Anyway, I've been saying for years that I wanted to go to the USA for a training trip. I have five states in mind: Florida, California, Virginia, Oregon and Texas. That's partly based on where I get the most blog visitors, but also on people I'd most like to visit. I'm far more interested in meeting up with my favourite bloggers rather than training with big name instructors, though it's of course fun to be taught by a celebrity.
As this year I had the opportunity to go for two weeks on my own, I decided to head for Texas. My girlfriend is not very keen on travelling to the US in general, but has absolutely zero interest in Texas. Hence why I thought that would be the best option for a solo trip, as by contrast I'm very interested. That is entirely because of the people who live there, which I'll discuss more later.
I'll kick things off by talking about transportation, which I imagine will be dull for most people. To skip me babbling about planes and buses, go here. If you're only interested in the training, then all my write-ups for the jiu jitsu I did in Texas can be found here. However, if you're in the same position I was before this trip, looking around for any information on how to travel to and around the US, then there is a chance the stuff on transport might be of some use to you.
The biggest concern before I left was transport, both in the air and on the ground. Judging by my reading on the net, a lot of people were complaining about how terrible American airline companies were, which at least in the case of Delta doesn't seem to be true. I made the decision to go for a cheaper flight, which also meant it had multiple connections and took much longer. I won't do it again: each time, I was stressing about missing my connection, so I'd rather pay the extra and have a more relaxing flight.
It can also take a very long time. To give you an idea, on the way back I got up at 05:30 on Friday, arriving at the Greyhound station to catch the 08:15 bus to Dallas. I arrived into Dallas a bit after 12:00, after which my friend Triin kindly drove me back to the airport. My flight left at 17:25, arriving into Detroit at 21:30 local time. I had to run to catch my 22:05 flight to Amsterdam. That was an 8 hour journey, getting to Amsterdam at 12:20 local time. There was another wait for the 16:25 to Bristol, which got in at 16:25 local time. Driving back, I finally got home at 18:00 on Saturday, UK time.
For those who don't mind over a day of travel, stressing about missed connections, or have no other choice, then if you're connecting at Charles de Gaulle it takes about 30-40 mins to do it comfortably. That includes getting a bus to the terminal after disembarking, passport control, finding your gate, getting to your gate (you may have to take the airport monorail), security (again, no liquids, so drink that first if you brought any water on the plane), then finally boarding. So, I would recommend at least 2 hours, in case your flight gets delayed (like mine did). I had 1 hour and 25 minutes, which was a bit tight. It was even tighter in Detroit, where I only had an hour. Therefore making sure you have at least two hours layover when booking flights with connections seems sensible.
If you're a fellow UK resident, you'll need an ESTA form (it stands for 'Electronic System for Travel Authorization') when travelling to the US, which you might also see referred to as the visa-waiver program. Get that before you fly and print it out: this lasts for two years, which is handy if you are making multiple trips to the States, particularly as you are currently charged about $14 for it. During your flight into the US, the airline staff will also hand out a white form and a blue form. If you have an ESTA, you only need to fill in the blue form, which relates to customs: this includes any gifts you're bringing with you.
I had read lots of horror stories about how unpleasant an experience it was to arrive in the USA. I was expecting to be subjected to an arduous security check, which all the forums said would take hours and possibly make me miss my flight. Happily, it was nowhere near as bad as that: although you have to pick your checked luggage back up at your first port of entry into the US and then re-check (even if it was checked right through to your final destination), I was finished in less than half an hour.
It is nevertheless true that security personnel aren't too friendly and the process is a little humiliating. You're interrogated on your reasons for coming to the States, then you're fingerprinted, have your photo taken, pass through a 3D body scan and get your hands swabbed. When you reach that 3D scan, take EVERYTHING out of your pockets, even bits of tissue. They need to be completely empty, or as I discovered, you'll be patted down and double-checked. I had assumed it was just metal items, but scraps of tissue and other trouser detritus all count.
