2016 Olympic Qualification Games in Trinidad & Tobago

In Soccer by Jackie Cruz

This November, I traveled to Trinidad & Tobago (TNT) to participate in the FIFA Pre-Olympic qualifying games with the Puerto Rico National team. It’s been a few years since I competed with the team and last year I had to turn down 2 invitations because games were scheduled the same weekend as final projects for my MBA courses at Arizona State University. Needless to say, this year I was excited to finally get back on the pitch with the team.

I want to share my experience with you because going to the Caribbean and a South American country was, yet again, a culture change in more ways than one. I can get by in Spanish, but am not fluent. I had a lot of moments when I looked around and saw girls who looked like me – with hazel eyes, brown hair, curly locks and curvy, athletic bodies. On other occasions, I felt like I had no idea what people were saying in Spanish or what it culturally and socially means to be Puerto Rican. Lucky for me, the journey was just beginning.

Day 1 – November 12:
My iPhone Timba ringer woke me up bright and early at 6:00am. Like every morning, I stayed in my bed and massaged the arches of my feet to be able to walk without pain. After 2 minutes, I got up to make my morning organic jasmine green tea sprinkled with stevia powder from Trader Joe’s. Side note: grocery shopping is 10 times more fun than clothes shopping! How can you compare when you find a piece of 36-month-old parmesan cheese and wine from the top of a mountain in Montepulciano, Italy?

My boyfriend took me to the train station before his morning soccer training. We are in Berlin in the picture below. He also plays professional soccer here in Germany, but another blog will explain how we had to travel to a village of 27,000 people to meet each other. It was hard for me to say “bis später in 10 Tage” (until later in 10 days), but I knew he would be cheering me on from Germany. On the first train, I enjoyed a large tea and a fresh turkey, tomato and cucumber whole grain baguette. I usually bring my own tea on trips because train station cafés do not always carry organic teas. I also save money because a large hot water only costs $0.10 or nothing at all! Already feeling the distance from my boyfriend on the train, I bought a 1-month Skype subscription for a German telephone number and an unlimited calling plan to Europe. It’s the best way to go if you don’t want a $400 phone bill – a lesson learned once or twice before.

Travel lesson: you do not have to make seat reservations for the Deutsche Bahn (German train) when buying train tickets. One seat reservation in the normal cars costs approximately 9 Euro roundtrip, but you can hop on the restaurant car for free! It’s way more fun to sit, meet random people and chow down on some great food. My go-to meal is the “Hühnerfrikasse,” a traditional German dish of bite-sized chunks of chicken, rice and veggies drenched in a white, herb sauce. Being only 9 in the morning, I opted for a sweet snack. Enjoying a warm, fluffy apple strudel with a “Kaffee Crème” was a 30-minute period of heaven while looking outside the train window onto the German countryside.

My 12:00pm flight to JFK on Air Berlin went smoothly until the end. I started having a migraine, feeling dizzy and extremely nauseated. This reaction only happened one other time on a winter vacation with my family in Megéve. I was a little more than 8,000 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level eating dinner at a restaurant when all the same symptoms hit. This was the same thing.

We were descending and the flight attendants made their final cabin checks, but I pushed the help button anyway. No one came. I looked back, made eye contact with the flight attendant and still no one came. The last cabin check was announced and an attendant finally came to ask how I was. He said he had to wait until we landed to do anything. A few minutes later I could not wait and just said, “I just need to use bathroom. I’m not going to sue the airline.” I spent 14 minutes bent over the disgusting metal toilet in the bathroom. After not throwing up, I knew it was the altitude problem again. I went back to my seat and we landed several minutes later. Of course, the attendant did not bring any water or check how I was doing. Maybe he was too consumed in his conversation about his new Air Berlin job.

Day 2: November 13
Having traveled for approximately 23 hours to the San Juan International Airport, I was pooped at 1:30am, but finally got to bed at 2:40am at the athlete’s house in Bayamón. When I walked in the air-conditioned room, it felt like a freezer because I haven’t used air conditioning for a long time. In Germany, there is no air conditioning in homes since it is only uncomfortably hot for one or two months out of the year. Needless to say, I was so cold that I slept for 2 hours and woke up again at 6:30am for training.

