It’s been about six weeks since arriving to my new home in Baku, Azerbaijan. As usual, I never arrive peacefully. And until about two ago things were still on edge. But a little bit more on that later…
Throwback to the summer with Team Canada. It was the busiest, most tiring, and most exciting summer I have ever had with the team. In five months we traveled to Calgary, Cuba, Peru, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Toronto, Mexico – competing in an exhibition series, Champions Cup, Pan Am Cup (placing 5th - our best finish since 2004), Grand Prix, Pan Am Games, and then the NORCECA Championships. Our two main focuses for the summer were Pan Am Games and the last tournament, the NORCECA Championships. Playing in front of a home crowd (Pan Am Games) during such a high caliber tournament was really a once in a lifetime experience. Toronto did an amazing job getting ready for the Games and everything went so smoothly when we were there - huge thanks to all the organizers and wonderful volunteers. The athlete’s village was unreal. The highlights were definitely our Canada House, the games tent, meeting a bunch of wonderful people at the Faith Center, people-watching in the massive dinner hall, meeting all the incredible Canadian athletes from various sports, making new friends from other countries, our "Canada Moose", and (my personal favourite) the CIBC café that would serve all types of delicious coffee, treats, and smoothies all day. Oh, and the full beauty salon that was taking place beside that… free haircuts and manicures. Overwhelming joy! I got to take my little Jenny Cakes (aka Jenns Lundquist) to her first pampering-session. So. Fun. Casually met Justin Trudeau in the dinner hall when he was wandering around being all cool and stuff. On one of our last nights a couple of my teammates and I went to the “off campus” Canada House to see what was going on. It ended up being the medal ceremony for the Men’s Canada Basketball Team (I swear we didn’t plan that). Bumped in to Steve Nash but we were all too panicky and star struck that we literally ran away. Tough one. We somehow ended up meeting up with the team later that night at a club that was too busy to get in to, but “no problem… say you’re with Team Canada Basketball. Steve will get you in”. Steve Nash? Our new friend, Steve. Alright then. Suddenly we were pulled out from the insane crowd, escorted past the inside lineups and into the club, hung out with new friends, and then finished the evening off somewhere in the middle of raiding a Nike warehouse (legally you guys… come on now) and getting a full restaurant spread sent to us in the lobby of some hotel downtown. My life is cool sometimes. However, that’s about all I can say on that matter. Saarrry.
My parents were able to come and stay for the whole Pan Ams and it was so great to have them there in the stands. As usual, the parent support we had during the tournament was unreal. Even the support we received from the general public in Toronto, and friends, family, and the volleyball community across the country was overwhelming. Thanks to everyone again for all the love, especially when we did not finish where we had planned. Our goal was to get into the semi-finals and make a run for a medal but unfortunately due to a last minute upset with Cuba beating out Dominican, we dropped from second to fourth in our pool. My teammates and I were extremely disappointed. Personally, it was the most upset I think I have ever been after a loss (dropping to Argentina when we could have secured ourselves in the quarters, when the previous game we played so well against Cuba). I was back at the Canada House watching Cuba vs. Dominican on TV, watching our fate unfold. It was a heartbreaking moment. We had two days off after that, one being completely free to regroup and the following day to have a normal practice to prepare for Peru. I actually had to leave two separate times during practice because I couldn’t stop crying. Hold it together, Kyla, for goodness sake. Mmmm nope. It cut me to the core. Unfortunately we were unable to regroup for Peru; a devastating way to finish such an amazing tournament. However, we had to find a way to become a stronger team after this because our next tournament was NORCECA Championships in Mexico where we had to finish top four in order to qualify for the Olympic Qualifiers, taking place this coming January. There was a lot of pressure riding on these games and this tournament. If we didn’t qualify then the quad was effectively over – our Olympic dreams would be finished and therefore some players would be ending their careers. We were given a few weeks off after Pan Am Games to rest (our first break all summer!) and sit in the sun for a couple days before coming back to train for this tournament. Once we got back however, I feel like our team got put through the ringer in terms of trying