I expected to scrape through like my previous connections, but instead I had a 3.5 hour wait in Minneapolis/St Paul. My Kindle helped me while away the time, as did the free airport WiFi (it's intermittent, but does work). MSP Airport also has a full range of charge points, with USB, iPhone and two-pin sockets. Getting through to Dallas/Fort Worth was straightforward after that, arriving on time even though departure was delayed. Dallas Fort Worth similarly has charge points, though during my several hour wait on the flight back, I wasn't able to connect to the WiFi.
online and they were inexpensive: booking in advance, I paid less than $30 total for all three of my Greyhound trips.
The ticket pops up as a pdf (a link is emailed to you as well), which you print out and then present to the official before you get on the bus. Luggage handlers take your checked bags from you and store them under the bus, which you'll pick up at your destination. You're allowed one piece of carry-on luggage, as long as it is small enough to fit either under the seat or in the rack above your head. I had heard some stories of rampant theft on Greyhound buses, so was nervous about the luggage underneath the bus, but encountered no problems. When you get off the bus, wait next to it by the relevant gate to pick your bag back up. They may or may not ask to see some kind of ticket proving it is your bag.
On the Dallas to Austin Greyhound bus, they didn't care that I had a huge backpack as well as my carry on luggage, so I could happily walk on with both. Normally that won't be the case and you will need a label for your checked in luggage. At Austin, they just wrote my departure and arrival stations on a label, ripped it in half and gave it to me to tie onto my bag. In Houston, it was more thorough, starting with a perfunctory security checkpoint (he just opened my carry on bag and had a brief rummage), then going to the desk to get my bag weighed and checked in. This time the slip to keep is stapled inside a blue leaflet, while you bag grows several tags.
Dallas, 17th-20th November
In terms of getting around Texan cities, I am immensely fortunate to have so many generous friends from jiu jitsu. I met the first of them while picking up my luggage at Dallas Fort Worth Airport: Triin, the founder of Fenom Kimonos. I make a point of supporting Triin and Fenom because she does a lot for women in jiu jitsu. As well as providing quality gis cut for women at a low price, Triin arranges numerous seminars with top female competitors along with regular open mats. She very kindly gave me a lift to where I was staying, a not inconsiderable drive from the airport, then drove me once again for both an interview and then training at the RCJ Machado academy over the next two days.
My host in Dallas was the extraordinarily welcoming Kerry, who shared her neatly kept home with me. I had arranged to stay with her through the popular CouchSurfing website (which my friend and avid CouchSurfer Ben has recommended to me in the past). It operates predominantly on trust, but that's bolstered by a feedback mechanism of references, vouching and comments (positive, neutral or negative).
In Dallas, there is a particularly strong local CouchSurfing group, of which Kerry is a central part. After taking me out to my first ever TexMex experience (enchiladas and tamale), she introduced me to Dallas CouchSurfers at a trivia event in the Trinity Hall Irish pub. The decor was much the same as you would see in any British pub, but each table was assigned a server to take all your orders rather than having to go to the bar. 'Trivia' appears to be the American name for what are referred to as pub quizzes in the UK. I was impressed by the close friendships CouchSurfing has fostered among the group in Dallas, so if you're looking for the best example of what that website is trying to achieve, go see Kerry! :)
Before I went to the USA, I picked up a small guidebook for my Kindle, which was handy in certain respects, as that's where I read about the ESTA, but it missed out some information that could have been useful, such as a fuller explanation of the available museums. Also, as ever with guidebooks, some aspects are already out of date. Sadly, the Dallas Women's Museum closed a while ago, as did the Byzantine Mosaic. I was excited at the prospect of the Dallas Museum of Art, but messed up the timing as most of the museums mentioned in the guidebook are closed on a Monday (the day I had set aside for museum-wandering).
That meant that instead I had a walk about Kerry's local area, mainly to work out the route to the DART station, the light rail system for Dallas. There are not many people out walking in the suburbs of Texas, as everybody drives everywhere. Crossing the road reflects that: you have to be quick. Normally there is at least a button you can press, which eventually turns the red hand into a little white stick man declaring it is (hopefully) safe to walk.
