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How to Survive as a BJJ Gringo in Brazil

How to Survive as a BJJ Gringo in Brazil

 

Hi! My name’s Arthur de Lustrac. I’m part of the BJJ Globetrotters, and I’ve been globetrotting for a long time, and Jiu jitsu became my latest pretext to do so. I’m 6 years into this sport and I just do it for fun. I have no pretention to become as good as Rickson or as slick as a Mendes brother. I’m just an average guy who enjoys the game, and uses it as a stress relief after some hard days at work. A few months ago, I became the luckiest man in the world for a day, and got married to a great Brazilian girl called Sumaia. For our honeymoon, we decided to travel all throughout Brazil for a month, visit, and meet my new family over there. As a plus, I decided to train wherever I could. It was my first trip to Brazil, and it lasted a month from mid-July to mid-august. What I’m going to write, then, is a mixture of first impressions and of tips that I got to learn over there, from my experience, and from the hindsight of the locals I got to travel with.

Our travel plan was the following: I was to land in Brasilia, we would drive to Pirenopolis and Goiania. Then we would fly to Sao Paulo take a bus to Rio de Janeiro, fly to Recife and then back to Goiania and Brasilia. At the last minute we added Natal to the list because the weather conditions in Recife were pretty bad. I couldn’t train in every place, but I managed, overall, to train every two days.

I got asked a few times why so many places. Well because my wife’s family was in Goiania and Sao Paulo. she also lived in Recife for a long time before moving abroad, and of course I wanted to visit Rio. With hindsight, I do enjoy the idea of not just seeing Rio and Sao Paulo and seeing a little bit of the everything:  north, south, centre and the east. Now, let’s get in the details, shall we? Also if you’re planning to go yourself, I’ll put a few tips at the end:

The tale of the trip:

A. The centre.  

I arrived in Brazil on the 15th of July, in Brasilia. My wife was already there, and she had rented a car and a flat in the centre, and we drove right away to get there. We had only planned to spend a night in Brasilia just to do a little bit of sightseeing. The apartment we rented was actually part of a hotel. We were a bit surprised, and afraid it was a scam when we realised it, but it wasn’t. Apparently it’s common in Brazil to have people buying flats in a hotel building (usually in the top floors) to have access to the same services as a normal customer. The staff welcomed us just like any other customer which was a nice surprise.

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My wife had been to Brasilia many times, but I didn’t. She knew the good and bad aspects of it. As for me, I only knew what I had seen on some BBC documentary about the architecture of Niemeyer. Indeed, the official buildings and monuments of the city were, for the most part absolutely amazing. The rest of the city was not as glamourous however. It was still quite an amazing visit to do.

 

The following day, we headed to Pirenopolis, now, I didn’t know much about it before I went there, and it’s basically a small village, with a very old colonial type of architecture in some mountains, also known as a great spot to see massive waterfalls and beautiful nature. I was excited to see what it was like.

 

 

We only stayed in Pirenopolis for a night and a day, the following evening, we went straight to Goiania, where my wife’s family was living. One the way there we decided to check out one of the gyms I had found online that looked close from where we were supposed to stay. It was a Team Nogueira gym. Just a massive gym and a state of the art type of facility. Everything you needed was there. Strength and conditioning equipment for a whole floor, a cage, a big mat, a ring, training gear, everything. It was awesome. The people over there were very nice to us and the training fee looked ok, furthermore, class was starting the minute the lady finished introducing the gym to us, so I basically went straight to the mat, excited as hell.

Now, before I start, I’d like to point out that I had a ton of stupid misconception about training in Brazil. I thought everybody would be massive guys with crazy physiques like some Jacaré or Terere. I imagined everybody would be very tense about etiquette and traditions. I thought there would be only teens training at the lower belts and that all the adults would be black belts, I mean, some crazy construction my mind did from watching too many UFCs and BJJ comps. As it turns out, I was completely wrong.

 

From my experience, training in Brazil isn’t much more different than training everywhere else in the world. White belts are white belts, black belts are black belts and everyone in between is as tough and technical as in any other country. I even tend to think that in Europe we might have it a bit tougher just because the old school instructors struggled so much to get where they are that they make the whole belt promotion passage as tough as possible compared to what I witnessed abroad. Back to Goiania now, all the guys weren’t massive freaks over there, I was even one of the biggest guys in that gym, if not the biggest, with my 180 pounds, 6 feet tall frame. The attendance wasn’t very big at the gym too. It was the winter holydays in Brazil at that time, and the instructor was on holydays, so the first classes I’d been to were taught by the MMA instructor. Don’t worry, he was a black belt too, just not a very high level one.

