Philippines · Travel Reviews · Travel Tips

6 Things to Love about Metropolitan Manila

Though I left life in Manila behind about a year ago now, I have spent many of years in this behemoth of a city. Recently, I’ve been spending months at a time in Sydney, and what a contrast that is.

For quite some time, I’ve had a post bobbing in drafts titled “Things I Love About Sydney” but I still haven’t gotten around to writing it. Perhaps because it’s so obvious.

Yes, Sydney is a beautiful (and expensive) city, what with its beautiful parks and beaches and picturesque points, and it’s been a pleasure staying here.

However, re-experiencing life in Manila last month has inspired me to write about this swelling metropolis instead.

In the past, I wrote about the struggle to survive in Manila and revisited a few remarkable memories. Now, I’d like to write about things to love in Metropolitan Manila.

1. Warm Greetings

From the thick, warm blanket of air that wraps it’s welcoming arms around you when you first step out of the airport to the hospitable nature of its people, Manila sure knows how to give a warm welcome.

2. The Slow Life

Life meanders here at about the same pace as the traffic along EDSA and it’s certainly not a place for the impatient. However, there is something quite enjoyable about settling into the slow pace–certainly for awhile, at least.

3. The Cheerful Optimism of the Happy-Go-Lucky

Years ago I did some work as a language assessor for BPO companies and every other Filipino candidate I interviewed described themselves, word for word, as “happy-go-lucky”.

I found it quite amusing at the time but, truthfully, the easygoing nature of Manila locals is quite a pleasant contrast compared to how people can be in other parts of the world.

One of my favorite Tagalog expressions is bahala na si Batman or “leave it up to Batman”. Indeed, Filipinos are so relaxed and optimistic about the future that they don’t even need to leave it in God’s hands: Batman will do.

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3. The Abundantly Friendly (and Surprisingly Ever Unserious) Nature

A former manager and fellow foreigner once told the story of being mugged in Paranaque–one of Metropolitan Manila’s seventeen cities, located just south of the CBD.

It was late and he was on his way home from work when two young men approached with what I believe was a knife and asked for his money. He was tired after a long day and told them woefully that he had nothing on him. The muggers showed such pity that they apologized for the disturbance before going on their way.

Honestly, when people ask me if Manila is dangerous, stories like this often come to mind. That’s not to say you can’t get in trouble–certainly, you must be vigilant–but more often than not I have found the nature of Filipinos too innately friendly and accommodating to warrant fear of confrontation.

If you asked me who the most serious people in the world are, I’d probably say airport security. Yet, in the Philippines, they’re still friendly enough to comment “Nice hair!” during a pat down.

In truth, Filipinos can make light of just about anything, from airport security checks to devastating typhoons.

4. The Spirit of Bayanihan

Bayanihan

No, it’s not a ghost. Bayanihan would more or less translate to the value of extending a helping hand without expecting anything in return. It is best embodied in the picture of a whole house carried on the shoulders of a group of neighbors.

I’ve never seen my neighbors carry a house but I have had a total stranger pick up my motorcycle and carry it to a mechanic for me when it broke down on me. In fact, I’ve never needed more roadside assistance in the Philippines than the Filipinos on the roadside.

On another occasion, trying to find the way back to Manila on dark and unmarked roads after a trip out of town, the car ended up in a ditch. Stranded and hours from home with a baby in the car and little else, my companion and I had all of two minutes to worry about what we were going to do before people starting crawling out of the woodworks, so to speak, and lifting our car out of the hole.

They were gone as quickly as they had appeared. Bayanihan, indeed.

5. The Vegetarian Challenge

Nowhere in the world has the struggle to be vegetarian (for the past six months or so) been as real as in Manila.

The local diet is built on pork and seafood, with a side of chicken and beef, and lots of rice. When I asked for vegetarian dishes on the menu at one Filipino restaurant, I was pointed to one small plate vegetables.

Though, in the spirit of optimism, the quest for vegetarian food in Manila makes for quite a fun challenge.

I became vegetarian earlier this year before going back to Europe. In Holland, it was easy; in Luxembourg, doable; back in Australia, fantastic. (It’s almost like meat doesn’t exist in Newtown anymore.) In Manila, on the other hand, it’s been quite the opposite.

