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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

18 June 2013

USA, California - 3rd-17th June 2013

Going to Texas last November was so fantastic that I was keen to do it again as soon as possible. I also wanted to incorporate that into a holiday with my friend, as the original plan was for her to go somewhere at the same time I was in Texas. While it is always fun to go on holiday with her, it meant that California would be a different prospect to Texas, because she doesn't train.

I did still get in a few visits to various academies, but California was generally a more 'normal' holiday, with sightseeing and staying in hostels. Getting through the airport was easier than last time, with much less hassle. There were no 3D body scans or careful interrogation as to why I was there, just the usual passport check (if you want more details on transport to the US, I went into depth last time).

San Francisco (I): 3rd-5th June

After we arrived into the airport, we headed straight for the train, down the stairs. There are machines to buy your ticket from, which take both notes and cash so you don't need to worry about change. It's $8.25 each to get to Powell, the station nearest our hostel, but we only knew that because someone told us: you have to type in the amount of the ticket rather than a destination. Public transport in San Francisco is generally quite easy, with several options.

The most famous is the cable car, costing $6 for a one-way journey. From what I can gather, this is mainly used by tourists. If you are there on a weekend, that means huge queues. Note that if you want to sit in the prime spot - the benches along the edge facing the open air - you'll need to walk all the way around if you can't nab the ones on the near side. There is no way of getting to the other bench from inside the cable car.

The normal bus appeared to be just $2 to ride as much as you want within a certain time period, although nobody bothers checking the tickets. Just like the Tube back home, it can get rammed full of people. The times are displayed on the ticket, ripped off to indicate the point it runs out. Walking is possible in a few places, as San Francisco is nowhere near as sprawling as Houston, Dallas or even Austin, but you would probably want to at least cycle. The bus seems to be the cheapest option.

We weren't in San Francisco for long. Our first day (or rather, part of a day) was spent wandering around orienting ourselves. I had a tasty burger at a place literally called The Burger Bar, at the top of Macy's. Surprisingly, it wasn't too expensive, as slightly over $10 gets you a decent burger where you pick the bun, meat, toppings etc. This was our first encounter with the tipping system in the US, something we never quite worked out (almost everybody seems to expect a tip when you get any kind of service).

We tried to make the most of our sole full weekday on the Tuesday. I was still jet lagged and woke up at 4am: on the plus side, that gave me the chance to do some interview prep for Rener and catch up on emails. The HI San Francisco Downtown had decent wifi with plenty of plug sockets, enabling me to comfortably set up my workstation of phone and portable keyboard. Sadly they do not look after your bags if you are heading out on a multi-day tour, so keep that in mind if you're planning something similar.

If you like wildlife, head to Pier 39 on Fishermans Wharf for entertaining sea lions, who flop on the floating docks in front of you, sunning themselves while play fighting. You also might want to check out the Musée Mécanique in that area, housing loads of old arcade machines spanning the whole of the 20th Century. I can recommend the delicious Ghirardelli sea salt caramel hot chocolate for $4.85, but watch out for salt build up at the bottom. Ghirardelli is a chocolate shop based in San Francisco, though you'll see it everywhere in California (possibly further afield too).

San Francisco's City Hall is more impressive than the one I saw in Austin, with a majestic staircase and grand carvings looming above you. There are free tours, though only at specific times, so you'll want to check the schedule. We found ourselves in the middle of numerous couples getting married, with about six weddings in the short time we were there, understandable given the impressive setting and its function as presumably the main registry office.

Randomly, there was a guy in a sharp suit doing tai chi poses getting pictures too: I'm not sure if he was somebody's uncle, but I saw him later in front of a group of people, possibly his students. You can happily wander round almost everywhere in the building, though there is the occasional "staff only" sign.

On our way to a spot of dessert at Bi-Rite ice cream, we made sure to pass through the the Castro. I was especially interested in that street due to some of the research I did back at university, related to the beginnings of the international AIDS pandemic in the '80s. That was closely related to an increasingly politically active gay community, who were among the hardest hit at that time in the USA. The late Harvey Milk, a figure who emerged right before that, remains a strong presence in the area. His historic camera shop currently houses the Human Rights Campaign, selling t-shirts and running campaigns, with updates on the wall (e.g., gay rights legislation colour coded by state).

