Tag Archives: Volleyball

I’m really good at Ecuadorean volleyball

A huge part my Peace Corps experience was learning how go entire weeks at a time with absolutely no expectations of doing anything at all. Before my wife and I got shipped off to Ecuador in 2009, I pictured myself hard at work, building things, educating people, everything you’d imagine when you think of overseas volunteer work. But after two months of orientation with all the other volunteers-in-training, we were each assigned our own town where we’d live and work for the next two years. We had a party to say our goodbyes, and then we they basically told us, OK, go to the bus terminal, get out of here, shoo.


And that’s when reality kind of set in, as we bumbled our way through the city, realizing that it was going to be challenging enough just figuring out how to get where we were supposed to be going. Once we arrived at our site, my wife and I quickly found out that there wasn’t exactly a pressing demand for assistance from a couple of gringos who not only spoke very rudimentary Spanish, at best, but also didn’t know anything at all about everyday life in rural South America. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t get anything done, it just took a really long time to settle in.

We were each assigned an Ecuadorean counterpart, someone who would show us the ropes and help us get to work. And they were really cool. I mean, imagine you’re at work one day and someone drops off a foreigner who can’t speak any English, telling you, “Yeah, you’re going to have to buddy up with this guy for the next two years, get him up to speed.” So I have nothing but gratitude for the kindness and patience given to us by a couple of total strangers.

But yeah, it also meant that my Peace Corps service wasn’t going to be anything like I thought it would be. For the first few months, anyway, on a good day, we’d work for maybe four hours. And when I say work, I mean we followed around our counterparts and tried not to look confused. Smiling helped.

Eventually our Spanish got better, but until then, there was a lot of time to kill every day. Most people in our town came back from their farm work after lunch, and everybody just kind of hung out until it got dark out. And since we didn’t have any Internet or cell phone service or TV, we just hung out too. Groups of people would walk down the street and call us over, we’d go with them, and yeah, that was it, we just absorbed everything, like by osmosis, placed in this alien environment, our brains had to piece together what was going on.

Gender lines are pretty old school where we lived, and so my wife wound up socializing with the women while I gravitated to where the guys hung out. Which, as long as it wasn’t raining, meant the volleyball courts. Yeah, I didn’t expect volleyball to be a big thing in Ecuador, but basically every aspect of social life in our town centered around either drinking, cock fighting, or volleyball.

I’d stand around and try to wrap my head around the peculiarities of this local version of what I knew as volleyball. For one thing, the net was high, like about as high as a basketball hoop. Teams were three on three, and instead of using a volleyball, they used a number five soccer ball, which is much bigger and heavier.

At first I just kind of hung out on the sidelines, but out of pure curiosity, the guys started letting me stand in when the action naturally wound down as the sun set. I’m around six foot four, pretty tall here in the US, but I was by far the tallest guy in the province of Cotopaxi. So people would laugh as I’d wave my limbs around uncontrollably, trying to bounce the ball or set up a teammate for a volley.

It was bad. At first I couldn’t even handle the ball. It was really all I could do to try not to flinch as my soft wrists would bruise almost on contact. But after a while I began to get better. A lot better. Once I got the fundamentals down, I started using my height as an advantage that no other play possessed. Now I could spike the ball, or by sticking my hands straight up, I could block the opposing team’s shots from ever crossing over to our side.

My dominance in ecuavoley (yeah, that’s what it’s called) lasted for about a month until nobody wanted to play with me anymore. The spectacle of the tall American got old, and I found myself once again exiled to the sidelines, hanging out, losing my money at card games that I could never quite figure out how to play.

But then one day some of the guys had an idea. There was a volleyball tournament coming up in a town a couple of hours away. They didn’t really tell me any of the specifics, but for the next two weeks, I was back on the court, all of the men making sure that I’d be in good shape for the big day.