Still, it has drawn me out of a comfort zone and into new experiences. I’ve even discovered a couple of great all-vegetarian/vegan restaurants that serve plant-based versions of Filipino favorites such as sisig and adobo.

Indeed, if you’re a vegetarian in Manila and you haven’t been to these places yet, check out Corner Tree Cafe in Makai and the Vegetarian Kitchen or Greens in Quezon City.

6. The Pleasure of a Cold Beer at a Low Price

Last but not least, there is nothing quite like an icy cold San Mig on a hot Manila day. This local beer will cost you a dollar at many establishments and set you back no more than three bucks at even the swankiest venues.

It’s an easygoing beer and surprisingly good for the price. In addition to the light and pale Pilsen, you can find the far less easygoing Red Horse (read: crazy beer) at about the same price. Only for the brave (read: crazy).

Europe · Travel Reviews · Travel Tips

Three Days in Malta

Malta is an amazing country and was it not for a wedding, I could have easily gone my entire life without setting foot on its islands.

Dividing vacation time between Manila and Malta almost seems like a mistake: a typo when booking, perhaps. One is a metropolitan city on a tropical island in South-East Asia and the other an ancient Mediterranean archipelago now popular among European tourists.

Regardless, it was the itinerary of the month.

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A Bit of Maltese History

From Saint Paul’s shipwrecking to Cersei’s naked walk of shame, the small island of Malta has hosted many significant events.

Malta has been occupied by the Romans, Arabs, and a horde of others. The famous Maltese knights arrived in the sixteenth century and the stage was set for the Great Siege of Malta–a tale that quite frankly puts the Battle of Blackwater to shame.

Eventually, it was Napoleon who took Malta from the knights at the end of the eighteenth century. It took the French only two petite years to surrender, leaving the Islanders in the hands of the British Commonwealth and forever fated to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Malta also played a role in the Second World War. With so much historical bloodshed, the islands of Malta have offered an excellent setting for blockbusters such as Troy, Gladiator, and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Curiously, for all the testaments to Malta’s rich history, the most renowned monument appears to be King’s Landing.

Things to do in Malta

A: Visit historical sights
B: Go to the beach

At least, that was the debate for my partner and me as we only had three days on the island–one of which was fully occupied by the wedding.

Upon arrival at the airport, we met up with a few family members and were spirited to Qawra Point in St. Paul’s Bay.

We stayed at Seashells Resort (great place, very friendly and accommodating staff) and enjoyed the nearby Qawra Point Beach as well as a sunset swim in the infinity pool, followed by dinner, at Café Del Mar.

Also in St. Paul’s Bay: the National Aquarium. Which is where you go if you haven’t been able to find any fish in the ocean.

The following day was spent at the wedding venue. Popeye Village, named after the spinach eater and apparently the only film set still standing in Europe, is now functioning as a small amusement park. This charming film-set-turned-theme-park located along the beautiful cliffs of Anchor Bay becomes quite magical when the sun begins to set.

On the third and final day before departure, we decided to explore one of the other islands.

The largest island of Malta is (you guessed it) Malta. Next comes Gozo and in between the two lies the smallest of the three and home of the Blue Lagoon: Comino.

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From Marfa in Mellieha, which lies in the north Malta, you can catch a ferry straight to the Blue Lagoon.

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Getting Around the Main Island

1. Public Busses
They have routes and schedules but also, apparently, a mind of their own.

2. Taxis
There is no Uber in Malta but you can use an app called eCabs to book taxis from your phone. Most trips ranged from €18 to €25.

3. Car Rentals
Cars can be rented at the airport for anywhere between €16 and €28 per day. Keep in mind that the Maltese don’t drive on the right side of the road.

The turquoise bay was awfully crowded when we arrived, so we trekked to another point on the island and found a quieter spot to enjoy the Mediterranean sun and sea.

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We ended the day with dinner at Ocean Basket back in St. Paul’s Bay and for the first time in my five months of vegetarianism I felt sincerely envious as lavish platters of seafood were brought to the table.

That being said, I did enjoy their vegetable dishes and a plate of tasty vegetarian sushi.

We saw castles and fortresses all along the landscape but didn’t visit any of them. Among other interesting places which I didn’t get to see but heard good things about are the walled city of Mdina–which embodied King’s Landing–and the Dingli Cliffs. You can also find St. Paul’s Catacombs more or less in between those two locations.

