Baku, Azerbaijan

 
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<< Original blog-post can be found on my column page at VolleyVerse.com. Click here to access it. >>

Playing in Baku, Azerbaijan this season was nothing short of “an experience”. Regardless of where you play, what league you’re in, and what crazy things you’re seeing, you can be sure to always arrive home with experiences. But this season was something very different. An ‘ex-periiii-ence’; a lot of emphases and a lot of sighing on that one.

It was a whirlwind couple of weeks after I signed my contract in September. I had to fly back from Mexico (our Canadian National team had just finished playing in the NORCECA Championships), pack my bags in Winnipeg, drive my car back to Vancouver, head back home to re-pack for eight months overseas, and then have my head on straight to fly out a day later. Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to Istanbul for an 8-hour layover, Istanbul to Tbilisi, Georgia.

Met at the airport by my new manager. Be prepared to stay in Georgia for five days with my new team manager while they sorted out my visa. Supposed to then fly to Baku from Georgia but wait, change of plans. We are going to drive from Tbilisi to Baku, which is through extreme countryside dotted with small farms and country dirt roads, all the while waiting for goats to cross off the road, stopping to visit family, and stopping to pick up wine and cheese for the staff. It took ten hours. Excellent life choices all around.

Discovering Azerbaijan

The only reason why I knew the country Azerbaijan existed is because of its strong, well-known women’s volleyball league. I didn’t hold it against anyone when their reactions were “wait, you’re going WHERE?! Azer-what?”

Most volleyball players have heard of the Rabita Baku club who has taken the SuperLeague, CEV Champions League, and FIVB Club World Championship titles in the past. Some phenomenal players have passed through Rabita. Including millions of dollars. Although that club has not been running for a couple of years, the league still remains very strong.

I played for Azeryol, one of four club teams within Baku. We played in the CEV Cup and the other three were in Champions League. The league had to add the Azerbaijan Junior National team and Georgian National team to the mix to make it legitimate, but those games weren’t so… challenging.

Exploring Europe

It was my first time playing in the CEV Cup and I loved getting out each month and having the opportunity to explore another country! Since we didn’t need to leave Baku ever, as all of our games were usually played in our gym, we had a little more time to travel to the various teams when we needed to.

However, I can see how difficult it would be managing the travel on another team where their normal away games are a trek across their own country! Lots of time spent on the planes and bus! We took down Finland, Romania, Poland, and Italy this past year and then lost to a strong Russian team in the CEV Cup semi-finals! I definitely enjoyed our opportunities to play other strong CEV clubs and go face to face with some of the best players in the world.

We had one CEV trip to Muszyna, Poland. It was fun to be in another city regardless of how small and snowy it was at the time. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let us ride the ski lift without skis (one of my brilliant ideas) but it was nice to… look at (?) nonetheless. After our game, we had to leave hours later in the middle of the night to drive what felt like days to Warsaw, to fly out that morning. They sent one of those extremely small buses…for an entire volleyball team and their staff. Gracias.

After too many hours, we stopped at a random truck stop where a few of us got off (and then almost froze to death). We were deliriously wandering around in the middle of nowhere trying to find a place to pee because the washroom was locked. Or non-existent, I can’t quite remember the problem.

During my walk back to the bus I came around the corner and the bus was driving away. Shoot. I’m not sure if I was just totally frozen or I was fairly fed up with life in that moment, but I didn’t change pace. A couple teammates said they saw me from the bus (they did end up telling the driver to stop… thanks a lot), but I was just strolling through the parking lot without a care in the world. I dare you to leave me in the middle of Poland. I double dare you.

 

Teammates and I embracing our new jerseys & skorts.

 Teammates and I embracing our new jerseys &amp;&nbsp;skorts

Teammates and I embracing our new jerseys & skorts

Embracing Baku

I’m going to start off by saying one of the weirdest things I experienced this year was having to play volleyball in a skirt. Excuse me, I mean skort. Those spandex shorts covered up by an extra piece of fabric in the front and voila! You have a skort straight out of the 1990’s. It was especially interesting having to learn to feel even remotely comfortable in said skort with all the spectators in the stands who happened to be 90% male, all over the age of 50. Excellent.

Not to mention that I think the last skort I wore was in grade 5. It was red and pink with white hibiscus flowers on it. Our team’s skorts didn’t look quite as good as that particular number, but there was definitely some gold-bedazzled-embellishments on them. Our manager did not hold back when designing our jerseys (all six of them!).

Luckily, the foreigners on my team were just as old in spirit as I was. Our days off consisted of heading to the gym for an extra workout and maybe a sauna (where we were consistently being steamed out by the locals who were in the sauna wearing garbage bags to try and drop kilos – they also wore full plastic track suits and went on the treadmill for hours), then we would head out to the city center or our favorite restaurant for a couple cups of coffee. A “couple cups” being the key.

