I've been in Rio for a month now and I never want to leave. Here are some notes from my experience so far, and finally a place I can indulge in endless discussions with Patrick Wyman and TheFilt about supplements and weight training.
Jiu-jitsu was the primary reason to come to Brazil, but beaches were the actual reason I chose Rio over the other fine cities available. I got into MMA and martial arts in general through boxing although I had more of a background in krav maga. When I lived in Amsterdam I did a lot of kickboxing, but despite my love of striking arts, they have never come very naturally to me, and my persistence in trying them is borne primarily of my stubborn nature and a desire to be able to completely destroy to anyone who tries to hurt me or anyone I care about.
Prior to coming here I had never tried jiu-jitsu so I had no idea how much I would like it, but I decided that wasn't going to be a factor -- if I came here, I would study it for the full period of time I was here and learn as much as possible. As for the logistics of moving to Brazil for a few months, that part was easy: I've spent the last few years designing my life to allow for maximum freedom and I made the ability to move around and live in different countries my #1 priority. I only mention this because a lot of people want to know how to finance a trip like this, and the truth is that I don't know how to do it if you consider it "taking a break" from your normal life. But I do have a full-time job with a lot of flexibility.
Despite coming here expressly for the purpose of learning jiu-jitsu and in general not being afraid of trying anything new, ever, I spent the first week sitting around on the beach reading, enjoying the sunshine, and feeling a vague but perpetual undercurrent of apprehension about walking into a gym for the first time. How stupid would I look? Would I be the only woman? I've had the ability to speak mediocre Portuguese for years, but would I be able to communicate with anyone? By the fifth day I told myself to stop being a coward and the next day I decided to go sit in on a class at the gym a block away. It was only a little awkward -- when a tall girl in a dress comes and sits down and watches a 1.5h long class nobody is really sure why she's there and I got a lot of confused glances -- but afterwards I talked to one of the instructors about hours, costs, and purchasing a gi, and the next day I went for my first class. Surprisingly, this is still one of the best classes I've had so far and I think that's because it involved falling in love. They pulled me off to the side to show me how to do rolls correctly, how to do that weird hip shimmy floor movement, and some basic guard poses, and then I got to try my hand at grappling for the first time. I felt like this:
But hey man I TRANE UFC so I immediately channeled my inner Honda Housey and attempted the only move I knew how to do, which I managed to succeed at since the purple belt I was working with was taking it VERY easy on me. Like, me playing chess with a five year old easy. After that, he said he wasn't going to take it as easy and I almost got the armbar again, but in retrospect, I wish somebody -- anybody -- had told me not to do that. Because now I regularly encounter white belts who were just like me on that first day and cringe. Recently I was rolling with a very aggressive white belt who is as new (or newer), but he acts like it is actually a UFC fight. He armbarred me during a guard passing drill(!) and then did not let go when I tapped(!!) I am what you might charitably describe as "hot-tempered", so I cursed him out, spent one minute calming down, then triangled him. If you're going to go for a submission, fucking pay attention and be on the lookout for taps.
I was already in pretty good shape because of boxing, kickboxing, hot yoga, and swimming, but it took me some time to get used to the gi (and summer heat) and I was totally blasted after the first few classes. I also have low blood pressure so I am prone to dizziness and near-fainting after immediate cessation of intense exercise or any kind of rapid "level" change (i.e., going from sitting to standing when my heart rate is high), so having to stand against the wall after grappling during those first few sessions was kind of scary, but I increased the amount of salt in my diet and began using applied tension techniques and this mostly disappeared.
In terms of what I've learned so far, it feels like the answer is "not much" -- but that is relative to what there remains to learn, not relative to my beginning state. I've also been partner dancing basically since childhood, so jiu-jitsu felt immediately more intuitive to me than boxing or kickboxing ever did, but an interesting negative influence of that is that I am way too accustomed to following -- if my partner wants to put me somewhere, my immediate instinct is to let them1. That said, my self-defense reactions are very good, so if I'm with a sufficiently aggressive partner, I rise to the occasion -- but if I'm not, I have no idea how to lead.
Part of this is related to not understanding when we're doing guard passing drills and when we're just genuinely grappling, but if I'm not going for a submission and my partner is one of those zen masters who waits to let someone do something stupid before owning the shit out of them (you all know someone like this), then I basically sit there. I felt a lot of sympathy for Gina Carano when I got mount recently because the guy didn't try to change positions and I had to ask someone "now what do I do?"