We all hopped into the back of a pickup truck and headed off down the winding mountainous dirt roads. An hour or so later, we merged onto a paved highway, and two hours after that, we were in some other small town. Any time we had to visit a neighboring community, it was like peeking into a parallel universe. Everything looked more or less the same, the town square, the simple houses, but of course it was a completely different place. Also, where I lived, I had the luxury of everybody knowing who I was. Sure, I was still an outsider, but the novelty of my presence had worn off. All of that went out the window when I left. Now my sense of being a foreigner was amplified.

We pulled up to the town jail, which I thought was kind of weird, but nobody else acted as if this wasn’t normal, and so I did what I always tried to do when I was so far out of my element that I didn’t know how to react, I pretended like I knew what I was doing, that this was no big deal for me either.

But as we pulled around to the backside of the prison, I’m sure my composure had to have been more than a little rattled. There were like hundreds of men standing around a single volleyball court, screaming, waving money in the air, drinking and fighting. I wasn’t prepared for this. It was like as soon as I got off of the pickup truck, everybody got a little quieter and started asking each other loudly, “Who the hell is this tall gringo?”

While we waited for our turn to play, random men would come by and offer me a shot of booze. I’d learned a trick to getting out of situations involving alcohol where I didn’t feel like drinking, I gave them four or five conflicting answers simultaneously, before walking away and smiling. First, I’d politely decline, then I’d say yes, but “After I’m done playing!” before rubbing my belly and acting like I was sick, and then making it look like someone else was calling me from across the court.

Finally it was our turn to play. The guy who drove the pickup truck walked over to the ref and counted out something like five hundred bucks. “What the hell?” I asked one of my teammates. “I didn’t know this was a high-stakes game. Who’s paying for this?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me without answering any of my questions, adding, “Just make sure that we win.”

I had a moment of pure panic. Either way this wound up playing out, someone was going to be out half a grand, and I was almost positive that I’d be held responsible for the outcome.

The ref blew the whistle. For the next half an hour or so, I operated on sheer adrenaline. The first time that I spiked the ball directly in front of the net, the crowd went silent. As I jumped and pounced again and again and again, they started cheering, roaring for me as I swatted the ball down, our opponents diving futilely face-first into the dirt floor, trying to at least lay a hand on the ball that sailed always a few inches outside their reach.

At one point about halfway through, I stopped for a minute to really just take stock of my surroundings. Here I was, a guy from New York playing a sport that I’d never heard of before behind a prison in a tiny town in South America. I’d just spiked the ball, and the people were going nuts, clapping, waving their money in the air to amend their wagers, shaking bottles of beer to spray me with foam in between volleys. I looked over to the side, and even the prisoners were in on the action, shouting, sticking their heads out of the bars of the windows, the cops every once in a while would wave their batons in the air threateningly, as if to maintain the illusion that there was any sort of order in place. We won. They collected the money, and we hopped on the back of that pickup immediately after and hightailed it out of town.

Let me assure you, I’m not very good at sports. I never made any of the teams in high school, and when I play basketball or soccer with my friends and family, it’s not totally unlikely that I might accidentally score on my own net.

But for some bizarro reason, I was really good at ecuavoley. So good that, after that tournament anyway, nobody would play with me ever again, because I was too good. Doesn’t that sound insane? Like I’m totally making it up? Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t all an elaborate dream, because I’m telling you, I have like really subpar hand-eye coordination, the motor reflexes of a poorly trained chimp. But I swear, for a little while anyway, I was huge in Ecuador. I was the best Ecuavolley player in something like a five-town radius.

Farmer’s Revenge

I got so sick of taking care of my farm, day after day. Those ungrateful plants. Every single day I had to walk outside and turn the hose on. And they were never happy to see me, always sagging down, so dramatic, like a whole night without water has really taken it out of them. That would be like me pretending to be dying in bed every morning until somebody came in and gave me breakfast. Do you know how many times somebody’s done that for me? Zero times.

But I had to do it for these plants every day. And I would get out there and as soon as the hose started and the water hit the plants, all of these mosquitoes, thousands of them, would get woken up by the water and turn into this cloud of pests that would fly immediately right over to me. I’d try to shoo them away, but it was absolutely futile. Even if I were to constantly rub both of my arms, I’d still miss three or four mosquitoes every time. And I don’t even have two free arms, I only have one, because the other arm is busy working the hose. Hey plants, why are you always letting the mosquitoes hang out anyway? It’s like, what’s my daily reward for feeding you, getting a million bug bites?

