Category Archives: Travel

The Globetrotters

itt-sept-2016I traveled to Canada a few weeks ago to train at a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school there. It was a great experience. I could train for free and was even provided a place to stay. The school, Island Top Team, is part of a worldwide network encouraging BJJ practitioners to travel and train with other.

Where I train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is more of a club. There’s a teacher but he’s not there all of the time and there’s less than 15 students. So, there aren’t the taboos on training at other schools that are present at many traditional BJJ schools.

Anthropologists have observed that “nomadic foragers are universally and all but obsessively concerned with being free of the authority of others.” I think the same is true for those of us who’re no longer hunter-gathers.

There was a focus on “us vs. them” in tribal life. But that’s a ancient survival mechanism that kept us safe by staying with and fighting for our own tribe. Anything else would’ve meant death during most of our history because you wouldn’t be able to survive on your own. Nowadays in our industrialized world it’s not needed.

A typical Jiu Jitsu business model builds on and takes advantage of the “us vs them” idea  by creating a culture of “expected loyalty” hampering exposure to different and possibly better moves. But we’re  adults, and no other adult should tell us, who we can and can’t grapple with.

The BJJ Globetrotting idea came to a Danish BJJ Black belt who encountered some “us vs them” mentality on a worldwide trip to train BJJ. He said:

The stories about Jiu Jitsu politics I heard from people, haunted my mind for long, after I returned home. The feeling I had gotten from visiting all these academies of the world, finding friendships in each and every one of them, made them painful to listen to. One day, whilst riding my bicycle home from training, an idea popped up in my head. I realised that I was in a position (as a black belt with a school) to do things differently. I could create a team against teams. An alternative Jiu Jitsu affiliation, that poked the traditional notion of our tribalized culture and would advocate against the typical BJJ business model of making sure your customers are scared enough to keep eating in your restaurant out of ‘respect.’

He wrote down a set of defined values to apply to the new globetrotter type student and academies.

We don’t pay each other any affiliation fees
We wear any patches we like on our gis
We are free to represent any (or no) team in competition
We encourage training with anyone regardless of affiliation
We are willing to promote anyone who deserves it—members or not
We arrange camps, seminars and visit each other for training and fun
We believe everyone is equal both on and off the mats
We strive to enjoy life, people and the world through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

True, honest friendships and positive memories are amongst the very few things really worth collecting in life.

Any person you meet could potentially change your life forever. Why limit yourself including who you choose to be friends with and train with and allow to influence your existence?

As far as I can tell his ideas are working.

The few or the many?

Since the internet is basically a connection machine fostering interactions and access to many ideas and people, are the opinions of the few paid professional reviewers better than the consensus of the many who’re unpaid and ordinary?

Not too long ago, we looked for opinions in papers, magazines and on TV from professional reviewers.

The other day, I read an essay about whether or not professional reviewers are relevant anymore because there’re so many opinions on the internet.

Do you go see a movie  based on a professional reviewer’s opinion or will you give more attention to opinions of people you see as peers?

One problem with the opinion of the many is that the process can be corrupted and, if you find out, your confidence shaken. People want to help out friends and they usually want to go with what the other friends are doing.

Here’s one example of the system being gamed by a restaurant that was open for less than a year. By requesting and getting positive reviews, it rose to highest rated restaurant in Mexico on TripAdvisor.

The restaurant has since then been sold and the name changed. It was a good restaurant, but not the number one restaurant in Mexico. But someone visiting our town would have gotten an inaccurate opinion from the many because it had been compromised.

I guess it’s not unlike what many businesses do on the web to better their chances of getting a good search result on Google. It’s a cat and mouse game in which Google tries to stay ahead of the people trying to manipulate whatever parameter they think Google uses.

If the professional reviewer or opinion giver isn’t careful, their experience can be manipulated too. If a restaurant critic lets on that she’ll be dining at a certain restaurant, she’ll likely have a carefully orchestrated experience, probably different from the one she’d have from passing through as a regular customer.

It’s probably worthwhile using the opinions of both the few and the many, along with a little bit of common sense.

Break out the slackline

On a surf trip, only a few hours, at most, are spent in the water.

The rest of the day is spent making and eating meals while telling tall (wave) tales.

There’s some resting and napping that goes on too, but it’s fun to have other daytime activities. So it’s a good time to break out the slackline.

