Category Archives: Travel

Searching for Jiu-Jitsu in South America

Peru

Circumstances conspired against me to train any Jiu-Jitsu in Peru. Straight from the plane in Lima my first port of call was Renzo Gracie Lima. Unfortunately, my flight was delayed for two hours in Bogota, Colombia. This killed my plans, dead.

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Whilst waiting for a taxi I met a young dude who’d been on the same flight and going to the same hostel; sharing a cab, it came up that we also shared the same home town, Macclesfield, in what was a rather bizarre coincidence. Although any affection for the young gentlemen evaporated quickly. Whilst I was dozing off, he burst enthusiastically into the dorm room enquiring if he could use the bunk to sample old charley. Apparently the toilets and showers were already overcrowded with like-minded souls becoming acquainted with Peru’s infamous marching powder.

Things soured even further when I was violently pulled from my slumber after being hit from the bunk above with, what I discovered was a stinky-ass sock. To make matters worse, he was clearly engaging in a coke-addled act of penetration with, some hapless female. I resisted the immediate urge to pull him from the bed above and choke him into a sock-less slumber. I drifted back off, hoping he remained as flaccid as a marshmallow that had been left in the bath overnight.

I arrived in the city of Cusco for the culmination of a lifetime’s dream, visiting Machu Picchu.

On the Jiu-Jitsu front, I had sourced the one and only MMA academy in the city, but as luck would have it, they were in the process of moving locations and currently not open.

Upon reflection, I was actually saved some discomfort. Cusco sits at 3,400 metres above sea level; I literally had to suck in the air required to fill my lungs.

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The struggle for oxygen resulted in a couple of instances of my body failing me. The first occurred after leaving the shower; I felt incredibly light-headed, my legs gave in and I fell over. The floor wasn’t wet, my body had just decided it needed to be off its feet. Fortunately, there was no one around to revel in my embarrassment.

I was not afforded the same privacy for the second occasion. Just twenty minutes later I left the hostel. As I walked downhill, the same light headed sensation struck me, my legs buckled and I came a cropper. I bounced up with all the gusto I could muster before any concerned onlookers could offer me assistance or their pity and moved quickly to find pizza. My lungs really struggled to acquire enough oxygen to feed my brain, I have a feeling that a session of Jiu-Jitsu would have ended on the wrong side of Snooze City.

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The aim of the trip, visiting Machu Picchu, fell victim to my own inadequate planning. This did indeed suck. Whilst I’d booked the tickets for the (apparently) awe-inspiring Incan citadel, I had not booked train tickets to get there, which was seemingly essential. When I came to do this (the night before!) the only tickets that remained, necessitated me leaving the site before I set off to get there. I pondered it, and concluded that would be an issue.

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My final two days in Peru after a return to Lima happened to be national holidays, so no Jiu-Jitsu!

Colombia

The city of Cali, in Colombia proved to be somewhat more fruitful for getting my Jiu-Jitsu on. Whilst Jiu-Jitsu is still very much in its infancy there, I did find a number of clubs. I was initially looking to train during the day, but there were no spots offering day classes. But, in my quest, I had been in communication with a Cali based blue belt called Andreas, who trained at MMA academy, Striking Fitness. He kindly offered to open up the gym to train together.

The midday heat threatened to fry me into a patacon, thus I was more than happy at the suggestion of No-Gi. My new friend knew no English, I knew no Spanish, yet in-between rounds, we managed to discuss an array of subjects: Jiu-Jitsu, life in Colombia, his passion for dogs and women with long black hair. Andreas explained to me that the academy was run by a purple belt which was the highest rank in the city, you had to go all the way to Colombia’s capital, Bogota to find any brown and black belts.

After the session, he insisted on walking me home. He was convinced, that I would find myself at the mercy of the nefarious elements that are omnipresent in the city, who would look to exploit a lost and dopey looking gringo, he was probably right too!

Venturing out of the city, I took a visit to the town of San Cipriano, which was a small shanty-town, which attracts native Colombians and tourists alike for its crystal clear river than runs through the jungle. There was absolutely no Jiu-Jitsu, but like everywhere else I visited in Colombia, there was ample opportunity to get your salsa on.

Entrance to the town could not be made by road. The first step in reaching it was a Temple of Doom-esque footbridge, needless to say, I feared for my life, fortunately I was not met by a scary bald man screaming in Hindi. Looking down, there were no alligators awaiting my fall either, but there was certainly a great deal of pain from a lengthy drop through the plethora of missing planks.

