Thursday, January 27, 2011

"State of the Watson" address – January 2011

In keeping with the spirit of Obama’s recent “State of the Union” address, I thought that it might be appropriate to do a similar “State of the Watson” address since I have recently passed the official halfway point of my Watson year.

The past six months have certainly been life-changing and although the experience is far from over, I’ve taken some time the past two weeks to reflect on the past 6 months of traveling and parkour has given me.

Well, for one thing, I’ve gotten very comfortable living in hostels and become pretty adept at getting comfortable to a new cities and surroundings.  My general state of independence has been very liberating for me after having my schedule pretty packed for the past 6 or 7 years back home. I hadn’t realized how much things are dictated by the norm back home; do well in school, sports, and extracurriculars so that colleges want you; then once you're there, do really well in school, sports, and extracurriculars so that employers want you.  Sleep and eat when possible.  I'll admit, escaping from all that was a bit of a shock to the system at first (what does "free time" mean?), but I'm really enjoying it now.

It really wasn’t until my recent stay in Sydney with my family that I realized just how independent I had become. Since one of the few rules that Watson Fellows must follow is to travel solo for their entire journey (no travel-buddies, limited visits from friends and family) I’ve spent a lot of time with myself. I’ve come to realize that as much as I value this independence and total freedom to do what I want and follow my passion (albeit within the constraints of my budget), I really miss having someone to share things with. I’ve found that the moments that I’ve enjoyed the most on my trip so far have all involved the people that I meet and the experiences that I have with them. While I’m definitely looking forward to the second half of this adventure, I’m also looking forward to the point at which I can choose to continue my travels with friends from home or ones that I make on the way.

So how about the progress on the parkour front? One of the problems about working with traceurs from all over the world is that realize how many amazing traceurs there are out there. While this has been great, it also means that I’m very hesitant to put any of my own stuff out there because I know that it doesn’t measure up. I know that parkour is “non-competitive”, but there is part of me that doesn’t want to put stuff out there until I feel like it can measure up to at least a decent standard.

That being said, my movement has definitely made a lot of progress. Actually, that is probably an understatement- my movement doesn’t even resemble what it did before. When I first got to London I had trouble balancing on railings, sticking landings, couldn’t do a muscle up, and felt generally stiff and awkward in my movements. Today, I will be the first to admit that I have a lot to do before I can deem myself “competent” in parkour, but I can now do the basic vaults and I’m familiar with all the movements. I’ve also managed to establish a base-line of conditioning that I hope to steadily improve on, adding exercises and techniques that I encounter along the way.

The world is now my playground...

While a lot of people (including myself) expressed doubts about my personal safety when I mentioned that I would be going around the world for a year doing and studying parkour, I’ve found that apart from a number of cuts and scrapes that heal within a week or so, I’ve managed to avoid any major injuries (knock on wood). I think that is partly due to the fact that I’m not doing any huge or ridiculous jumps that are outside of my ability level, and partly due to the intense conditioning that I’ve been doing. While major injuries were a concern, I was also worried that the quick changeover from track/athletics to parkour would be too much for certain underused muscle groups and lead to repetitive-stress injuries. I have to give a lot of credit to the intense conditioning sessions in London for the fact that for the most part, I’ve been able to avoid any of these injuries (keep knocking on that wood). I also suspect that the lack of stress fractures or tendonitis has a strong relationship to the fact that I get a lot more sleep than at Davidson now that I don’t have loads of schoolwork and extracurricular activities.

The first 6 months of my research on parkour, interestingly enough; has been limited to two very developed English-speaking countries. While both organizations that I worked with had different approaches to their instruction of parkour, in general the “essence”, or philosophy, of the sport was pretty similar in both places. I suspect that the fact that both countries had regular classes, instructors, and training spots already sets them out ahead of some of the other countries that I’ll be visiting. Both countries also seem to have established a distinction between parkour and freerunning, although the manner in which they deal with that division differs.

One of the things that I’m also looking forward to is being in an environment where English is not the primary language. During previous travels I’ve learned that one of the best ways for me to adapt to a new country is to immerse myself in the native language. While it can be argued that British or Aussie English is not the same as “Yankee” English, these three countries have a lot more in common than just their language and I’m looking forward to the challenge of living in other cultures that have different ideas. I’ll have plenty of opportunity for that soon as the next half of the trip will include 6 countries, 5 different languages (of which I know 2), and a wide spectrum of different interpretations of parkour.