to make ourselves and each other better, having unresolved pain and disappointment from Pan Am Games, and a bit of stress and pressure on thoughts of the upcoming tournament. We had a few weeks of pretty strenuous and difficult practices. Not even including the volleyball side of things. But we got through and became stronger for it. We were able to go into NORCECAS and win a 5-set thriller vs. Cuba in game one that would essentially keep us from finishing at the bottom of our pool. We had a tough crossover (after pool play) against a feisty Mexican team that had the home crowd behind them - a must win game to continue on. We ended up just defeating them in 5 as well. Holy stress. Because of these two major wins we were able to finish fourth, qualifying us for the Olympic Qualifiers in January – our biggest goal of the summer. Definitely had some amazing wins and a lifetime of crazy memories just from this summer alone. I am most proud of my team for battling during the hardest times; questionable food on the road, cockroaches falling on me in Cuba during our video session, bedbugs, 14-16hour flying days across North America, sticking together when the pressure was on, battling it out when it was do-or-die, staying together as a team through some pretty tough losses, and recognizing that our success at the very end of the summer was more than just the 14 traveling players. We are, yet again, spread out all around the world in some pretty awesome and prestigious professional clubs. Because of the qualifier in January, our European clubs have to release us at the end of December so we can fly back to Winnipeg and train together for about a week. After that, we hop down to Nebraskato play three games against the USA, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. The winner of this tournament will automatically qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics. The second and third place teams get re-pooled into backdoor tournaments in May, and the team that finishes fourth does not advance. Second place goes to Japan with four Asian teams, two European teams, and one South American team. Third place will host against two African teams and one South American team. It’s another tough task but one that I completely believe that we can accomplish. We’ve been working so hard over the last seven years to take this team to the next level and this group has been such a solid foundation during this quad. Now it’s definitely our time. I am already ecstatic about being reunited with the girls at the end of December. Only three more weeks to go!
I am currently writing this post at Gloria Jean’s… my new favourite American coffee shop. No Starbucks around me so this is filling that void. Arrived in Baku about a month and a half ago in true Kyla-fashion. When I say that, I am referring to the abnormal, absolutely crazy scheduling, stressful, hustle-and-bustle that usually follows me around when I am trying to move across the world. To make things really interesting, I stayed in Mexico for a few days after the NORCECA tournament in Morelia, Mexico with my travel buddies, Britt and Marisa. We flew to Acapulco after saying goodbye to our teammates (although only some because I was still thinking I would be at TC Full-Time Training Center in the fall). Because of our fairy-godfather we didn’t have to pay for much on this vacation and after a couple days in a smaller resort, we got hooked up with a private villa. Personal chef and butler included. Repeat: I love my life. However, in the middle of this trip I heard of the opening on a team in Baku and the following day had verbally committed to the team. Happy dance.Pause. I am in MEXICO. Pause. Panic. Stress. Classic. Luckily I had already planned to fly to Winnipeg and drive my car back to Vancouver as I didn’t think my little VW would survive Winterpeg’s death winter. I had two hours of sleep the night before I flew out from Accapulco (trying to organize and get a flight that would allow me to arrive in Winnipeg the following day, not a full day later). Mama Jan was flying in to Winnipeg at 5pm that day so we could spend some quality time together while we blitzed across half of the country in two days. Thankfully, after many stressful hours, I got a flight that would get me into Winnipeg at 11pm that night – doable. I told mother directions to the best Pho place and tried to make sure she would be okay hanging in the Peg solo for the evening. Texted our favorite Mexican taxi driver aka private chauffeur at 2am to make sure he could grab me from inside the double-gated residence-complex and drive me to the airport a few hours later. Check. Two hours of sleep. Check. Half-delirious goodbyes to Britty and Reese (almost started crying… quick, start the caaaar!). Check. Arrive at the airport and my reservation magically exists. Thank goodness. Arrived too early but that’s better than missing