So finally I had enough. I let a day go by where I didn’t even go outside. Take that plants. Maybe you can get your stupid mosquito friends to go find you some water. But it rained that day. And as the rain poured down, the plants all stood up really straight, straight to the sky, as if to say, “Thank you mother Earth for feeding us!” and then the wind kept blowing them so they were all facing me from the kitchen window, taunting me, going, “Ha! We don’t need you Rob, you and your pathetic hose, you loser.”

And I thought to myself, drink up boys. Every farmer knows that the rain’s got to stop eventually. But it rained that whole week. Sheets of rain. How else can you describe heavy rain? It’s always in sheets. Or in buckets. You never hear any interesting new ways of describing a storm. Nobody ever says anything cool, like a five-alarm rain. No, they always say five-alarm chili. Why not a five-alarm rain?

Finally it stopped raining. I woke up on that first dry day and pressed my face and hands against the window. Are they dead yet? I hoped and wished that I’d gaze upon empty dried out husks, but all of the plants were fine. They looked better than ever. And the wind was moving in such a way that it looked like they were all dancing. And I could hear them singing, taunting me, “You idiot! It’s been raining for a week straight. The ground’s supersaturated with water. We’ve got plenty to drink. Come out here and have some water. There’s enough to go around! Hahaha!”

I was so pissed. But I knew that I just needed to be patient. Drought’s coming boys, drought’s right around the corner. I stared out at the farm and pressed my hands against the window even harder. It was probably a little too hard. I could feel the glass start to bend, so I released some of the pressure. But just some. I was still pressing against it pretty hard. I thought, all I’ve got to do is wait this out.

And sure enough, one day turned into two days and four days later, not a single drop of rain, those plants started looking a little thirstier than usual. On day five I walked outside. The garden tried it’s best to act like nothing was wrong, but it was obvious what was going down. All of those bugs were starting to make holes in all of their dried out leaves. None of the plants were standing up straight. Flowers were wilting. I could tell that some of the smaller plants wanted to cave, to apologize to me and beg for water, but the bigger ones remained defiant. “We don’t need you!” they cried, “There’ll be more rain! You’ll see!”

So I walked right into the garden and I started weeding. After all of that rain there were a ton of tiny weeds. I plucked out all of the weeds and my plants were having a great time of the whole thing. I’d pick out a weed that was really close to one of the plants and the plant started mocking me, “Oh yeah, that’s it right there. Oh yeah, just a little to the left. Yeah, that’s the spot,” and all of the other plants would laugh. Keep laughing boys.

Then I got a bunch of pots and some soil. And I replanted all of the weeds. The plants got real quiet after that. Then I got out the hose. Those plants had been so busy having their fun they forgot just how thirsty they all were. And I turned on the hose real slowly. I brought it to my lips and took a nice big sip. After my drink I started watering the weeds. And I came back the next day and did the same thing.

After a couple of days my farm looked terrible. All of the plants, they couldn’t even stand up anymore. They were all losing their color, fast. One day it looked like it might have rained, but it was just cloudy, and the sun broke through before even a drop came down. Finally the plants broke down. “Please! We’re sorry! Give us some water! We’ll do anything!” And I said “OK, sure thing boys.” And I got out the hose and pretended like I was going to feed them, but then I said, “Just kidding,” and I went to water the potted weeds, which, by this point were bigger than any weeds had ever gotten before. And they were grateful for it. Their whole lives, it had always been simply whatever they could get, a few drops of water here and there, if the plants weren’t using it. This was a different story.

Right before the plants died, I went outside with some lighter fluid in a bucket. I went out and splashed it all over the farm. The plants must have been so deliriously thirsty that they couldn’t tell what it was. Those stupid bastards, started sucking it right in, right inside. By the time they all started choking, it was too late. I struck a match and it went up all at once, combustion from the inside out.