I did 3 classes over there in July. The first one was a nogi class with the MMA guys too and all we did was rolling. The level was all right and there was about a dozen guys on the mat, which was good. I was really tentative, but I was able to control most guys I rolled with. I got tapped once or twice, by one good guy but I felt like I got the better of everybody else. The next two classes were a bit of the same where, the attendance was lower and the level was lower too. I was a lot more relaxer, to the point that I dominated everybody from then on. I had a lot of fun doing it of course. The guys were super nice to me despite the language barrier which made things awkward at times. I can’t emphasize how nice they were to me on the mat. It was brilliant. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated by not facing guys better than me after a while, but as one of the guys said to me at the gym: “don’t worry, training will be a lot harder in Rio and Sao Paulo.”

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Goiania overall, was a very nice city. It’s really at the centre of Brazil, and it was the most central city before Brasilia was created. The centre of the city was a close to the image I had of a South American city. Lower buildings, sometimes a bit ran down, small shops in succession, etc. Like Pirenopolis, the nature around the city was beautiful. The city structure made me think of that of an American city. It’s very spread out; you can’t do much without a car. The neighbourhood we were in was fairly recent and it was towers and towers of modern buildings. There were parks everywhere in the city and the whole activity of people outside of work seemed to be hanging out in parks, doing sports, eating and going to various bars or restaurant. The food over there was great by the way. In particular, I had the best Acai in Goiania, which I miss intensely to this day.

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B. Sao Paulo

Our next step was Sao Paulo, and the change of scenery was quite shocking. From a sunny and dry city that reminded me of Miami, we landed in a massive industrial and very grey city which, in the nicest part, reminded me of San Francisco or Madrid in the old centre. Sao Paulo is the biggest city in Brazil and the architecture is a bizarre mixture of American, Latin, and Asian influence. The result is a city where there are massive buildings and a very cold architecture. In fact, the weather was also cold. a lot colder than anywhere else we’d go to in the country, with around 15°C and rain the whole time we were there.

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To this day I have mixed feelings about Sao Paulo. We only stayed there four days, and it wasn’t our best time in the trip. It was 4 days of cold rainy weather, whereas we’d only packed in clothes for a very sunny trip. We both knew the weather would be cold since it was the winter in Brazil, but the rain, I didn’t prepare for it. To top it all off we had other problems I did not expert and one of the lowest point of the trip was my first attempt at training.

My buddy Francisco Sinistro Itturalde, and some other people had spoken very highly of the Alliance headquarters in Sao Paulo, so the first chance I got, I went there. Sumaia, my wife accompanied me, and it was a long trip of 40 minutes with 2 different buses for us to get there. Buses in SP have no indications of where you are. No plan, no digital board, no voice to tell you the stop, nothing, you can hardly the name of the stop from inside out, all you can do is ask the person next to you for help if you’re a bit lost and hope for the best. The consequence is that it got me a bit stressed the whole time. Finally, when we arrived at the academy, after we found the right stop and walked under the rain for a bit.  the lady over there informed us that training would cost us 70 reals per session and in addition to that, we would need to have to wear the official Alliance gi. I didn’t mind borrowing, or even renting one if I had to, but they didn’t have any clean one to rent. The only solution, to train that day, would be to buy one, which would cost me 300 reals (at that time is 370 reals was about 100 euros). At that point I got mad and just left. I wouldn’t pay 370 reals to train there for one day, it was ridiculous. I expected a pretty high price given the resume of the instructors, but for such a short period of time I thought it was insulting to ask that much. To top it all off, we decided to eat some sushis around the academy and we got sick by eating some bad sushis right after we left the gym. How’s that for a first day in Sao Paulo?

That being said, the rest of our stay was much nicer. After a bit of shopping to adapt to the weather, we spent some time with some of my wife’s friend and family, and they made the whole trip to SP worthwhile. The next day we decided to visit the city centre which was nice but a bit rough in some areas, (esp. at night) but it was nice to get to visit museums (most notably for us the immigration museum which was fascinating to me) and different monuments, to learn a little bit more about the history and the culture of the country.