it. Oh wait... surprise!, flight is delayed an hour and half because of the fog in Mexico City. Check check. Good thing my layover in Mexico City was long. Arrival. Confusion as to where the heck I am suppose to go for an international flight. Walk back and forth a few hundred times. Check. On to Toronto… a little delayed. Weird. This is where things get fun. After stopping at David’s Tea to collect some favourites and spend an obnoxious amount of money on tea (it's worth it thought), I made my way over to the gate. We eventually were told that the flight was delayed coming in (which seems to be the story of my day… I mean life). It FINALLY got there, boarding went smoothly, everyone’s snuggled away in their seat, and I am aggressively reading, trying to finish the GoldenFinch so I don’t have to lug the 5kg book to Europe. It was really rainy and gross outside which worried me a bit but I kept my fingers crossed. Then the pilot came on saying the air circulation needed… fixing? Adjusting? Anyhow, some special thing was needed to come and connect to the plane to get that going. 45 minutes. Call mom. Pilot: that didn’t work so we need to bring in a second one. 50 minutes. Call mom. Okay things are good… we get rolling and pull out from the gate… Pilot: "psych". The windshield wipers aren’t working so everyone has to get off the plane and board a new one. Call mom. Good times had by all. Shuffle off the plane, find the new gate, wait another 40 minutes until they’ve got this one ready for us, board, snuggle, read book feverishly, pull out from the gate, pilot: I’m really sorry ladies and gentlemen but if you can believe it, we are having the exact same problem on this plane as the last one. We’re going to need to get off this plane as well.WHO made these windshield wipers? Call mom. This is a sick joke. Everyone off the plane. Call mom. Use my 15$ food coupon at Starbucks because by this time all the stores are closed. Another 60 minutes to wait for the THIRD plane. Text mom. “I’ll take a cab home, you sleep”. Third time’s the charm I guess and by this time I was just laughing. Really, my luck with flights is so disturbing. I got in to Winnipeg at about 3:30 am and was at home just before 4 am. The fun thing about this part of the story is I still had to completely pack up my room and store all my stuff. 4 to 7 am consisted of me doing just that. Unpack my suitcases from Mexico, do two loads of laundry, pack up suitcases of summer clothes, volleyball clothes that I’ll need in December, bathroom stuff, kitchen stuff, food cupboard, repack a suitcase of things I was taking with me in the car and one for Europe, slash organize life. 7am rolls around and Mom wakes up. Good morning! 30 minutes later we were on the road. Delirious. I figured that I would crash in the afternoon so to save Mom from driving the entire day I started the first leg. Leaving Winnipeg heading to Brandon… sirens. Oh crap. Yeup. My first time being pulled over. Clearly this guy had not had his morning coffee because he was pretty distraught on the fact that I was speeding. I just sat there like a scolded child. He took much too long plugging in all my information and I had flash-forwards to them impounding my car and me being REALLY screwed. It just ended up being a $675 speeding ticket. Casual. That’s nice sir, thank you for that. Don’t think, just drive. Continue on. Double espresso venti latte in Brandon and at every Starbucks from there to Vancouver. A little stop over in Calgary (yay for sleep! Finally!) and then on to Kamloops the next day to spend time with baby Stu and Dad who had driven up a few days ago. Family friends let us bombard their home for that evening (they even cooked us a lasanga!) and I went down to stay at baby Stu’s glorified-fraternity house. Oh, how I miss university life. The next day was the most perfect fall-family-fun day. A light 10km run in the morning (I was unfortunately solo for that part), brunch at our favourite restaurant, a walk on the river and through the park, and back to our friend’s place for a little bit more time together. Afternoon rolls around and it’s time to drive to Vancouver. Dad came with me so we could get our father-daughter time and then once in Vancouver, Mom collected him and they went back to the coast. I went to the airport to pick up my man – coming off of their golden NORCECA tournament (congrats, guys!), and then drove back to Langley. There for a day and a half. Bliss. Bliss interrupted with a ticket from Baku – surprise: you’re leave in a day and a half.
Sweet. I should probably get organized. Tuesday morning: drive to the ferry, get to the Coast, run errands all afternoon, finally head home to have dinner with the parents, unpack, repack, Europe suitcases are packed in less than two hours, sleep (aka nap), and the next morning mom and I are up at 6:45am and on the 8:20am ferry heading to the airport.
