Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Step outside your comfort zone...

I have traveled alone before in the states but never to another country. I had mixed emotions going into this adventure to South America. I knew there would be language and cultural differences. I got lots of advice and warnings from friends and family which were helpful but also sometimes made me even more anxious. I worried that I would be crippled and held captive by my fear of Brasil, but instead I felt more free than ever! I tried to ignore the fear and focus on my excitement and goals. Much to my happiness and surprise, it turned out better than I could have ever have imagined.

What I loved most was meeting new people. Every day I met someone interesting or amusing. I had long philosophical conversations or sometimes laughed so hard it hurt. Everyone had an interesting story about their life choices and what brought them to South America. Most of them were fed up with conventional society and broke free to find happiness. There were inspiring and epic tales of survival and self discovery.

I also loved hanging out with the Cariocas and learning about the Brazilian culture in Rio. I found their outlooks and values to be refreshing. I met a few other Brazilians from the north and some from the south. No matter where they were from Brazilians are some of the nicest people I've ever met.

Traveling alone allowed me to have experiences I don't think I would have had traveling with a bunch of friends. I could decide what I wanted to do each day and wasn't forced to adjust to anyone Else's schedule or worry about their feelings. I could do whatever I wanted and those who wanted to come along did. I was free to change my mind to do as I pleased. It was a liberating experience for me. I was the happiest I've been in a long time.

This trip has made me realize how important it is to go out and see the world through a new pair of eyes. It might not be for everyone, but I think sometimes you have to take a step outside your comfort zone to know who you really are and what you want out of life!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Shama Ko's Travel Guide to Rio De Janierio-A Guide for the Adventurous spirit!

I had looked through a few books about Rio before my travels. I was torn between buying the "Lonely Planet Rio de Janiero" and "Rough Guide Rio de Janiero". Lonely Planet is a good resource and very up to date. However I liked the off the beaten path advice that the Rough Guide provided. They even included Jiu Jitsu academies! I researched various things to do and sites to see from both books. In total I picked out about 20 things that I thought were interesting.

I ended up purchasing a Brazilian Portuguese phrase book for only $8.99. The Romance section was specially amusing. Hee hee hee! I did use this book a few times at the grocery store and pharmacy. I found it helpful to have and easy to use.

In no particular order, here is my TOP 10 LIST OF THINGS TO DO. Some of these came from my original list of 20 and some were just unplanned adventures.

1.Hike Tijuca Forest:

The Tijuca National Forest is the world's largest urban forest. I went on a 2-3 hour hike and reached a peak with the most amazingly beautiful 360 view of the forest and city of Rio de Janiero that borders it. I really wanted to see a monkey on my trip, but unfortunately there were none to be found. On this hike, we cooled off in one of the many waterfalls (watch out for rocky areas and possible water snake dens) along the way. If you're an outdoor enthusiast like myself, you have to check this out! My photos don't even come close to doing this view justice. Only one word comes to mind..."WOW!

2.Train at Gracie Tijuca:

My quest for knowledge in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu led me to Gracie Tijuca. If you are looking for amazing Jiu Jitsu, good people/training partners and traditional yet relaxed atmosphere you have to stop in for a class or two. Train with the best! It's worth every penny!

3.Surf Barra da Tijuca beach:

Barra da Tijuca is the longest beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This beach is ideal for beginners and experienced surfers. It's a left and right beach break breaking over sand. It's shallow for a long ways out so watch your heads! There are lots of places to get a board on the boardwalk. Barra da Tijuca is easy to get to and worth the drive/bus ride!

4. The Lapa steps & Santa Teresa Histroic Tramway:

The tiled stairway in the equally colorful district of Lapa is the brainchild of a Chilean painter called Selaron. He fell in love with Brazil and created the steps as a tribute to his adopted country. The quirky artist Selaron refers to the stairway his "great madness" and claims he will never stop working on it until the day he dies.

The Santa Teresa Historic Tramway is the only remaining metropolitan tram system in Brazil (and South America), and also the oldest in operation, having run continuously since its opening in 1859. For about 1.20 reals ($.90 US) you can take a ride to the top of Santa Teresa and back down. It's a lot of fun and definitely worth the long wait in line.