Malta was entirely a delight, though I must say I was a little disappointed that they had knights in all the souvenir shops but Maltesers were nowhere to be found.

Here a few aerial views of almost the entire island on the way out:

And thus the end of this staccato account.

Australia · International

When It’s Time to Travel

I’ve spent a relaxing day at home, enjoying the Sydney sun as it shines through the windows. The howling wind outside is nothing to me but a soundtrack–and a no-frills way to speed up the laundry drying process.

I’ve got the rest of the clothes that need to go in my bag out on the drying rack and by the end of today everything but the last-minute items will be packed and ready to go. That gives me one more day to enjoy a chilly Sydney because by the time I return summer will be well on its way.

It’s been almost three full months of winter in Sydney now and my first season of its kind. In truth, I have been actively avoiding winters and hadn’t experienced one in nearly a decade. Really, it hasn’t been so bad–this is Australia after all.

I’ve had plenty to keep me busy, from boxing at the gym and hanging out with Couchsurfers to practicing my Mandarin with language exchange buddies and of course keeping up with my online teaching and writing work.

That being said, Sydney Spring is being quite a tease and I’m so eager to have warm weather again that I’ll be flying off to find it.

The first stop will be Manila, where I know that burst of hot air awaits as soon as I step out of the airport. Then immediately on to Malta, with a connecting flight in Dubai. That will be nearly two days of travel, followed by four days on a beautiful Mediterranean island in Autumn.

After that, back to the Philippines for a long weekend at the beach and a few weeks in the city. Fingers crossed the monsoon will have bid the islands farewell by then so we can be soaking in the pool and not on the streets.

To everyone who has made these arctic months an enjoyable and challenging learning experience, especially the coaches and training partners at Darkside, my very patient mentors in Mandarin, the lovely folks from Couchsurfing, and our friendly new housemates, thank you! I’ll be back and eager for beach volleyball and surfing when your city gets a little warmer.

Australia · My MMA Journey

My Amateur MMA Journey, Part 18: Why I Box

Recently, in my journey of exploring mixed-martial arts, I’ve switched from doing a bit of everything to going back to where I started and focusing on boxing.

I’ve done so for a few reasons. For one, because I’m still jet-setting and haven’t yet put down roots anywhere, I don’t want to buy gear that won’t fit in my travel bag–like shin pads or a gi. Of course, I could rent or borrow these training necessities, but I have got another reason to stick with boxing for now.

When I was doing a combination of boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA at Darkside Gym, I had to learn a lot of techniques from scratch and most importantly find my footing in order to hold my own when sparring.

When it comes to footwork, though, trying to learn the boxing, Muay Thai, and various MMA stances all at once was pretty confusing. Back to the basics, then: I’ve been keeping my focus on boxing and there’s still quite a bit of work to be done.

Last week, I met a traveler who turned out to be a veritable martial arts encyclopedia. I brought him along to the gym, where he observed that my stance was “a bit stiff”.

He noted that the weakness of a boxer is the legs and even recommended dancing as a way to loosen up the feet, improve balance, and get into the punching rhythm. Who knows, I might take that advice seriously.

For now, though, I’ve taken the time to list up seven solid reasons to box.

Taking up boxing can mean all sorts of things. It may be as simple as finding a gym where a trainer or partner holds up focus pads and you learn how to hit them in a number of different ways while toning up your arms and abs.

It could represent a fun new way for you to stay fit or it might lead you to challenge yourself by putting in that mouth guard, donning the headgear, and braving the ring. However far you go–from boxercise to amateur competitions–there are plenty of possible motivators.

1. Getting Out

As soon as I started working entirely from home back in the Philippines, I knew I needed to take exercise out of the house. At the time, all I had to do was walk around the block to get to an Elorde Gym. Now it’s a ten-minute jog to Darkside, which takes me away from my computer, gets me some fresh air, and puts me in a social environment where I’m learning from the trainers, practicing with partners, and getting a solid workout.

2. Burning Calories

I dislike calorie talk, honestly. When I think of health and fitness, I think of quality food and active living. Both eating and exercising should be enjoyable experiences so turning either into calorie calculations tends to spoil the fun a bit.

