A Whole New World

Editor's Note: Janelle Sykes was a member of the VCU volleyball team and graduated this past May and signed a professional contract with Azeryol Baku. She was a two-time all-conference honoree and a key member of the VCU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Here's a first-person look at her new professional life in a whole new country.

“Traveling leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a storyteller.” - Unknown

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind, and at times it is still hard for me to fathom that I am living my dream of being a professional volleyball player.  My adventure began August 29th with a nine hour flight to Moscow, Russia and then finally, a three hour flight to my final destination Baku, Azerbaijan.  From the moment I stepped on the first flight, I was already experiencing something new: it was my first time leaving the United States.

My first challenge arose when it came time for me to pack. I have never been one to pack light for trips, so packing to live in a new country for nine months was a bit daunting. Especially when nine out of the 11 existing climate zones are present in Azerbaijan!  Somehow I managed to pack my life into three suitcases with the help of Ziploc space bags, which by the way are a life saver. Without them, there is no way my jars of peanut butter would have made the trip and boy, am I happy I brought them.

Everyday items that we are accustomed to in the states, I have learned are not so easy to come by (think towels, fluffy blankets, peanut butter, lettuce, etc.) Miraculously, all of my bags were under the weight limit, though when I carried them down the stairs that morning, I was certain they were well over…but hey, no complaints!

Once I got to my gate, I met up with my teammate/roommate Lauren Whyte (George Washington, ’13) who is also an Atlantic 10 volleyball alumna. It was definitely one of those “small world” moments when we found out that we played against each other in college, live 30 minutes from each other in the states, and would be traveling 7,000 miles away with each other to begin our professional careers in Baku, Azerbaijan. One of our first nights in our apartment, Lauren and I both walked out of our rooms, looked at each other, and burst into laughter. Ironically enough, we both had put on the exact same A10 Championship shirt, a friendly little reminder of our college careers.

That was just one of many moments Lauren and I have spent laughing together. It has been our motto thus far. When in doubt, smile and laugh it off.  Every time Lauren resorts to speaking Spanish out of habit when we’re in a pickle with the language, I laugh.  Every time I go to unlock the front door and wind up locking it from the inside, Lauren laughs. Mind you, locks here are no different than home, I was just spoiled in college with a key fob.

Embracing a new culture and language has brought about many of these instances where I can’t help but laugh at myself. For instance, take our first grocery trip as an example. Spaghetti sounds easy enough to make for dinner, right? ... Wrong! Finding the ingredients is not so simple when it is written in a different language. Pasta was easy enough, but it was a lovely surprise to find that the ground beef we thought we’d purchased was actually a massive block of beef bologna. Picture the world’s largest hot dog in your frying pan, so much for ground beef. To top it off, when I opened up what Lauren and I thought was spaghetti sauce, the kitchen suddenly smelled like salsa. Sure enough, it was. Bon appétit! This was our first attempt at cooking dinner in Baku and oh did we have a good laugh. Needless to say, we ate out for the next few days before we worked up the courage to grocery shop again.

Another laugh came about after our first few days in our new apartment. We had come to accept the fact that the place we were living in was a bit different than home and, hey, maybe it’s normal for the lights in the bathroom to stay on at all times. *Shrugs*. It was a little strange, yes, but you’d never need a night light! Come to find out, the light switches were in fact present just very well hidden. For one, light switches here are at knee level for the both of us since we’re well over the average height here. Second, the switches were conveniently behind one of our extravagant doors in our entry way that always stays open. The landlord had a good laugh with us over this discovery.

The people here are huge fans of volleyball! In the states, if you are a tall female people automatically assume you play basketball. Here, we will be walking down the street and hear the word volleyball. I have been pleasantly surprised to meet many fans within the city. Even on our block, our neighbors across the street were waiving an Azeryol flag one day when we were boarding our bus.

Sight-seeing has been one of my favorite parts about my experience overseas thus far. The old city juxtaposed with the new buildings and architecture is truly beautiful and I have loved every moment spent exploring. Pictures cannot do the city justice at night either. Never in my life have I seen such a wide variety of colors and lights illuminating a city.  A few of my favorite landmarks that I have seen are the flame towers (which I can see the tops of from my apartment), the Maiden Tower, and Baku’s City Center.

Check out all of Janelle's Pictures from Her Adventure

Also, twice, we have had the opportunity to work out on the beach and cool down in the Caspian Sea. All of my life, I have loved being in the water, so experiencing swimming in the Caspian Sea for the first time was definitely a highlight.

Typical of any big move or transition, my life in Baku has required some adjusting. The time change has been one of the biggest ones. It is still so strange that when I am making dinner, my family is just waking up and eating their breakfast. I usually have to check my phone to remind myself what day of the week it is because, with my life revolving around practice, whenever my day off is… that immediately feels like my weekend.

Amidst all of the change and adaptation, there is volleyball. Players from all over the globe unite on a court and play the game that we love. There are a variety of languages spoken by players, but someone is always able to translate a drill into English. At times, I’m certain I look extremely confused on the court, but my teammates always look out for me and either show me or offer me further explanation. One thing is for sure, my teammates and coaches are passionate about the game and it is contagious. I have the opportunity to play with many current or former national team players for their respective countries.

The level of talent is extremely high within the Azerbaijan Super League as well as the CEV Champions Cup and the opportunity for me to learn and grow as a player is huge. Every practice I walk away having learned something new, and everyone around me pushes me to improve, which I am incredibly grateful for my rookie season. My goal is to learn as much as I can as fast as I can, and I am confident that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Baku, I trust, will be a place that will push me to grow not only as a professional athlete, but also as a person.

“I’ll look back on this and smile because it was life and I decided to live it.” - Unknown