An Article by Mark Mullen
Back in 2009, I wrote a brief article about my first trip to train BJJ in Rio de Janeiro. That first article generated a decent amount of comments and so, 4 years later after another trip to Brazil, here’s Part 2!
On my most recent trip I stayed for 2 months.
Most people who have trained BJJ have wondered what a trip to train in Brazil would be like. Most of the questions were in one of two categories:
- “How much does it cost?”
- “I heard that it was dangerous there!”
1) “How much does it cost?”
This is a difficult question to answer as each person may insist on a different standard of spending / comfort. People on a 10 day trip will likely spend more each day (and also have a greater need to see it all during their briefer stay) than someone staying for 6 months.
That said, here is roughly what I spent:
Flight from North America – $1300
I was starting in Alberta, Canada. The cheapest flight I found was through a travel agent and I flew United to Houston and then into Rio. Total flight time was close to 15 hours in the air.
I also arranged for a private driver to come pick me up at the airport
Accommodations – $1000 / month
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An hour by bus from Copacabana and Ipanema, Barra is home to the original Gracie Barra Academy and the highly respected Gordo Jiu-jitsu (see related article about training with Gordo).
My room was basic (but comfortable) and located upstairs in a large, shared house. I had a desk from which to work on my laptop, WIFI (of highly variable up time) a small refrigerator, air con unit and I shared a bathroom and shower with another private room.
Staying at CR was a cool experience to meet people from all over the world (Kazakhstan, Russia, Jordan, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, UK…). The CR location also had an in ground pool and BBQ that made times after training enjoyable.
If you’re on a budget (like several who were staying longer term ) they also had the shared hostel type rooms that were quite economical in price. If you need more room and privacy, a private room or booking an apartment is the best option.
One of the intangible things about CR was that they actually replied to my email enquiries – something that was frustrating in trying to arrange an apartment with some other web sites.
Training – $100 for 2 months / 3 x a week at Gracie Barra
Training 3 times a week at one of the top academies in the world cost me $380 Brazilian Real a month (a little less than $100 USD a month). Most of the other foreigners there were on shorter trips and wanted to train 2 x a day to get in as much mat time as possible. The rate would be higher but still affordable.
Gracie Barra was located on the top floor of a fitness club (you could see the ocean from the mats!) and located in a cool area of Barra with many little shops, restaurants, sucos bars and places to have an acai and people watch after training.
Fresh fruit was cheap at the supermarket – bananas and papaya for breakfast.
Lunch at a “per kilo” restaurant close to the academy cost approx $8 and consisted of chicken breasts, rice, beans and salad.
Acai was $3 – $6 per cup/bowl and I doubt I went a single day without it.
Dinner at a locals type of restaurant was $10-$15 and more.
Clothing like T-shirts or kimonos were not good deals. You probably won’t find may bargains on gear.
Misc expenses – Bottle service in the VIP or coconut in a beach chair…it is all highly variable and up to you
2) “I heard that it’s dangerous there!”
Most people’s imagination of the violence in Brazil has been fuelled by movies like “City of God” and “Elite Force”.
My simple answer is that the world is not as dangerous as it appears in movies and the sensationalistic news.
The thefts and attempted muggings occur mostly in the touristy areas – and this is the same in most parts of the world where tourists congregate and hustlers of various types look for an opportunity to make easy money.
Most stories that I have heard from other travelers who have had bad experiences start the same way “Well, it was 3am, I was really drunk and decided to take a shortcut home after the bar closed…”
The beach areas in Copacabana and Ipanema are patrolled by police and I could see the efforts of the Rio authorities to make the touristy areas more safe in anticipation of the coming World Cup and Olympics in 2016.
During my 2 months I spoke with dozens of fellow gringos and not a single one had any incident of theft or other street crime.
Tips to Enjoy training in Rio
1) Stay close to where you train
Rio de Janeiro is a huge sprawling city with mountains closely bordering the ocean – which translates to narrow highways and absolutely crippling traffic everyday. To get from Barra (where I was staying) to the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema required a bus ride punctuated by many stops and starts.
I met a few hardcore BJJ’ers staying in the same accommodation as me who took the bus to their training twice a day. I went on one trip out to the Terere Academy in Ipanema, which entailed riding on a horrifically over-crowded bus for a brutal ride back to Barra. I could not imagine enduring that bus ride each day!