That being said, restricting and burning calories is a self-evident way to lose weight and it has its time and place. In fact, I did a little bit of it last year when I was casually cutting weight for a jiu-jitsu competition.

If you care for the numbers, the average person burns over 300 calories per hour on the punching bag and 600 to 800 in the ring while sparring, which brings it right up to the top of the sports-that-burn-the-most-calories list.

3. Releasing Stress

While any form of exercise will release endorphins, there’s a special kind of pleasure that comes from punching things really hard. So often in life, it’s hard to find a truly good reason to hit anything or anyone. On the contrary, it’s typically quite ill-advised–and rightly so.

But in a boxing class, when you’re told to go all out, you do. And you have a reason now: you’re burning those calories and honing a new skill. Whether or not you’re mentally taking out that pent-up frustration on your boss as a bonus feature is totally up to you. When you’re sparring and you punch someone else, it’s because they want you to. You’re helping them and they’re helping you: that’s how you learn.

4. Gaining Confidence

While boxing doesn’t really apply as self-defense training, it certainly does the job of giving you the confidence you need to handle yourself in a confrontation. Along with better body image and posture, boxing redefines what you are physically and mentally capable of and will help you carry yourself more confidently through every part of life.

5. Learning a New Skill

Learning is fun. Starting off with zero knowledge of something–be it a language, a sport, or any other skill–and getting the hang of it through practice and training is one of the most satisfying feats of life. It’s an excellent social experience as well: you connect to the people around you because everyone has something to share or learn.

6. Pushing Your Resilience

Boxing is tough on quite a few levels. For one, it’s a very complex sport and when you start out you’ll find the number of things you have to pay attention to a bit flooring. There’s footwork, body positioning, rotation, and of course proper punch throwing, and training your body to bring each of these elements together naturally takes time.

Once you move on to sparring, you’ll have to add in reading your partner so you can block, slip, or eat their punches while setting yourself up to break their defense–and do all of that under the tension of being in a fight.

Initially, you’ll have to train yourself to simply keep your eyes open when a glove is coming at your face. From there, you’ll learn to watch, preempt, and counter a strike. Your body will toughen to the blows–as will your mind to the struggle–and you’ll walk away with more resilient and capable of handling what life throws your way.

7. Getting Competitive

Besides enjoying the challenge of learning a new skill, and whether or not you ever sign up to compete in an amateur boxing ring, your competitive side is likely what will push you through much of the training. At least that’s how it is for me.

I’m still not sure if or when I’ll compete. There are many things to factor in, one being that boxing–as much as I love it–is not my main priority. For all the physical and mental benefits that carry over into the rest of my life, boxing and martial arts have been more of a means to an end than the end itself.

That being said, I am curious to give it a try. Since I have, at the end of the day, been putting quite a lot of time and effort into boxing, it’s only natural to want to test what I’ve learned. For now, I have one more week at Darkside before a bit of globetrotting to Malta and Manila. We’ll see what comes next when I get back in October.

Australia · Day Trips

Kangaroo Picnic in Morisset

I want to say that there were kangaroos at Taronga but I don’t recall any memorable encounters with them.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago: when a friend I met through Couchsurfing invited me to join in on a day trip and see these quintessential Australian creatures, I knew the moment had come.

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G’day mate! (nobody actually says that but this guy surely would)

Let’s backtrack a little more. I wrote of things to know about Couchsurfing after I joined the website/app earlier this year and had my first experience being hosted in Manila. However, it wasn’t until recently here in Sydney that I first used the “Hangouts” feature.

It was a Thursday afternoon and my schedule was open until later in the evening. With quite a few hours to kill, I thought I’d seek out something interesting.

Since I work from home, I have to find ways to get out and interact with people in my downtime; for example, by going to the gym. Granted, most of my interactions there involve punching people, but it still counts.

With the Couchsurfing app, you can set yourself available to hang out and find people–travelers, locals, and everyone in between–near you who want to do the same. And they won’t even try to punch you.

Instead of spending that Thursday evening at the gym, I ended up getting together with a group of Couchsurfers in Darling Harbour. Where I normally feel the odd one out, what with my multiple nationalities and mixed cultural identity, quite literally everyone in this group had a similar story to tell. Some were living in Sydney; some had arrived that day and were only passing through, and others were here for a year on exchange.