Farming was cool, but the whole thing got out of control. Next year I’m going to pave the whole backyard and make a basketball court. I was going to say a volleyball court, but I went to the Sports Authority to check out volleyballs, and I couldn’t help but thinking they were all looking at me funny, like not even really caring if I bought them or not, imagining to themselves that I’m not even good at volleyball anyway. Stupid balls. I came back with a tiny pin and, while pretending to check them out, poked a bunch of really small holes. They wouldn’t deflate right away, but they’d fall flat by the end of the day, and the manager would find them, scratch his head, chalk it up to a bad day at the volleyball factory, and dump the whole supply in the trash.

I wish I had giant hands

Sometimes I wish that I had giant hands, like five or six times the size they are right now. Whenever I tell this to anyone, they always give me a weird look. “Don’t you think it would be kind of freakish?” they might ask. “Wouldn’t it get in the way of living a normal life?” But who really wants a normal life anyway?

Freakish? Maybe. But probably not. I think it would all be determined by how I owned it. If I felt that my giant hands were something to be ashamed of, then I think that those feelings would be translated into how others might perceive me. For example, if I was embarrassed of them, I might walk down the street, my head hung low, trying to hide my hands in my pockets. But my hands would be so big that I’d rip the pockets right out of the pants as soon as I tried to stuff them in there. The only other possibility would be to have a tailor custom make several pairs of pants with giant pockets capable of holding my giant hands. But that would look equally as weird. Without being able to see my hands, passersby might wonder what the hell is going on with those two giant bulges at the sides of my hips. Also, if I ever wanted to take my hands out of the pockets, there would be this huge surplus of fabric hanging down from my sides. It would look crazy.

But like I said, I wouldn’t be ashamed. I would own it. If I were blessed with the giant hands of my wildest dreams, my life would most definitely be a lot better. I wouldn’t be embarrassed at all. I would walk down the street radiating confidence. I’d give out ridiculously oversized high-fives to anybody that thought they could handle one. A giant thumbs-up would be equally as glorious. And if anybody thought about teasing me or giving me a hard time, I think a well-timed foot-long middle finger might send any hecklers the perfect message.

Remember when the first Hulk movie came out and some toy manufacturer released those Hulk-Hands toys? They were so cool. They were giant green fists that you could wear over your hands. Whenever you pounded them together, they made some really cool sound effects. The only problem was, they were so incredibly popular that they all sold out nationwide. I never did get to realize my dream of holding the power of the Hulk in my hands. If I had actual giant hands, I wouldn’t need some stupid toy. I could just dip my hands in some green paint and I’d have real life Hulk-Hands. Everyone would be unbelievably jealous.

I’ll never forget the humiliation I experienced when I got cut from the volleyball team in high school. It’s not like I imagined myself to have any natural volleyball talent. No, I just happened to have a growth spurt early on and was taller than pretty much everybody else at school. The volleyball coach approached me about joining the team, not the other way around. I expressed my hesitation, telling him how I had never so much as ever handled a volleyball before. He assured me that, with my natural height, it would only be a matter of practice and training.

Needless to say, I didn’t make the volleyball team. The coach should have paid attention to the enormity of my self-doubt. But instead, he strung me along through all the rounds of cuts, making me humiliate myself in front of all the other would-be volleyballers as I spasmed and flailed around the court, rarely if ever making decent contact with the ball. Right before he posted the final team roster, he pulled me over and, clearly embarrassed at having ever encouraged me to try out, told me that I wouldn’t be a part of that year’s team. He couldn’t even bring himself to look me in the eye.

I’m almost positive that if I had a giant pair of hands, I would have saved myself two-weeks worth of unnecessary humiliation. I could have been a star blocker. What I lacked in physical ability and hand-eye coordination I would have more than made up for in sheer hand-size. All I would have had to do was to reach up. There would have been probably close to an eighty percent chance that I would have made at least some sort of contact with the ball. Whenever I think back to those unfortunate tryouts, I always find myself staring at my pathetic, regular sized hands, thinking about how they always let me down, how they’ll never reach the gigantic size that I’ve desperately fantasized about in my imagination.