Monday, January 8, 2018

Where is Nico Now?

The Friday before Christmas, coach Ron asked me how long I was going to be in town for this time... As if I didn't live there! As if I wasn't there almost everyday (albeit not at the same times as him)! I looked at him frustrated. No one ever knows where I am, in fact, despite living in America for over a year, people still tell me they thought I was just in Brazil at least twice a week...

Ron was right though, I was leaving again. On Sunday I would be headed down to the Florida Keys to spend Christmas with my mom.

Five years ago, around the same time I decided to move to Brazil, my mother got rid of her house and moved into a RV with her boyfriend. She works in IT, so three days a week she is up at the crack of dawn working, but the rest of the week she is free to spend her time and her money wantonly. Her boyfriend works odd jobs at random campsites in whatever random part of the United States they may find themselves visiting.

My mother never questioned my decision to move to Brazil. She's always supportive when I'm trying to do rash things like spend my last dollars on a tattoo that I don't necessarily need in a 3rd world country when I know damn well that I am week and a half into a fight camp.

"You have enough food right?"
"Yeah, I'm cutting weight I can't eat a lot."
"Well get the tattoo, wrap it up and go train then. Should be fine"

Does she give the best. Hell no! Clearly she gives some crazy advice sometimes... You should never get a tattoo in the middle of a fight camp, but she understands. There is maybe two in a million people that understand and don't question me about when I'm going to get a real job or find a real place to live. Instead for Christmas, she got me a bunch of black and white composition books (because thats what I always write in), a binder to keep my business stuff, and a ticket down to visit her because the way the both of us come and go through state to state and from country to country it's hard to find time to be still and enjoy family.

This time next week I will be working at the 2018 Europeans! 
We have one athlete from Terere Kid's Project that will be joining me. 
We have one athlete from Terere Kid's Project who was unable to secure a flight in time so for the second year they will miss the tournament and we will lose the registration money. 
I have one athlete from Gordo Jiu Jitsu who I am expecting to end up without a place to stay and may need to sleep on my floor! 

Fiesta Keys RV Resort

Monday, December 25, 2017

#tbt Christmas

Bitchy on the plane to Miami. It’s that point in my life where I start to realize that maybe I need some professional help. PoloGod keeps telling me that I’m crazy. Bipolar to be specific…. Justifiable in his case considering I did kirk out on him.

It doesn’t feel like Christmas, but then again, I hate Christmas. I do need a break though.
All I do is work and train and compete and only one of the 3 jobs I have includes a real paycheck.

One week off.
Two weeks to prepare for Europeans.

Hopefully I warm weather will make me less crazy.

Carioca Christmas 2013

I moved into the Favela in 2013 right before Christmas. 
I lived with Terere's secretary, her husband, and her three sons. 

I spent my first Christmas in Brazil with them. Then I met up with my friend from Argentina on Ipanema beach before heading to Barra da Tijuca to see my friends from the Connection Rio Hostel.

By the time I got to Connection Rio there were beer cans and baby oil everywhere. The house was empty... everyone had gone down to the beach or was already passed out.

They tried to wrestle on mats in the pool. 

Belo Horizonte 2015

This was probably the best Christmas of my life so far. I had been in broke in Brazil for two years and was no longer accustomed to normal things in life like being with family, sitting on real couches, watching or owning TVs, real cups and silverware, not waking up to weed and ak47s and gunshots... 

In 2014 my mom's Brazilian friend came to visit from the U.S. and invited me to spend Xmas with her and her family. It was the first time I got to leave Rio and do normal things. I stayed with her family, visited their house in the historic town of Ouro Preto (black gold), explored mines, saw where Gold in Brazil was discovered and didn't have to worry about all the things that I normally have to worry about. 

Christmas 2015

I didn't have a Christmas in 2015. I went to the beach and longboarded a little. I think I went home and ate oatmeal....

This was a hard time a good friend went to the hospital the next day. 
I was living in Curitiba and came back Rio for a few weeks to do work for the Project.

Apparently, I don't have any pictures from last year. It was my first year back with my family. It was too soon for me to be ok. I made the mistake of going with them to the movies and fell asleep. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Us against Them

Do you remember your favorite childhood memory?

Can you close your eyes and picture it? 


Picture it, and if you can't, then picture mine. 

I grew up with my half-brother and my mother on a cul-du-sac in Pennsylvania. My favorite things were ice pops, play stations, and playing batman with Mike Penn. All the boys had skateboards or roller blades, but all I had was a Barbie limousine, so I would stick one foot in the hot tub that was in the back of the limousine and the other small ankle through the sun roof and I skated around on that pink limo until the wheels popped off.