After the whole Alliance debacle, I didn’t rush to find a new gym, but while walking around our place I saw a BJJ gym right next to the flat we were staying at. It looked a bit bizarre from the outside (it had massive pictures of the instructors on the outside which made it look like a Mc dojo) but I decided to come in anyway. The owner offered me to go to the classes for free given I wasn’t staying for long, which was a relief. He told me somebody from the outside came to teach. I didn’t ask anything about the instructor and I found out on the spot that the classes were taught by a purple belt, a lightweight who happened to be a very intense competitor called Luis Henrique Pimentel. The class I went to was early in the afternoon, so there weren’t many people. It was just me, a massive purple belt, two white belt teenagers and Luis. Luis taught us some butterfly sweeps if I remember correctly and I got to practice them with the heavyweight, who happened to speak English very well. The training there was really cool. The teenagers were still new to the sport and you could tell one took training quite seriously while the other one was a bit more laidback about it. We had time to roll with everybody, and me and Luis got a pretty good roll, just the right intensity and he tapped me fair and square. The other purple belt, the heavy one, I had a much more balanced roll where we would both have our moments. I had fun rolling with the teenagers too. I usually don’t take it too seriously when I roll with kids, I just have fun, and I try to give them as much opening as I can, and just counter when I feel like it. Overall I had a great time rolling with them, and from what I saw, they have much busier classes in the evening, I hope I’ll get to see that next time I come around.

 

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Sorry for the bad quality!

I was planning to go to another academy in SP after that, but one thing led to another, and I ended up just visiting the city, and save some energy for Rio where I knew things would get intense.

C. Rio

From SP to Rio we took a bus and it was a beautiful ride. We went across some beautiful mountains and the views were pretty impressive. Once we arrived in Rio, it was a different vibe. The central station in Rio looked pretty bad, and we took a cab to get to a place we’d rented a “suite” with Connection Rio which turned out to be a shithole. I don’t want to get too specific, but for health reasons, we just couldn’t stay there. Apparently it’s pretty common to find some bad places in Rio, so be very careful when you’re renting something over there. We were lucky enough to have enough money in the bank to be able to find and rent another one and we did, which turned out to be a big over expense but it was worth it. The place we ended up staying in was in Copacabana, very close to the beach and 10 min away from De la Riva’s gym, where part of my team from Paris were training at.

In short, I had a blast over there. The weather in Rio was great for the most part. It was nice, after two weeks to be able to speak my native French a bit and not English or my very broken Portuguese. The food was great too. There was a bunch of great Churrascarias around, which was cool. Finally, the training was something special:

I’ll start with the downside. Unfortunately, De la Riva was training Minotauro for his fight against Struve at the time so he was rarely at the gym and during that time, all that everybody did was spar. There were so many people, one out of three people were able to roll at a time on the mat. The visitors were privileged and the instructor would pick out the pairs for each roll. So in other terms, I rolled between 2 to 4 hours every day for a week.

 

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About 1/3 of the guys on the mat were black belts which was impressive to me. People from a lot different countries came to visit. People from Argentina, the US, Japan, England, and quite a lot of French people from different academies came. De la Riva is one of the rare high level black belts instructor who speaks French so he’s got quite a lot of affiliates in France and a lot of them come during the summer. Because of the impressive number of black belts, it’s sort of a good way to demystify the belt. You get to see black belts rolling against one another in some pretty intense fight, and you also get to see one gas like hell after that and taping to a blue belt like me, which is kind of comforting. It was also a great way for me to learn what were the good and the bad parts of my game, what worked and what didn’t etc.…

As I was saying early on, before I went to Rio I was kind of frustrated to see that I never got to roll with somebody who could really get me in some deep waters when I was in Goiania or Sao Paulo, and even in my first day in Rio, I had a pretty easy time training. The second day however, it was the 7 a.m. class, I rolled my very first match with a super intense blue belt and we went to a war, he tapped me several times with a triangle and I never found an opening against him. I left the mat with my nose bleeding all over my face and my beard. I left, cleaned myself up, came back as soon as I could with some bits tissues in my nostrils, and kept rolling, breathing with my mouth. I was so pissed at myself, I went right back at it in the afternoon. Anyway, I finally got that ass whooping I needed to be able to tell, yes, there are some tough guys in Brazil. Just no necessarily as much as you might think. Brazilians are normal people overall, they’re just more exposed to the sport early on than we do.

