For the past six months, I’ve been playing softball with a group of women in Condega. It’s been one of the most unique experiences I’ve had so far in Nicaragua, and I wanted to share a bit about it. After a bit of searching and through the connection of my old host brother, I started practicing with a group of women last June(ish). After enough women came out and expressed interest in starting a league, Condega formed its first softball league in decades. Baseball has been a wildly popular sport since the US Marines brought it here almost a century ago, so it seems fitting it would only be a matter of time before it got popular with women.
The Condega softball league has three teams, with the majority of the women playing organized from various tobacco factories in town. I’m playing with the Alfareras, basically meaning female Potters (nothing like a tough name like “Potters” to really intimidate the opponents, eh?). Alfareras refers to the pottery which has made my town somewhat famous (pre-Columbian pottery has been found in Condega and many artifacts are on display in a local museum). In any event, I like the ring to it and we’ve got pretty sweet uniforms. My team is comprised of a group of women, the majority of whom work in one of the local tobacco factories rolling cigars. Our two managers (both men) also work at the factory. In addition to the tobacco factory workers (three of whom are sisters), we’ve got a fifth-grade teacher and her two daughters, a woman who owns a meat-shop, a few homemakers, three high school students, a primary school gym-teacher, a university student, and me (the random foreigner). It’s an interesting group, to say the least.
From the months we spent practicing until now, I’ve had a wonderful time getting to know the women on and off the field. I’ve been out with them, been invited to a few of their houses, gotten to know their children, husbands, secrets, of course the ever-present chisme (gossip). Chisme is unfortunately unavoidable in Nicaragua, and it’s led to a few disagreements and fights within the team (more on that later). Nonetheless, I’ve formed some wonderful relationships that I’m pretty sure will last after my service ends, and already had some of my favorite times in Nicaragua with the team. One fun Friday night we tried holding a fundraiser for the team at a local bar. The fundraiser itself didn’t go so well, but we had a fun dance party anyway. Another Friday night we were hanging out, waiting for our uniforms to be done, with the topic of conversation the ever-exciting speculation on Alyssa’s love life (a topic I am unfortunately quite used to being asked about at this point…sigh.) After a particularly fun double-header, the entire time plus their families all went to a local pool to eat burgers, hang out and swim. A bunch of us jumped in the pool in our uniforms, and I taught my friend’s daughter how to dive. Great times.
The coolest thing is probably seeing my teammates on the street and having a connection with people in Condega that doesn’t have to do with work or health-related things. It’s also done wonders for me in town, both in terms of popularity and my image. Considering I’m the only foreigner playing in the league, I’m known more or less as “the white girl that plays softball.” I’ve met people on countless occasions who have referred to me as such. I find it entertaining. The conversation goes like this: general greetings, my name is Alyssa, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer, I live in Condega… and then something like “oh, you’re the white girl that plays softball!” Often when I’m up-to-bat I hear random people in the crowd yelling “Vamos chela!” i.e. “let’s go white girl!” I don’t find it racist or offensive at all, people call me chela everyday (not unlike the mzungu I heard in Africa) and you get used to it after a while. Hey, at least they’re cheering for me!
In our Condega league, there’s a double-header every Saturday in the local baseball stadium. We got a decent crowd every now and then to show up; even the local TV stations have come to cover the league. My team is the best (no I’m not just saying that, we’re undefeated!) so our Saturdays are usually pretty fun. I’m not sure of our record, but it must be something like 15-0 within the league. I’ve been playing third base most of the season because I’m one of the few women with the stronger arm to make the throw. Some of you may know that I played fastpitch softball most of my life until college, so for me it was a bit of an adjustment playing slowpitch with women who had never picked up a ball before. I got a lot of action at third base and every now and then I’d make a diving catch that would be cause for an infield celebration and applause (or a few hoots and hollers) from the men watching on the sidelines. The different level of play was definitely an adjustment (I came to the conclusion there is no such thing as “hustle” here) but I didn’t come to the Peace Corps to show off my softball skills. I joined the league to meet women, get involved in a community activity and have a fun thing to do in my spare time. Although I must admit it something of a confidence booster to know I’m must be hitting something over .800 and my slugging percentage must be off the charts! I never hit a home run in the States and have hit a few here. Hooray.
We’ve also traveled to nearby municipalities (two communities near Condega, to another municipality of Estelí called Pueblo Nuevo, the municipality of Palacagüina in Madriz, and even in the city of Estelí in the military base). Traveling with the team was a blast. A bunch of us pile into whatever vehicle we can find (hiring a microbus, someone’s husband’s SUV or more likely hitching rides from a random man with a truck) and hit the road, laughing and enjoying ourselves as we hit potholes and fall over each other. Children and buckets of enchiladas included. We didn’t fare as well on the road because the teams in other municipalities had more experience playing. But it was good for our team to play better against better teams and generally improved team camaraderie. For me, it was just fun to leave Condega for an unknown Saturday adventure. I can’t really think of a better way to pass an afternoon than playing a sport I love, with people I love, in a country I love.
Another cool part about playing is the general enjoyment and difficulties of playing a sport in Spanish. Can’t say I’d ever done that before! I had to learn the lingo, especially the funny accent of English words and positions said with a Spanish accent (heeet, ronnn, peetcher, etc.) Every now and then it’s a bit difficult for me to get across what I’m trying to say (you try explaining infield fly rule in Spanish to a bunch of women who have never heard of it and may not understand the rules of baseball!) but generally I think I’ve done okay. My team finds me amusing, and as with all things Peace Corps and development work in general, you have to be okay with people laughing at you from time to time. Every now and then I say something stupid, and just laugh at myself anyway.
I try to stay positive and maintain a happy-go-lucky attitude which I’ve always tried to have since my high school sports days (I’m a huge high-five fan), but it’s hard when the women can often be extremely negative, gossipy and hard on each other. We’ve had women stop showing up to practice, quit the team in protest, refuse to talk or associate with certain women on the team, and worse things I won’t share here. The gossip is really uncontrollable. I try my best to stay out of the conflicts but it’s very difficult. Things came to a boiling point in December when we played a double-header (winning one by slaughter-rule) in the Championship series. However, we played without bringing our ID cards. The other team voiced a complaint with the Federation, who rewarded the two victories to them. My team was furious after we’d had multiple issues within our team and the others. Apparently there was a verbal fight and someone on my team said something that really ticked the other people off, so the league has been canceled indefinitely. We only just started the Championship series but it’s not looking too promising. Not the best ending to the league; let’s hope somehow it will be resolved.
My final anecdote is much happier and definitely the most amusing. Things are very official here, so a month or into the league we started to fill out personal identification cards for the softball league. As I was filling out my card, I notice something interesting on the ID card. Liga: Alyssa Eisenstein. Our manager and our team representative for the Baseball Federation were sitting next to me, so I asked them why my name was on the ID cards. They kindly informed me that at the meeting of the Baseball Federation, the three teams came to agreement and decided to name the league after me. Apparently they appreciate my “positive attitude and punctuality” (I’m one of the few that can be guaranteed to be on-time, not on Nica-time i.e. an hour late). I assume the fact that I’m a foreigner may or may not have something to do with it as well.
So there you have it, I’ve got a Nicaraguan softball league named after me!