I love being out and about in the mornings and afternoon but then home for dinner so there’s time for that quality rest and a couple Skype-dates before having to start another busy week. I am usually exploring when I have the chance but there weren’t so many areas to choose from in Baku. The main city center had lots of restaurants and coffee establishments, a few shops, and Old Town attached to it, which was where we spent a lot of our time.

Starbucks had recently entered the country of Azerbaijan, something the Americans and I were very grateful for. Hilarious that we have it on every street corner and some locals weren’t even the slightest bit familiar with it; “some important American coffee shop is here now… I think it starts with an S?”

Playing overseas in some remote cities and countries can make it pretty hard to meet other people outside of your club and team. But once you hear English, it’s a free for all. Any native-speaking English person you’re basically allowed to attack (in the friendliest of ways of course), it doesn’t matter the setting. I once pushed my way to the other side of the Starbucks because I heard a girl speaking English. Chances are they’re just as happy to see you too.

Eye-opening

In Azerbaijan, I saw the largest gap in social classes than I have in any other country I’ve played in so far. Because of the booming oil industry, the rich are very, very wealthy. And because of it’s new(ish)-found independence, Azeris want to show the world that they’re back, stronger than ever! They are an extremely proud country.

The main street coming from the extravagant airport all the way “downtown” is lined with designer shops that nobody can afford. But they look pretty and that’s what matters. Turning the corner, however, it is shocking to see how everyone else is living and the vast difference from the upper class. There isn’t really a middle class in this country so that was also interesting to navigate around.

Although every couple of weeks the ATM’s would have enormous lineups where people would literally be lined up around the block. I’m still convinced they were shooting out free money. Dang – missed the boat on that one every time. There were also so many luxury hotels sprinkled throughout the city, but with nobody to fill them. The Fairmont, Four Seasons, Marriot, Hilton, and Trump Towers just to name a few.

Before every CEV home game, our team would stay in a hotel with our opponents. As I said before, there isn’t anyone to fill up these hotels and therefore the staff has next to zero experience dealing with guests. They almost always ran out of food and so it was a first-come first-serve situation where the away-team would usually receive the grunt end of that deal.

When Modena, Italy came to stay at the hotel and were given instant coffee and a few oranges for the pre-game meal, a couple of their staff had a few things to say to the hotel and to our manager. Maybe you’re thinking that we did it on purpose. Starve the other team. But we were also starving… so that one backfired pretty quickly.

Entry Lottery

In order to get into the country of Azerbaijan, you need to receive an official letter from the government that invites you in. In order to get a visa, you also need to pass through a few more roadblocks and even if everything checks out, the last stamp of approval could be denied for no apparent reason.

This actually happened to one of my teammate’s agents; he was flying in for a couple of days, flights were booked and everything was ready, and the day before he was supposed to fly, one of our managers informed us that the temporary visa had been denied. When we asked why, the answer was something along the lines of “maybe he was in Armenia some time in his life or there is a terrorist with the same name as his.” Yes. Maybe. We had a different conspiracy theory, but I’ll have to save that one for another time.

Azeri Weddings

It can be a pretty scary toss-up entering new teams each year; you never know whom you’re going to get. One of our Azeri teammates got married this year and we were all fortunate enough to get an invite. Holy molly – Azeri weddings are done right. Tables on tables of guests, filled with an assortment of appetizers, meats, salads, and lots and lots of drinks.

Still understanding the etiquette of our new country, we were in self-serve mode. The waiters didn’t like that so much, even though I felt a bit pretentious asking someone to scoop me out some salad when it was right next to my plate. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the waiters that were constantly circulating the tables to re-fill wine glasses. Firstly, the initial pour is only millimeters away from the top of the glass. I’m sure that I had to skooch the wine glass to the end of the table and go full cat-style to slurp up that first taste. Secondly, even if the glass was half gone, the waiters filled it to the very top. Again. You had to stop counting after the third or fourth… or fifth or sixth refill.

Needless to say, our team did not hold back on the dance floor, and our entire coaching staff was right beside us!

We were definitely treated well this year, spoiled in terms of our gear, as I for sure received more clothing, suits, practice get-ups, and bedazzled jerseys than the last 3 years combined, cakes made an appearance at least once every week and a half (“keep them under 10 points and I’ll bring cake tomorrow”), and on our way home from Russia our manager bought everyone a perfume of her choice and casually spent 1500 euros.

