Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Volleyball: same game, new country
It’s been a while since I have been able to write an entry. This has been due to a few things, some good and some bad. For one, I was very sick at the beginning of June (on my birthday nonetheless) and while being treated, was in the capital of Managua where the Peace Corps office and our doctors are located. Being sick is never fun and this was augmented by the fact that I am in a foreign country. Although I’m careful about what I eat (not eating street food, only purified water…) I’ve had parasites twice and this recent sickness was a bacterial infection. Let’s just say that when you become a Peace Corps volunteer, your recent bowel movements or lack thereof become a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation. The good news for my lack of blogging is that in my site I’ve been almost too busy (relatively speaking…this is Nicaragua) to blog. I’ve been “in-site” for two months now and I’ve started a youth group, have begun giving classes in the high school on health related topics, and have been facilitating meetings of a pregnant women’s group. I’m also busy getting to know my host family more, learning how to cook some regional dishes, finding out the best place to buy tomatoes, what times the bus passes through to go to the capital city, etc. Although I’m struggling with the Nicaragua work ethic and its many differences from my own, I have been feeling satisfied with my progress.
I’ve also been busy because for the past month and a half I’ve joined an intramural volleyball team! One afternoon, I was walking back to my house from the health center and saw a bunch of girls around my age setting up a volleyball net. I played volleyball in high school and on an intramural team in college, and since I’ve been dying for outdoor exercise and some stimulation, I immediately asked if I could play with them and before I knew it, I was a member of team “Gemini” and attending daily two hour practices. There are about five women’s teams and six men’s teams in the city intramural league, and we play two games every weekend. Our practices are held at a coffee production plant in town. Since coffee is not in-season, large concrete lots which are usually used to dry out the beans now lay unused. We’ve rigged up a net using old tires filled with cement to hold it down, and we have two balls to practice with.
Nicaraguans can sometimes be known for their tranquil and non-hurried demeanor, but in volleyball it’s a different story. Although it’s almost certain that practice will begin about 45 minutes later than the said start time, we do work hard. There is even a man who comes a few times a week and acts as our “coach” running drills. Our team also has a little following of young children who come to the coffee plant while we’re practicing to cheer us on while we run laps or fetch our lost balls. They are there every day without fail. Despite the exercise, my main motivation to join the team was to meet more people in the town, and basically get more into a routine in my site. I love recognizing those girls when I walk down the street. “Penny!” they will yell, “See you at practice tonight!” Inadvertently, being on the team has also made other townspeople more aware of me, and become a way to meet people. I am often approached in the corner store, the cyber café or the health center as someone asks “Don’t you play volleyball?”
Although it’s been a rewarding experience, it has also been challenging. The first few games my team played, we lost horribly. We didn’t have confianza or trust in each other. I think this was mainly due to the fact that I was the “new kid on the block” and rather than treating me as just one of the girls, they often tip-toed around me, refusing to get angry if I made a mistake, or sometimes the opposite – looking at every move I made as if it were done under a microscope, judging me more severely than they did the other girls. It was and sometimes still is stressful. Already I feel like I am living in a fishbowl in this town, and I didn’t want to attract more attention. I just want to be accepted. However, as my brother told me the other day, being totally accepted by my host country is probably impossible. I am “fundamentally different” because of my home culture. Although that makes sense, I still am going to try my best to integrate into my community.
As time has gone on however, the girls have gotten to know me more and have opened up. They treat me more like one of them (although not completely), and last weekend they even chose me to say the ritualistic pre-game prayer (a big honor). Although I may still be treated differently by other teams (I am always the target they aim the ball towards) I am feeling more accepted on my team. When we put on our yellow and white uniforms that say “Team Gemini” on the front and our names and numbers on the back, I can’t help but feel a little camaraderie. And although games can be annoying - sometimes they try and “protect” me I think by not giving me as much playing time as the others - I am not giving up and I am continuing to put myself “out there.”
We’ve started winning games now. A lot. Team Gemini who was once the underdog because of lack of team spirit and cooperation is now beginning to get it together. And every day at our practices I am a part of that. The twelve of us cheer each other on, scold each other, and work together. The line between the Nicaraguan girls and the ¨gringa¨ is slowly disappearing. Teamwork is a word that often doesn’t need translation.
The intramural league championships occur in August during the Patron Saint festivals of my town, and I know for many of the girls this will be their highlight of the summer if not year. Although being on the team can make me frustrated, singled-out and sometimes angry, overall I’m happy to feel like I’m part of something here. It makes me feel like I’m an actual community member. And that’s what Peace Corps tells us to do: become a community member first then from there do your work. Although complete integration or acceptance is not possible, I’m not going to give up - I’ll at least try for some teamwork.