We had training at the turf fields in the Bayamón Soccer Complex at 7:00am. It was thicker turf, which was great and meant less back and knee pain afterwards. It took a few adjustments in my brain to turn on my Spanish vocabulary, but it was slowly getting better. I still could not stop saying “Zeit,” “dreh,” or “gutso” to my teammates (time, turn and good in German). Some things you just cant get out of your head.

After trying to sleep for a few hours after training, I woke up to CNN and Bloomberg notifications on my phone. Paris and Lebanon had just been attacked. Having family in Paris, I immediately checked to see if they were alright – everything was fine. I was pretty rocked seeing pictures of the bombings, terrifying videos and first-hand accounts on social media. When were governments drawing the line? What about the terrorists infiltrating refugee groups in Germany? A local newspaper reported in November that a city decided to house refugees in a newly built indoor sports hall that is 100 meters from not only our training field, but training facilities for youth boys and girls. Was this the best option? I felt helpless about the entire situation, sad that so many people are facing serious danger in their home countries and angry that countless others are taking advantage of the entry programs into European countries.

In the evening, we had the pleasure of watching the Under 17 (U17) Puerto Rican National team game against Jamaica under the lights at night. It was in the Juan Gabriel National Stadium, where I already played against many other national teams. It brought back some great memories!

Day 3 – November 14:
Training today at 10:30am was a fight. The protein shake, salt tablets and electrolyte tabs made me feel great before training, but after the warm-up, I was having doubts. The 96-degree temperature was clouding my mind and delaying my thinking, while the 90% humidity was not allowing me to breath at all. I was not looking forward to the rest of the camp, but I knew training in such extreme conditions was necessary to adjust to the weather and to play successful against our Caribbean opponents.

We only had 1 practice per day, so I felt I needed I little more training before the games. Running on the streets of Bayamon in the mid-afternoon was an experience to say the least. As I ran past a few small corner restaurants, smells of the local amarillas (fried plantains), arroz con frijoles (rice with beans) and pollo asado (rotisserie chicken) were making me hungry. I had to stay on the street because the uneven sidewalks had holes and were overgrown with plants and bushes. It seemed as though only the good houses had sidewalks that were walkable. Does the city government not own and maintain the sidewalks like many cities in the U.S.?

Listening with my bright green Powerbeats 2, I was careful to slow down at every corner and check for cars or animals – the occasional rooster, dog or cat could pop up at any moment! Luckily, I did find a running partner in the form of a cute, spunky dog. Kind of like the dog from the Mask, but all black. I paused for a second, smiled and said “Hola!” to the dog. It stopped in its tracks, raised its butt and tilted his adorable head with floppy ears to one side. You know – the stance when dogs want to play? I jogged passed him and he kept leaping like a frog to the side of my legs and freezing in that position. He was lunging at my legs like he wanted to play and he had me – I wanted to take him home to our athlete’s house. I had to leave him there and finished my workout. After 45 minutes of running, 80 lunges, 80 jumping lunges and 60 pushups, I walked up the huge hill looking down on the soccer complex totally drenched in sweat.

Day 4 – November 15:
At 7:00am, I walked outside before training and thought, Yes! It’s only 20 degrees and 60% humidity! I’ll be able to breath! It was great when we started running.

The day was relaxing and in the evening we had an early dinner at 4:00pm at the same corner restaurant I saw when I was running. We walked up to a corner place, protected with an iron fence on a busy street. An old man with an undersized gray t-shirt and baseball cap took our order. When the owner realized our native language was English, he started saying all of the phrases he knew in English to us – How are you? Do you want 1 of everything? I’m just kidding! He kept going on until a good 10 minutes later and 6 people in line behind us, we all had our food and could finally pay. Thankfully, we were in Puerto Rico, where everyone is a little more relaxed when employees decide to small talk with customers.