Perhaps the most important thing that I’ve gotten from the past 6 months is a network of friends that spans the globe. Since London and Paris are sort of “Meccas” for the sport, my time in those places allowed me to make contact with a number of people from around the world and has also allowed me to brush shoulders with some of the “greats” of the sport. In addition to that, my time in these cities (and Melbourne) has also allowed me to become friends with a number of traceurs that are visiting or living there. As I mentioned before, most of the best moments of the trip so far have been those that I’ve shared with my new friends, and a lot of these moments have occurred while training (or after training). There is something (beside the endorphins) about sweating and bleeding together that brings people closer together a lot faster than normal. As one person in Melbourne put it, “Parkour training includes a level of intensity that lays a person’s fears and weaknesses bare, but more importantly, it shows you how they deal with them. This cuts out the awkward 6-12 month period that it takes to really get to know someone just by hanging out with them.”
Parkour love in France...

in London...
and in Melbourne.

So what am I looking forward to the most in the second half of the trip? Well, the chance to brush up on my Spanish again will be nice, and I’m really looking forward to learning some Portuguese and Italian. I’m also excited to see what countries like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil bring to parkour in terms of “Latin flavor”.   And of course, all the great things that I've heard about training in Denmark and Italy are pretty appealing.  Most of all, I think that I’m looking forward to the fact that I have no idea what things will be like in the next countries that I visit, and no idea what changes to my itinerary will occur. Maybe I’m just feeling restless and curious, but I’m ready to wander…

By the Harbor Bridge in Sydney

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Homesick for London?

I saw this video the other day and got a wave of “homesickness” for London and Parkour Generations. While I don’t miss the cold weather and bundling up in layers every day, the community there is pretty unique, and there was a vibe there that was really condusive to the "parkour lifestyle".  This video also gives a bit of a glimpse at the classes that Parkour Generations runs.

The video was made by Bruno Peixoto, a Brazilian actor, filmmaker, and one of the key members of the PkMax organization in Brazil. He is currently conducting research in London on a prestegious grant from the Brazilian Ministry of the Arts on the artistic side of parkour and its use in performance.  His other videos can be found HERE.

The "Parkour Doctorate" & Parkour Comics

One of the more interesting aspects of parkour in Melbourne has been the opportunity to meet Alex Pava, who I met during my very first outdoor training session in Melbourne. Alex was initially introduced to me after Chippa heard about my research and basically said, “You’re going around the world “studying” parkour? Wait, we have a guy like that too!” Alex and I immediately had a lot to talk about, especially since we were both attempting to study the sport from the dual perspectives of “observer” and “practionner”, something that hasn’t been done much to date. While Alex’s primary focus is the Australian parkour movement, in a few days he will be starting on the first of his own international parkour travels to Canada, Russia, and France (his travel is broken up into separate segments since he’s a member of the “real world” and has a wife and house he can’t just leave for a year to go gallivanting around the world). One of the most interesting aspects of his research is that not only is he studying parkour, but he’s also a practionner. Similar to me, he’s found that this has allowed him to gain an additional level of insight into the sport.

Alex has extensive background as an artist/illustrator and he’s planning to integrate this into the degree, to (in his own words) “show how the comic (book) medium can be used as an ethnographic method of communicating social data, depicting space, movement and people.” The comics below are some of the most recent episodes of a weekly strip he publishes on the APA website; of which the entirety can be found HERE.

The subjects for the comics are often taken from the debate/conversations that occur on the APA website forum or from discussions during training sessions, and are designed to reflect some of the current issues in the sport and topics of interest to traceurs. Characters aren’t linked to specific personages in the parkour world, although elements have been taken from prominent figures in the sport, or in the APA community. Reading through the strips gives a pretty good idea of some of the discussions going on at the moment in the Australian parkour scene, and of some people’s perspective on recent events in Europe (the increased commercialization of the sport, freerunning vs. parkour, what traceurs get from training…)

Since I’m sure that there are a number of questions about how Alex is getting a “doctorate in parkour”, I asked him to send me some more specifics about the degree:

Aims: The primary aim of this project is to gain insight into the current organizational, philosophical and practical principles of the Australian Parkour movement. This will eventually be used as contrast to global movements, as observed through travel in second year. The secondary aim is to demonstrate the potential the comic (book) medium as an ethnographic method of communicating social data, depicting space, movement and people.