There is an abundance of jiu-jitsu clubs in Rio. I passed 3 different bjj schools on my way to Gracie Barra each day, and I would recommend staying close to your preferred school.
There are two ways to approach this: first, pick the location that you want to stay and research which academies are located within walking distance. Or second, if you have an affiliation with your home academy or simply have a dream to train at a specific academy, then locate a place to stay close to that academy.
2) Learn Portuguese
Whenever guys in my home academy ask me about planning a trip to Brazil I ask them, “Do you speak Portuguese?”
Invariably (unless they speak Spanish) they say “No,” at which point I highly recommend that they invest some time in learning some basic phrases before purchasing a flight.
Now, it IS possible to spend 2 weeks in Rio without any language skills beyond “obrigado” but if you venture outside of the academy and tourist areas then many Brazilian people you meet will not speak ANY English.
Say it’s your first morning in Rio and you’re trying to order a coffee at a cafe. Sounds simple enough, but not if you want some milk with your coffee. How do you say milk in Portuguese?
You could mime the milking of a cow’s udders in an attempt to communicate with the confused server – but that would have its own room for misinterpretation!
The majority of the students in the academy will likely not speak much English, and without Portuguese, the ability to connect with Brazilians who could be friends is lost.
I would like to add that if you are at the beach or a boteco (small bar) and get a smile from a beautiful brasiliera only to find that speaks not a word of English, you will be kicking yourself for not making the effort to learn a few conversational phrases!
“How did you learn Portuguese? Did you take classes?”
No. I used online resources in my spare time at home to learn. I really liked the Pimsleur language CDs and would listen along while I did my dishes or cooking dinner. A few minutes here and there over a period of months and you will quickly develop a working vocabulary of basic phrases.
You will reap the benefits of your learning efforts ten fold when you are in Brazil – all it takes is your own initiative and time spent.
3) Have Brazil experiences outside of academy and other gringos.
This next tip piggybacks off of the previous tip: get out of your comfort zone and the shelter of other English speaking gringos and go interact with Brazilians.
It’s easy to socialize only with the other gringos who you meet at the academy but you’ll miss the chance to meet people who live in Rio and experience a little of their lives.
Brazilians are ever-friendly people. All it takes is smiling more and being open to ‘friends you haven’t met yet.’ My most enjoyed times in Rio were not visiting the tourist sites, but inviting the instructor or other training partners to the per-kilo restaurant or for an acai after class and talking about life and travel and jiu-jitsu.
I was invited to tiny locals restaurants, and tried foods and bizarre fruits that I would have missed had I stuck with the other gringos exclusively.
By contrast, many other gringos who would return to their laptops or phones immediately after training to update their Facebook, or chat with friends back home. Was their experience of Brazil really any different from a day back home?
If you’ve traveled all that way to Brazil, shouldn’t you at least try to see some new things?
4) Try to film / take notes of what you learn
When you’re in one of the best academies in the world you’ll be exposed to a TON of new techniques and details on your favourite positions.
Then back at your accommodation, the other gringos will pull you aside and show you more mind blowing new techniques and submissions.
You’ll get BJJ overload for sure!
Unfortunately, seeing a technique and retaining it after you get on your return flight are totally different things!
These days everyone has either a smart phone with a video camera and/ or a digital camera with HD video. It’s never been easier to use technology to capture techniques that would otherwise be lost to memory.
If I saw a technique that I really liked, I would simply ask instructor / training partner if I bought them an acai if they would be willing to demonstrate the move for my camera? They never refused and graciously gave all of their hard gained information for me to take home.
During my private lessons I had received such a deluge of information that there was no way to remember it all during the session. I asked a training partner to video the private (with the instructors prior permission of course!) and gained the greatest possible benefit from the session.
Months later while watching the private footage back in North America, I was amazed at how many tips and details that I completely forgotten.
I would go so far as to say from each 1 hour private I gained a MONTH of material to teach in regular classes at my home academy.
I attended a 3 hour seminar with a multiple time world champion and hit the jackpot as the positions he covered were exactly what I use in my game. He provided a ton of advanced details – each light bulb moment greater than the last.
By the end of the seminar, my brain was full and fatigued. None of the other attendees were interested in reviewing any of the seminar moves (“Too tired… I’ll do it later…“). I got out my pen and travel journal and performed a brain dump of the seminar points.
A few days later, a few of those same guys – now realizing they had retained little of the seminar material – asked if they could copy my seminar notes. I explained that the notes were written in my own shorthand, unintelligible to others, and unfortunately of little use to others.
