smaller amounts of gunpowder and minimal adult supervision, in a Russian roulette of giggling, running and firecracker pops. But don't even think about smearing the good name of tejo. When asked about the prudence of children playing with live explosives, the referee assured me, 'Oh tejo’s not dangerous. It's the gunpowder that's dangerous.' Kick-boxing seems so lame now.
Dominic Bonuccelli travelled to Colombia on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.