Participants: The participants of this study will be the people who are involved in the Parkour movement as instructors, commentators and practitioners. Most practitioners practice in groups that are united by common philosophical and practical principles. Particular attention will be given to describing various Parkour communities. These vary from highly structured collectives with committees, training facilities and insurance to loose and informal training groups that espouse a distinctive local variant of global parkour philosophies. Participants cover a wide spectrum of age and ethnicity and include both genders. This research will be focused on participants over the age of 18.

Brief Description: This study will be ethnographic and will be conducted through a combination of participant-observation methodologies as well as informal interviews. Online resources and existing academic literature will be used to gain an additional perspective on the international development of Parkour. This will be contrasted against my observation of the Australian, and global, practice of the discipline. Data will be gathered through note-taking, photography and visual notes (sketches).

Methods of Data Analysis: Methods will be primarily qualitative. Written notes, photographs, sketches/illustrations and third-party articles will be collected. This information will be codified and analysed in accordance to relevant themes and standard ethnographic structures.

The Hostel Life

Living in the hostel has certainly been a nice change of pace from living in an “apartment” in London. There is an almost continuous buzz of activity here and at any hour one can go to the kitchen/dining area to socialize with the various residents in varying stages of intoxication, usually dependant on their nationality and the time of day.

My arrival in Melbourne was right at the beginning of the summer busy season, meaning that I arrived early enough to find a job opening in the housekeeping staff at the hostel, which has since gotten a lot busier as the summer progresses. Normally there the arrival of summer brings an improvement in the weather as well, but it’s only been in the last week or so that things have started to feel much like summer. My arrival also corresponded to the arrival of a number of other “long-term” residents at the hostel, many of whom also work on the hostel staff to pay for their lodgings. Most of the guests at the hostel are in Australia on the one-year working visa and work at various jobs in order to sustain themselves and their nocturnal habits. Since the hostel is populated by a mix of English, Germans, and French, alcohol features very prominently in life here, and due to the fact that most people are living on a tight budget, the beverage of choice for any event here is “goon”. “Goon”, also known as pinard or box wine, is a cheap wine that is by far the least expensive alcohol option available for some reason (at $8 for a 4-liter box, a $35 case of beer doesn’t even come close).

The goon box.

The goon is contained in a silver bag inside the box, which can be removed to make consumption and transportation/concealment even easier. This bag, when emptied can be inflated with a few deep breaths, and when taped together with 29 other bags, makes a pretty decent “goon raft”. When there is a big river right outside the hostel, the logical thing to do at a hostel-sponsored barbecue is to try to cross the river aboard the previously mentioned raft. End result: the goon raft race.

Setting out.

By this time I had ditched the paddle and was "butterflying" my way across ...

Chalk one up for the good old USA.

For the record, I did my country proud by winning the inaugural “Goon Raft Race” and as of yet have not noticed any unintended side effects of my brief dip in the Yarra (while not exactly drinkable, I would prefer the Yarra to the Charles, Mystic, Seine or the Thames any day).

Living here for the past two months has really made me realize how prominently alcohol consumption features in many peoples’ lives. While I hadn’t exactly been “dry” in London, I didn’t really explore the bar scene much over the four months that I was there, primarily due to the expense of such outings. Since my arrival in Australia my alcohol consumption has increased, partly because of a few outings with parkour guys who introduced me to some of the finer sides of the nightlife here (like pouring and drinking a Guinness properly- not as easy as it sounds), and partly due to the fact that by the time I get back from training in the evening there is usually some sort of drinking event going on while I make dinner, which usually results in me enjoying the antics of the alcohol-lubricated from a distance as I eat my “massive” dinner (I’ve gotten the reputation around the hostel for being a big eater- apparently there aren’t many runners that stay here).

Since the “Nomads” company that runs the hostel also operates the bar downstairs, there is a lot of effort on the part of the upper management staff to encourage the residents to go to the “U-Bar” to get their alcohol, essentially providing a cash cow for the company and a cheap bar scene for residents. An attempt has recently been made by one of the other residents (an Englishman of course) to rejuvenate some of the bar’s more lackluster events, the first of which was the very successful riverside barbecue that saw me cavorting around in the Yarra. The next event was the “Ladies Night” party that occurred a few days before Christmas. While my role as “server” was similar to ones that I’d done at certain events in Davidson for some of the eating houses, it wasn’t exactly what I expected to be doing at a hostel in Australia a few days before Christmas. The “work” itself was a lot of fun, and my fellow American “server” (apparently there’s something special about us Yanks) and I found the hour’s worth of dancing on tables and pouring champagne for the mass of adoring females to be quite enjoyable, even despite the fact that we were basically sober the entire time. I guess all those muscle-ups have been good for something…

Selflessly putting in my "service hours" to ensure that Ladies Night is a success...

