Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Academia Tracer - the first official Brazilian Parkour Gym

After a quick (relatively of course, 7 hours is short compared to 17) busride back to Salvador, I hopped right onto another bus to the airport so that I could fly to Sao Paulo.  Already familiar with the São Paulo Metro system after my last visit, I managed to get into the city in time to meet Diogo at the studio and see some of the dancers again.  Coming back to Sao Paulo was great, not only because I got to see Diogo, Danilo and some of the other guys again, but also because my visit coincided (not accidentally) with the opening ceremony of the first indoor parkour training facility in Brazil.  This project was Jean’s brainchild since he’d given me the projected date a few months earlier when we were planning my trip so I made sure to work it into the schedule.

Jean had been working on the gym for a number of months to prepare it for the opening and although the walls were still stark white and there was a very “new building” scent to everything, the gym was up and running and showed a lot of promise.  Talking with Jean about his plan for the gym, I was surprised to learn that plan is for the Academia Traceur to not only offer parkour and freerunning classes throughout the week but also courses in acrobatics, rhythmic gymnastics, and children’s gymnastics, with possible forays into martial arts once things get set up.  As with the APA’s Trace Facility, Jean also plans to have “open sessions” to allow the local traceurs with more experience to come in to train on their own using the equipment.  The fact that there is a large trampoline, lots of vault boxes and mats, scaffolding, and a climbing wall makes the gym a great place for the general parkour community to come train in during inclement weather or when they want to try things they’re not yet ready to perform over concrete.

The opening ceremony was a lot of fun, despite the fact that I was feeling pretty exhausted after coming directly from the 4th Encontro Nordestino in Aracaju.  A number of the local traceurs came out for the event, with particularly strong representation from the Generation Tracer guys.  There were also a number of “adults” attending, mostly friends and family of Jean and his girlfriend Carla (who has also been instrumental in the gym), but it was funny watch them staring at the guys (who, of course, started training and bouncing around as soon as they got in the door).

A fair amount of space to move around in on the main floor.

The trampoline is a great addition.

The view from the door.

The official "welcome committee".
Based on my discussions with Jean about his plans for the gym and the welcome that the São Paulo community gave the gym during my visit I’m very optimistic about it, despite the fairly strong “anti-established parkour” attitude that seems to be so prevalent in that part of Brasil.  I’m also looking forward to the cool training equipment that Jean is hoping to stock the gym with.  For more information on the facility, check out the site HERE.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

O Econtro Nordestino (The 4th Annual Northeast Jam)

 After arriving in Aracaju I met up with some of the local guys at the bus station and then went with them to check out some local spots while they scrambled to figure out where to house me for the few days before the jam since their previous plans had fallen through.  Luckily I was able to stay with Igor and his wife Milla for a few nights.  This gave me a much needed chance to rest up a bit before the jam, since at that point I was nursing tendonitis in a wrist and both knees, and a generally ached all over.  I spent most of that time hanging out at Igor’s place, enjoying delicious smoothies that Milla prepared, trying to catch up on the blog, sleeping a lot, and riding around with Igor on his motorcycle.

On Wednesday people started arriving for the jam so I moved my stuff over to the gymnasium that was serving as the home base for the event.  The actual setup for the event was pretty impressive, and it took me a while to grasp the full extent of the preparations that had been made.  The entire event had been planned by the local group, the Associação Sergipana de Parkour (ASPK), and was based out of the city’s indoor arena.  Built for basketball/volleyball/handball, the arena was fairly large, and featured a number of dormitory-style rooms underneath the stands for visiting teams or for hosting events.  Since most of the guys attending the event were from the other northeastern states of Brazil, there were over 100+ guys that needed to be hosted for the event.  Of course, having 100+ traceurs living together in one place inevitably leads to all sorts of high-energy games and mischief, a fact that was made apparent the first night in a very energetic game of tag.

The group responsible for organizing the event.