I was sinking my teeth into an 8-hour roasted chicken and soft, sweet plantains when I heard 2 sirens go off around the corner. Of course, I assumed there was a fire or emergency somewhere, but I was mistaken. It was only your typical daily, 10-car caravan complete with police lights and sirens. Today’s feature also included 8 Jeep Wranglers with stereos blasting reggaeton music and video vixens dancing with drinks and booty shorts on top of the seats. It looked straight out of a Daddy Yankee music video! Wild!

On the last night before making our way to TNT, we mentally prepared ourselves by watching a second U17 game against Cuba at 7:00pm. They unfortunately lost 1-2, but it was great to watch them fight nonetheless. Seeing those young girls representing Puerto Rico and playing their hearts out made me realize just how important our next game was in the history of soccer in Puerto Rico – La Isla de Encanta (the island of enchantment).

Day 5 – November 16:
We woke up at 3am to be at the airport by 4am for our flight from San Juan to Panama to TNT. I was a bit out of sorts considering the time change for the past few days, but I powered through it.

I was excited when I saw Starbucks’ and its newest holiday drinks. My tall cranberry white mocha (with real cranberries) and oatmeal with nuts, berries and brown sugar made my morning! One small treat in 12 days of training and games for myself was well worth it. And yes, of course, I popped the lid open and ate 3/4 of the whip cream topping!

We arrived in Panama at 8am and had a 4-hour layover until our next flight. After bathroom breaks and window shopping, we had a team lunch in the airport at “Margarita Ville” (minus the margaritas). After eating, we casually talked about everything – soccer, boyfriends, traveling, careers and more. I was a little apprehensive when the girls asked me about my family. Why don’t I speak Spanish fluently and how come I am never in Puerto Rico were questions I received. It was a long story, but we had time to spend. I spent a big chunk of my life trying to figure out why I never had the love of my father. Here is my personal story about finally finding peace.

Upon boarding the plane, I was looking forward to a special, culinary gift for Panama’s visitors to remember the beautiful country. To my dismay, the flight attendant proceeded to ask me if I preferred a beef Hot Pocket or a chicken empanada. Now, some may say, “But, Jackie, empanadas are amazing! What’s wrong with you? That is the special gift from Panama.” I would usually agree, except I saw the empanadas a few rows ahead. They were nothing but logs of 80% dough filled with chicken scraps. I opted for the Hot Pocket and hoped for the best. Of course, I was shocked again when I saw the bag of chips next to the aluminum foil wrapper. My arteries almost clogged as I read the flavor – bacon and cheese! And we wonder why 600 million people in the world are obese. I angrily put the heart attack chips back on my tray. However, a few minutes later, a very courteous man offered me a granola bar and saved the day! Shout out and thank you Trinidadian luxury car salesman!

The airport and surroundings were familiar as I had been there a few years before for games with the national team. We packed our suitcases and soccer bags in one small bus and hopped into another one. The seats were covered in plastic, the upper ceiling was lined with glowing neon lights and everything smelled like coconut spray. We all thought the bus was used for other reasons than simply transportation.

Driving to the hotel at night took more than 75 minutes. Seeing the houses and businesses for a second time in my life was still a cultural shock to me. The houses were either cement or made of miscellaneous metal pieces and surrounded by lush greens. The sidewalks were minimally finished and were only constructed when needed. Many of the homes had 6-foot-long wooden or metal planks to walk across over the moats separating the streets from the houses. The commercial buildings were different colors and had metal bars on almost all windows. There was also a tremendous amount of advertising to persuade customers to visit shops. Even Kim Kardashian (pictured below) made it onto the company’s banner.

Arriving at the hotel, we had to be very quiet in the lobby. I saw two men, who had bulging biceps and huge calf muscles. On a table were 2 championship belts that seemed pretty important. I glanced on one of the walls next to the Chinese decorations and saw a poster of 2 Muay Thai fighters – the same guys in the lobby! After a few minutes, there was a press conference of an upcoming fight between the two famous fighters from Trinidad and Brazil. Way cool!

Day 6 – November 17:
Having our second meal in the hotel, I thought we would have a bit more variety than the first day. However, every day our breakfast included cinnamon oatmeal (which was delicious), whole wheat or white slices of bread, eggs and a traditional Trinidadian dish. Sometimes it was fish coleslaw and other times it was fried meat. Nonetheless, I stuck with 2 pieces of non-toasted, whole grain bread with peanut butter, organic peppermint tea, a protein shake and an overflowing cup of oatmeal.