One of them, a new arrival to Australia, was responsible for organizing this fantastic day trip and hats off to her because it was a clever feat and lots of good fun.

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A unique blend of tame day-trippers and friendly kangaroos set against the backdrop of a quaint psychiatric hospital

Everyone got together at Central Station just after 8 AM to catch the train at 16 minutes past and it wasn’t until all the clusters got off the train in Morisset that we realized how large the group of mostly Couchsurfers had grown: I’m pretty sure there were about twenty of us.

I was almost unsure I’d want to give up my Saturday morning sleep in but I’m certainly glad I did. The trip was loads of fun and it was great to meet new people, and kangaroos too.

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There is at least one picnic table by the lake and it’s a beautiful spot for a picnic at a safe distance from the marsupial hubs (but maybe don’t bring kangaroo jerky anyway)

Day Trip Timeline

Here’s a rough time frame of the trip. This is with a fairly large group so it’s counting on things moving a bit slowly. It’s still an adventurous way to spend the day, and with a little nap on the train heading back you’ll still have the entire evening to enjoy in Sydney CBD.

08:16 Catch the train from Central
10:10 Get off at Morisset
10:30 Hike to Morisset Hospital (not Morisset Park)
11:30 See kangaroos; have a picnic (not in the same place)
13:00 Start heading back to the station
14:32 Catch the train to Sydney
16:29 Arrive at Central

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Walk around and not through the hospital grounds when heading to the picnic area
Australia · Interviews · My MMA Journey

Things to Know About Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Sydney

An Interview with Mario Yokoyama of myBJJ

Last week I popped into the myBrazilian Jiu-Jitsu headquarters in Camperdown to have a chat with founder and head instructor Mario Sergio Yokoyama.

Having finished another month at Darkside, I opted for a short break from boxing so I could take some time not only to explore other martial arts but to get to know the city and some of the other travelers and locals in it.

One of the first things I was happy to have done with the extra time was returning to myBJJ for my second interview with a founder and head coach of a Sydney martial arts gym–another fun and insightful experience. (The first was with Uro Pavi of Darkside.)

When I got back to Sydney last month, I took a free Jiu-Jitsu Fundamentals trial class at myBJJ and wrote about it here. Since then, I have been wanting to come back and ask Mario–the man behind my–some questions.

I wanted to learn more about the various Brazilian jiu-jitsu styles and approaches to training, the Gracies, self-defense, competitive BJJ, grading systems, and how jiu-jitsu differs from country to country.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: An Art for All Ages

When I arrived at the gym just after 9 in the morning, Mario was in the middle of a kids class. It was the last day of the winter break and of the jiu-jitsu school holidays camp so these young rollers would be in the gym’s care until 3 in the afternoon.

In addition to the questions I had prepared, I wanted to ask Mario about their kid’s classes. When I took my first stab at jiu-jitsu last year, my own daughter was three and too young to join. In fact, I found that most any sports teams in Manila–including soccer–didn’t take kids until the age of five.

I assumed this was because children under five couldn’t be expected to follow instructions but Mario told me they start training kids at three and sometimes even younger.

In fact, he said he’d had two-and-a-half-year-olds follow instructions better than some ten-year-old students and can already go through the moves.

Overall, however, jiu-jitsu does appear to be a discipline suited to all ages–from the preschoolers rolling around on the mats to the white-haired masters gracing the walls.

Mario Yokoyama: Student and Teacher

“I have been a black belt for almost twelve years and I’m still learning here with my own students. That was my plan at the beginning, to build a school where I can train as well.”

Speaking of the Gracies, Mario himself received his black belt under Ryan Gracie. However, he first began his jiu-jitsu training in Sao Paolo under master Roberto Lage.

Mario was thirteen years of age and a judo purple belt when he first walked into Lage’s jiu-jitsu academy. Though he initially came in to complement his ground training in judo, he quickly fell in love with the training style and mechanics of jiu-jitsu and decided to take the path of jiu-jitsu.

By the time he had his purple belt in jiu-jitsu, still in his teens, Mario was helping teach classes in Brazil. After that, he spent time in Japan teaching jiu-jitsu to the police and eventually he moved to Australia where he got started teaching in his back garden with three students.