5.Impanema & Leblon Beach:

In Hawaii the locals will tell you where to most beautiful beaches are. In Brazil, the locals will tell you where the most beautiful people are on the beach. Not only is Impanema beach full of beautiful people, it's also a beautiful span of beach. Impanema is one of Rio's hottest spots to hang out at all year round. Impanema is an ideal spot to spend the day with family, friends and loved ones.

6.Christ the Redeemer (O Cristo Redentor):

The O Cristo Redentor is a 130ft tall statue of Jesus Christ located on the peak of the Corcovado mountain. This statue is considered the largest Art Deco statue in the world! It is a magnificent piece of art and the view of Rio is breathtaking from this lookout.

7.Sugar Loaf (Pão de Açúcaris):

Sugar Loaf is a peak situated at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on a peninsula. Sugar loaf is 396 metres (1,299 ft) above the harbor. You can catch a tram to the top or hike/rock climb to the peak. No matter how you get there you will not be disappointed by the absolutely unreal view!

8. Down Town/Central:

Down Town Rio is where all the business happens in Rio. Just like any other downtown, you'll find skyscraper office buildings and professional business people on the street. My favorite part of this area was the historical buildings and statues. However, be careful wandering around at night or even during the day by yourself this area can be a little questionable. If you like to look at old architecture and ruins, definitely check out the central area.

9. Favela Tours:

Movies like "City of God", have brought international attention to the druglord slums of Rio de Janiero. At first I was reluctant about taking a tour of the slums since it isn't something that I'd do anywhere else. However, after seeing photographs taken in the favelas and realizing how the tours directly benefit this impoverished community I changed my mind. But be aware these are some of the most dangerous parts of Rio. They tell tourists to keep out of the favelas and even the tour companies cannot guarantee your safety 100%. However, if you are looking for an eye opening experience this is it!

Marcelo Armstrong owner of Favela Tours, created these tours back in 1992. The purpose of the Favela Tours is to give the public a whole new understanding about different aspects of Brazilian society.

Another organization that runs tours is Favela Adventures. Favela Adventures is a small company that is operated completely by residents in the favela of Rocinha. The company consists of five parts of sustainable tourism. Their main purpose is to educate people about the community and the great things that do exist in the favelas.

10.Impanema Hippy Fair (Feira hippie de ipanema):

Rio has one of the best "hippy fairs" in Brazil. In Brazil, hippy fairs have been popular since the 1960's. This open market is perfect to buy unique gifts for yourself or loved ones. You can buy anything from handcrafts, silver jewelery, paintings, furniture and sculptures. The fair is open every Sunday 8am–7:30pm at the Ipanema/General Osório. I highly recommend you check it out. You are bound to find something that you like!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Better to be safe than sorry.

Before I left for Brazil, everyone was warning me about the dangers of being a tourist in Rio. I have to admit, it had me on edge. My trip plans fell together at the last minute. I had my hostel reserved and an airport pick-up set up. But that was about it. I'd heard horror stories about people getting robbed by their taxi drivers from the airport. I wasn't going to let that happen to me.

I arrived in Rio with my guard up and I was vigilant. I had safely securing all of my money, legal documents and electronic equipment. As a precautionary measure (per the advise of some friends), I carried a false wallet with some cash that could be thrown at any robbers to deter them from my "reals" money. When I arrived at the airport, I didn't trust anyone near me or my stuff. I didn't bring or wear any jewelery and I sure as heck didn't bring my best clothes. I wanted to blend in as much as possible and not bring any attention to myself or my belongings.

After arriving in Leblon, I went out to explore the area. It was still daylight and I don't know what I expected to see, but it wasn't the crazy dramas that had been running through my head. I didn't see any dead bodies in alleys, hear gun shots blasting in the streets or notice any sleazy drug dealers selling cocaine. Although I had heard that this happens in parts of Rio, I did not see anything like that in Leblon.

