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. 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 on the right bus. 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, eventually, 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 hats off to them, 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 productive day, we’d work for maybe three or four hours. And when I say work, what I mean is we followed around our counterparts and tried not to look confused. Smiling helped.
There was a lot of idle 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. 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 tried to absorb 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.
For a while I’d simply stand around the dirt court and try to mentally unravel the peculiarities of this local version of what I knew as volleyball. Aside from the net and the ball, it didn’t have that much in common with volleyball back home. 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 to old men 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, some of them fist-fighting. It was something out of a Tarantino movie. 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 oversized bottles of beer to spray me with foam in between volleys. I looked over to the side, 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. Our guys collected their money, we immediately hopped on the back of that pickup and hightailed it out of town.
I promise you, I’m not really that 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 out of the question that I might accidentally score on my own net.
But for some bizarro reason, I was really good at ecuavoley. I just naturally clicked. I was 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 like I said, I have really subpar hand-eye coordination, the motor reflexes of a poorly trained chimp. But I’m telling you, for a little while anyway, I was huge in Ecuador. I was the best ecuavoley player in something like a five-town radius.