On my list of places to visit in the USA to meet up with cool bloggers, Florida was right up there with Texas (meaning that like my other two US entries for 2014, this will be heavily geared towards BJJ again). The only reason I delayed until 2014 was because my girlfriend agreed to head to California last year. Naturally there are lots of cool people in California too, but Florida and Texas are the hotspots in terms of bloggers I've interacted with.
The California trip made me realise that it was much more viable than I had thought to do a multi-stop trip. I then thought, why go to just one state when I could go to three, meaning that I've also managed to squeeze in Virginia and a second visit to Texas. I flew out of Austin to West Palm Beach on the 25th, going via Dallas once again (it would appear to be the main flight hub in Texas).
West Palm Beach, 25th-29th April
First thing to note was that the demographic in West Palm was not at all the same as Austin. It was considerably less tattooed and several decades older. My plane on the way there was full of middle aged businessmen talking about fishing: judging by the in-flight magazine, they also really love watches. Every advert seemed to be yet another Swiss watch: the last watch I wore was digital and about two decades ago. My phone is my time keeping device. ;)
Megan of Tangled Triangle and Groundwork fame was there to meet me at the airport, expanding my culinary knowlege by taking me to a seafood restaurant. She had linked the menu a while back, featuring the fabulous starter of candied bacon. I stayed at an AirBnB for my time in West Palm, in the (comparatively) nearby Lake Worth. Megan kindly drove me the not inconsiderable distance between there and West Palm.
She also took me along to the Boca Raton International Open the next day, where a lot of the Florida BJJ scene congregates. There were several big names in attendance, including Cyborg: as you would expect he won his division. Before his fights he was enthusiastically friendly, hugging everybody and looking very relaxed. During the fights, there was a not so friendly 'knee on neck' choke, though it was extremely effective!
Rilion Gracie was present too, who I previously trained with in Texas, as was Pe de Pano. The latter was wandering around in a gi and had his name called several times. Although I saw him in the 'bullpen' (warm-up area) repeatedly, I somehow missed him competing. Megan and I were surprised to see him listed as taking second place in the results, so presumably he must have fought.
There were lots of other good fights too. I especially enjoyed watching one of Megan's team mates dominate her division, putting her wrestling background to good use with a smooth transition to the kimura as soon as she got to side control. I was also pleased that she stopped a TLI representative from winning gold: it's depressing to see there are still people willing to have that name on their gi, given everything that's gone down, but fortunately there weren't too many of them.
The highlight for me, as it always is on these trips, was meeting up wih local bloggers. Aside from Megan, I also got to meet Stephanie from You Want Me To Put My Head Where? She was busy coaching her women's team and cheering on the other Fabio Novaes competitors, but I had plenty of time to catch up with her later on in Lakeland.
Mainly I spoke to another cool blogger, Suay (from Confessions of a Jiu Jitsu Junkie), who was there with her husband (a brown belt) and daughter. She's extremely easy to talk to, rather like Georgette (they both started under Relson in Texas, incidentally), as well as a capable competitor. I was on camera duty for her fights, both of which she finished in around a minute with a choke. Impressive stuff, considering this was her first tournament as a purple belt.
Later on we headed out to Duffy's, a sports bar that literally has TV screens on every available wall. They were showing the UFC fights, though we didn't stay for the main event: the match between Luke Rockhold and Tm Boetsch was a cool way to round off the night. If you haven't seen it yet, you're in for a treat as the finish is pretty awesome.
Suay is part of the Brazil 021 team and was helping out head coach Andre Terencio with transport and accommodation. He popped down to our table at Duffy's too, though was understandably very tired after spending to whole day oganising the Boca Open. A burger was enough to tip him over the edge: he started falling asleep there in the bar. ;)
I had a relaxed typing day at my AirBnB on Sunday, catching up on on some messages, which was useful as I needed to make a few tweaks to my travel plan. I booked another AirBnB the next day, but weirdly was asked to verify my ID by taking a picture of my passport. This did eventually work, but it took about five tries. Confusingly, it says 'front of passport', actually meaning the main photo page. The desktop version of the AirBnB verification process is less confusing than the app, as it shows you a picture for clarification.
After getting in some Monday drilling and sparring with Megan at American Top Team West Palm Beach, I gorged myself on the extremely cheesy 'Mac N Cheeseburger' at the Cheesecake Factory. I was quite tempted by the Americana Burger, purely because of the name, but the sheer quantity of oozing cheese in my initial choice could not be resisted! The sweet potato fries are delicious too, saltier than those available at Duffy's.