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The second stage in this mission to get into town necessitated the use of interesting contraptions, called Brujitas. They were essentially a motorbike powered vehicle affixed to a sheet of plywood with some seats on it, which ran along a train track. I was rather concerned as this bad-boy picked up speed with me sat one cheek hanging off the edge. From this point, I held on for dear life, with visions of being thrown off and having my head ran over like Bryan Harvey.

I spent the afternoon exploring the river on an inner tube, drifting leisurely on the water watching the picturesque jungle scenery roll by. There were no Indy style waterfall drops, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. I came upon some rapids, albeit small ones, and was spun around backwards. Without the ability of being able to see what was ahead, it came as an unpleasant surprise when I hit the branches of a tree, and was thrown from the tube and pulled under. In my usual melodramatic fashion, I felt death via drowning was imminent, I flapped around uncontrollably for a second or two, prior to realising that I could actually stand! The real tragedy of the situation, I’d been wearing my Cons around my neck, they were soaked; I had to squelch around rocking wet kicks for the rest of day.

The next Jiu-Jitsu based stop was, Gracie Barra Cali, taking part in their weekly open-mat. During a week devoid of training, I had  eaten and drank with a reckless ill regard for the prospect of any serious athletic endeavor. Thus rolling 5×8 minute rounds was the ultimate test of inner fortitude. By the second round I was dying, by the third I was just working very diligently to suppress the vomit! The heat was incredibly oppressive, it had been eight months since I’d been to war in that kind of temperature. I spent the rest of the day walking around in a Jiu-Jitsu inflicted haze, happy yet a little confused.

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The immaculate academy I discovered had only been in existence for less than a month. Opened as a joint venture by friends and all round awesome dudes, Rafael Diazgranados and Richie Panchalo, blue and purple belts respectively, they had joined the Gracie Barra banner after their small independent team had dissolved. I was thoroughly honored shaking hands at the climax of the session to be asked to come back and teach a class the following Wednesday.

I have to admit, I never thought that I would find myself teaching at a Barra school, much less in South America. Nevertheless, I was privileged to find myself doing so. There was a much larger crowd than my first visit, a real hodgepodge of students, with varying degrees of experience, some Gi clad, others going No-Gi, older guys and athletic young competitors. In an effort accommodate all, I taught a passing system that I’d stole off my dude, Darragh O Conaill.

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I had to be translated; my aspiring Spanish had not quite reached the necessary level yet. I did a lot of smiling and shouting “Osssss” with extreme vigor, to get my point across successfully. Again, the rolling was tough, in particular a huge bear like blue belt whose base was so strong it felt akin to sweeping a tree. I had just spent the few days prior in the Colombian Andes at the beautiful coffee town of Salento, during my visit I’d practically lived off their next-level delicious peanut butter based produce. During the rolling, I found myself profusely sweating peanut oil, whilst attempting not to pass out in a herculean effort against the aforementioned blue belt.

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Spending time with Rafael and Richie, one could not help but be intoxicated by their love and enthusiasm for Jiu-Jitsu. They had sought to create an atmosphere where they could express, what they felt was the true BJJ lifestyle, one that was not dependent on athleticism or competition but one which was grounded in inclusion, the idea that Jiu-Jitsu is for absolutely everyone. Looking around at the academy that night, I would say they had already achieved it.

Tales From The Dead: Part Two

A Return to the Dead?

On the day of the second ceremony, to say that I was anxious would be a gross understatement. I was completely terrified of going to that place again. As a result, I erred on the side of moderation for probably the first time in my life. I took slightly less of the vile mixture and attempted to relax, meditating while it began to take hold.

When the ‘medicine’ kicked in, that familiar sensation of nausea returned, to minimise my suffering I forced myself into purging. I hadn’t been thrown through the wall of consciousness, so I was able to make it to the toilet by my own power. Given the choice, I was all about puking in private. Vomiting three feet away from another person’s head was just too weird.

I began what was a light psychedelic experience. There were some mild visuals, shapes morphing into animals but my consciousness remained firmly rooted in reality and there was no return to the dead.