Most of the days in Rio, our schedule was like this:

Training from 7. to 9 a.m.

Coffee and Acai at 9h30.

Chilling at home, washing the gi and watching some TV for an hour.

Chilling at the beach.

Eating lunch

If needs be, training early in afternoon or visiting or more chilling at the beach.

Diner. Drinks. Movie. Sleep, and repeat.

To me it was paradise. My wife didn’t complain at all. all she had to do was stay in bed when I left early to train. The visits we did were the Jardim botanico (which was great) The pao de azucar (which was nice too) and the surrounding neighbourhoods from Copacabana. I didn’t want to visit any favela. I don’t understand the appeal for it, I didn’t get to visit the Cristo Redendor, either, but I was told the view was great from there too.

To conclude about Rio, I’m not sure anything I would write would do it justice, but man it was fun. Although I’m happy to have seen other parts of Brazil, I definitely had the most fun in Rio, and I could easily go back to Brazil just to go to Rio. It’s just too great. It was cheaper and easier than California. It had some of the best training I ever had. Plus, the cultural aspect of being in a vastly different country Kept me on my toes intellectually speaking at all times. The great weather and beaches didn’t hurt too. It’s definitely worth every penny you’d spend over there and a place you’ve got to visit at least once if you love BJJ.

D. Natal and Recife

Our next stop was Recife. We had planned originally to stay in Recife for a week but unfortunately, the weather there was horrible. Remember, we were there the first week of august, so it’s the winter over there, and it was raining cats and dogs. It was so bad; the friend we were supposed to stay at offered us to go to a friend’s place in Natal for a few days to wait for the bad weather to stop. It turned out to be a great choice. The weather in Natal was fantastic and the friends we were at drove us to all sorts of beautiful places and beaches. It was fantastic. I didn’t get to train over there. I think I was a bit tired after Rio and also I didn’t want to be too annoying with my host. I definitely recommend to go and check out Natal and the coast around there. It was wonderful and pretty cheap too.

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4 days later we were back to Recife where we spent 3-4 days. Over there we did quite a lot of visiting and I had the chance to train twice in two different gyms. One doesn’t want to be mentioned for some bizarre reason, so I’ll oblige, the second was a De la Riva affiliate. Unfortunately, because it was a Sunday morning we were only 4 on the mat, myself included, but it was pretty nice anyway. The instructor Marcelo was very helpful, and took some time to answer my questions at the end of the training which was highly appreciated, the other two, Raquel and Paulo, were two Spaniards living in Recife. They were very nice to me, and it was cool to try and speak some Spanish again with them.

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Apart from the training in Recife we took some time to visit various museums and places over there. We also got to visit Olinda, which is a very old colonial city just up north of Recife, famous for its carnival. It was gorgeous. I highly appreciated to learn a bit more about the culture over there, and see an old city full of history for a change, as opposed to Sao Paulo and Rio that are a lot more modern today.

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E. The end of the trip

The end of the trip was pretty much how it started. We went back to Goiania, I stayed there 3-4 days and trained again with Team Nogueira over there before eventually going back to France. Overall I loved every part of the trip and I highly recommend going to Brazil for anybody, whether you’re into BJJ or not. If you do, I’d definitely recommend spending quite a bit of time in Rio, but if you do want to see more of the country, and learn a bit more about the culture jumping to different places, and heading to the north looks like a must. Me personally, I’ll definitely be back in a couple of years, and I look forward to it, and to visit different parts of the country again!

How to prepare for a trip to Brazil? Tips and recommendations:

  1. The preparation

First of all, I was lucky enough to travel without needing any sort of visa or paperwork which is great, but definitely check out whether or not you need one yourself even if you stay for a short amount of time. I was surprised to find out for instance that US citizens needed a visa to come in, whereas I didn’t (again, I’m French). Also, I was surprised to find out that I was required to take a bunch of vaccines if I was planning to travel outside of Rio, most notably for the yellow fever. The whole thing cost me about 90 euros, so be careful about that if you’re planning on travelling on a tight budget. As my wife said to me a few times “I don’t want to be a widow just yet.”