One of the nicest things about living in the arena, and about the event in general, was the lack of red tape that the event had.  Basically the rule was “don’t be stupid, take responsibility for your actions, and don’t give the greater parkour community a bad name”.  This meant that we were permitted to explore pretty much every inch of the facility, from the crawl spaces under the stairs to the big tower that led out to the roof.  The only limiting element that existed was a large spiked fence that ran around the property and that was kept locked at most times.  While I wasn’t sure if this had been done to keep the general population out, or the traceurs in, it proved effective at both jobs.

The outside of the stadium, as I mentioned, we had access to the WHOLE building.

Strategizing what we would play next.
One of the dorms, basic but good.
Over the course of this trip I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a number of jams and workshops, and this one was by far the best organized and well-planned of them all.  There was a large chartered bus that ran each day to the designated training spots, there was a heavily discounted lunch (about $2/day) that was delivered each day for the guys, t-shirts for all the participants (really nice ones), and a ton of scaffolding that had been donated for the event.  The most impressive part was that this was all done at no cost to the participants themselves and that all the money for the event had been raised through outside fundraising and sponsorships.  

Not only were there t-shirts, but Duddu also flew to São Paulo to buy 3 duffel bags of Kalenji's (46 pairs) from the nearest Decathlon (2,100km) to resell to the guys at the event.
The event itself was also pretty structured for a Brazilian event; the simple facts that parts of the city had been designated as “training spots” for each day and that the whole group was driven to them in a chartered bus meant that the event was much more “planned” than most Brazilian parkour events I had witnessed.  Upon arriving at the spots, some people would make an effort to do a warm-up for those that were interested, but most of the people at the jam would immediately spread out around the area to train in smaller groups, with sporadic attempts to unify the whole group with games or challenges.

One of the best things about the event was the diversity of the event, which featured guys from all over the northeast regions (Pernambuco, Bahia, Sergipe, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Alagoas, Paraíba), as well as a huge range in ages and skill levels.  This ensured that no matter the training spot, there were always people to train with that would be able to push you.  While I’d become accustomed to being impressed by the skill level of the Brazilian traceurs, this event was no exception and there were a number of guys that had evidently been training for quite a while.  Aracaju also had a number of spots that seemed to have been custom made for parkour, and were able to cater to all different skill levels.

One feature of the event that quickly became apparent to me was the degree of physical contact between the participants.  Something about the north of Brazil is special in that sense, as I have never been in a similar environment outside of my own family.  Watching this phenomenon was very interesting and said a lot about the culture in the north of Brasil.  In many instances, one guy would smack another on the back, say something mildly offensive (I was actually pretty good at understanding insults by this point), or even given a small jostle, an act which would immediately result in a chase around the particular training spot, dormitory, room, hallway, gymnasium, bus...  This chase scene would inevitably end in some sort of tussle, which would attract the other guys, who would then pick sides based on region, age, skill level, friend allegiances, favorite color, or what they had had for breakfast.  As the tussle escalated, it would attract more and more of the guys who would either join in or egg on their comrades from the periphery with lots of cat calls and the occasional covert blow.  These events were by no means limited to the training sessions, as the “running of the gauntlet” to get on the bus was a common occurrence, as was “midnight madness” in the dormitories involving mattresses and pillows.

This was probably the calmest the bus was the entire weekend.
Welcome to Aracaju...
I was largely exempt from most of this roughhousing for the first day, apparently because the guys didn’t quite know if “the gringo” did that sort of thing.  I didn’t understand this until one of the veteran guys brought it up to me as I was watching one of these “exercises” in mild fascination; at which point I said that I was actually kind of envious off all the fun.  Later that day another tussle broke out and I was drawn into it on the part of the Bahians, with whom I felt a sort of allegiance having lived and trained with them the week before.  As soon as the guys saw that the gringo was in the fight, a cry of “pega o gringo” (get the gringo) went up from the guys from all the other regions, and mob descended on me.  Having had lots of practice at tag team roughhousing with my younger brother and his friends and many years as a camp counselor, I held my own pretty well for a brief moment before getting pig-piled.  Upon snaking myself from underneath the pile I found myself in a one-on-one Greco-roman wrestling match with one of the veteran guys.  The rest of the group found this vastly entertaining, and immediately formed a circle for the match, which soon ended in a draw as we were too exhausted to move.  The whole affair ended as quickly as it had begun, although I got the feeling that I had just passed my “initiation”, I was now officially part of the group.  Of course this meant that I wasn’t exempt from the conflicts anymore and the rest of the weekend passed in a blur of shouting, training, roughhousing, and having a great time with the 100+ brothers I had just discovered.