Getting into Dallas proper, I didn't do a whole lot there on the Monday, but I was able to wander around a recently opened park across from the Dallas Museum of Art. It would of course have been better if the museum was open, but I still got to read about art. The park has racks of books down one side, heavily dominated by art: I spent an hour or two reading more about El Greco, a favourite painter of mine. The park itself is not completely finished so there was some construction taking place, but the seating area has a pleasant atmosphere thanks to the pianist playing lounge tunes.
I didn't realise that in fact there were some museums open that day, just not in the main arts district. They were over on the West End, which I walked past on my way to the Greyhound station (again, to work out the route: I get lost easily, so that kind of thing helps). On Tuesday my bus was leaving for Austin at 13:00, so I could potentially have gone to the art museums, but they all opened too late and too far from the Greyhound to explore them properly. Instead, I took a look at the Old Red Museum, which details the history of Dallas.
This is divided into four periods (spanning a little over a century in total, with a nod to the area's much longer history prior to the establishment of Dallas), each in its own room, with a short documentary shown on a loop in a theatre. There is some sound bleeding between all the various audio, meaning that you probably want to time it so that you're listening during the gaps in the main theatre documentary. Old Red focuses on society, business, sport and media, with several subtopics of interest, like the sections on Bonnie and Clyde, JFK's assassination and the growth of the DART system.
The content of the museum attracts lots of school groups, so you may find yourself swamped by Dallas teenagers at various points. However, they tend to be on a set schedule chivvied around the four rooms by a teacher, so you can either wait them out, or just stay in the room ahead of them. Old Red is somewhat dry, but I was surprised by how interesting it was. Well worth a look if you want to get an insight into American history, particularly if you're in Dallas on a Monday when all the major museums seem to be shut.
Austin, 20th-26th November
While I was in Texas, a number of natives asked me why I decided to visit their state. My answer was simple: Georgette. She is the first person I interacted with through the blogosphere in any real depth and in short, she's awesome. I've followed her BJJ musings since she started training in 2008, recorded in her blog here. She's always been interested in more than BJJ (like mine, the blog had been going for a few years before she got on the mats), so there is also discussion of politics, her work as a lawyer and food.
I had already been well looked after by Triin over in Dallas, but staying at a fellow BJJer's home emphasised just how amazing the BJJ community can be. Georgette was a superb host, feeding me excellent food, putting up with my endless chatter, driving me wherever I wanted to go and even letting me do several loads of laundry. Her house was large and airy, a considerable contrast to the weeny Victorian terrace I occupy back in Bristol. I had a double-bed all to myself, in a room that wouldn't have shamed a good hotel. :)
My initial entry into the Austin BJJ scene was on Tuesday with her husband Mitch, who trains with Sean Cooper. On Wednesday, I fulfilled a long-standing ambition to train with John, who I met via the Bullshido website: we got together at the Monolith Training Centre, with several other members of the site. John and I spent most of the day together, which was stupendous. He is a fascinating man and has a lovely family, who I had I the pleasure of meeting as well.
Georgette had to leave early due to IVF treatment (which is an expensive and complicated process), but because she is such an incredible host, she made sure that not just one but THREE different sets of her friends were ready to take care of me. We had met Zade and Merna earlier for a meal at Hut's (I can recommend the Mr Blue with a double buffalo burger ;D), who later showed me round Austin. Zade pointed out some of the highlights in the local architecture, as well as a tour around the Texas State Capitol building.
We ate at the Kona Grill, which as Zade promised makes a tasty tuna roll, before heading off to Walmart to shop for a christmas tree. If you're an American that may not sound all that thrilling, but going to Walmart was something I'd been looking forward to. We don't have shops that size in the UK. The SuperTarget was especially awe-inspiring: I could fit my whole house in there, along with the rest of the street plus the surrounding shops!