If you didn’t read my last year's flight-to-Europe-nightmare you can read it here. Even though I made sure to arrive with enough extra time, flying with Turkish airlines after last year's mess still gave me a bit of anxiety. Walking to the check in counters I saw the lady that had dealt with me last year. That didn’t make me feel good. New girl. New karma. Chill. The flight path wasn’t going to be the most fun as I was flying Vancouver to Toronto to Istanbul (with a 9 hour layover) and then on to Tbilisi, Georgia. I had to go there first to get a visa for Azerbaijan. However, new check-in-girl asked for my flight leaving Georgia. Dude, I don’t have one - I need to get my visa first. Okay, well they wont let you in to Georgia if you don’t have a flight out of the country. Okay, well I don’t have one and am only staying for a day until I get it. Okay, well I can’t check you in without out. HOLY HECK WHY. Mom went in full panic mode after I wasn’t checked in within the first 25 minutes and came over and had a bit of a stress-break-down. I can laugh about this situation now but at the time I was ready to join her. A more experienced sir came over after 45 minutes with my first lady to try and help and check me in, but alas, could not do it without proof of me leaving Georgia. Meanwhile precious minutes are ticking down until the cutoff time. Flashbacks. Sweats. Not again. Still keeping my cool (not really sure how I did that) I texted my manager with my Baku team, Ilgar, and told him the situation. Luckily he doesn’t sleep and I had a response within minutes. He said it shouldn’t be a problem and just tell them suchandsuch. No no, I really need this or else they aren’t going to let me on this flight and we have about a 20minute window. Okay. Panic from his end. Within 10 minutes I had a flight booked out of Tbilisi to Canada and then minutes later I had another one sent to me going to Baku a couple days later. Covering all angles. Just in case. At least they get stuff done. Mr. Kind Sir put some special sticker on my boarding pass so I could bypass all the lines thru security and good thing he did because by this time I was reeeeeal late. Goodbyes to Mom. Tears. Check. Always. 6hour flight to Toronto. Check. 11hour flight to Istanbul. Check. 9hours walking the small-uninteresting airport, drinking multiple Starbucks, hanging out in a lounge, writing Megan’s blog, then finally boarding the flight at midnight. Arrival in Tbilisi at 3:30am. Meet random person from the club I didn’t know.Check. Drive around for 2hours trying to find a hotel. Check. Get lost. Check. Private midnight tour? 4hour nap then picked up in the morning to go deal with visa stuff, which ended up being on a small random street in a little hole-in-the-wall room no bigger than my European-style hotel bathroom. Someone took me outside, put a camera in my face and said “do not be afraid, this is Azerbaijan." 1) You were really in my personal space and I wasn’t expecting that 2) we’re standing outside – isn’t this photo suppose to be taken in front of a white background? 3) This is actually not Azerbaijan, it’s Georgia 4) I am in fact afraid of you. A couple of meals and a lot of coffee later, we found out that the visa wouldn’t be processed until Monday. It was Friday. As irritating as it was to not have the visa in my hand, I was actually pretty content to stay in one place for more than twenty hours. It felt like I hadn't slept in two weeks which was in actuality, absolutely true. Plus, it was during a Georgian national holiday so everyone was out and about celebrating which was fun. Scroll down a little to see some photos of the city. When was I planning on visiting Georgia in my lifetime? Now I had a 4-day vacation in a pretty cool city. The weekend consisted of lots of exploring (I was right in the downtown area of Tbilisi and the main areas were all within walking distance), dinners with Amil (we became best buds), a few workouts, and of course, finding the best coffee shops. Monday rolled around and Amil and I were back at the glorified visa office, but with more success this time around! Visa! Check. However, I wasn’t going to get off that easy. Flights to Baku were sold out for the evening as well as for the following day. The solution: we would drive from Tbilisi to Baku. Nothing in life will phase me anymore. I was under the impression that the drive was 6hours but once we were on the road we had to stop at Amil’s village to pick up some of his things and stop at a few random places to grab “special cheese” for Ilgar and “special wine” for the coaching staff. Amil’s village (where his family lived) was so out of the way but it was so fascinating to see how some people are living so far from any sort of town or civilization. They were fully living off the land. Weaving in and out of dirt roads, we encountered about five different herds of animals which effectively blocked the road for a good number of minutes. I loved it. 6hours quickly turned to 9hours. We covered some major miles and were passing along near the Armenian boarder… didn’t ever think I would be doing that in my lifetime. It took a couple of hours to cross through the Georgian-Azerbaijani boarder but it was successful nonetheless. We got in to Baku at around 4am, picked up Ilgar so he could let me in to my new apartment, I slept until about 1pm the next day, and then was off to practice with my new teammates in the evening. I guess the rest is history!