We finished up the day with a wander round the Spanish-colonial style town centre, checking out some random shops and laughing at the 'UK section' of the supermarket (tinned Birds and Ambrosia custard, Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips and some kind of vinegar, plus a load of Heinz soup, which is random as I'm pretty sure that's an American company...) and finally driving around the very posh Palm Beach. Megan was explaining how you needed more than money to live there, you had to have the right kind of old money. Sounded very Great Gatsby, although Donald Trump apparently managed to force his way in over the objectons of local old money residents.
Lakeland, 29th April - 2nd May
Megan booked a train ticket for me for my Tuesday departure to Lakeland. You can get that as an e-ticket on your phone, or alternatively from the machine at the station. Note that the Amtrak and Tri-Rail trains both use the same station and line. It is easy enough to distinguish, as Tri-Rail are double-decker with palm trees painted on the side, while Amtrak are grey and single-decker.
I was catching the 92 Amtrak, leaving at 13:27 to Lakeland from West Palm Beach. It was 8 minutes overdue when it arrived, later stopping randomly for a freight train, which delayed it further. Though it was due to get in at 16:04, it pulled into Lakeland slightly before 16:50. If that's typical of American trains (it happens in the UK comparatively often too), you should probably build in an hour or so when planning pick ups and the like.
Still, that did mean I could polish off Choque, the interesting BJJ history book I'd been reading. It has lots of fascinating info. For example, it alleges that Carlos Gracie never trained with Maeda, that Mario Aleixo was the first Brazilian to open a jiu jitsu school (back in 1913) and that Carlos never won a fight. Apparently, he only ever fought three, two of which were actually exhibition matches with Geo Omori, spun by Carlos as 'real' fights.
The train itself is a whole lot more comfortable than what I'm used to in the UK. It's air-conditioned, there is lots of leg room and you even get an adjustable leg-rest that pops up from under your seat. Where exactly you sit is assigned by the guard, to whom you show your ticket at the door. Keep in mind that to pick up your ticket you will generally need ID (I used my passport). You can bring two bits of luggage, not more than 50lbs each, which both have to go into the overhead rack. You can check the luggage in too, but I'm not sure what the process is as mine were both within the limits.
In Lakeland I spent some time with Stephanie (and briefly with Allie, who drove me to my BnB from the train station), training at the Fabio Novaes school on Tuesday and Thursday. I was also able to get in some culture, as the AirBnB was within walking distance of the Polk Museum of Art. Though I got the usual confused looks when I said I was going to walk (people don't walk in the US), it was only around 40 minutes by foot.
On Thursdays (I think Fridays too) the museum is free, but even if you're paying it's a mere $5. They ask to take down your zip code, but presumably that's just for their visitor statistics: if like me you live in the UK, they clump everone by country. There is a reasonable diversity of exhibits, kicking off with three rooms of pre-Colombian artefacts from various countries in South America.
The first one that struck me was a rather disturbing statue representing a priest of Xipe Totec, who aptly enough is a god of suffering. As the caption describes it: "The priest wears the flayed skin of a slave, bloody side out, to signify the 'coat' of new vegetation that grows in spring." The priest wore this skin for 20 days until it turned a golden colour. Hence one of Xipe Totec's more surprising epithets as a god of goldsmiths.
Another room held some skilful work from students of local schools from grades 9 to 12 (I think that is roughly 15 to 18 year olds, but I'm not sure). Professional artists had a couple of installations as well: I wasn't too keen on the first artist, whose thing was arranging toys either in patterns or thrusting metal poles through to them to create stick figure sculptures. It did make me wonder how much he spent on those toys though, as there were hundreds of them.
I much preferred the other installation artist, who created pseudo-natural scenes within the gallery space. There was a scene inspired by looking down on rolling hills from an airplane, combining textured stone (clay? Something that looked like stone at least) with a light show projected onto it. Another room held stalactites and stalagmites she had synthesised, then stuck on the floor and ceiling.
If unlike me you're into your skateboarding (though I did enjoy that old Tony Hawks game on the PlayStation way back when), there's a load of art created out of skateboards. A lot of it felt quite basic, with a few more technically adept designs, but that is no doubt just my subjective taste coming through. Anything modern in art doesn't tend to appeal to me.
Having said that, my favourite part of the museum was in the distinctly modern medium of photography, with a series of photographs taken around 1994 decorating a corridor upstairs (there's a smattering of paintings too, but not in any particular order AFAIK). They come from Peter Menzel's project, Our Material World. A team of photographers went to thirty countries spread across the world and stayed with a statistically average income family. At the end of the week, they had the family bring all their belongings outside of their house and took a photo of it. There was also a photograph of what the family ate, over a week IIRC.