Slacklining was developed by rock climbers in the 70’s to train their balance skills, and for fun. You just stretch a length of strong nylon webbing between two stationary anchors, usually trees, and then (try to) walk across it.

It’s kinda like tightrope walking, but a slackline isn’t as tightly tensioned as a tightrope and the webbing, 1 to 2 inches wide, keeps your foot from rolling.

It’s hard to do at first. Your legs will shake with small tremors while your nervous system figures out how to fire correctly to walk on an unstable surface. Then as your muscles learn, you can take a couple of tentative steps, lose your balance and try again.

Besides being fun and good for your balance, slacklining is a good icebreaker. People are drawn in when they see it. The people who’ve done it before want to have a go and people who’re seeing it for the first time want to try it out.

I’ve set up a slackline on the last couple of surf trips to La Ticla, a surf spot that attracts Mexican and international surfers.

The slackline always helps in meeting and befriending other people who stop by to give it a try. Not just surfers either, there was even a passing hammock vendor giving it a try on this trip.

What’s Mescal?

We just returned from Oaxaca City in southern Mexico. Coincidentally, a friend is living there while he’s starting a mescal export business. We visited with him a few times and learned a bit about mescal.

Mescal is a broad category for liquors distilled from the agave plant. The mescal most people know is tequila, but there’re lots more mescals throughout Mexico.

Because I live in Mexico, I’d been thinking about writing a post about my favorite tequila. But mescal is a more interesting story than my favorite tequila (I buy Centenario Repasado most often which, I guess, makes it my favorite).

Different types of agave plants are found pretty much all over Mexico. Agaves have been used as a beverage base for thousands of years here. Probably the original agave drink was pulque, sort of like an agave beer.

After the Spanish showed up and introduced distillation, various local Peoples began producing a drink called mescal using agave plants.

The world of mescal shares some similarities with the wine world. The agave plant comes in many forms and grows in many different soils and climate with each combination providing different taste characteristics for the mescal.

Just as champagne can only be made from certain grapes and only in the Champagne region of France, tequila can only be made from a certain agave plant and only in the Tequila region of Mexico.

Like wine, mescals can can be consumed when they’re young or they can be aged. Young clear mescal, called joven, seems to be considered the way to go.

The agave plants can also be harvested in the wild where they grow naturally, or they can be cultivated and harvested more easily. Each style of the resulting mescal has it’s following.

Again like wine, the pricing is often based on scarcity. And mescal drinkers use similar adjectives for describing the, often subtle, taste differences between different mescals.

There’s even some overlap with scotches; the most common adjective I heard for describing a mescal’s taste was “smokey.”

There’s a thriving mescal subculture, especially in Oaxaca, that’s worth investigating if you’re even slightly interested in it.


The Zip-off Pants

I was just talking about traveling light and being able to carry your bag on Friday. But I feel like I should be clear that you shouldn’t  travel light by wearing zip-off pants. No zip-off pants.

Nothing is much better than these things, at shouting “tourist!” I know they seem to be a good idea, but they’re not. Especially if you have any desire to blend in at all with the local populace. The only people I’ve ever seen sporting zip-offs are tourists. And that can be ok if you want to remain  immersed in a clot of your fellow zip-off pant wearers.

I’ve found when traveling, the more you blend in the better your experience of another culture can be. So, being somewhat sensitive to local fashion can help. For example in Mexico, as you travel inland from the coast, adult men don’t wear shorts. Sure, if you have blue eyes and freckles you won’t be mistaken for a local Mexican man even if you’re wearing long pants, but you don’t want to work against yourself either.

Zip-off pants are the tip of the attention drawing iceberg of bad travel practices. Last week I saw this article, How To Avoid Looking Like A Tourist, by Kate Kuhlman.  The article covers almost every travel fashion faux pas from the wrong footwear to cameras used as necklaces. She beat me to it and did a good job on the subject, it’s funny too.

So remember, the people hawking travel wear like zip-off pants have their sales numbers in mind, not what you’ll actually look like outside of the shop or catalog.