But imagine as I was sitting there contemplated my options, the anguish welling up inside of me because the boys on their skates and bikes were doubling the distance between us, there was a loud pop. And I look up to try to find the back of my brother’s head amongst the distanct forms that were circling the cul du sac, but then there was another pop and then the street lights flickered. A third pop announced the presence of dark 6 dark figures at the entrance of a cul-du-sac. They broke through the line of my brother and his friends as smooth as scabbed elbows cut through a giggling mass of tanned hands linked together in a Red Rover line.

Red Rover Red Rover everyone wearing black come over. 

Except we didn’t invite these guests. 

They didn’t come to play.

One grabbed my brother by the neck of his shirt causing his body to convulse, arching back as if a demon were about to be exorcised from his body.* Maybe there was a demon in my brother’s eyes because his look made the officer drop him in disgust, sending him head first into the same asphalt that was where our bike tired burnt skid marks.

Behind my brother kids coming home from school scattered in different directions. Backpacks were left forgotten and stray sheets of homework took brief flight into the air before being tramped back down by black boots storming towards us.

A guy my dad always talked to on the way home ran by my left. As he passed, one of the black figures lifted both arms and sent a deafening sound through the night air, splitting my senses in two.

His name was EJ. He was our neighbor's son. I used to have a crush on him. I used to confuse his name with OJ, as in OJ Simpson, who was on trial at the time. The last few times I had seen him, I clammed up, too scared to speak because I might confuse him with a killer.

But I wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore because they killed him.

Thes same sound that sent an excruciatingly painful noise ricocheting around my head, sent EJ crumpling to the ground. His bottle of v8 shattered leaving splattered red remnants on the walls car park.

I used to climb the tree next to the car park and lay flat on the roof to hide from my friends. To me, it was the highest and safest place in the world.

It took me a couple years to realize that there were higher and better places in the world to hide.

It took me a couple days of nagging the older boys to realize that Ej didn’t drink v8, that it was his blood, not juice that stained my favorite hiding spot.  Now every time I walk by I look at the hole that Ej's bullet carved out in the carpark and think of the night when I came bounding down my stairs in my light blue mermaid pijamas with a coloring book in hand to see show EJ his name, misspelled in blue crayon next to mini mouse.

This never happened to me, but it’s happening right now in the favela I call home. Their childhood memories are being systematically snatched away and replaced by nightmares.

I remember the first time that an 8-year-old, who was walking home to the favela by himself, told me about hopping over puddles of blood on his way to school. He said it like he was talking about baseball statistics. Bare chested, cell phone clipped to baggy pants, key swirling between his fingers, he was only eight, but he was no child.

City of God Favela

They keep telling me it's dangerous. That I shouldn't go there. 
So I came to tell him that. I tried to take him home. 
But he wouldn't leave, so I'll keep going back, leaving little trails 
of bread crumbs, till he can't find a way to get by and you, 
you can keep calling them dangerous and leave them to die. 

 I wonder if he ever spent a summer eating ice pops with his best friend and using cheat codes from the internet to beat his favorite PlayStation games. I wonder if he had ever played on a real soccer team, with real shoes, or if his sports aspirations were limited to deflated balls, guided by bare feet, on crumbling cement courts. I wonder what he wants to be when he grows up or if he even sees growing up as a possibility for his future.

Vidigal Favela

Kids playing with a soccer ball in the Alleys

Today they came at 6 A.M., but a lot of time they come in the afternoon when the streets of the favela are filled with life. When kids are coming home from school. When parents, tired from a long day’s work are hauling bags of groceries up endless flights of stairs. When grandmothers are serving lunch and opening their doors for the uncountable number of cousins and uncles that claim refuge at their dining room tables.

There are 38 supposedly "pacificed" favelas in Rio de Janeiro. 
That means they contain police stations but that doesn't mean they have 
stopped the violence or the drug trafficking.

You can’t always hear the shots, especially if you live on my side of the neighborhood, but you see the messages. The pictures of armored trucks with ARs protruding from any available opening, missing kids lost on their way home from school, the futile prayers and pictures of white doves asking for peace.

Police have occupied favelas but have done little to foster
community engagement. Police in most communities are very 
hostile. Notably they are working in very unfriendly environments
and engaged in urban guerilla warefare, but does that justify 
the inhumane practices?

They killed someone on Valentine’s Day in June and that set off two months of incessant shooting.

They shot someone off the side of the mountain and that set off a series of vulgar Youtube videos degrading people from the community.

They blew someone up with a grenade last month, and that, well that just fucked with my mind as I walked through Columbia heights wearing hundreds of dollars’ worth of clothes with 1,000s of dollars worth of electronics in my backpack.

It’s hard, as an educated adult, to understand how you can go from sipping coffee and discussing politics in Ipanema to laying on the floor in the dark wishing you had put credit on your phone because they shot out the electricity and you have no means of communication with the outside world.

It’s in that dark, silence, isolated from the world, that hate is born.

