Disclaimer: I’m not 100% sure it’s the university team, but that’s the impression I got.
So this story starts on a day like any other day in Costa Rica. I woke up discouraged and stressed because I had two presentations that I was not prepared for. After the first one, I was feeling a lot better since it was the more difficult one, but I was still focused on surviving until the end of the week.
This is where fate intervened.
Every week I meet with a Tica language exchange partner. I arrived early and was waiting for her at the university. There was some kind of university activity about health with booths and a speaker, and a few people were messing around playing volleyball with a rope as a makeshift net.
I watched them intently, thinking how much I missed volleyball from high school, and one of them asked me if I wanted to play.
I took off my necklace and flats and played for ten or fifteen minutes and then my language partner showed up, so I told them I needed to go and asked if anyone ever plays in the gym. A girl told me that people play on Thursday nights, so I asked if it was a team practice or something or if I could play. I didn’t quite understand the answer, but I caught the gist that I could.
Two days later, I sat in my room writing a blog post–which will show up eventually–and thinking about not going. I wanted to finish my blog post, it was raining, I hadn’t eaten recently, I wouldn’t know anyone and it’s still hard to understand strangers. I hadn’t asked any of the other gringo students to go with me because I had this heroic idea of wanting to do something by myself. I was starting to regret this.
I enjoyed a nice meal and had a good conversation with my host mom. I was feeling verbose and brave, so I changed into a t-shirt and put on tennis shoes for almost the first time since coming to Costa Rica. As I waited for the bus, I thought about just going back. There were a lot of people waiting for the bus and people kept staring at me and the bus was taking forever. It was already after five, so I was late anyway. I eventually ended up jammed on the crowded bus and decided I couldn’t turn back. I mean, I had already paid around 40 cents for the bus fare.
Once I was in the university, as I walked closer to the gym, I could hear the distinctive sounds of volleyballs hitting the floor and shoes squeaking. My heart started beating faster in anticipation and nervous energy.
Best case scenario: I get to spend a couple of hours doing something that I love and maybe meet a couple of Tica friends. Worst case scenario: I’m not allowed to play for some reason and can’t understand what anyone says to me, so I retreat in confusion and embarrassment.
I stood in the doorway and watched as the girls in spandex on the far side of the court did a coordinated drill. They were good. A few people, guys and girls, were standing around on my side of the court, some of them bumping the ball to themselves.
It took me about three long minutes to gather up the courage to say, “¡Disculpe!” to a girl who had to chase her ball near me. I asked her if this was a team practice or if I could play. She babbled something in Spanish. I used the sentence I say most frequently: “Despacio, por favor. Mi español todavia está malo. (Slowly, please. My Spanish is still bad.)” She switched to English and told me that they were trying out for the team. I asked if I could play and she kind of shrugged and nodded.
Another girl came over and started talking to me. I figured out that she was the one who had told me about the practice on Tuesday. She took me to the coach and introduced me, and she and I volleyed for a while to warm up.
The coach called all of us over and we started doing activities to measure our capacity in certain aspects. Someone was keeping tally. We demonstrated our hitting approach and I was hurriedly thinking, “Is it left-right-left? Or right-left-right?” Then I started thinking how long it has been since I really played volleyball and realized that even though I played a little bit last year, in reality, it has been two and a half years.
We then had to do sit-ups. I had no idea what I would be able to do since I haven’t done more than ten sit-ups at a time in probably a year. I ended up making it to the max of forty in a minute, so I was feeling pretty good about myself.
Next, everyone had three serves. We were serving to the girls in spandex, who I now realized were the girls already on the team. They had two full teams, so they would play out the point. They were good, better than my high school volleyball team. Someone left, so the coach had the girl I warmed up with play in her spot. I did my three serves and missed two of them because I was nervous. Since my new friend still had to serve, the coach switched her out and put me in her place.
At first I had a little bit of trouble getting over my nerves and figuring out how this team set up to receive hits. Also, especially because I was in the right back, I had to keep reminding myself that I was not the setter. After a few minutes, I settled in and was having fun. After fifteen minutes or so, I looked around for the other rookies and didn’t see them. I shrugged and continued playing. After a water break, the coach asked if I could play front row. I hesitated and told him sure, more or less. I had never had much practice playing front row as a hitter since I always set.
He put me in the four position, as the right-side hitter, to my relief. This was what I knew. I played, and played well. I had a successful block, a couple of good hits, and proved I could improvise. After we played for a while, he called everyone over to talk and started saying something about the game schedule or something. I lurked at the back of the group, unsure of what I was supposed to do.
Afterwards, I went to talk to him, along with my new friend that had somehow turned up again. He asked her when she met me, and she looked at me and I was like, “What, Tuesday?” and we laughed. He asked if I was a student at the university and how long I would be here. He then asked if I could make it to practice two times a week.
Sure. I mean, if you insist.
After that, my new friend and I left, along with some of her friends. The team was running laps, and as they passed me, they said, “¡Bien!” and gave me high-fives, which I automatically reciprocated, still trying to process what had just happened.
Lesson learned. Take the hard way, because that’s when the unexpected things happen.
As a bonus, I’m becoming familiar with all the buses that run my route, enough that I have favorites.
I got to take my favorite bus home.