As the number of students grew, he moved to a new location and when this got too small they moved again. This happened three times, he tells me. The third location was in Marrickville in 2013, where myBJJ was officially founded and the school started getting personality. Three years ago that location also got too small and that is when they moved to the current headquarters in Camperdown.

“When you have a good product, it doesn’t matter where you are, people come to train with you. When I was in Japan we had these guys who would drive four hours to train with us and four hours to go back [home],” Mario recounts and tells me the same thing happened in Marrickville where they had guys catching the train from out of town in the evening, staying the night and training again in the morning before returning home. Currently, they have people coming all the way from the Blue Mountains.

Gracie Barra, Gracie Humaita, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Around the World

“They were very tough but very humble.”

When you look for places in Australia where you can train in jiu-jitsu, you’re guaranteed to see at least a few Gracies popping up. Often, it will be either Gracie Barra (“baha”) or Gracie Humaita (“umaita”)–schools that you can find all over the world.

Knowing that Mario got his black belt under Ryan (“Hyan”) Gracie, grandson of the acclaimed patriarch of Brazilian jiu-jitsu Carlos Gracie, I wanted to know where his gym fits in with these disciplines and I was also curious to hear some first-hand accounts of his interactions with members of the widely influential and almost notorious Gracie family.

For starters, I had to ask where myBJJ fits in the red-to-yellow or Barra-to-Humaita spectrum. Firstly,, Barra gyms–distinguishable by the red triangle–focus heavily on competitive jiu-jitsu and the training tends to revolve around points and rules.

Carlos Senior, the founder of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and influencer of the Barra approach, believed that the best way to spread his family’s martial art around the world was through sport and that is exactly what happened thanks to his many sons and nephews. Carlos Junior now owns IBJJF, which hosts some of the biggest jiu-jitsu competitions in the world and sports a 50-page rulebook.

Where the jiu-jitsu taught in Barra schools has evolved for competition, Humaita, or the yellow triangle, denotes a more traditional self-defense school. Carlos’ younger brother Elio, who helped build the jiu-jitsu empire, saw jiu-jitsu purely as a martial art and form a self-defense and not as a sport. Therefore, Humaita schools–though they may still compete–teach BJJ first and foremost as a way to defend yourself.

After his first instructor, Roberto Lage–who’s master trained under a Gracie, fell victim to a stroke, Mario started training at the Ryan Gracie academy and he recalls how much it impressed him. Mario tells me that most of what the myBJJ team teaches comes from the Gracies, from Barra to Humaita and all the variations of and between the two that exist today.

As I see it, the classes at myBJJ seem to begin with a practical self-defense approach in the fundamental classes, progress to competition-geared jiu-jitsu in advanced classes, and turn away from points and rulebooks at the master class stage where fighters train in a manner that bespeaks no-holds-barred fighting and points again to the traditional approach.

As far as the Gracie family, what he could say about the members he has met–including Carley, Clark, and others who have visited myBJJ–is that they were very tough but very humble. At his use of the word humble, my mind immediately shot to the large, bold text on the front of the building: “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: The Humble Sport”.

Currently, myBJJ has schools in Australia and New Zeeland, and besides training in Brazil and Japan, Mario has also been to Korea, the US, and Portugal. He believes it’s important to different places and to see how they train.

“Sometimes I like to go away and come back here. I like to be outside, to see how the instructors and students train because that way we can take that and implement a new strategy or way to train our students.” For the same reason, he likes to bring guys in from outside to do seminars and classes.

“I have been a black belt for almost twelve years and I’m still learning here with my own students. That was my plan at the beginning, to build a school where I can train as well.”

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Martial Arts: Combat Sports versus Self Defense

“Your greatest weapon is your mouth.”

Because there is quite a difference between training to fight a more-or-less equally matched opponent in a ring or a cage and learning how to defend yourself in a real-life violent confrontation, I was keen on diving deeper into the self-defense versus competitive-sport topic.

I asked Mario if, from his experience, someone who has taken BJJ classes in a safe and respectful environment could actually defend themselves in an encounter on the street–that is, without experiencing such confrontation in class.

With this question, I was thinking back to what I had discussed with Uro Pavi at Darkside and his insight on self-defense.

