In 2004, as a relatively new purple belt in BJJ, I decided to make my first trip to Brazil. This trip coincided with the Mundial de Jiu Jitsu- the world championships of BJJ in the heartland. This was the toughest jiu jitsu tournament in the world, and I was going to compete in it. However, an even more compelling reason to visit was that I was also going to be able to train BJJ at the source.
The timing was right for me in the summer of 2004. I was able to save some money by working a lot of hours in the restaurant I had been at since 1997 or so. My instructor and friend, Eric Burdo, and I were excited to make the “pilgrimage”, something perceived as necessary for any serious practitioner of jiu jitsu. Eric had a friend down there who was going to let us stay with him for virtually no money the entire time we were there. We were all set with a plan. But we had to get there first, and that was a lot harder than it might seem.
First, we worked super hard to be sure we got the lowest fare possible. We ended up flying down with brol.com for $750 round trip, which was really cheap even back then. Then we needed to get our passports. We needed photos for the passports, so we went to Rite Aid or something like that to get them printed. Then, we took the passports to the post office to have the pictures we had taken put on an identification form that serves as your passport. After that, we needed our visa. You need this in order to travel to Brazil, but not to most countries- typically, a passport is enough. A visa actually requires a letter of recommendation from the country, inviting you to compete.
We came up to DC twice because of that Visa, driving up from Richmond both times. It was a pretty crappy drive. You can imagine how irritated we were the first time only to get there five minutes after they had closed for the day. The second time, it took, though. We were all set to fly.
When we arrived in Brazil, Burdo’s friend met us in town, by the beach. It turns out that the town we were staying in was called Niteroi. It was an hour away from Copacabana by drive, and Copacabana was everywhere we wanted to be. That kind of sucked. We learned a quick lesson that Rio is huge, and you should be careful about where you’re staying. Be sure it’s close to where you’re doing stuff. We spent at least 3 hours commuting back and forth every day for the 2 weeks we were there, because the bus was slow, and the other alternative was taking a ferry across the water, and the ferry was even slower than the bus.
The tournament required ID cards. We got our pictures taken, and were issued ID’s. These had to be with us to get into the tournament. Note that this isn’t something that was advertised on the American version of the website; it was kind of a surprise for both of us. However, we were determined to compete, so we jumped through a few hoops in order to be able to compete. My first match was with an American, Steve Kim. Steve has very technical jiu jitsu- I had actually faced him a couple of years earlier when we were both blue belts. I didn’t really appreciate that 2 of the only Americans in the division (there were probably 70 competitors in our division, purple middle) were paired off in the first round- we found that suspiciously convenient, in fact- but I was focused on competing. Nevertheless, Steve had the better game plan, and he beat me on points. That was it; I was out. The adrenaline dump left me exhausted for the weekend, but not too exhausted to enjoy some of the best tournament jiu jitsu I’ve ever witnessed, in person or otherwise.
I took the rest of the time to enjoy training at Ricardo de la Riva’s academy in Copacabana. We trained with De la Riva five days, then with Marcelo Alonso on a couple days. De la Riva showed slick jiu jitsu, and we rolled with black belts. It was great. One thing that influenced my teaching style was the amount of techniques De la Riva showed: one per day. Each technique built off the previous day’s technique or related to it by position. This concept of learning via intensive positional study was entirely new to me, and I’m glad I could experience it from a living legend at his academy.
Outside of the gym, I had a few interesting experiences. One in particular is easy to relate, and might be helpful: I was out in the street where we were staying, making a phone call to the US. The cops started following me when I was going from one phone to another, trying to find one that worked. They then approached me and asked if I was selling drugs (in Portuguese, of course). I explained that I didn’t even speak Portuguese, but no, I certainly wasn’t there to sell drugs. They had hands on their guns at their hips, and one guy decided to take a peek down my shorts (presumably to see if I was hiding drugs there). Eventually, they found my “Brazilian Portuguese for Travelers” book, and I was free to go. Lesson learned: don’t be afraid to let the cops know you’re clueless! I was really glad when they left me alone after that.