Hatred for the police. For the government. For every intruder that comes into your neighborhood and shoots down your dreams, takes pictures of your misery, and tries to use you as a political ploy to get more votes.

It’s hard, to take a kid raised in this situation and try to teach them to dream because when they close their eyes, all they see is nightmares.

It's hard, but we still try.

Favela Jiu Jitsu: Projects for Life 

Find out more about Jiu Jitsu based Social Projects in Rio

*while this is a fictional story about my childhood it is based off real events that I have seen while living in Cantagalo. The most disturbing thing I saw my first month there were 6 armed police officers patrolling the neighborhood yank a kid out of a corner where he was hiding and stick his rifle in his face while barking at him. It was standing two feet behind them watching them shove an automatic weapon into the face of a child that I understood for the first time in my life what it means to embrace the "fuck the police" mentality. 

War In Rochina

(From a past post)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Rise and Fall of Buda

The first time I’d seen him was an old picture folded away in Terere’s resume book. It wasn’t a resume in the traditional sense that most people know them to be because most things in the favela lack the same traditions that most people know. Terere’s resume was a book filled with old new paper clippings, podium pictures, and other relics from his competition days.

It was a blurry picture of scrawny kids with worn white gis, throwing their arms up in a t formation. Terere, Leandro Martins, Fabricio da Silva, Jackson Sousa, and Buda.

Buda was a legend at the project. He was just as good as Terere they said. He found with Leandro Lo they would brag. He had just as much potential as anyone else but some questionable life decisions landed him in jail.

My friend sent me a new clipping announcing that they had finally arrested the right-hand man of Pitbull. Pitbull is the owner of my favela. Yes, that’s right, the owner. He is in charge of our local branch of Commando Vermelho.

The article said he was dangerous. The Ecuadorians said that the police came and took him at the end of training, then they came back and searched the gym and people stuff for drugs. The American from California said they came in while he was rolling. Two ARs and a handgun drawn and took him. They said he was dangerous, but that morning he was leading class and helping an engineer from the United States with his first jiu-jitsu class.

I wasn’t there when they came and took him because I was taking pictures at another social project. I trained with him that morning though. We tapped fists and he dropped down low. One would think that three years in jail would fuck up your conditioning, but Buda was jumping around, chanting Ui Terere, and laughing as he hook-swept me in true Terere fashion.

Terere has a lot of family, friends, and fans, but few people truly know him through and through like the people that grew up with him.

They say he’s dangerous, but he was there at the project day and night training and trying to stay out of trouble.

Favela Jiu Jitsu: Buda at Terere Kids Project


Friday, August 11, 2017

City of God: are favelas safe?

City of God is one of Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously dangerous favelas. A quick google search will confirm that, listing incidents of gunfights and drug apprehensions every few days. The taxi driver was also quick to confirm it.

“It’s not bad, it’s horrible” he corrected us. “No so much here, down the side streets.”

Is it  really safe?

It’s sossegado, they’ll tell you. It’s quiet. They always tell you that, despite the fact that there had been shootouts 3 out of the 5 days of that week. To you, that may not seem safe, to someone that lives in the favela, that’s normal. Any fighter will tell you that the difference between winning and losing is in the small details. Inches could make the difference between life or death and blocks can make the difference between war and peace.

The dealers in my neighborhood reminded me about that before I left out today. They had pointed out to me the holes from last month’s gun fight and were retelling stories. Police operations (shootouts) have been going on since the olympics, escalating in June on the Brazilian valentines day, and finally culminating when they arrested the head hood, but both the police and the dealers were both still heavily armed. In facet I almost walked smack into a guy holding an odd shaped gun that I mistook for a t-bar while heading out in the afternoon.  We both just side skirted each other, brushing elbows, and continued on with our days.

They continued their story, alternating details as they passed a joint between them.

The fist-sized hole in the wall a few inches from my arm.

The shattered glass window of the house that stood 10 feet from my own.

And they just laughed.

About the bullets flying by their head.

About the day that one of their own got shot in the neck down by the Pistao.

“You almost died, but you laugh?”

First, it’s the adrenaline. 
Then comes the fun.  

Most people are scared of them, but I'm scared for them

I took precautions before leaving for the City of God. I might think lightly of my own saftey but I was taking 4 other gringos with me.

We all got our asses kicked by 17 year old Gabi. 

So I asked directions and landmarks, checked who the local gang was, made sure I had credit on my phone and cash in small notes, and asked permission to film out of the gym window towards the street.

I wasn’t actually worried, but knowledge is power, and I know I push my luck always talking to dealers and taking pictures of police.

Everyone is scared of the favelas, but I'm scared of getting robbed on the bus or on the beach. I didn’t care if it was  considered “safe” or not. I haven’t checked the statistics, but I’m pretty sure more gringos die in plane crashes and car accidents then getting gunned down in favelas.