The Mission district is another area worth seeing, festooned with murals. I had read in the guidebook that the example on The Women's Building was especially noteworthy. Given the strong feminist impulses evident in the piece as well as the high quality, I thought it was well worth the walk. It's refreshing to see it still looks in great condition: I'm not sure if it gets regularly cleaned or if it sufficiently impresses other graffiti artists that they don't obscure it with inferior work.

Yosemite National Park: 5th-7th June

On the 5th June, we were outside our hostel at 06:15, ready to board the Extranomical tour. We were still there an hour later, when the Extranomical bus eventually arrived. Relieved, I walked over to the bus...which then started to drive off. I had to chase it down the street to make sure we did not miss our tour. It kept getting worse. Instead of apologising for making us wait for an hour and then almost leaving us stranded, the driver Jesse said because he was new, he was 'winging it'. Due to said winging, Jesse cut short one of the stops by an hour, meaning there wasn't enough time to actually walk to the sight we were stopping to see. Jesse followed that up by skipping the rest of the stops entirely.

After my friend asked when we were going to get the rest of the tour we had paid for, he insisted it was covered on the way back, despite the fact it categorically stated on the itinerary that it was not. Following repeated phone calls, my friend managed to get Extranomical to buy her a short complimentary tour (from another, better company), at least showing some willingness on their part to make things right. Hopefully Jesse is not representative of the Extranomical tour guides and will cease winging it in future. The guy on the way back was much better, so I will give Extranomical the benefit of the doubt. ;)

Yosemite itself is by contrast well-organised. There is a free shuttle that drops you off around the Park every 10 minutes (less frequently after 7pm, then the service ends at 10pm). There are numerous facilities, particularly where we were staying, Curry Village, such as showers, free (but rather slow) wifi, food and a selection of marked walks. The easiest option to start with is probably the walk to the Lower Yosemite Falls, beginning from the Visitor Centre. The Upper Falls are visible from here too, with plenty of stunning viewpoints to choose from.

On the second day, we took a $30 raft trip down the river, at a very relaxed pace: this is something you do for the scenery, not the adrenaline rush (suiting me perfectly: I am not at all interested in doing whitewater rafting again, as the experience in Canada was more than enough for me). It did unfortunately rain, but not too heavily. For wifi, there is a little internet lounge in Curry Village, but it gets very busy later in the day. For better access, a chance of a seat and to be near a plug, go early. The wifi becomes rather choppy in the late afternoon/evening, presumably due to so many people using it.

Our tent cabin was ok, if not supremely comfortable, but then you'd expect that for the price. It gets hot in there, plus you have the annoyance of putting absolutely anything with a smell (e.g., toiletries and food) into the lockable 'bear box' outside the cabin (unless you want to risk a hefty fine and being kicked out of the camp). Bring a padlock, or you'll have to buy one: they are useful for hostels too. You don't get any windows in the tent cabin, but there are three flaps that can be pulled up via ropes, lined with a mosquito net.

Our final day in Yosemite was spent on a hike to Vernal Falls, on the 'mist trail'. It takes roughly two hours to get up there from the shuttle stop, then you can either turn around and go back (we liked the view enough to repeat it in reverse) or continue on the loop, which I assume takes you back where you started. It isn't overly strenuous, but the climb is quite steep at points, up a series of stairs cut into the rock. Not only do these get increasingly narrow, they are slippery with spray from the waterfall (hence 'mist' trail: the spray does have the advantage of rainbows :D). If you have any issues with your knees or something like that, you may want to opt for an easier hike.

San Francisco (II): 7th-10th June

Returning to San Francisco, I joined the free 'Social Movements' walking tour on Saturday morning. I was expecting an exploration of the numerous movements associated with San Francisco, like gay rights and hippies. There was a bit of that, with a discussion of the Black Panthers and the Diggers, but it turned out to have a heavy dose of economics. The guide is an academic and a member of the Henry George Society (I think? Looks like he teaches here, as I see his name on the site). He took the opportunity to discuss George's theories in depth, using various parts of the city to illustrate his points.

I would have liked to continue, as he managed to make economics interesting, but had to cut it short to meet back up with my friend. She wanted to go to the 'Cultivate' festival in Golden Gate Park, rather randomly put on by restaurant chain Chipotle. It was a struggle to get there on the bus and then find out just where in the Park it was (the Park is HUGE). Once we arrived, it was crammed with people, resulting in enormous queues. Clearly the time to go was early in the morning: we soon got tired of queuing and left.

