Saturday, February 26, 2011

Final Thoughts and Impressions of Parkour in Buenos Aires

During my first few days in Chile I had the chance to think about my time in Buenos Aires and the parkour scene that I had witnessed there. The lasting impression that I got was of a divide between two opposing groups of thought that still managed to get along well and train together. The first group was one that I spent the majority of time with, not by a direct choice, but because I didn’t know about the second one until a few days before I left. This group is the one that has been featured in the last two videos, a group of very talented and very energetic young guys that have formed a sort of “family” and seem to share similar goals and values. These guys seem to train all the time, and while I was there they seemed pretty into the flashier flips and tricks that some might call “freerunning”. At the same time, they have by no means neglected to work on the efficient movement aspect, a fact that one soon notices after spending time watching them move. As one guy explained to me, “doing flips is training too, not only does it work a lot of the important muscle groups, but if you don’t do them over and over again you’re never going to do them well”. While there are distinct divisions to the group (older and more experienced members seem to train in their own group, while some of the younger ones seem to have formed another sub-group) they seem to be pretty harmonious and get along with each other and other practitioners pretty well.

The second group keeps a much lower profile and I suspect that it probably goes under the radar a lot (as it did with me the first week). This group is “led” by Walter Bongard, one of the first traceurs in Argentina, who acts as the “mentor” of the group. While Walter is physically unable to join in the training, he is very involved in the sessions and seems to be very generous in passing on his expertise to the younger guys. Walter’s philosophy seems to keep very close to the original idea of parkour as “efficient movement between point A and point B” as espoused by David Belle. After talking with Walter for a while, I started to understand his personal motivations for doing parkour and for passing on his experience to the next generations and I wasn’t too surprised to find that a lot of his ideas on parkour and the “parkour way of life” parallel those that I’ve heard around the world from veteran traceurs (i.e.: training parkour as a sustainable lifestyle so as not to burn out after a few years of tricking and acrobatics).

While Walter’s group seems to be a smaller group and one might even say marginalized, it did have the only female that I saw (or heard of) practicing in the Buenos Aires region. While I suspect that the lack of other females at the training sessions had a lot to do with the fact that everyone at the Saturday training session was between 14 and 23 (the effect was pretty amusing when I brought a few friends, including girls, over from the hostel to check things out); I didn’t see the Saturday sessions as a very “nurturing” environment. If guys wanted to learn, there were one or two guys from Walter’s group that were willing to give a crash course in movements, but on the large part, most of the guys seemed to stay within their own friend groups/crews and train whatever they wanted. I think that again this can be chalked up to a general lack in experience and leadership, something that seems to only exist with groups that have “older” members (by older I’m referring to older than 22/23ish).

The lack of any real organization was also a bit of an adjustment for me after spending the previous six months with the very organized and structure environments of Parkour Generations and the Australian Parkour Association. The Saturday “jams” felt exactly like jams do if no one is trying to organize them, and the energy seemed to ebb and flow like the tides a lot of the time. They can be great for some people, and often the more acrobatic guys have a great time, but there is also a lot of standing around and watching going on. Maybe this is just personal preference playing bias here, but my thinking is usually that if I’m there to train, I want to be training or learning, not standing around watching others most of the time. That being said, I did enjoy the watching that I did, as the guys in Buenos Aires are a lot of fun and brought a sort of playfulness to their movement that I think is important to foster in all traceurs as I think it helps to relieve a lot of the tension that people can build up within themselves during training.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Parkour in Buenos Aires: Part II – La Plata

Having been slightly apprehensive about the clearness of the directions to the meeting place in the train station the next day I decided to play things safe and left the hostel early to ensure that I had plenty of time to get lost if needed. Of course, this meant that things went smoothly and I arrived at the train station with about 30 minutes to spare. After exploring the station a bit, I found a place to sit and people-watch as I waited. After about 15 minutes I spotted one guy that had the distinct markings of a traceur (long sweatpants in the middle of summer, worn shoes, a backpack, and eyes that seem are constantly sizing up the surroundings with childlike curiosity). I saw him disappear down a flight of stairs as another traceur-looking guy came over and I decided to trust my gut and followed them. My hunch paid off and I arrived at the head of the stairs to see them climbing on a wall in the middle of the train station. I went down to introduce myself and found out that they were part of the training group for the day. Apparently there was a really big jump that “Russo” wanted to do, and since I had a camera with me, they asked me to get it…

Ten seconds after I had put the camera away, 5 police officers came down the stairs that he had just jumped and kicked us (by this time there were 6 of us) out after repeated protests and claims that it was perfectly safe because they knew what they were doing. The most interesting part was that right after we were escorted out the main doors, we went around to the side entrance of the station, entered through another set of doors, and walked right past the same police officers that had been so adamant about our exit from the station 3 minutes earlier. Apparently they thought that we had been adequately disciplined as they didn’t say anything as we walked by, bought our tickets, and boarded the train.

I spent the hour-long train ride getting to know the guys better and talking to them about their various backgrounds and parkour experience. They were really curious about my project, in particular about the people that I had met in the UK and Australia, and were very up to date on the latest YouTube videos, especially the English ones. They were very willing to talk to me about their own experiences and by time we were getting off at Tolosa I was already on a nickname basis with them (it was decided that “Blake” was a cool enough name that I didn’t need a nickname- nice job Mom and Dad).