Because of my size I never get to grapple with any of the women in my classes. A 5'11" spazzy muscular white belt is not who you pair with a 5'3" Brazilian woman -- not because of their inability to win (they would win) but because of the likelihood I would cause damage by doing something stupid. So they pair me with these extremely hardy guys, many of whom are not used to grappling with women simply because a lot of women don't come in my size. Some of them clearly don't give a shit -- I had an extraordinary roll with an aggressive brown belt the other day -- but some of them really hold back out of either fear of hurting me or inability to take me seriously. Plus they are SO freaked out about accidental boob grabs.
I also do boxing pretty regularly (usually 2x/week). My coach is a sadistic and talented bastard of whom I am deeply enamored (as a student, that is). The main difference I've found in sparring in my boxing class vs. sparring in jiu-jitsu is that while the men may not be punching me as hard, they make a sincere and undisguised effort to punch me in the face as often as possible. I appreciate this.
In both arts I have one primary issue: I'm a shitty sparring partner and I think I know why. I'd like to recruit BE members to help me out here. I have two problems:
1. I am simply not offensive enough. My killer instinct only manifests when I am actually in danger, but it is a stupid idea to pull a Bendo and allow myself to fall into bad positions just so I can get back out of them. Is there a way to improve this at all? I don't think I will ever become a natural aggressor, but I need to learn how to push the pace and quickly capitalize on any dominance I find. I've noticed especially in jiu-jitsu that sometimes you just have astounding chemistry with the person that allows you to be the best current version of yourself and your abilities, but that isn't something you can try to rely on. You have to be able to create it.
2. I can't remember moves and combinations. Part of this may be a simple language barrier issue -- I noticed during kickboxing classes in Amsterdam that I couldn't keep up with anyone counting because the numbers didn't actually mean anything to me, even though I knew them. In boxing I noticed this improving somewhat simply because I am becoming so attuned to my coach's voice that if he says "jab, jab, direito, gancho" I know what to do almost without thinking, but as soon as I'm even slightly fatigued I begin getting really confused. I don't mind this so much when it's me throwing the punches, but I don't want to screw up when I'm on the receiving end of combination drills because that is really fucking irritating for the other person. As for jiu-jitsu, I simply cannot remember how to do the moves after seeing them a few times -- are there any mental tricks I can do to keep them in short-term memory long enough to try them out without asking an instructor to come over? I assume this is something that will naturally improve over time, but I believe a concerted effort will improve it more quickly.
Eating properly is one of my biggest challenges. I train at least 5x/week and often up 7 or 8 and I hate eating. This is an example of what I eat in a day:
Breakfast: 2 hardboiled eggs, 2 cups of coffee, a bunch of water, some vitamins if I remember
Lunch: Protein shake (1 scoop of whey protein, 1 tbsp glutamine, 1 banana, 1/2c açai juice, 1tbsp slivered almonds, 2tbsp oats, coconut juice)
Recovery shake: water, 1 scoop of whey protein, 1 tbsp glutamine
Dinner: large salad (lettuce, tomatoes, olives, homemade dressing w/ mayo, olive oil, salt, pepper, lime juice), 2 grilled chicken breasts
Evening snack: either a banana, some strawberries, or a handful of almonds.
Is that anywhere near enough food? It looks to me like it's probably not. To the extent that I have any specific body (re)composition goals, they are probably the same ones most people have: add muscle, reduce fat. Other than my height I am a pretty normal size.
Life in Rio
At this point I have "lived" in a lot of different countries and I think Brazil is my favorite so far. I didn't feel any culture shock -- there are enough elements here that resemble where and how I was raised that it felt more familiar than exotic, especially after spending so much time in Europe -- but there are still some quirky things that make me smile. The consumption of coconut juice directly from green coconuts is so common that, as far as I can tell, they have their own recycling division and trucks. People sit outside all night, every night, in plastic chairs around plastic tables drinking beer and playing music, and if you are like me and derive great pleasure from talking to locals, they will probably play any song you request.
1 I still go dancing regularly -- at least once per week, but usually twice (forró and salsa, if anyone's curious) -- and despite having already been a pretty good dancer, one month of jiu-jitsu has actually vastly improved my skills in terms of general body, leverage, spatial, and signal awareness. I think boxing improved my footwork though.