Training on the field later that morning was supposed to be motivational, but I was a little bummed. The grass was made of thick bunches that resembled mini banana leaves loosely dispersed all over the playing area. There were holes and uneven surfaces. Everyone kept saying it was Carribbean grass, but it felt so different. You can sort of see the huge blades I am describing next to our football boots in the team picture under Day 7.

Day 7 – November 18:
Game day against Guyana! You know those games that you have to win? The games with an opportunity to record the farthest qualification in history? The games that move your team up on the FIFA rankings list? This was that game. The whistle blew and it was time for business.

Someone threw an elbow at my face while sprinting into our box simply because I held my arm in front of her body to not let her pass. Having played soccer for 25 years, I am used to all sorts of physical and foul play, but this was a weird hate feeling that way passed unsportsmanlike conduct. I have played with and against players from around the world, and have never experienced such hate in soccer games as I have against caribbean opponents.

I explain this because a player during this game a Guyanese player blatantly hit me, causing me to have a concussion. I still have symptoms 7 weeks later. I remember there was a corner for Guyana. I marked my player by holding my arms wide so she could not pass me and made sure I held fair body contact the entire time. I do not remember exactly how, but she somehow grabbed my arms or shoulders and threw me down on the ground. I proceeded to stand up and made sure I was still goal-side of the ball. In doing so, I stopped the player as well. A few seconds passed, the ball was cleared out of the box and she muttered to me “I’ll get you back #4.”

There was a bouncing ball in our half around the 30 meter mark. I saw my center back and another Guyanese girl (the one who sought revenge in the first half) sprinting toward me as I jumped up to head the ball back to my keeper. While in the air, I headed the ball back to my keeper and braced for impact. I have never been hit in such a manner before, but this time was unlike any other. I got hit by the opposing player, spun around in the air and slammed to the ground. I am not sure on what part of the body I landed, but my head felt like it was spinning. I was not unconscious, but I could not stand up right away. I slowly came to one knee and (also being American and not letting the opponent see you sweat) forced myself to stand on 2 feet. I started walking to the left side of the field and could barely walk straight because I was so dizzy. I proceeded to slowly catch my breath and open my eyes, only to realize my eyes were crossed and I could not focus them. I stayed like that for 1 minute and was somewhat unaware of what was going on.

Needless to say, my headaches have not gone away since November 18. After this situation with the opponent, I am dumbfounded by the vengeful conduct of that individual player and the fact that the referees allowed many other situations to continue without penalty in the game.

The best moment of the game for me was before halftime. A cross came and somehow got through the defense and goalkeeper. Sprinting back into the 6-yard box, I bumped the striker to take her speed away and stay on the inside of her. Suddenly the ball came through and I found myself as the last man between the ball and a Guyana player. I slid with my right leg, which seemed like an Inspector Gadget leg, and cleared the ball off the goal line. We ended up winning the game and qualifying for the next games in February in Texas.

Day 8 – November 19:
At 7:00am, I was delighted to actually see 10 pieces of overripe papaya for the entire team. Coming from California and being an athlete, half of my plate is always filled with greens or fruit of some kind. This trip, we were offered fruits and vegetables on 2 or 3 occasions – this being one of them. So, this was definitely a treat.

The beginning of training was fun – I was imagining myself making penetrating passes and game-changing plays, as we started warming up directly next to the stadium. I was having headaches, so I did not train very much. I went back into the shade with another teammate to wait for the others.

After training was over, our manager was explaining to the bus driver the girls who trained would change into clean gear because of the rain and mud. I guess he did not understand because soon enough, our bus driver said he always has problems with Puerto Ricans.

Day 9 – November 20:
It was game day against TNT! Breakfast was planned at 8:00am, but since another team’s coaches were still drinking their tea and coffee, our coach did not want us to eat in the same room (also, I believe, according to the Caribbean Football Union rules of the tournament). We waited until 8:25am, only to notice another team going in for breakfast. So, again we waited until 8:55am to go into the breakfast room. I got my usual – 2 pieces of whole grain bread and peanut butter, tea and cup of oatmeal.