The train ride was definitely a pretty interesting experience in and of itself as it didn’t resemble any sort of train ride that I’d taken before. Besides the vendors that walk up and down the train selling everything from hair ties to ice cream*, there was also the fact that the doors to the train were kept open the whole ride for ventilation. This led to all sorts of fun and mischief (a group of six very athletic and very energetic males between the ages of 16 and 24- kind of a given), like the parkour version of a “Chinese fire drill” (At each train stop, someone jumps off the train, does a back flip, and hops back on), “ghostriding” (jump out of the train and run alongside as it leaves the station and waiting until the last moment possible before hopping back in). Needless to say, not the safest of activities, but very entertaining.
* Note: A practice that needs to be duplicated in other major cities that have stifling summertime metros (Boston, New York, London, Paris…)

When we finally arrived at our destination I found myself staring at an Argentinean version of Vauxhall. The sign said that the building was a community center, but from the looks of it, it hadn’t been used for a while, and certainly wasn’t in use on a Sunday morning in the middle of the summer (Sundays are pretty quiet here for businesses). Despite the phrase “No Subir” (No Climbing) painted all over the place in large black letters, we spent about 4 hours training on and around the building.

While we were there our initial group of six was joined by a few more traceurs and when people’s stomachs started growling we walked over to the center of La Plata to grab something to eat and find some new training spots. Since it was the middle of the summer, and a Sunday, the city (a big student town) wasn’t too busy and almost all of the university buildings that we passed were vacant. It was oddly reminiscent of walking though Elephant & Castle housing estates in London- complete with broken windows, lots of trash, and an eerie feeling. I got some more footage of the guys in action and some pretty impressive jumps.

After wandering around some great spots in La Plata we headed for a local park where the guys had a lot of fun vaulting over objects and generally monkeying around. Throughout the day I got the distinct impression that I was privy to something that not many outsiders were invited to partake in and that I was witnessing the training of a group of guys that were essentially a “family”.

A family photo.

After some more flips and tricks in the park we headed back to the train station and the guys introduced me to “chorizo” (essentially sausage in a bun- but way better than anything I’ve had in the northern hemisphere though) as we waited for the train to take us back to Buenos Aires. The ride back was just as entertaining as it had been in the morning, with the addition of climbing around on the outside of the car as the train was moving, handstands in the aisles, and lachées(envision orangutans swinging between tree branches) through the train car to the applause of fellow passengers.

I think that even more important than cool footage that I got that day was the impression of these guys training habits and motivations for doing parkour. While the training wasn’t nearly as grueling as with Parkour Generations or the APA, and there were a lot more flips and tricks than I’ve seen elsewhere; the essence and the spirit of the movement remained the same. The few instances when I saw what some may call “pure parkour”, as in getting from one place to another quickly and efficiently, it was done with a fluidity and ease that showed that these guys did indeed have an understanding of this principle, but just chose to add some of their own flair and style to their movement the rest of the time.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Parkour in Buenos Aires: Part 1 - Saturday Jams at Parque Chacabuco

My introduction to Argentinean parkour was at a weekly gathering in the Parque Chacabuco, a 15-minute ride on the Subte (the Metro system in BA) from my hostel. This event, which happens every Saturday from 10am until the guys get tired or night falls, serves as both a “jam” for the more experienced traceurs, and also as an opportunity for newcomers to the sport to learn the basics. While there aren’t any formalized classes set up, there is a sort of instruction that is led by one of two of the guys at the start of the day. When I arrived at 9:50am I was surprised to find that a number of the Argentine traceurs had defied their national stereotype of being on “Latin time” and were already well into various stages of warming up and going over the basics with some of the beginners. Right away I was given a friendly welcome by a few of the guys and asked the usual barrage of questions that seems to accompany my now-perfected one minute spiel describing what I’m doing.

The group of thirty or so traceurs that had showed up that first Saturday was a pretty diverse group in terms of athleticism and experience. While the guys were all pretty much within the typical YouTube parkour age group (14-22) the experience levels differed dramatically, with some guys with 3 years under their belts and others being total newcomers. After a quick warm-up I shadowed the group around for a few hours as they moved from one training spot to another throughout the day. As I learned later on, the early morning session was more of a “beginner’s” session and the more experienced guys rolled in as the day wore on.

The park itself turned out to be a perfect training spot, and it included a number of different sites that allowed the guys to work on different techniques. I’ve tried to document some of them below:

This is where we started out in the morning. The jumble of differently shaped “stacks” (actually vents for the subway below) provided a variety of obstacles for the guys and some of the shorter ones saw some pretty impressive double kongs/double cat leaps later on when the “big guys” showed up.

Thanks to Keith Bleim for taking some great pics.

This part of the park was part of a relatively recent urban renewal project and served as a sort of community exercise area, complete with outdoor aerobics classes run by the city and a dirt track to one side. In addition to all the railings there were a number of tables that the guys used to introduce people to certain vaults.

Like many of the fountains and statues in the city, this fountain is now abandoned and covered with graffiti. It is also a great place to train (although it gets really hot in the middle of the day, especially since there isn’t any shade here).

This small playground area seemed to be where a lot of the guys go to practice their flips and tricks when the gym that they use is closed for the summer holidays.  Here's a brief montage of the spots that we went too, as well as some action...

(Note: Since this is my first attempt at video editing comments and advice are both welcome and appreciated.)

Throughout the day I tried to keep track of the constant flow of new faces to the group. The guys were all very welcoming and were all very curious about my project. They also seemed to be very intrigued by the idea of a documentary at the end and I found that a few of them seemed to get an extra boost of energy when the camera wandered in their direction. By 4pm I was hot, tired, sore, and sunburned, but had had a great time hanging out and talking with the guys. I also had an invitation from some of them to join them on a training trip to “La Plata” the next day… (to be continued in "Parkour in Buenos Aires: Part 2 - La Plata")

Group picture at Chacabuco