Everyone knows City of God is a violent place, what I cared about was making sure they know that there’s more to it than that. That in the middle of all the violence there is still a small room above a church where kids come every day looking for a way out. That when Flograppling and Graciemag are following Mackenzie Dern and Leandro Lo all over Portugal for Europeans, that those same kids are right there huddled together playing card games and  eating left over bagged lunches that the refs bring them. If you look closely you’ll find them at most of the major competitions, watching and waiting. They’re there all day every day waiting for their coach to finish working so they can go together back to their small Airbnb where they sleep together, alternating between mattresses and floor space, cook huge pots of spaghetti to save money, then relax restlessly waiting for their own fights.

Is it safe?
I get this question all the time.

If you ask the kids from City of God, they say yes.
If you ask my kids from D.C., they say the murder rate is up 80%.
If you ask anyone I took out to City of God today, they’ll tell you they had a good time.

Safety is subjective.

Projeto Social Lutadores do Cristo

Thursday, August 10, 2017

From DC to Houston to Rio

Most people think I'm on vacation but Rio is my New York and I have a lot of new photography equipment that I plan to do a lot of filming with so I'll be balancing my time between the beach, training, and filming at different social projects around Rio.

Straight to training. 
I packed my camera, a gi, and training clothes
in my carry on suitcase. 

My luggage got left in Houston so instead of going to the hospital or the eye doctor, I had to hang around the favela and wait for united to deliver my two suitcases. There's been a lot of police operations (i.e. shootouts) in Cantagalo so the guy refused to go all the way up, which meant me and my friend from Maryland, that has been watching my house had to haul the two suitcases up a crazy long flight of stairs.

Note: When I got the call that the guy had dropped off my suitcases at the stairs I was with two Ecuadorians that are training at Rio. I had taken them to get their haircut at Terere's cousin barber shop in the Gaza Strip, the most dangerous part of Cantagalo. I got the call, grabbed my bag of bananas, and then left them there. They'd only been in the favela for two days, but apparently, they made they're way out because they were in training later that night. I left my bag of bananas with the lookout by my house so that I could have my hands free and went back to get them a couple hours later after I recovered from hauling the suitcase up the stairs. 

I still haven't gone to the doctor...

I've pretty much been working and training the whole time I've been here. Three athletes from the Project are going to Curitiba Open tomorrow and I have arrangements to stop by and film at other projects around Rio.

I'm starting off today at Projeto Social Cantagalo, a former Checkmat affiliate that's here where I live and then tomorrow I'm heading off to the City of God Favela to check out the Projeto Social Lutadores de Cristo.

City of God

Click here to read about Gabi 

Terere Kids Project

Cantagalo Jiu Jitsu

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Everything's Bigger in Texas

Partiu (verb:partir): To leave

I started this blog about 4 years ago when I first got it in my head to drop everything and move to Rio.

I was a brown belt in kickboxing at MiKiDo and I didn't train any jiu-jitsu at the time (nor did I speak any Portuguese). Most people thought I was crazy at the time, but I think people that spend $100s of dollars at happy hour and spend any amount of money on meaningless shit like books to adorn coffee tables are crazier.

I thought I would be there for 6 months. I spent 3 years. 2 1/2 of which I was an illegal immigrant.

I came back for two reasons, in fact, for two Nicoles. Ironically enough, one Nicole is from Mikido in VA and the other from Connection Rio where I first lived in Brazil, and I credit those to places as being the baseline for who I am today.

I've been back for a year and it most definitely was a difficult transition after living in the Favela for 3 years. Now I work at a night school as an ESL teacher and at Beta Academy in D.C. during the day in exchange for training.

I've been broke for most of the year but I've still managed to get to South Carolina, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Montana, California, and Portugal this year. I got to compete in Worlds in Cali and Europeans in Portugal. I lost both fights and then spent the rest of the tournament working for Flograppling. It was beyond dope being mat side at some of the biggest tournaments of the year. Erbeth Santos is a beast on paper, but in person, he's breathtaking... and of course, I always seem to be in Leandro Lo's way right around the finals or some other important fight.

Other then traveling and losing at all the major tournaments of the year I've been kicking ass at local tournaments and formalizing the Project as an official 501(c). That means we're a nonprofit. it's supposed to mean that we can get more donations or sponsors, but up until now, it's just a lot of extra work for me.

Leaving D.C.

On Monday I'll be back with my people in Rio. 

Right now, I'm on my way to Texas to meet up with Pretty Boy.  

It just occurred to me that I don't know Pretty Boy's real name and I don't remember what he looks like. I met him once, in Rio, we were at the corner of General Osorio and he walked up with a flask in his hand on his way to get a massage. Lack of Portuguese did not keep Pretty Boy from enjoying Rio.