Playing at 7:00pm, the temperature was cooler, but I still felt I needed to drink an gargantuan amount of water during the day. My trusty electrolyte pills from Nuun kept my body feeling good. A morning workout and rolling out with my Trigger Point Grid X got my muscles ready for the game.

TNT scored early and after that the game was even ended. We had great counters and combination plays, but we could not find the back of the net. We lost 1-0, but still kept our heads high because we had qualified for the main tournament and achieved our main goal for this tournament.

Day 10 – November 21:
We had to leave 1:50am for the airport for our 4:00am check-in time for a 6:00am flight. As we tried to exit the hotel doors to load the bus with our luggage, the doorman would not unlock the door until the front desk checked all of our rooms. It took us around 75 minutes to get from the airport to the hotel the first day, but miraculously, we got to the airport in 25 minutes this morning. Did they want us extra tired from a “long” trip to the hotel before our games? Or, did they just want us to leave?

Arriving in Panama for our layover, we went to the same restaurant from five days earlier. I thought I could let loose and order a burger with fries, but that was a disaster. Never go to “Margarita Ville” at the Panama Airport! My burger meat was literally gray and did not resemble any type of food substance. My french fries tasted like I bought them in Puerto Rico 6 days earlier and kept them in my bag the entire trip. Finally, my chocolate milkshake was more like room temperature milk with a bit of chocolate syrup. I was glad I did not get sick.

Gathering our bags and walking outside the airport, we were greeted by a group of friends and family singing “Boriqua” (Puerto Rican) songs with drums! They are saying, “Yo soy boriqua, para tu lo sepas!” which means “I’m Puerto Rican just so you know it!” Of course I was a little sad that my family was not there, but I felt them in spirit. One family even made beautiful, delicious cupcakes for the entire team. They were amazing! If anyone is in the Gurabo area (by Caguas), visit the Sweet & Heavenly Café and try the guava cupcake!

Day 11 – November 22:
Today was the long haul to Germany. To get the Starbucks Puerto Rico coffee mug or not…that is the question. I did not get it. I figured I would be back with my boyfriend, showing him salsa, arañitas (fried plantains that look like a “spider”) and famous colorful doors in San Juan.

Once on board the first plane of the 24-hour trip home, I realized we would not receive any meals. Shout out to Carlos, a flight attendant on American Airlines. I met him on my flight to JFK. We started talking about soccer and he bought the USA women’s jersey for the past several years – major respect! He was not only kind enough to offer me a free cheese and crackers plate (the $9 one), but also a fruit and nuts bag for my next leg home. Shamazing!

Day 12 – November 23:
What is the worst thing that could happen in snowing, 28-degree weather? Realizing in Puerto Rico a few minutes before leaving for the airport that the remnants of my 2-day old protein shake spilled on my only sweatshirt and now smelled like rotten eggs. So, I was forced to travel in only a Nike training tee and leggings. Of course, I dealt with endless German comments of “O-ha” and “meine Gute” (my God) when I walked outside to the bus station. If they only knew the whole story.

Sitting at the Caffé Ritazza in the Berlin train station, I reflected on my trip and all the great memories. I went from 96 to 28 degrees in 24 hours after 4 plane and 3 bus rides. Sipping on my latte, I thought about how much I would miss the girls and the entire staff. I would miss making music by singing, clapping our hands and stomping our feet to our favorite songs. I would miss the happy and smiling spirits. I would miss how beautiful the Puerto Rican culture, people and island are. I connected with the girls and the culture on this trip and will be forever grateful. I am so thankful for every opportunity I have to gain memories, travel the world and do the one thing I love most – play soccer.

Arriving at the Erfurt train station, I was so thankful to be home and sleep in my own bed that night. When I walked into our living room, I saw a welcome home sign hanging from the ceiling over a Minions-decorated table with some good treats! Below are 4 donuts he had personalized! It was the sweetest!

A very special thanks to mamapic for all of the amazing action photos! It is great to have support so far from home.