The lesson? Make the extra effort to keep the techniques while they are still fresh in your mind – do NOT trust your memory!
The challenge in doing this is twofold:
a) Don’t be shy to ask for what you want. If you ask to film someone the worst that they’ll say is “No.” In that case you’ll have to recreate the technique yourself as soon as you get the opportunity.
b) After training while the technique is still fresh in your mind – but your body is fatigued – it’s easy to tell yourself that “you will get it later”. But later never comes, and that game-changing technique will fade into the mists of time. You must take that little bit of extra time to capture it and keep it to show all of your training partners back home.
How is the BJJ training different than my class back home?
- The first thing you notice is how much smaller most academies are than those North American. In most academies in Rio, there is just enough mat space for a limited number of pairs to train while the rest waited their turn. Some of the academies were really just office spaces with mats on the floor that could accommodate maybe 3-4 pairs rolling at the same time.
- It is HOT. Warm ups are almost superfluous; you’ll be plenty warm after walking through the equatorial sun to class, and air conditioning in the academy is not very common. I would plan to arrive at the academy 20 min ahead of the class time to it down and cool off after the walk under the sweltering sun. This requires an adjustment period for those of us who are accustomed to a more temperate climate.
- There are lots of blackbelts on the mat. Most BJJ academies outside of Brazil will usually only have a single blackbelt as the head instructor, with maybe a handful of senior belts at any one class. Since Brazil is the home of BJJ, it’s not uncommon to see 10+ blackbelts on the mat in a larger class and an abundance of high level training partners.
- Most North Americans believe that all BJJ black belts are high level competitors, or MMA fighters who devote many hours a week to training and physical conditioning, or martial arts school owners train for hours and hours each week. But BJJ has been established in Brazil for decades, so there is an additional category of black belts; namely regular students who have been simply training a long time. Sometimes in North America, we have a skewed image of a BJJ black belt as being an elite athlete or professional martial artist. In Brazil you can meet many people who have ‘normal’ careers outside of the martial arts and yet BJJ plays a large role in their lives.
- Blackbelts don’t train in the regular class. It was rare to see a blackbelt actually participate in the warmup/technique/positional sparring/class. Typically the blackbelts would start trickling in and chat and stretch at the edge of the mat towards the end of the technique portion of the class. Mostly, they came to roll, talk and laugh among their training partners and friends.
- The instructor matches you up with your sparring partners: you don’t pick your opponents. Unlike my home academy where you just ask someone to roll, the instructor always made the match ups – according to size and belt rank.
I doubt that this trip to Brazil will be my last to Brazil.
I experienced many perfect days in Rio. Here’s a taste of what that looked like…
After waking up I throw on a pair of board shorts, a BJJ T-shirt and your Havianas and make your way to the academy for morning class.
Coming from a cold climate where it seems impossible to get warm on some days it sure was easier to get loose in the warm Brazilian climate. Minor joint aches and sore muscles also seem to be mitigated by the warmer temperatures.
Tired and happy after rolling (with not only Brazilians, but people from all over the world) you catch an acai at one of the numerous sucos stands, people watch and talk about… well… BJJ!
Then I spend the hottest part of the afternoon checking email, sharing photos, or getting in a little professional work on my laptop.
After that I might read by the pool for a bit, making my way through first book of the Game of Thrones series. Then there was always someone drilling techniques on the mats in the CR house; or take the rest of the afternoon to go to the beach or do some sightseeing.
After dinner, some people usually trained their 2nd class of the day with the temperatures a little cooler than the heat of the day (once a day was enough for me). It was not uncommon for people to return from class excited that a well known jiu-jitsu competitor had showed up at the academy and had rolled with the students.
Many top level BJJ competitors and instructors have relocated to other parts of the world, and now return home to Rio during holidays. They’ll drop into their old academies to see friends and get on the mat.
In what other sport could you expect to sweat side by side with the elite of the sport?
After the class breaks up, the group is off to dinner at one of the excellent (but affordable) places serving local dishes – grilled chicken breast, rice, beans and salad.
Back home people rush away after training to grab a bite to eat and get ready for work the next day.
But here being able to linger with new friends from all over the world and talk BJJ is really enjoyable.
After that I I try to watch a movie on my laptop, but fatigue over takes me and I drift off thinking that life tastes pretty good right now
Mark is a Calgary-based web programmer and now a BJJ black belt.