At the point that everyone began to purge, I sat in the dark, forced to listen and watch dudes vomit. It felt like an unbelievably bizarre way to spend one’s evening. I was reminded of the opening scene from ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, and I was De Niro lying in the opium den, except for the fact that everyone around me was ejecting the contents of their stomachs with an unparalleled ferocity. I didn’t appreciate this revelation, it felt somewhat dirty.

In this conscious state, I also felt like I was prying on those around me. My new friends were visibly dealing with some very difficult and personal issues, and I unwillingly had a front-row seat.

Listen to the Flower People

Witnessing, and indeed taking part, in this ancient religious ceremony was fascinating. Akin to most religious practices, it certainly appeared ridiculous; the incessant blowing of cigarette smoke, spitting aftershave, and singing songs taught by flowers. My own feelings towards the ineffectual nature of these practices did not dampen my enjoyment, however. The icaros (‘magic’ songs) of shamans, Estella and Antonio, were a joy to behold. I would happily sit and listen to them minus the pomp and the psychedelic.

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Estella unleashed rapid fire lyrics like Big Pun when he was, “Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know that we riddled two middlemen who didn’t do diddly”, intermittently switching to a deep and raspy flow that was Lauren Hill-esque, before dropping her voice to an unearthly vocal quiver that would be un-replicable, by Biz Markie himself. Then, without warning, male shaman Antonio would cut in like Mike D and start to do his thing with this incredible voice that sounded five hundred years old.

I had no idea what they were saying, but if the flowers gave them the lyrics, I would go out on a limb and say it was plant based. There were multiple times over the course of the evening where I wanted to arise from my mattress and start to chop it up, but it felt akin to dancing at a Catholic mass so I resisted the urge.

Down with the Sickness

After the genuine fear prior to the ceremony, I was actually disappointed that I didn’t experience the death. Thus to begin the third ceremony, I drank two thirds of a glass of ayahuasca. Far from returning to the dark depths of the first ceremony, I had a whole other experience. I spent the entire night in the throes of extreme sickness. When it kicked in, I had severe nausea which wouldn’t let up, no matter how many times I vomited, which was a lot! Strangely, I also acquired flu-like symptoms in addition to constipation.

There was no escape from it, everything around me was making me feel worse. The tobacco smoke that was constantly being blown in my face caused me extreme displeasure. I wanted to scream ‘stop blowing this cancerous poison at me you sadistic bastards’, but I felt far too sick to muster up the effort. It felt like going to the doctors completely healthy and being administered with a stomach bug and flu combo, then being forced to smoke a pack of cigarettes in lieu of a prescription.

It was a thoroughly horrible way to spend five hours of my life – I decided never, ever to repeat it. I saw little benefit in bringing this level of discomfort on myself again.

The sole highlight came when I felt a thought leave my head. Not in a metaphorical sense, the thought distinctly popped out and floated away. I began to ponder whether it was possible for a thought to physically leave a person, and if it did would it have its own consciousness? Where did it go? And once the thought had left, would a person still have ownership over it?

This line of thinking led directly to an epistemological study into my own beliefs. As I lay, I traced my thoughts on a range of issues backwards to their genesis. It occurred to me that, whilst I claim to be rational and sceptical, I believed some silly things for a variety of unfounded reasons. This ended up becoming a long and arduous task, yet thoroughly worthwhile as I managed to rubbish some deeply held stupidity and banish it forever.

Level 10 on the Woo-Woo Scale

My journey with ayahuasca was a memorable experience. But was it a positive and was I healed? Well, I am not sure how much healing I actually needed in the first place. I did enjoy the deeply introspective aspect of it, and it highlighted a number of areas for me to think about. It even forced me to completely 180 on a couple of things that I once believed.

The highlight of my time at the centre was the wonderful people that I was able to meet and befriend, a real eclectic mix of age, occupation, social class, ethnicity and beliefs. I felt privileged to spend time with cats that under other circumstances, I would never have had the opportunity to interact with.

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Everybody had an intriguing story and their own reasons that had lead them to the Amazon. For example, second-in-command at the centre had given up an acting career and abandoned Los Angeles for the jungle. He had pursued his dream of helping people through ayahuasca, as he himself had been transformed by it. These truly amazing people opened up about their lives in ways that I would never feel comfortable, which in itself has given me something to look at.

The issue that I had with the experience as a whole was the complete lack of a scientific basis. There were a lot of claims made by people who were not nearly qualified enough to make them, and there was the propagation of woo-woo on a grand scale.