If you went to a beach in Brazil populated by women who looked like the one below, do think she might be using a secret tip-off signal for her friends – to check out your zip-off pants?                                                                                                                                                                                              

Escalator to the Gym

Almost everywhere you go these days you need to search amongst oversized people to find a regular sized person. I don’t know the numbers, but my observation in the Western world, is that overweight people seem to outnumber the people who aren’t overweight. I guess people like eating too much and not moving enough. But, we’re meant to move around – and probably while carrying something.

When I travel I see lots of people in airports pulling around small carry-on bags on wheels. I understand using wheels on big heavy bags. But, these days most of the airlines are encouraging us to only take carry-on luggage. And we’re often complying.

If you’re traveling light, you can benefit from going without wheels on small luggage. Instead of the wheelie bag, why not just use a bag you can hand carry or use with a shoulder sling? You’ll move around more quickly and negotiate tight spots, like the aisles on the plane and in the news stand, more easily. And you’ll wind up getting a little free exercise.

Is it human nature to avoid any possible exertion? Probably, but most people who can afford to fly  aren’t engaged in activities requiring them to seek relief from physical hardship. The stairs in airports are actually faster and very easy if you’re carrying your bag. You’ll begin to notice that the stairs are hardly used anymore in airports. Same deal with the moving sidewalks in airports – if it’s not your first time seeing one or you’re running late for a flight – why stand there for two minutes? It’s like people taking the escalator up to the gym to get a workout.

Have a look at this article about sitting that I just spotted in the NYT. Here’s an excerpt:

After assessing how much food each of his subjects needed to maintain their current weight, Dr. Levine then began to ply them with an extra 1,000 calories per day. Sure enough, some of his subjects packed on the pounds, while others gained little to no weight.

“We measured everything, thinking we were going to find some magic metabolic factor that would explain why some people didn’t gain weight,”… with the help of the motion-tracking underwear, they discovered the answer. “The people who didn’t gain weight were unconsciously moving around more,” Dr. Jensen says. They hadn’t started exercising more — that was prohibited by the study. Their bodies simply responded naturally by making more little movements than they had before the overfeeding began, like taking the stairs, trotting down the hall to the office water cooler, bustling about with chores at home or simply fidgeting. On average, the subjects who gained weight sat two hours more per day than those who hadn’t.

Visiting Mexico City

Here’s a beautiful Mexico City Video that’s worth a view, even just for its the style alone. We just returned from a five-day trip to Mexico City and had a great time there.  I know about all the bad things that are happening in parts of Mexico and those things seem to be all that’s reported on in the media. But there’re lots of areas in Mexico, most areas, that continue on in their regular fashion.

I’d like to report that we felt completely safe the whole time we were in Mexico City. It’s  one of the largest cities in the world. Around 20 million people. And in the course of five days we ate, rubbernecked, and shopped our way through as much of the city as we could. We visited museums, walked through parks, traveled by subway and taxi as well as rode bikes a lot. Parts of Mexico City have an ecobici system that, every few blocks, allows you to borrow a bike and return it to the station nearest your destination. We also walked through huge open markets and public squares. No problems. The vibe was much less intense than New York City, much more like a large European city.

There are all sorts of contrasts in Mexico City. The old, quiet cobblestone and brick neighborhood where Cortez lived until 1524 contrasts with a modern skyscraper heavy, downtown area packed with sculptures. You’ll also find “the great square”, or Zocalo, which has been the center of the city since Aztec times, surrounded by micro businesses so plentiful I felt as if I was looking at a coral reef for humans, no space unused or need unmet. There’re street sweepers answering their cell phones while still using brooms that look like they’re made by whomever it is that makes brooms for witches. You know, a long handle with a bundle of long switches tied to one end. And Mexico City as you’d guess, is teeming with food options, escamoles (ant eggs) and chapulinas (fried grasshoppers) at small busy stalls in markets to haute cuisine in historic buildings.

We traveled around the city at different times of the day any the night and never felt worried or threatened. There’re cops around, but just what I feel is probably the normal amount for a big city, not an overwhelming presence, just enough to feel safe without feeling overly protected.

On a side note, you won’t see men in Mexico City wearing short pants. So I think out of cultural respect and to not stand out, don’t even take short pants with you if you visit. The more you blend in, the less likely you’ll be noticed. Probably ditto for backpacks, fanny packs and cameras.

Anyway, don’t be worried about visiting  most parts of Mexico any more than you’d be worried about  visiting anywhere else. It’s safe.