One of the only pics we have of the rough-housing.  Everyone was too busy joining in to take pictures.
In between eating, training, and beating the crap out of each other, the rest of the event was filled with lots of games and social activities in the gym complex and a little bit of sleeping.  Having so many active people living together made a pretty potent combo for anyone trying to sleep since at any given time there was at least one group of people training, another playing some sort of active game, and others just hanging out.  While the guys seemed to have a bit out trouble mastering the concept of “capture the flag”, the games of tag and hide-and-seek that went on over the weekend were pretty epic.  I should also note that I have finally found a group of Brazilian traceurs that actually like and play football (the real type, not the sissy one with pads).  Throughout the past two months I’ve been repeatedly shocked by the fact that almost all of the traceurs that I’ve met don’t play the national sport, despite the prevailing national stereotype and the fact that everywhere else I look people are playing.  So much for national stereotypes, I guess I should know better by now…

A late-night game of tag convenes...
I was a little surprised by the small number of females that turned up at the event, especially given the large numbers of traceuses that come out for a recent “Women’s jam” in Rio.  However, the women  that did come to the event represented Brazilian traceuses well.  A few of the women had evidently been accustomed to training in such a male dominated atmosphere and seemed to flourish in it, sometimes even joining in on the shenanigans. 

Big props to these ladies.
After the last training session on Sunday morning all the participants sat together in a circle in the center of the gym to decide the location and date of next year’s event.  While I had thought that this decision was made by a small group of the more veteran and “responsible” guys, I soon found that the selection process was done by nominations and a group vote of the participants at the current event.  While not the most efficient of methods, it was pretty entertaining to watch as it was full of debate, comedy, and general banter.  

Proof that we could actually sit still for more than 5 minutes, although the clowning around continued while seated.
After much deliberation it was finally decided that next year it will be held in Maceió, Alagoas during Carnival (February 18-22).  I should mention that the guys from Maceió stood out throughout the event not only for their high skill levels, but also because of the constant wisecracks, pranks, and generally jovial atmosphere that seemed to surround them at all times.  I think that the 5th annual Encontro Nordestino will be an event not to be missed…
A big thanks to everyone at the event!
Note:  I want to give a special shout-out to Duddu for the massive amounts of time and energy that he put into organizing the event.  I’d heard a lot of great things about Duddu and his organizational skills throughout the trip but wasn’t quite sure that a mortal human being could actually be that good.  Well, I was a witness, it’s true.

*** Thanks to Duddu for sending along pics of the event.  I have no idea who took them but definitely appreciate it, especially since I didn't manage to take any myself. ***

Parkour in Salvador

The bus ride from Brasilia to Salvador was one of the longest rides of the trip, but probably one of the more interesting ones as I was able to watch the dramatic change in landscape between the flat and deserted region around Brasilia and the lush green coast of Salvador (and feel the noticeable rise in temperature).  Upon arriving in Salvador I met up with Gustavo “Tortuga” (his nickname comes from the fact that his back is so wide and muscled that it resembles a tortoise shell).  While definitely more of the strong silent type than a lot of the other Brazilian traceurs that I met during the trip, Gustavo was a lot of fun to spend time with and his family made me feel totally at home throughout my stay.  I also found that despite his very calm and “Bahian” demeanor, Gustavo is ridiculously strong and a very skilled traceur, and we also seem to share a rather strong affinity for traveling.  The 15+ trips to different parts of Brazil that he took last year (all parkour related) make him one of the best-traveled traceurs that I met in Brazil, although I was surprised to find that this traveling had never breached the national border. 

My first full day in Salvador was spent as a “recovery day”, although I ended up walking about 10km exploring the city (mostly because I refused to take a bus- still not quite sure why though).  Throughout the day I was struck by how much more this part of Brazil seemed to fit the image of the country that I had been expecting all along.  While this can’t be attributed to a single factor, the combination of architectural style, climate, people, and general “Bahian” attitude made for a much different atmosphere than the rest of Brazil. 