The Park itself has plenty to offer. We did a spot of rowing at Stow Lake, then headed over to something I was keen to visit, the National AIDS Memorial Grove. As with my interest in the Castro and Harvey Milk, that was prompted by some academic research I did into AIDS and poetry, with a focus on Thom Gunn's work. There is a poem of his engraved into a circle within the grove. To find it, you walk into the more densely wooded part after entering the grove. Bizarrely, there was some kind of model photo shoot going on when I got there, making for a strange atmosphere as I tried to pay my respects to the dead.

We finished up the day meeting for drinks with an internet BJJ friend of mine, Dave, who I know through the JiuJitsuForums website. We've been chatting through that forum and Facebook for several years, so it was cool to finally meet him. My friend very patiently sat through our jiu jitsu discussion, though I was trying not to go overboard. That would come later, as I arranged to train with Dave at Tatami Multi Arts the next day.

Before I headed off to train with Dave in the evening, Sunday morning was spent on a bike ride, rented from Blazing Saddles: there are numerous bike rental companies, but they all charge about $8 an hour. We considered going for the whole day, but seeing the weather, my friend decided she didn't fancy crossing to Sausalito. Instead, we just cycled to the Golden Gate Bridge, went halfway, then turned around.

It gets extremely windy on the bridge, but still possible to cycle across (although I wouldn't want to do it on a weekday at rush hour, as I assume the bike traffic gets heavy). We then dropped by a tasty wine and cheese place called Barrique: my friend drank the wine and I ate the cheese, just how I like it. You can choose from either local wines produced by Barrique or international wines, divided by the left and right sides of the menu.

Green Tortoise California Coastal Crawler: 10th-12th June

I first heard about Green Tortoise due to a positive review from somebody on an internet forum called the Heathen Hangout. They recommended it as a good option for California, remarking that back when they used it, the trip took place swathed in clouds of pot with a chilled out hippy vibe. A couple of decades later, there wasn't any marijuana, but the hippy vibe continues. Interestingly, when we booked, the operator mentioned that their business mainly came from word of mouth.

The booking system is rather backward, with no online payment functionality. You have to call them or send your payment by snail mail. I'm not sure why they do it that way, but it means Skype is probably your best option. There are forms that need to be filled in, though normally that part can be done online. For some reason my friend's form did not go through, so we ended up going to the Green Tortoise office in person to make sure.

Green Tortoise trips are best suited to single travellers who enjoy socialising and communal living. It would probably be an ideal choice for students, or for more mature travellers who are visiting the area on their own. That isn't to say you wouldn't enjoy it if you are in a couple or have kids with you - there were two kids, along with two couples (including us) - but the vast majority appeared to be 18-30s travelling either alone or in small groups.

The converted bus is the most unsual aspect of the company. It is in three main sections: an enormous 'bed' at the back, fitting around 10 people, two four-person tables, then two long benches facing each other (four on each comfortably, five or maybe even six on each if you were squashed in tightly). At night, this shifts to two huge bed sections, with the tables transforming into bunk beds. The luggage racks can be slept in too. Apparently, as many as 34 can fit in that configuration.

This does mean people will be stepping over you when you sleep, but speaking personally, I slept through both nights, helped by a hood over my face and ear plugs. I was fine with a small blanket, but you might want to bring a sleeping bag. You can hire them if you like, provided by Green Tortoise for $10 a night (although the information was unclear prior to the trip, where first we were told $20, then that you coudn't hire at all).

There is the option of camping instead, if you bring a tent, or even sleeping on a tarp outside. You will also be fed: on our trip, there was both a driver and a cook, who brought all the food with them. However, you are expected to help with the preparation of the food and cleaning up afterwards. Generally that isn't a problem, as the bus is stuffed with people: our tour was combined with another, resulting in at least twenty on the bus.

I am probably not the ideal person for this kind of trip, given that I tend to go very quiet in groups of more than three or four. I spent the majority of my time on the bus buried in a Kindle. However, if you're more of an extrovert, then I'd definitely recommend Green Tortoise: you'll get to meet people from all over the world with a range of experiences. The driver and cook were very friendly and capable, with the driver's wife also helping out. Their approach is laid-back, but still reassuringly efficient.