Since arriving, there have definitely been a few ups and downs (what would professional sports be without those!). I am pretty convinced that I could play anywhere in the world if I could eliminate that first week. Don't get me wrong - it's definitely an exciting time. However, I take a lot from the connections I make with people and obviously in that first week you don't know anybody, you don't understand how things work within the club or your new city, and you're virtually always lost for a good chunk of time. Not many people speak English in Baku - that's always an interesting time. Even within our team, there are a lot of translations going on in practices and meetings (and who knows if we're getting the full story!). I just find it pretty lonely having always come off of a National Team tournament and busy summer with the girls. Suddenly I'm all alone in a foreign place with not a lot of things to distract my brain - which can be a bit dangerous. That first week is a hard adjustment for me to make as I'm missing my family dearly and forced into the realization that I cannot reach out to Connor. Pro seasons give me too much time to think.
But alas! Once I'm settled in, I'm okay. I can adjust. I can play, I can make friends, and I can be excited about what's to come during this new season. The first thing you have to get used to when playing here in Baku is the lack of a concrete schedule. We started our SuperLeague a few weeks after all the European leagues started, as they were trying to add another team to our league, and just straight up hadn’t organized it yet. There are four SuperLeague teams all of which train in Baku. Azeryol (my team), Azerail (our sister team that practices in the same gym as us), Telekom, and Lokomotiv, and the Junior Azerbaijan National team and Georgian National team have joined our league. My team is also playing in CEV and the other three SuperLeague teams are also competing in Champions League. Our first game as a team was also our first CEV match in Targoviste, Romania (photos below). We ended up losing that game which put a lot of pressure on us for the following match when they came to play us at home. We had to win in 3 or 4 in order to force a golden set(after the game is done, a golden set is played to determine the winner – a “winner takes all” set to 15 for all the marbles). We did it – and ended up winning 15-13 in the golden set. Slight stress. At the moment we are 4-2 in the league and are heading to Finland next week for the second round of CEV. Just over a week ago our coach got released from the team and our assistant coach stepped into the head position. Despite this disruption, our team luckily didn’t skip a beat in terms of training hard and keeping our positive atmosphere on and off the court. Regardless of having three different languages constantly going on at the same time – Azerbaijani, Russian, and English - our team is more ‘together’ than I would have expected. It’s so interesting to me that even if you don’t speak a word of the same language with a teammate, you can still come to really care for them as a person and actually communicate quite a bit. Hand-signals for the win.
At the time of Canadian Thanksgiving I was frantically driving across Canada to get home so I wasn’t able to celebrate it. I absolutely ADORE thanksgiving and it’s becoming one of my most favourite holidays. I am super fortunate to have three American’s on my team, and onehonorary-North American (who’s actually from Germany) which makes up my “American Mafia” crew. I love them. So for American Thanksgiving, we had the day off and cooked an absolute feast. We started preparations the night before and all got together at Lauren and Janelle’s apartment at noon the following day. We really outdid ourselves and the spread looked like something out of Canadian Living magazine. Or American Living. Whatever. It tasted like heaven. It was probably the most delicious thanksgiving meal I’ve had.Ever. Wife us up, folks – we nailed it.
Janelle also informed me not too long ago, that she had come across my blog during the first couple months she was here for pre-season training. A few months later, when the club announced that I would be joining us she realized that it was meeee! "How long do I wait until I tell Kyla that I know her entire life story?" She definitely waited a good long while to tell me (such a creeeeep) but we had a good laugh. Oh, how the world works!
Three more weeks to go – a handful of league games, a trip to Finland, off for a little Christmas break, on to Winnipeg for National Team training, bus to Nebraska for Olympic Qualifiers, then fly back to Baku for the second half of the professional season! Busy, busy, always non-stop but there’s so many exciting things packed into this next month and a half, especially - I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Check out some more photos and more tidbits of information on life in Baku right here. I will be adding to it as the season progresses! Keep checking back for the latest shenanigans.