Now one thing that you HAVE to take into account while preparing to go to Brazil is, outside of Rio and Sao Paulo, nobody speaks English, not even a word, even in touristic areas. I did, in my preparations try to learn as much Portuguese by myself through various apps or books, and it helped, but it really wasn’t enough to be at ease at all times.

 

When it comes to transportations first thing you have to bear in mind, particularly for Europeans is that the distances from cities to cities are sometimes a lot further than they look on a map, just like in the U.S.. Two cities that look close, like SP and Rio, are actually 6 hours away in a bus, but in a plane it’s less than 2 hours. So check out the times before you book any ticket other than a plane ticket.

Within the cities, bear in mind that, in Rio or SP you can go pretty easily from one place to another with buses and in the case of Sao Paulo, with the underground. That being said, in smaller cities I visited (Recife, Goiania, even Brasilia), things were a lot easier by car. Now, driving in Brazil can be a bit scary at times, but I guess it’s pretty much the same in every big city.

  1. Accommodations and the food.

With my wife, we rented a few places through AirBnB. A few teammates of mine did the same in Rio, and even though they had a few problems here and there, it was a lot cheaper and much more comfortable than any other solutions that we experienced. Hotels were, in general much more expensive comparatively, that being said, it’s a bit safer if you want to avoid getting into a scam.

I also had a huge disillusion with Connection Rio. I originally planned on staying in CR for a week but in the end I left after a single night. Basically the room was dirty, there were bloodstains in the sheets, there was a huge humidity problem in the room and that’s the so-called « suite ». I have stayed in several hostels in my life, not all of them were super clean, but this looked more like a tourist trap than a hostel to me. It was a waste of money and I’m happy I didn’t stay any longer, despite the money I spent on it. I’d advise people not to step a foot in there. There are much better options for accommodations in Rio.

When it comes to food, again, knowing some Portuguese is more than helpful. What you need to know too, is there are a particular types of restaurants in Brazil I had never seen anywhere else.

First: « Comida por quilo »: they’re basically a buffet where you pay your food per weight. You can take any food you want, at any quantity but when you have finished choosing, the cashier will weigh the plate(s) of food and it will determine the price based on a price per kilo (the drinks are added after that).

It is a fantastic way to eat when you are training regularly. Even though most of the buffet you find aren’t top notch in terms of quality, you can make your own mix, eat as much as you want, try all sorts of stuff and not overpay like in the traditional types of restaurants. It’s a great way to not get drawn into eating too much which is easy to do in Brazil, and controlling roughly the amount of protein, carbs and vegetables you take. This might become your primary source of food over there.

The Churrascaria: If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, you can skip them all entirely because it’s a type of restaurant for the most carnivores people out there. Basically it’s like a buffet, except that every few minutes a waiter comes to you with a huge piece of meat and will offer you some slices. You also have some vegetables and carbs (pasta, rice, etc…) on the side, but you’re going to eat mostly meat, because the waiters are here to offer you more meat than you can think of. In these, you pay a fixed fee for the food, and you pay the drinks apart.

There are also the “classical” restaurants after that. I’m not going to tell you how to eat in a restaurant, but be careful though, although it’s never written on the menu, most meals are enough for 2 or 3 persons, so you might want to ask a waiter in advance, or just order a plate one at a time.

Food to try out over there (other than the Acai every BJJ guy is raving about): Pao de Queijo, Picanha, feijoada (the national meal in Brazil, although it’s super hard to digest for me), Moqueca, manioc, and of course, all the sucos (juice) of all the local fruits.

Conclusion

I’ve visited quite a few countries as a BJJ globetrotter: the UK, Denmark, the U.S., but Brazil was definitely something else for me. I was lucky enough to have quite a lot of money on the side for it, and I got to live the experienced I dreamt of over there. My confidence in my game skyrocketed from there, and it was nice to see that the BJJ you practice in Europe or in the US isn’t so different from the one you practice in Brazil. That being said, it’s still a remarkable experience to go to the place where it all started and to learn through a different language than English. People in general were extremely nice and helpful, and it was highly appreciated. Now, I hope you appreciated the tale of that trip, let me know whether you did or not, and feel free to ask me any question on what I might have forgotten to cover. In the meantime, Adeus!

Take care, and keep on training and travelling,

Arthur