 Besides floating down the Yarra and serving champagne, I’ve spent a lot of time enjoying just hanging out with the other residents. Despite the constant flow of people checking in and out of the hostel, the All-Nations hostel in Melbourne has developed a particularly pleasant “hostel atmosphere”. While I’m sure that management would like to take the credit with their bar and discount travel shop just below the hostel, and the low room prices (relatively), I think that the atmosphere should really be credited to the people that stay long-term in the hostel. Over the past 2 years of traveling I’ve stayed in a number of hostels around the world and each has their own unique atmosphere. Many times this is dictated by the floor plan of a hostel, since any sense of community requires a popular, comfortable, and useful communal area. In case of All Nations, it is the kitchen/dining area that basically forces people to interact with each other as the 200-300 residents share 12 stove tops (of which a max of 6 will work at any time), 2 sinks, and 2 long tables that seat about 20 people max. This setup, along with a number of unisex bathrooms/showers (seeing people get out of the shower or at their morning best is a great way to fast-track bonding/mating), and mostly co-ed rooms result in a pretty positive sense of community (yes there are always the jerks but they don’t seem to last long). Since the about 75% of the hostel is split pretty evenly between French, Germans, and English, many of them tend to stay within their respective national groups, and the remaining 25% usually join one (or more) of these groups or keep to themselves.

"Hanging out" in the Nomads U-Bar, one of the focal points for the social life at the hostel, and perhaps the reason for the close-ness of the residents.

Salute to English.

Holiday Season Down Under

This holiday season was different in just about every way possible from the ones that I’ve experienced for the past 23 years. While the lack of my family was by far the greatest absence of the season, the weather differed slightly from the wintery wonderland that is often Boston during the holidays.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve started off with a 6-hour shift of housekeeping at the hostel and then a costumed holiday party with the APA crew at the Trace Facility. Apparently Aussies think that Christmas is a good time to host costume parties because I saw a lot of weird costumes that were definitely not “Holiday-spirited” wandering around on the public transportation in the week leading up to Christmas. Taking inspiration from some of the English guys at the hostel, Fizz, Martin (a fellow “foreign” traceur from China), and I dressed up as Christmas smurfs. While this was not as easy as we thought it would be (finding body paint was surprisingly difficult for such an artsy city), we managed to get all of the required pieces and “got dressed” outside the warehouse before the party.

Getting "dressed" for the party.

Filling in the blanks.

Parkour love, APA style.

No comment.

Christmas Day

Christmas morning was pretty anticlimactic as there weren’t any presents to open and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hostel before heading over to Fizz’s apartment for Christmas dinner with a number of English ex-pats. As with most English events that I’ve attended (with the exception of those within the parkour community), a lot of our time was spent with alcohol in hand, which resulted in a much more “jovial” Christmas atmosphere than usual. After a delicious feast, and feast is the only way to properly describe the spread we had before us (4 different types of meat, pastas, sweet potatoes, string beans, ….), we let our stomachs recover a bit with some Wii games and then headed down 5 minutes down the road to the beach- loaded with coolers and drinks of course.

Christmas at the beach (the sun was hiding by this point).
Since a bunch of people from the hostel were having a barbecue a bit farther down the same beach I spent Christmas afternoon bouncing between the two groups, enjoying the brief moments of sunshine that occurred between cloud masses. As the sun went down I headed back to Fizz’s with the rest of England to party some more although most people ended up retiring early to rest up for the next day’s (Boxing Day) cricket test (match) between Australia and England (aka the Ashes- apparently a big deal). I took the last tram back to the hostel to find that the bar downstairs was in full swing so I promptly joined in. The night came to an end with a phone call from my family, the first time I’d had the chance to have a proper conversation with them in ages, who were just finishing up Christmas breakfast.

New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve started with drinks and sunshine on the riverside outside the hostel. As darkness fell, the riverside got even more crowded in anticipation of the fireworks. Instead of the usual fireworks show, Melbourne actually hosts two shows, one at 8pm for families with little ones, and another at midnight to really celebrate. After the first round of fireworks I headed into the center of town to meet up with some of the parkour guys (and girls) to find a better vantage point for the midnight show. We managed to find one that was about 35 stories up in the center of the city, and since the fireworks were shot off from the tops of five of the tallest buildings in the city we had the best seats in the city.

Right in the middle of everything.

Not a bad way to welcome in the new year.... photos courtesy of Anna & Pui