Saturday involved more training, this time with Jeff Rockwell, who I'd met through a BJJ forum. He has a great group of students over at Raptor Jiu Jitsu, also teaching at the University of Texas in the main urbanised part of Austin. He has been putting up high quality instructional material on the internet for many years now, part of a group of tech-savvy teachers like Matt 'Aesopian' Kirtley. Rockwell's class was friendly and relaxed, while the sparring remained technical: I had the privilege of rolling with Jeff and several of his students.
On Sunday, Mikal took over slidey-sitting duties. He picked me up in the morning (or more accurately, his fantastic fiancée Marlena picked me up, as she did all the driving), then we headed over to the kids BJJ class he runs at the Islamic Centre in Round Rock. Mikal takes the approach that they are miniature adults, so doesn't pander to them with games: it's all about technique. His conceptual approach to side control reminded me of what John had told me earlier in the week, as Mikal also had a positional theory based on control points. In his case, he emphasised to the class that there were four main control points (the hips and the shoulders), of which you need to secure at least three.
While Mikal was off at wrestling practice, I took the opportunity to meet up with Jesse and Susie (who I had met training at Raptor on Saturday) for a drink. We then all got together with Mikal and Marlena, who invited us back to their place for a delectable meal cooked by Marlena. Their housemate Jevon is yet another jiu jitsu practitioner, so the entire room was full of jiu jitsu. Even Jason, a friend of Mikal's, had dabbled in jiu jitsu in the past, and very kindly gave me a lift back to Georgette's house: he had only met me that night. So, my time in Austin closed with yet another example of how open and inclusive the BJJ community can be.
Houston, 26th-30th November
I arrived into the Greyhound station a little after 4pm, where I got to feel like a minor celebrity. An official came up to me and asked "Are you slideyfoot? There's a woman waiting for you outside." Ooo! That was a pretty cool way to start off the last part of my trip, especially as that woman turned out to be Jodi, another awesome blogger I've been looking forward to meeting. I've enjoyed her blog for several years now, as Jodi is a capable and engaging writer. Better still, she is just as cool in person as she is online. :D
training at Jodi's gym and my first experience of drive-through cuisine, she drove me to where I'd be staying for the next few days. I introduced myself to Conor, his beard and his cat (not necessarily in that order), then settled down for the night. Conor is an example of yet another kind of online friendship, as he is a BJJ guy I mainly know through Facebook. It was therefore very generous of him to invite me into his home right after I mentioned I would be coming to Houston a few months back.
Houston proved to be the most training-intensive part of the holiday. Jodi took me to the noon class at Revolution Dojo the next day, then I experienced the Rilion Gracie Houston academy with Conor on both the Wednesday and the Thursday.
The traffic in Houston feels like the M25 wrapped inside a city. Conor told me that to simply cross the street from where he works, he has to get in his car. I can't imagine living in a place that sprawling and car-dependent, as it looks as if you would be forced to drive for hours to get anywhere (there is a light rail system, but the coverage is tiny). I'm used to cycling for twenty minutes to reach the centre of Bristol: if you tried to cycle in Houston, I'm pretty sure you'd die. Without Jodi's kindness, I would have been completely helpless.
If you're ever in the area and looking for something to eat, I'd suggest you head for Fuzzy's Pizza. The pizzas are delicious and fairly cheap, at least judging by my one experience. I had a wonderfully cheesy calzone crammed with ricotta, mozzarella and I think a few others, to which you can add a stuffing of your choice (I went for meatball), all for $8.95. They proudly advertise that George Bush Sr regularly ate there and has his own item on the menu, as do various US sports stars.
In this trip, people have definitely been my priority over museums, but thanks to Jodi I was able to check out the Museum of Fine Arts. She picked me up from Conor's place in the morning, then we drove over to the light rail station and headed to the arts district stop. Jodi is a keen photographer, so was taking lots of pictures: her camera is way better than mine (I was using my phone as usual), as you can see from the picture of us at Revolution Dojo. Houston is huge and rich, like Dallas, so that meant it has acquired some top-notch art. MFAH has a broad collection displaying a lot more than just paintings. There are intricately carved sideboards, chairs made out of tusks, beautifully ornate gunpowder horns from India, mummies from Egypt and modern light displays.