I found that the Salvadorian traceurs seemed to embody this difference as well and while the stereotype of the “lazy Bahian” isn’t quite accurate, the training sessions in Salvador had a much more relaxed pace than in the other cities.  One of the guys favorite activities was a sort of tag/follow-the-leader game in which all of the sudden one guy would dash off and start making his way through a series of obstacles.  Everyone else would drop what they were working on (or not working on) and join the chase.  The game often seemed to end as suddenly as it had started, with no goal or endpoint that was ever apparent to me.  The training would then resume the same “chill” pace that it had had before, with no visible difference to the outside observer.  While the Bahian method doesn’t exactly fit with mine (I’d much rather train hard for an hour or two and then hang out- I don’t like to mix the two),  it does allow the guys to train for long periods of time, often spending most of the day training (often doing the same things that I would have done in an two-hour training session).  While this attitude could be frustrating at times, it was probably better for my body, as I was starting to feel the toll from the combination of seemingly nonstop travel, 2 months of hard training, few recovery days, and lots of different nutritional styles.

A walking path?  I think not.  Looks more like a place to train precision plyo's.

Rail heaven, complete with a series of pull-up bars and an acai stand 50m down the street.

Wait, you mean the designers didn't have traceurs in mind?

25m away from the pic right above- we spent a good 2 hours between the two.
The guys that I met in Bahia were a really good group of guys and were a lot of fun to hang out with.  There was a really close family atmosphere amongst them that seemed to come from the natural Bahian friendliness as well as the inordinate amounts of time that they spent training together.  While they were definitely one of the younger groups of traceurs that I had met in Brazil, the age difference didn’t seem to affect their skill level, although the maturity level of the jokes was noticeably lower than some of the other cities (I should admit that I enjoyed this, and found it pretty refreshing actually). 

During one of the last days in Salvador Ana and Faluk proposed an “urban rappelling” session with a local group.  Kind of intrigued as to how this would work since I hadn’t seen many tall buildings in the city center, Gustavo and I decided to check it out.  We arrived at the spot to find that instead of buildings, we would be rappelling from a 3 story pedestrian bridge into a green strip of land between two very busy roads.  Not only that, but the group activity wasn’t limited to rappelling, but it also included “kamikaze pendulum jumping” (their name for it).  This involved climbing on top of the pedestrian walkway roof, standing to one side, and jumping off, usually with some sort of war cry.  The rope that was attached to the jumper’s waist was fixed by the other end to a point underneath the bridge on the opposite side, meaning that after a second or two of freefall the jumper would be pulled into a pendulum-like swing under the bridge, while also giving minor cardiac arrests to many of the passing drivers.  While this looked like fun (kind of), I decided to forgo the more extreme version, and went for the normal rappelling off the bridge, especially after having sudden doubts over whether my international health insurance had expired or not, and whether it included kamikaze pedestrian bridge jumping.

-videos and photos of bridge jumping will not be included in this article in order to keep my mother supportive of my travels-

Since Salvador is world-famous for its beaches, the guys thought that my visit to the city couldn’t be complete until I had visited at least one of the them.  On Saturday Gustavo “Tortuga”, Gustavo, and I took the bus to a beach outside the city that really lived up to it’s reputation.  After a morning spent watching the surfers, playing around in the waves, practicing flips in the sand, and watching the local “wildlife” (Brazilian women bring new meaning to “people watching” at the beach) we headed to a nearby spot to meet a bunch of the other guys to train for a few hours.

Saying goodbye on Sunday after the training session felt really weird because for the one of the first times this trip, it was more of a “see you in a few days” than “see you sometime in the maybe-distant future” since I would be reuniting with them in a few days at the Encontro Nordestino in Aracaju...