Ayahuasca was not a magic wand that could cure you of all ills, physical and psychological. Current research has shown potential benefits in treating psychological issues, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest it can heal physical ailments. Voicing the belief as fact, that it could cure anything from cancer to athlete’s foot, was dangerous bullshit.

Some of those who visited the centre had serious issues, and I felt like they were being sold magic beans in the form of healing plant spirits. These people needed to be empowered. If any ‘healing’ was to take place, it was on each individual person working through their problems.

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This is not to say it was a swindle,  far from it. The centre itself was picturesque in every sense, the staff were wonderful and I could have lived off their food forever. The owner, had the best intentions and wanted to help those under his care. The problem was, he was not qualified to do so, and I don’t believe that in a position of power you should be filling desperate people’s minds with ‘facts’ which are easily refutable by a seven-year-old with an active command of a keyboard.

The research shows that there is something in this, I just think it needs to be made a secular experience, rooted in science. I also think it would be more fun, doing it in a field, on a sunny day with a group of your close friends, close enough that they wouldn’t be averse to an accidental spray of vomit.

Tales From The Dead: Part One

Vine of the Dead

My trip to Peru, was principally based around a journey into the Amazon to take part in a series of ayahuasca ceremonies. Ayahuasca or ‘vine of the dead’ is, in the words of, author and psychedelic proponent, Chris Killham:

“a fluid plant-based psychoactive potion indigenous to the Amazon rainforest, is the only combinatory vision-inducing agent in the world. That is to say, it takes more than just one plant to make the brew. Prepared from the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi and, most commonly, the leaf Psychotria viridis, ayahuasca is a healing agent, a portal to the spirit world, and an enigma that has baffled and intrigued scientists and anthropologists for centuries. The use of ayahuasca among Amazon native people likely dates back over two thousand years”

Natives to the Amazon who take part in rituals based on the ingestion of this ‘medicine’, believe that it can cure a range of issues both physical and psychological. The ceremonies are led by shamans, who, in theory have had years, even decades of experience working with these plants. They facilitate the healing through the singing songs or ‘icaros’, which apparently have been taught to them by the plants themselves, during times of extreme isolation deep in the jungle. The shamans, supposedly invite the plant spirits into the ceremony and draw out any nefarious spirits that have buried themselves within a person, perhaps as a result of a cursing. They, then work in accordance with the ‘medicine’ to heal a person.

Why was I here giving any credence to what sounds like bollocks of the highest order? Well, recent research , while still in its infancy, has shown promising results, in using ayahuasca to treat persons suffering from a range of psychological issues such as depression and addiction. Fortunately, I find myself devoid of these issues, however, I am a fan of psychedelic wanderings and the introspective gifts they can produce and this was literally the Grand Daddy or more appropriately the Mother (Nature) of them all!

No Sex, No Coffee

After being picked up at the hostel in Iquitos, a port city in the Peruvian Amazon, we battled through torrential rain in our quest to enter the jungle. On more than one occasion, I believed that death was imminent, due to the manic drivers around us, giving less than a shit that visibility was at absolute zero. Arriving, at the picturesque centre,  deep within the jungle, we had a chance to get to know the guys we would be sharing the next five days with. There were some interesting cats: scientists, musicians, free-spirits, actors, and artists. From the offset it became abundantly clear that I had the wrong idea about this experience. Whilst some of the literature I’d read was a little “woo-woo” in nature, most of the testimonies were from rational and secular types, that had taken part due to an interest in psychedelics. But what I was presented with, was every single New-Age sensibility one could imagine, individuals who would quite happily extol the virtues of homeopathic medicine and the significance of star signs.

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We were offered a special ‘plant dieta’, which would supposedly make one more receptive to the ayahuasca, and aid with the ‘healing’. I was immediately sceptical of this, after being informed that the plant dieta would require you to refrain not only sex, but any physical contact with one another. No red meat and no caffeine; my issue was the lack of sound reasoning for any of this, it all revolved around ‘negative-energies’. No brushing your teeth with Colgate, no deodorant and no chemical based bug spray; there were a lot of freaking mosquitoes! I was not prepared to be a stinky-ass dude, bitten up to shit, sporting yellow teeth by the end of the week.