After a day or so, I stopped being on edge and started feeling relatively safe and relaxed in Rio (especially in Leblon and Impanema). Even in some of the dicer or questionable areas like Copacabana, Lapa and Central, I still felt safe but remained very aware of my surroundings. One of my biggest concerns was getting back to the hostel from Jiu Jitsu class after dark. Training was in Tijuca which isn't exactly the most tourist friendly area. Tijuca is about 1 hour from Leblon by bus and subway. I had a ride some of the time, but as I became more acclimated I felt relatively safe even walking around at night by myself and catching public transportation. In fact, I realized I must be blending in pretty well when people started asked me for direction or questions in Portuguese.

I've been told that Rio is undergoing a "face-lift" at the moment with the Olympics coming soon and the World Cup right after wards. Massive police task forces have been going into some of the most dangerous Favelas in efforts to clean up the drug trafficking and crime. They have been successful in quite a few areas of the South Zone. The city is becoming more and more safe and tourist friendly. I am sure by the time the Olympics begin Rio will be a model of security and hospitality.

The trick is not to be afraid, which can cause inaction and paralysis, but always stay alert. Don't do stupid things like...

* Don't go around flashing your electronics (mp3 players, iphones and etc.) or money.
* Don't bring a whole lot of attention to yourself as obviously being a foreigner.
* Walk with a purpose and try not to look totally lost on the streets holding a map or staring at the gps on your cell phone.
* Don't carry much money and it doesn't hurt to have a deterrent wallet with 10-20 reals in it.
* Buy a money belt if you have to move legal documents or large amounts of money.
* Make photocopies of your passport and don't carry around the originals.
* Don't let anyone suspecious get to close to you on the streets (no handouts or shoe shining)
* Don't walk on the beach alone at night.
* Don't walk in dark alley's or low traffic streets alone at night.

And finally: Trust your instincts and be alert. Just common sense stuff...Don't be careless and you'll be okay.

As a woman traveling alone, I am glad I started out in Rio being paranoid and with my guard up . It helped me become more aware and less trusting. Rio is like any other big city I've been to as far as safety. Robbing and pick pocketing is most common. I was fortunate that this didn't happen to me,but I did my best to make sure that I didn't put myself in any bad situations to begin with. Be smart and be safe and you will have a wonderful time!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Surfing in Rio...

Surfing in Brazil was my second goal right after training Jiu Jitsu. I grew up in Hawaii, but only surfed maybe a handful of times. Once I moved away to Texas and became land locked, my obsession with surfing emerged. My ex-boyfriend lived for surfing so we owned quite a bit of surf videos and magazines. For many years I surfed vicariously through those videos. I don't claim to be an expert,by any means. I consider myself to still be a beginner surfer. Mostly because I get to practice only a few weeks out of the year when I go home to Hawaii.

As I headed to Brazil, the idea of surfing on a whole different continent was so exciting! I imagined that Impanema and Leblon would be like Waikiki beach, filled with tourist and lined with surfboard rental stands. But this wasn't the case. When I got there I realized that the waves in Impanema were much too unpredictable and broke at the shoreline. The only spot that got any real surf was on the end called Arpoador, Praia do Diabo or at Impanema beach near the canal in between Impanema and Leblon. The line up was super crowded most of the time at Arpoador. You can rent surf boards in Impanema at the Galeria River shopping center. Impanema beach is also excellent for body boarding and skim boarding more days than not. On windy days kite surfing is also very popular in Impanema.


View Larger Map

At the hostel, I met another American traveler that wanted to surf as much as I did. She had never surfed before but had done her homework and found a surf school in Barra da Tijuca which is 45 min-1 hour by bus depending on traffic. Eager to get at the waves, I went with her the next morning.

It was a rainy cold Saturday morning, but class started at 8 am and rain or shine, we were going surfing! Danielle was no stranger to the Brazilian language or culture. She had spent a year and a half in Brazil and spoke fluent Brazilian Portuguese. She had also figured out the bus system and knew how to get from Leblon to Barra da Tijuca. This left little work for me, since I just kind of tagged along.