The European Art section upstairs (note that there are two buildings, connected by a tunnel) feels rather summary, with massive names scattered throughout, like Picasso, Monet and Renoir. Although much of it is still world class, the selection felt rather diffuse: regions and periods are clumped together, as opposed to the clearly focused collections I'm used to seeing at other major art galleries. I think I actually preferred the 'American Made' collection downstairs, especially an expressive statue of a bacchante. Given the subject, I'm not sure if she was meant to be happy or psychotic (after all, a group of bacchante/maenads ripped poor old Orpheus limb from limb), but either way it's a striking sculpture.
Also downstairs was another more tightly arranged selection, on somebody I had never heard of, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). He's interesting in that he was (at least according to the information boards) the first African-American painter to achieve international success. His focus was religious paintings, but due to their quality and realism you can fully appreciate them as a secular art fan too (if I take myself as an example). It was also absorbing to watch how his style progressed, moving from realism to a style more influenced by impressionism. Unfortunately you're not allowed to take photos in there, as 'Modern Spirit' is a travelling exhibition.
I am not generally all that interested in photography, but the wall-sized mural of sixty photographs by James Nachtwey caught my eye. It is photojournalism on field medicine, titled 'The Sacrifice', which had added significance as Jodi is medically trained: she was therefore looking at the work with professional interest. Arranging all those pictures into a single large piece definitely changes your perception of the work. I doubt I would have been quite as struck by it if they had been displayed separately.
My enduring memory of this trip is going to be the wonderful community I'm happy to be a part of through BJJ (a topic Georgette talked about in her write-up too). It is something I've been thinking about a lot recently, because of an article I wrote for issue #11 of Jiu Jitsu Style on the question of whether BJJ is a sport or martial art. Researching that piece and my experience in Texas has helped me clarify just how important that sense of community is to my enjoyment of BJJ. It also helps me understand why I have such an aversion to elements within BJJ which I feel are detrimental to building that sense of community. For example, the very profit-driven marketing popularised by Lloyd Irvin, which appears to promote BJJ as a means to making money and winning competitions to the exclusion of all else.
That community was evident in the warm 'salaam alaikum' between Mikal and fellow members of the Islamic Center of Round Rock, as parents came in to pick up their children from jiu jitsu class, stopping to pray before leaving. It was there in the rich conversation at Georgette's Thanksgiving meal, as the jiu jitsu veterans swapped stories of training while tucking into turkey. I saw it with Conor at Rilion Gracie Houston, when each person who stepped on the mat shook hands with everybody else who had arrived early, getting in some informal pre-training drilling.
It was there motivating children in the Enlightened Warriors program, as described to me by Jesse and Susie. It could be found in the open-armed welcome I received from instructors with entirely different lineages, spanning Carlson, Royler and the Machados. Most of all, it was there in the incredible generosity shown to me by Georgette, Jodi, Triin and Conor, among others. I hope to be able to return the favour when (not if, WHEN! ;D) they come visit the UK.
It is unsurprising that I'm keen to experience more of that community solidarity, particularly the online community that was so unbelievably nice to me in Texas (perhaps jiu jitsu hospitality got mixed with good old Southern hospitality, but either way, it was amazing). Florida is my next goal, as I would love to meet Megan, Allie, Stephanie and Aesopian in person. However, I'm not sure I'd want to do a solo trip again (Update 2014: But I did anyway, here) I'll need to somehow convince my girlfriend that Florida isn't just Disneyland surrounded by swamps full of crocodiles, which appears to be her current impression of the state. ;)
California is another strong option, as she likes the look of the national parks in that area, and from my perspective, it has cool people like Caleb and Dagney (Update Jun 2013: an option I have now taken, with a full write-up here). I'd love to visit Virginia too (Chrissy and Leslie especially), but I'm not sure how best to sell that idea to her: no doubt I'll come up with something (Update 2014: Also now done, here). I can wholeheartedly recommend jiu jitsu trips to any other bloggers out there. :D