Parkour in Brasilia

After arriving in Brasilia early in the morning I waited outside the station to meet my contact.  Having heard stories about Alberto from all of the guys that I had stayed with on the trip thus far, I was expecting to feel the earth shaking when he came and to able to see the Hulk-sized, Jackie Chan-looking guy approaching from pretty far away.  I actually did a double-take when a guy came up to me dressed in a polo shirt and jeans and looking surprisingly “human”.  After a quick introduction, we drove back to his house so that he could get me set up before going back to work (yet another example of the extent of Brazilian hospitality, Alberto had left work to come get me and was going back to work for another 8 hours).  After grabbing a quick bite to eat he headed back to the office while I hung out at the house and explored his neighborhood.

When Alberto got back from work in the evening we took the bus into the city to check out some of the spots.  Brasilia is a pretty interesting architecturally because it was built for the sole purpose of being the capital city.  Since it was planned in the middle of an essentially “deserted wasteland”, there was plenty of space to work with, a fact that is readily apparent in its layout and architecture.  While this often resulted in what I would call a “grandiose” feeling on the street and a distinct lack of spirit or character for the buildings, the architects seemed to have parkour in mind because they made every boulevard underpassage, bus stop, and housing complex into perfect training spots.  Alberto took me to one that is particularly well known and featured in a number of Brazilian Youtube videos and that managed to keep us entertained for the evening.  Despite, his “semi-retirement” status from parkour at the moment, the guys hadn’t exaggerated about Alberto’s strength and it was obvious that he’s been training for a while.  Towards the end of the session, we ran into some of the other guys from Brasilia and hung out for a bit with them before heading back to the house for a late dinner.

For those that might be curious Alberto's blog Decimadomuro is a great resource for Brazilian parkour and the sport in general and Google Chrome does a pretty good job translating it.

My second day in Brasilia I took the bus into the city center to check out the government buildings and to do a bit of the typical tourist stuff (I figured I should do it since it was the capital and all).  Not the most interesting of tourist destinations since the hugeness of the city seemed to swallow up all the vibrancy and color that existed in the other Brazilian cities I visited, Brasilia did have a number of cool buildings that made the afternoon worth it, and ranks it much higher than the last “planned capital” that I had visited (Canberra, Australia).

The Brazilian National Museum and Library.

Brazilian Congress, my fro, and me.

I also found that the people of Brasilia (except for the traceurs) seemed a lot more like Europeans or Americans than the other Brazilians I had met.  There was something colder and more “rat-race-like” about the way that they interacted, and I found myself feeling much less at home than I had in other parts of Brazil.

Since Alberto seemed to be able to function well on very little sleep, we spent a lot of time during my time in Brasilia just hanging out after dinner working on the computer or watching TV.  As one of the first traceurs in Brazil, Alberto has been around to see the whole Brazilian parkour scene develop and has plenty of great stories about it.  An avid geek like many of the Brazilian traceurs that I’ve met, Alberto has also done a lot of research into parkour and general fitness.  A lot of the time that we were talking I felt like I should be taking notes in order to not forget all the useful information I was learning.  I should also note that Alberto’s English is near-flawless, a feat which is made even more impressive by the fact that he learned it all from online video gaming.  If that wasn’t enough, he also learned Finnish that way.

Since Alberto had work and martial arts classes nearly every day, he put me in contact with Felipe and some of the other guys that were active in the Brasilia parkour scene.  Although Felipe didn’t speak English, we managed to communicate pretty well in a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and English (my Portuguese got a lot better over the course of the week).  Felipe wasn’t able to train since he had undergone knee surgery a few days before I arrived but the first thing he did once he got the ok from the doctor was to drive over to Alberto’s to pick me up and show me around.  For the rest of the week he acted as my official chauffeur and tour guide, bringing me to local classes, spots, and even to get my daily acai fix.  Also one of the more experienced guys in Brasilia, he was a great source of information on the parkour there.