The specific tour we took was the California Coastal Crawler: we did it one way, but the Coastal Crawler can be done as a round trip as well. You begin with an early start at the Green Tortoise Hostel in San Francisco (if you aren't staying there, you'll have to either walk or get a taxi for 07:15 in the morning), located on 494 Broadway in a less than salubrious part of town. The hostel itself looks like it has plenty of character, but we opted to stick with the HI about a 40 minute walk away.

From San Francisco, there are stops in Santa Cruz and Monterey before you reach the first night's camp ground. There is a toilet on board, but it is reserved for emergencies. However, the bus stops every hour or two, which should be sufficient for even the smallest bladder. Santa Cruz isn't all that exciting, the main attraction being a large fairground with an old wooden rollercoaster. Probably due to the weather, my friend thought it was reminiscent of Barry Island in Wales.

Monterey is classier, boasting the literary landmark of Cannery Row, the setting for John Steinbeck's novel of the same name. There are signs marking the route with summaries of how people would have actually lived at the time, with a few mocked up houses. The whole street tries to keep the period feel, with places to eat, art on display and souvenir shops. There is also a world class aquarium, with a world-class price of $37.

The second day features a look at a colony of elephant seals, observed from a boardwalk set back from the beach. As with so much of the US tourist sites we saw, it was beautifully presented with plenty of information available, although there are not any toilets. A little later, you have the option of a short tour around Hearst Castle (for a hefty $25) or a spot of sea kayaking (for a quite reasonable $10 an hour).

Los Angeles: 12th-14th June

Our final day winded down towards LA, where there were visits to famous sights like the Grauman's Chinese Theatre and Venice Beach. Like all tourists, we couldn't resist slapping our appendages into the prints outside the Theatre. I can therefore state that I officially have Johnny Depp's hands. Shame about the rest of me. ;)

For the Green Tortoise Coastal Crawler, you need to book a hostel in LA whether or not you're doing the round-trip. The bus pauses at two hostels, in Hollywood and Santa Monica, so the easiest option is to book into those. We went for the HI in Santa Monica, which was less impressive than the HI in San Francisco. The service was poor and the WiFi was a lot crapper, though it did eventually work if you hung around near the lobby.

Unlike in San Francisco, I could not get wifi to work at all in the rooms. We were in single sex dorms this time, inevitably less comfortable than a private room. Getting woken up by people stumbling in at all hours is common, though I was fortunate to have fairly quiet room mates (although one guy switched on his bed light early in the morning, then just left it glaring for the rest of the day).

That evening, I had a chance to meet up with yet another internet friend, Francisco from the DSTRYR website. My friend was out to eat with some of the people from the Green Tortoise group (she was rather more sociable than I was), leaving me free for an entirely BJJ-centric chat. Francisco has been around jiu jitsu a long time, so has an extensive store of anecdotes. It was interesting to talk about his site, plus he kindly gave me a cool DSTRYR shirt to add to my collection. Fitting, as DSTRYR apparel marked our early interaction back in 2009 too. :D

The tour had technically ended, but the next day still began with riding in a Green Tortoise bus. The driver generously agreed to give us a ride over to Hollywood, seeing as he would be stopping at our hostel again anyway. That made transportation much easier, as we were heading to another of the main destinations my friend was looking forward to, Universal Studios. I'm not a theme park fan, but the chance to learn about the film-making process was appealing.

From Hollywood, we took the train to the next station, Universal City. That's about the extent of the train system in LA. You then need to get another shuttle from Universal City to Universal Studios itself, but it's free. We had already bought our tickets from an information stand back in Hollywood, saving a few dollars compared to buying on the door. It also means you can skip the ticket queue.

The highlight for me was the informative Studio Tour, taking you round various backlots and sets. You might get to do some star spotting, as actors are wandering around: on our tour, we happened to drive past Angelina Jolie, which was rather surprising. Fans of Desperate Housewives will be happy to know Wisteria Lane is included. I didn't realise that the exact same houses had been used for many other TV shows and films over the decades, explained in detail on the tour.