The biggest problem we had was knowing our schedule. We didn’t know anything – up to the morning of the afternoon games. It was never set in stone and like I said, it could change at a moments notice. And it did. Weekly.

What time is it?

One of my favorite stories from this year was during day light savings. I am still chuckling to myself thinking about it now. The night before the clocks sprung forward, we received a message from our manager saying “No daylight savings. We cancelled it because of Formula 1.” Wait. You CANCELLED daylight savings? Can you do that? Isn’t that sort of, a non-negotiable? AND Formula 1 isn’t until June… I think the drivers would be used to the time-differences by then, no? Amazing.

Our team proceeded to argue via whatsapp on what time it really was. Probably for about an hour, it was incredible. But there you go, folks. Azerbaijan eliminated day light savings just because they wanted to. Bossy.

 After our second CEV win and winning the golden set.&nbsp;

After our second CEV win and winning the golden set. 

Family Support

After a pretty tough month in February (those February overseas-blues are so real), my Mom had the opportunity to come and visit for two weeks!

The only time she’s been overseas was two years ago when she came to stay with me for a month in Istanbul, Turkey and Italy for the World Championships. Our apartments were pretty big, especially in comparison to the typical European ones we’re used to. The medieval-style décor was a little bit interesting but after a while I even got used to the sparkly-swirls and multi-brown squares that were on my walls.

Mom was pretty pumped that I actually had a functional-looking bathtub this year until one day I was met at the door with “Kyla… your hot water isn’t working”. Oh yah… I haven’t had hot water all year Mom, and I won’t be getting it for the last month. Sorry.

It’s great having a family member come visit for an extended period of time (regardless of the hot water situation) as it definitely helps the days pass by a little quicker. We went to some good restaurants and she basically hung out with my teammates and I to try and get us through to the end of the season.

She is still shaking her head at some of the craziness she experienced with us and people don’t believe her when she tells some of the stories. I don’t think she will be going back any time soon!

Player Safety

In Baku there are two types of taxis: government-issued ones that run from a meter and others that are just… there, where you can negotiate prices. Coming back from lunch one day with my mom, I handed over 5 manat to our driver once I was out of the car (in a negotiable-friendly cab), which is the typical price from where we were coming from. He didn’t like that so much and came at me so abruptly he almost ran me into a concrete wall.

After that pleasant experience he got out of his cab and ran after me, proceeding to get directly in my face, screaming some English profanities I didn’t even know people on this side of the world knew, grabbed at my purse, shoved me back, and continued screaming. Needless to say I was a liiiiittle bit shaken up but was able to grab back my purse (without spilling my coffee which was still in hand) and then walk away.

I guess some other people were yelling at him to stop so he didn’t end up following me. Whewf. I was pretty traumatized after that one.

When I told my manager the story at practice later that day (try passing balls when you still have tears in your eyes!) and he was ready to go try and find the guy and introduce him to his fists. That would be nice, but fairly impossible as there are a thousand and one cabs in the city. That was definitely one for the books.

This year had me thinking a lot more of our safety as players when we’re overseas. I heard a couple of stories in terms of break-ins, and very aggressive cab drivers that attacked one player in Brasil. Plus, the terrorist attacks in various cities in Europe where a lot of players are located had me a bit shocked.

I guess you just never know what will happen and in any scarier-than-normal circumstance, the situation could change at any given moment. One American teammate on our ‘sister-team’ told us one day she had received a text message from her manager telling the team not to open their apartment door because random men were breaking in and stealing everything. Good. Definitely didn’t get THAT memo.

I also heard that our apartments were bugged… but that is still to be confirmed.

Home Safe & Sound

Back safe and sound in my small hometown of Roberts Creek, in British Columbia and holy it’s nice to be here and take a deep breath. In Baku, everything was a rush. A text from a manager saying they need such-and-such IMMEDIATELY for life to proceed, the schedule has changed so the bus is picking us up now (we had same-day game cancellations with an ever-changing schedule), something hasn’t been planned so we’ll just pay someone to get it done as fast as possible and deal with repercussions later. Phewf. It was exhausting.

That being said, I have decided to take this summer off from the national team to rest up my mind, body, and soul after a tough year in Baku but also just an incredibly tough past two and a half years. I’ll be talking a bit more about that and my reasons for taking a step back in the next Volleyverse post I write, if you care to come back for some light reading!

As our manager said in one of our last team meetings, “it’s like you’ve been in jail and are going home soon.” Well, I’m home. Thank goodness. And after a whirlwind season like the one I just had, taking a few breaths at home is precisely what the doctor ordered (but seriously… he did). It’s always an adventure whatever team you end up on but I think my stories from Baku definitely take the cake. What an exper-iiiience, but I survived!