I love statistics and I enjoy human geography, so this was fascinating. The captions told you which country was being featured, along with details of how many family members, their income per capita, their most prized possession (often a religious book or print, but just as often their TV, mode of transport or their livestock) and their hopes for the future, among various other stats. Some of the captions were stark: the caption for the Russian family announced that the father was beaten to death a month after the photo was taken.
If you go as slowly as I did and look at everything very carefully, you could spend two hours at the Polk, but it would be tough to stretch it out longer. There are several water fountains and toilet facilities, but I don't think there was a cloakroom, if you're looking to drop off bags.
Palm Harbor, 2nd-4th May
Thunderstorms dominated Thursday through to Saturday. Fortunately for me, my gracious host Elizabeth over in Palm Harbor was willing to brave the terrible weather on Friday to make the lengthy drive over to Lakeland to pick me up. Considering she also has some developing vision issues due to cataracts, that was especially kind of her! She's a highly intelligent woman who has had a wealth of experience, meaning she's a wonderful person to talk to. Despite the rain, it was therefore an enjoyable drive (at least from the perspective of a passenger!) back to her home.
Saturday was another day of jiu jitsu, with my last bit of training at the Fabio Novaes open mat, after which Josh and I sampled the excellent pizza at Ozona Pizza near to my host's home. On the final day, I had a pretty much perfect combination of activities. I began the day by continuing to read some MMA history off my Kindle. Elizabeth's 11 year old son then invited me to play a computer role playing game while he watched: my own inner 11 year old leapt at the chance.
I have absolutely adored playing role playing games (decidedly of the single player kind, I have no interest in the 'LOL, did you see the game last night? How about a quest?' RPG socialising of MMORPGs) for as long as I can remember, beginning with Bard's Tale on the Spectrum +3. I was a huge fan of Daggerfall, not so much of Morrowind, but I've been intrigued by Oblivion, as I had heard it was a return to the non-linear stye of play I liked so much in Daggerfall. It's a good thing I have a girlfriend, or I could easily spend all my free time gleefully slicing through goblins in dungeons. :)
After about an hour enjoyably traversing some caves as an orc, Elizabeth took me to the Dali Museum in St Petersburg. There are a lot of Dali museums: I'm aware of at least three others in various parts of the world. While I wouldn't say I'm an avid Dali fan, I do like his work and I find him interesting as one of the major 'brands' in art. Appropriately, there was also a small exhibition going on of the even more nakedly fame motivated Andy Warhol (although unlike Dali I don't find much of interest in Warhol's work, though his life was certainly intriguing).
The entrance fee is quite steep at $21, though that does at least include an audio guide. All of the work is contained within a large room on the third floor. There are 28 paintings covered by the audio guide, so I guess there must be a hundred and something Dali paintings in total. They range from his Impressionist early work up to late pieces from the '60s (I don't think there was anything from the '70s, but I might have missed it).
It wasn't easy to find all of those 28 audio guided paintings: some of them might have been out on loan, as three had completely disappeared. Having said that, the website is relatively comprehensive, though it doesn't show the full piece: for example, this is one of the absent paintings mentioned on the audio guide. The audio guide was pretty good apart from that, giving you an idea of the complex symbolism within Dali's paintings. Some biographical information was in there too, along with a few details on how the paintings found their way into the museum (mostly they came from Mrs and Mr Morse).
The paintings are a pleasing mixture of styles and sizes, with around 10 massive ones, the rest conforming to more normal dimensions. I was disappointed the enormous canvas featuring some guy on a horse in what looked like an outdoor cathedral (after a google, I can see this is 'Santiago El Grande' and the guy in question is St James, patron saint of Spain) didn't get audio coverage, as the captions aren't very descriptive. It takes about 1 hour to 1.5hrs to go around the Dali, so perhaps a bit overpriced at $21 (considering the Polk occupied me for longer and was a quarter of the price), but the quality and name-recognition is of course a few steps up.
Elizabeth saw me off at the airport, again generously making the not inconsiderable drive over there. Just like every other flight I've done in the last couple weeks, from Tampa to Gatwick went smoothly (well, there was some turbulence, but in terms of schedule etc, there weren't any problems. In fact, it arrived early because that turbulence was from tailwinds). At Gatwick, I took the 200 National Express coach back to Bristol, which I'd booked for £43 last year. The coaches pull in to either stand 4 or 5 directly outside the main doors exiting the airport.
I have been lucky to get the opportunity to go to the US three years in a row, meeting up with a significant percentage of my favourite bloggers from over the years. However, I think it's now time to put that on hold for a little while, as my girlfriend more than deserves some big trips together elsewhere in the world. But I will certainly be going back to the States at some point in the future: I still want to hit up Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington DC and New York, plus return trips to Florida (perhaps Jacksonville to visit Suay, if she's still there by that time?), Austin and Virginia Beach. :D