There are little screens on the tour buses, showing clips from the Universal archive and the tour guide's face, instead of just a disembodied voice. Our enthusiastic tour guide did a superlative job: Alex, IIRC. The tour isn't entirely sedate, because you are thrown into several mini-rides along the way, like the impressive King Kong 360. I won't spoil the surprise regarding the rest of them, but suffice to say there are quite a few.

Universal Studios offers a selection of other attractions, most of which we managed to attend: I think we only missed out two of them, Transformers and The Mummy. Rides like those are mixed in with live performances. There is the spectacular Waterworld (as I recall the film was a huge flop, so I'm confused as to why they made a feature of it at Universal Studios), performed by a cast of actors that proudly declare their film and TV credits on the banner outside. Less explosive but just as entertaining is the more genteel Animal Magic, or for something flashier, you can try the Special Effects show. If you're there with your kids (big or small), characters like Optimus Prime, the Blues Brothers (complete with their car) and minions from the upcoming Despicable Me 2 wander around the site at certain times during the day, ready to have their picture taken with you.

All the performers are very polished, with a light dose of comedy thrown into everything we saw. The Shrek 'ride' is a 4D film (in this context that just means a particularly striking use of 3D), though there is a brief bit of animatronics before you enter the theatre. The chairs move with the plot, shaking you around when Shrek canters down the road on a horse. It is worth getting to the ride you want early, in order to miss queues, but we did not find it that bad on a weekday. We never queued more than 30 minutes (though some of the other queues reached 70 minutes at points).

Another internet friend of mine kindly picked us up around 19:30, taking us on a quick mini-tour of some favourite LA spots. We bonded years ago over a shared love of '80s music, which has dominated our email conversations ever since. Much Wham! was played as we meandered through the city, taking in sights like Griffiths Observatory (hence the Morrissey pose, something my friend was keen for me to re-enact). As with Dave and Francisco, it was awesome to meet an old internet friend in person. I won't mention their name, given that this friend has always used pseudonyms on Facebook. :)

My last day in LA was slightly marred by some transport woes, though my friend had it far worse. She spent the entire day on public transport, unable to reach any of the places she wanted to go. When she did eventually get to Paramount Studios, they were fully booked. I think we had been spoiled by the relative ease of getting around San Francisco.

I fared better, thanks to the immense generosity of a fellow BJJ forum poster, bjh13, known to the real world as Ben. He drove me over to the Gracie Academy in Torrance, where he had arranged an interview with Rener Gracie, the current face of the school along with his brother Ryron. That's where BJJ outside of Brazil really began, meaning it wasn't somewhere I wanted to miss. My visit to Torrance signalled the beginning of the BJJ-heavy part of the holiday, particularly as the next destination was the Mecca of BJJ (if we ignore Rio for a moment), San Diego.

San Diego: 14th-17th June

San Diego would have been a totally different prospect without the BJJ community. Upon arrival, my friend Dave Kim from the BJJ Library picked me up from San Diego Greyhound station then drove me to my hotel. We had planned to go train at the University of Jiu Jitsu that day, but due to my Greyhound bus being delayed, that wasn't possible.

I booked a 14:30 bus months ago, then found when Ben dropped me off at the Long Beach station that they no longer ran that service, bumping me onto the 16:30 instead (it would have been nice of Greyhound to tell me: next time, I'll be sure to double-check closer to the time). It was lucky Ben was there and was happy for me to email from his phone, as otherwise I would have had no way to get in contact with Dave to let him know. We rescheduled the University for Monday.

The reason I wanted to go to California in the first place was to train with Dagney and Caleb in San Diego. On everything else I was flexible, but training at the Fabio Santos school in San Diego was non-negotiable. The strong community feel of the 15th June reminded me of the Texas trip. I met up with Dagney in the morning, who had kindly offered me a lift over to Fabio's, then had a good chat with the people there.

I caught up with old friends like Caleb and made new ones, like Alex from Montreal. I also got to talk with jiu jitsu legends Fabio Santos and (briefly) Relson Gracie. After that, Dagney and I had a delicious meal at Caleb's house (who is clearly an accomplished cook as well as a BJJ black belt), finishing up with an interview for the Fightworks Podcast (still the best BJJ podcast out there).

I'm not sure I'm worthy of being on it, but it did give me a chance to plug, which is cool. The interview itself is now available here: if for some reason the download doesn't work, you can just click the 'play' button for the audio. My section starts about 35 minutes in.