Riding the bus in Rio is like a roller coaster and the drivers drive like bats out of hell. In theory you'd think a bus would be slower than taxi, but that was not the case with our bus to Barra da Tijuca. The roads were flooded due torrential rain and poor or nonexistent drainage systems, but the bus flew along the road like it was sunny and dry. As we whipped around the mountain along the steep roads with 40-50 ft drops into the ocean, I tried not to picture our bus plunging over the edge. For the first time ever, I didn't want the window seat.

Once we got off the bus, it started to rain even harder than before. The ocean churned angrily and the waves seemed enormous. I thought, "Are they really going to take beginners out in this?". We walked along the empty boardwalk looking for the surf stand. I had my doubts that anyone else would be crazy enough to be be out in this storm.

But sure enough we weren't the only louco ones. There were 15 other surfers ready to take on the storm waves. It turned out to be an awesome session. The waves measured a little overhead and 1/2 (7-8 ft or 5-6 Hawaiian scale) further out. But we just surfed in white water that was maybe 2-4 ft. I actually got up on a few waves and rode almost to shoreline with a few of them! I was especially pleased with my self when the instructor told me I had a good stance. Most importantly, I had a blast!

Barra da Tijuca is a great surf spot for surfers of all levels. It's easy to get to via the bus and there are board rentals on the beach.

The best part about surfing in Barra da Tijuca is that it has a super shallow sand bar for a long way out. No need to paddle out, you can just walk your board to the surf. I am super lazy when it comes to long paddle outs. I'd much rather spend more energy catching waves than paddling to them. However, be careful to protect your head since it is so shallow. I had a great time and would strongly recommend surfing in Barra da Tijuca in rain or shine, when you are in Brazil!

Helpful links

Surf report:

www.ricosurf.com.br , www.wavescheck.com.br, www.surfguru.com.br and www.windguru.com.br

Map of Rio Surfing beaches:

Surf spot guides:


Brazil Surf Camps:

Rio Sports Tours

Monday, August 16, 2010

Got the Lemon Spirit!

I found "my home away from home" in Rio at the Lemon Spirit hostel. I've only stayed at a hostel once before, in Big Bear California. I wouldn't say I got the full hostel experience in Big Bear since I was snowboarding all day long, passed out early then got up early again the next day to spend the entire days on the slopes again. Also the hostel was empty because it was the end of the season. I had the run of the place with another snowboarder from Sweden. The Lemon Spirit hostel in Rio was a lot different and I loved it even more!

Lemon Spirit is a three story building located in one of Rio's nicest areas of town called Leblon. Leblon is a relatively upscale neighborhood for Rio. I always felt safe in this neighborhood, even walking around at night by myself. Of course you always have to stay alert and be smart even if the area has a pretty low crime rate. The hostel is 2 blocks from Leblon beach and a 10-15 min walk to Impanema beach. I enjoyed starting each day with a dip in the ocean after the complimentary breakfast which consist of bread, meat, cheese, butter, jams, fruit (papaya or melon), coffee, tea and juice.

Lemon Spirit has private rooms, female dorms and mixed dorms. Average price is about 45-195 Reals a night.(about $26-$110 US Dollars) The rooms are clean and they have lockers for your valuables. The bathrooms are also clean and the showers are hot. They have fee wifi and computers in the lobby, a bar and a full kitchen. Lemon Spirit has just about everything a regular "hotel" can offer only at an affordable price! They also have airport and bus station transfer pick up and drop off services for a small fee!

Lemon Spirit is located near the main st of Av. Ataufo de Paiva. The area is within walking distance of good shopping, food, bars and public transportation. My favorite juice bar is on the corner. They makes the best juices and filé mignon sandwiches! The Acai is good here too! The best place to exchange your money is at the Leblon Shopping Center just up the street.

The staff at Lemon Spirit are super helpful, friendly and a lot of fun to talk to. They are fluent in many languages including English. Any off the wall question I had or help I needed , they were happy to assist. The bar makes the best caipirinha (a traditional Brazilain mixed drink) I had in Rio and you get a free drink ticket for one when you check in! I had to sit on my ticket for a few days until after the Rio Open, but it was well worth the wait! The staff makes you feel welcomed and I loved the relaxed atmosphere.