While there a number of really great moments in Brasilia, there are a few in particular that stand out as being particularly noteworthy.  One of these highlights didn’t actually involve parkour and was at a place called Integral Bambú, which Felipe took me to on Saturday morning.  When we first arrived at the spot, I had no idea what was going on and wasn’t quite prepared for the giant circus tent that had been set up alongside a very “hippie-looking” house on a back-country road on the edge of the city.  After brief overview from Felipe about what the place was, Felipe, Ademias Jr., and I started playing around on the weird, giant triangular bamboo structures that were arranged around the room.  While it took a little while to figure out how to move on the structures,  we started to get the hang of it after an hour or so, at which point more people started to arrive.  As more and more people came into the tent and started monkeying around on the structures, I realized that there was a class that was about to take place.  We stayed for the class, which turned out to be a mix between aerobics, climbing, yoga, parkour, and dance, and I found myself immediately at home with both the movement style and the mood of the training.  There was something about training with bamboo that felt so natural and “connected” on a inner level that after the class I felt almost as if I was waking up from some sort of dream-like state. 

The interior of the tent.

A close-up of the bindings, apparently made with used bicycle inner tubes.

People starting to arrive.
After the class I got a chance to talk to Marcelo Rio Branco, the founder of Integral Bambú, a bit more about what he had created and the ideas behind it.  It was certainly interesting to hear his story and philosophy on exercise and general health, and to learn about rapidly growing network of bamboo-related companies in Brazil.  While I had gone to the class expecting it to have a fairly “crunchy” atmosphere (“crunchy” as in granola-eating, an American term for describing something that is more environmentally friendly or “tree-hugging”) I was surprised to find that it had a vibe that had more in common with other parkour classes that I had been to than anything else.

For more info on Integral Bambú, check out their site here or watch the video below:

The two other highlights of the trip for me both dealt with the construction of new training areas for the traceurs in Brasilia.  The first place for a group called Movimente (link to their site here), located outside the city center on one of the family’s farm of one of the traceurs, was in the middle of the construction/development phase when I arrived.  After a quick tour of the area (essentially an old pasture area with a big shelter at one end) we set to work building a series of prescision jumps with pieces of curb that the guys had gotten from a local concrete factory.  This was one of the coolest parts of the project for me, the fact that nearly everything that had been done had been done with very little money and a lot of resourcefulness.  The guys not only showed a lot of organizational talent, but their drive and intitiative was pretty impressive.  Lacking the money or materials to build a concrete structure, they had secured two truckloads of concrete curbstones from a local factory.  After piling a number of them into tower-like structures to practice precisions, they half buried the rest of them in part of the pasture area to make a “precision field”, capable of catering to all different skill levels.  While the work was pretty hard (we had basic tools at best) it was interspersed with rain squalls and subsequently mud fights and lots of joking.  Since my Portuguese was finally starting to become something recognizable as language, I was able to participate a bit in these antics as a distraction from hauling concrete blocks.

Covered training area and future location of bamboo structures.

The possibilities are limitless...
A couple hundreds concrete blocks + some industrious traceurs + a few afternoons = new training spot!

Talking with the guys about their visions for the “parkour park” was great and I was impressed by the ambitiousness of some of their plans (a covered bamboo structure training facility, a dormitory/living quarters for visitors, scaffolding…)  After a day of working side-by-side with them though, I don’t doubt that these plans will come to fruition, and I’ve already got my name on the list for when they’ve renovated the living quarters.

The second “homemade” spot that I got a chance to see was farther out from the city center, which was actually the primary reason for its construction.  The lack of good training spots in their town meant that they had to take the bus into the center of Brasilia to train, a journey that ended up costing a lot of time and money to sustain a regular training program.  To solve this problem a group of a few of the local youths decided to build their own spot.  They chose an unused bit of grass located near some pull-up bars outside the town football pitch where they often went to train muscle ups and pull-ups.  They collected used tires from along the nearby highway and dump and pooled their money to buy concrete.  After digging holes for foundations and piling the tires, they filled them with dirt and capped them with concrete, making towers off all different sizes to precision between.  The end result, although not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing of spots, is very functional and a great place to train.  Talking to the guys about their project afterwards I was really impressed by their effort especially since all of them were pretty young.

With the 3 builder/creators.

O Pico do Cachorro.
Check out the video the guys made a few months ago of the "opening" to see them in action on their new home turf:

After getting the tour of the spots in Brasilia, plus some flip practice on the local beach volleyball courts in the few hours before I left, I headed for the bus station to take the 18-hour bus ride to Salvador....