Dave continued being incredibly hospitable by offering to take my friend and I around San Diego on the Monday for sightseeing. We spent the first half of the day at Balboa Park, arriving in time for a free tour at 11am, starting next to the Visitor Centre. It's led by a park ranger, who did a great job of educating us about the history of the park and its buildings, along with the fascinating range of flora. The park is stuffed with museums, though unfortunately we didn't get a chance to look at them: that will be high on my list for next time.

Dave wanted to share Mount Soledad with us: the reason why soon became clear. There is a stunning view of San Diego from the top of the Mount, also featuring a large war memorial. We then caught a bite to eat on Mission Beach, where I gorged myself on a burrito (or rather, half a burrito and half a burger: my friend and I often order two dishes between us then split them for variety :D). We said goodbye to Dave at the Gaslamp Quarter, the oldest part of San Diego.

According to the guidebook, that's because the Gaslamp Quarter used to be a seedy area in the past (from what Dagney said, it can still get dodgy at night). Therefore it was the only section that did not undergo a huge redevelopment, which in turn meant it was the oldest area by default. Our day finished in Seaport Village, an attractive huddle of tourist shops by the seafront, not far from our hotel. On the way, you can gaze up at an enormous statue commemorating the end of WWII, unusually painted in realistic colours (from my understanding, this used to be the case for all statues, but as the paint faded from Greek and Roman originals, the austerely blank results left to posterity became the standard). Judging by the placard it has only been there since February of this year.

My last day in San Diego was the 17th: it began the same way as my arrival, because once again Dave was there to generously offer me a lift. This time it was over to the University of Jiu Jitsu to train in the morning class from 09:00-10:00, taught by Renato Vieira (full write up here). Even more exciting, once we finished class I was going to have the opportunity to meet and interview a jiu jitsu hero of mine, Saulo Ribeiro. He is a huge name in BJJ, with multiple titles, the best instructionals in the business and some of the most famous quotes in BJJ. It was a privilege to speak with him for just under an hour.

Our hotel, the Wyndham San Diego Bayside had great service and was surprisingly cheap: my friend must have got some kind of deal. Our room looked far better than £34 per person (especially as we paid barely less than that for our hostel rooms earlier in the trip), with an attractive view out the balcony. The fact they look after your bags and provide free shuttles was very handy, as it meant we could do something with the hours before our flight rather than just sit on our bags by the swimming pool or something. Instead, we ended our time in California by eating at the Fish Market by Seaport Village, where the tables are right by the sea.

If this had been a full on jiu jitsu trip I would have trained a lot more, but I enjoyed sharing the US with my friend, who previously had absolutely no interest in going there. Yosemite isn't a place I would have gone without her, or Universal Studios. Also, her unbridled glee at a Wonka chocolate bar made me smile: I don't think we were ever more than a few minutes from a candy store. ;)

Next year, I'm hoping to do another solo trip. I may even try to combine different parts of the US, as until I booked this trip to California, I didn't realise how easy it was to sort out multi-stop options. I'm therefore thinking of fitting in two short stays in Virginia and Austin (depending if people like Chrissy, Leslie, Georgette and John are around), before spending the main chunk in Florida with the McClish sisters, Megan and another friend who lives there too. I'll have to see if I can manage to get the flights to square up. :D


  1. I wish I would have read this before going to San Francisco. This is a nice travel guide in general.

  2. Thanks! I tend to be rather long-winded and dry, but I'm pleased to hear there was something potentially useful in there. :)

  3. Hey, I will be back in Austin by that time, too. Let me know if you are going to come, so we can train together.

    On a side note, I always like your vacation write ups. The pics this time were cool (you needed more pictures of Austin ;).

    1. Cheers John. Also, it would be brilliant to train with you and get repeatedly leg-locked: I'd be looking to train at Georgette's place (Humaita), the school where John P is now teaching morning classes (Paragon, IIRC), then Sean Cooper's again if I get time (as Mitch and Mikal are both there, John P too, I think). :)

  4. Austin hopes you'll come back and stay a while, as do Mitch and I :) Especially because I'll be training again!

  5. Awesome! I should be back to Austin within a year (en route to a few other places), just waiting on everyone to get back to me before I start buying plane tickets. :D