I met some of the most amazing people and had fascinating conversations while I stayed at Lemon Spirit. The hostel is suitable for guests of all ages (sorry no children). Every night when I returned from jiu jitsu class I was greeted by a different group of new friends on the patio. It seemed as thought there was something going on every night and adventures to be experienced. I made some valuable friendships and created life long memories. Thank you to the staff and guest of Lemon Spirit! I truly enjoyed my stay and I highly recommend Lemon Spirit to any traveler going to Rio!

Lemon Spirit

Rua Cupertino Durão, 56 (Corner with Avenida General San martin)
Leblon - Rio de Janeiro.RJ - ZIP: 22441-030 - Brazil
Tel. +55 21 2294-1853

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gracie Tijuca-filling in the cracks...

I know it's silly to get nervous about training at a new academy, but I do. Regardless of how many schools I've trained at over the years throughout the States, when I am the "new kid in school", I still get a bit anxious about my first day of class like a 5 year old kid.

I'd been corresponding with Vini Aieta of Gracie Tijuca and Francis of Rio Sports Tours for a few months. So, when I walked in the door I was greeted with warm smiles and kisses on each cheek. My first day of class was part of the Rio Sports Tours Vini Aieta's Jiu Jitsu camp. We went over 2-3 different techniques and then it was time for "training" (rolling). Training consists of 4-5 x 6-7 minute rounds with a different partners each round. I especially thankful for the one-on-one advice and feedback from Vini and Francis who are both black belts. Since majority of the students in this class spoke English, it was one of the only classes I took at Gracie Tijuca that was taught entirely in English.

Even though I don't speak Brazilian Portuguese and have a very limited understanding of it, I didn't find it that difficult to take the Jiu Jitsu classes. I had to pay especially close attention to the tiniest of details that the instructor demonstrated physically. This was not as hard as it may seem since I am a visual learner anyway. Vini has excellent English and would always ask me after instruction if I understood. If I was doing something wrong or didn't understand, he would advise me in English on what I was missing and how to do it right.

A few of his classes were taught by one of his black belts who spoke very little English. Although we had a language barrier, we were able to understand each other enough to get the concepts across. One of my goals the next time I am in Brazil is to be able to understand and speak more Brazilian Portuguese.

Training at Gracie Tijuca was like I died and went to Jiu Jitsu heaven. I can understand why Gracie Tijuca has produced such amazing talent. The Quality of training is top notch. The Jiu Jitsu here is pure and so many of the tiny details are emphasized to make training smooth and fluid. I don't think that I've ever rolled with so many brown and black belts ever. Training here made me even more aware of the cracks in my game and provided me with the tools I need to fill in some of those areas. If only two weeks of training can make me feel like I am getting better each class, I can only imagine how much an impact a few months to a year would have on my progression.

Truth be told, I'd been feeling a bit stuck lately in Jiu Jitsu prior to my trip. Perhaps training somewhere new was the medicine I needed. I feel like I've learned a lot in a short period of time, perhaps that is because I really had to pay attention to all the little details that makes a world of difference. I've left Brazil with a renewed outlook on Jiu Jitsu and hungry to get back on the mats and learn. My training at Gracie Tijuca also gave me a fresh new outlook at my goals and what I intend to give back to the community. Winning championship metals is still on my list of things to accomplish, but it is how I win them and what I learn that matters more. I want to be the best I can be using the purest of Jiu Jitsu. I want to get my self defense techniques down, and maybe, but not immediately, I'd like to start working with and teaching children's classes.

It really meant a lot to me when Vini's wife and daughter came to watch one class and his wife told me ,"I really like how you represent women in Jiu Jitsu." It meant a lot coming from her and I like to think it means I am doing something right.

Of all the places I've trained, Gracie Tijuca has been one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. Vini and his students are amazing people. They made me feel right at home. They were all extremely supportive, friendly and helpful. I feel so very grateful that I've had the opportunity to train with them. I want to thank Vini, Rio Sports Tours and the students of Gracie Tijuca with all my heart for everything they did for me. It was really hard to say goodbye to Vini and his students. I must have looked like I was going to cry because Vini told me, "Don't cry, you'll be back!". Yes, I will...as soon as I can!