A Little Vomit Amongst Friends

The first ceremony commenced a few hours after arriving. Sat in a circle on our own individual mattresses, within a large and beautiful moloka (ceremonial hut), we went up three at a time to receive the ayahuasca. Upon my turn, I was presented with this obnoxious black liquid, incomparable with anything I’ve ever consumed, it tasted like poison! I drank just over half a glass, fortunately, it was possible to keep it down without invoking a gag reflex.

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After about fifteen minutes, I started to have some mild visuals, there appeared to be smoke hanging above the entire moloka.  I attempted to maintain an upright posture, however when female shaman, Estella began singing her icaros, I began to feel incredibly nauseous. It felt thoroughly bizarre, having a bucket next to the mattress that in a room full of people, I was supposed to puke into. I really did not want to be the first to purge (the term used for the vomiting). I eventually had to force my fingers down my throat to release me from this cell of nausea. Whilst satisfied with the outcome, I started to feel a creeping weirdness over my entire body. Then things went off like a bomb. I just remember not being able to get to my bucket quickly enough as foamy sick exploded from my mouth, with the force of a pyroclastic flow, in what truly was an involuntary purge.

Embracing Death

It was also very difficult to conceptualise what came next, a lot of it was irretrievably lost. The experience was fully out of my control. Immediately, I didn’t want to be there. I felt like I’d been punched through the centre of the planet. I felt as if death was upon me. I was terrified and consumed with the feeling of leaving everyone behind, I felt their pain and was heartbroken by it. Yet, this did not last for long, something about it felt very familiar, I quickly made peace with death’s approach, which in-turn dissolved any feelings of fear; in-fact it felt comfortable and warm. Interestingly, post-ceremony, my own fear of death, which had previously run rampant over my thoughts has completely disappeared.

I was pulled from this feeling of warmth and had all sense of self ripped violently from me, I was there, I was conscious, but I had no idea who I was or where I was. I was trapped in a state of unknowing. I felt as if my consciousness was fading into the blackness before briefly returning into a state of confusion. It felt like I had been choked into unconsciousness. Anyone familiar with that feeling will understand that when you come round, you are not really sure what has occurred and it takes a while to grasp reality. The difference here was that it happened to me continuously. I would come round and have this inescapable feeling that I had committed a horrific act and was locked in a prison cell. I could not fathom what it was, I had actually done, but the awful feeling of letting people down attacked me without respite.

I Am Who I Am

My fear and confusion suddenly subsided when something spoke to me and said:

“You are, who you always thought you were”

I thought about it and agreed, ‘Oh yeah, I am’!

It seemed rather profound at the time.  After this I started to come round and reality began to interject itself into the experience. I became very happy, although, I have no idea why. I lay there smiling for the rest of the ceremony. My jaw hurt as I had a large Jack Nicholson-esque grin spread across my face for close to three hours.

During this time a message kept coming to me over and over again that ‘Nothing exists outside of the present moment’, considering that I spend my entire existence outside of the present moment, this was definitely something to be pondered over.

Pseudoscience 101

I awoke without a traditional comedown, although reality did seem a touch skewed, I was quite happy to drink my chamomile tea and stare off into the distance for prolonged periods. The day after the ayahuasca ceremony was set aside for relaxing and reflecting on the experience, I was seriously thankful for this, as the thought of putting that poison back in my body was enough to make my stomach do gymnastics.

The opportunity for reflection or in my case reading about the eccentricities of Bobby Fisher was cut short when the day began with a debate, which essentially boiled down to scientists vs. the enemies of science. The London born, owner of the centre, was espousing conspiratorial silliness which was anathema to the German scientists, who could not help but counter with objective facts. We were treated to such fallacious and offensive nonsense such as ‘Big pharma was profiting from keeping people ill’, ‘Chemotherapy was being used to kill people’. Not forgetting, psychics exist, and miraculous healing take place, including a woman who had been constipated for twenty years, and ayahuasca had seemingly set the faeces flowing! Everything was based upon anecdotal evidence, and any conclusions founded on means-tested science had to have an agenda.

For my scientist friends, I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was the proselytising of popular spiritual and self-help guru, Eckhart Tolle, and his importance being ranked above that of the father of analytical psychology, Carl Jung. This blockade of idiocy, combined with the fact that neither of them had a positive first ceremony, led the couple to make the decision to leave. This really sucked, I had intended to spend the entire time questioning them about every single thing that I could think of. I felt a really strong urge to go with them…

Part two coming in a few days