What Uro had to say was that–and I quote–a violent encounter is ultimately more emotionally scarring than physically. This, if you’re not getting that first emotional rush of being brutally hit and punched and kicked, you miss the point and you’re not really getting the full self-defense experience.

Walk into any jiu-jitsu gym in Sydney, and you can feel quite guaranteed that you won’t be punched or kicked at all–and certainly not brutally. Therefore, I had to wonder, how can it prepare you?

Any combat sport will teach you physical moves that can be useful in a fight and if you train hard enough your body can learn to react. However, whether or not you are emotionally ready to handle a confrontation is a different story.

Here was Mario’s insight, when it comes to confrontation: “Your greatest weapon is your mouth.” As I understood it, he was saying that beyond being physical trained and emotionally tested, there is also the need for mental preparedness.

Mario explained it like this: if I was walking down the street and a little kid started yelling insults at me, I would take one look at him and know that he was no threat to me. I have no need to prove myself in this situation so it would be absolutely ridiculous to yell back at him. Therefore, instead of taking his bait to engage, I can carry on my way.

Along those lines, Mario told a story of an encounter when he first arrived in Sydney. He was in a pub when a large and, in Mario’s word, scary looking guy tried to pick a fight with him.

This guy was talking a big game but Mario, already a black belt by then, knew he could beat him. Mario proposed going to the parking lot to fight, offering to pay the man $5,000 if he beat him. On the other hand, if Mario won, this man would have to pay him $500. For all the man’s talk, including claims that his sister could beat him, he didn’t show up to the fight.

If you’ve trained in jiu-jitsu and have learned how to handle someone bigger and stronger than you, you can look a challenger up and down and know that they are not a threat. Just as you would not engage an impudent child, so this contender is likely unworthy of a contest and, at the end of the day, that mental confidence and calm may be all you needed to win the fight.

I’ve found this lesson to be at the core of every serious martial arts school or MMA gym I’ve been to. You don’t learn martial arts so that you can go out and pick fights. You train and challenge yourself in the gym so that you don’t have to prove yourself by getting into fights out in the street.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Australia

“I have guys who make their best friends on the mat.”

Next, we talked about the people who come here to myBJJ in Sydney to learn a martial art. Compared to the streets of Brazil and the United States, where knowing how to handle yourself can be an essential skill, Australia is quite a safe place.

Regardless, the confidence that comes with knowing you can defend yourself if you need to is valuable to anyone, anywhere. In Australia, Maria says, life is relaxed. It is neither as dangerous as Brazil nor as stressful as Japan, where people work twelve to fourteen hour days.

Here, jiu-jitsu is a lifestyle. You can do it for fitness–and that brings confidence to other areas of life as well–but you don’t just come to train. You come to learn something new and you make new friends.

“I have guys who make their best friends on the mat,” Maria says. “There are guys I train with who I have a closer bond with then I have with my own brother. These guys, my best friends, are the ones who try to choke me out in every class as well. And it’s great. I trust them, my life in their hands. I know they’re not going to hurt me.”

On what you walk away with, he goes on: “Anytime you have a really tough session, you feel like you learned something You come home and you feel so tired but you feel like you’ve learned. It’s very addictive too.”

Mario calls it “a great addiction” because they have had people come in and replace their addictions to cigarettes and alcohol with jiu-jitsu. In fact, he thinks that jiu-jitsu could make a great therapy for daily life and I have to say from personal experience that I wholeheartedly agree.

“You know you’re going to have great instructors and classmates.” He carries on with pride and enthusiasm. “The class finishes, sometimes at 8:30; come here after 9 and we still have people on the mats, talking and reviewing techniques.”

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Belts and Grading Systems

“When a student is ready for the next belt, we order it and give it as a gift.”

At myBJJ, they follow the IBJJF belt system: white, blue, purple, brown, and black.

Some jiu-jitsu schools have added additional belts by combining colors and giving, for example, a white-and-blue belt, but they have not adopted this practice here.

For kids, the colors are white, yellow, orange, and gray, and they have adopted mixed colors such as a yellow-and-orange belt. However, for the stripe system, they only give four at myBJJ and not twelve as some schools do.

“I know it’s a good way to motivate the students–giving stripes–but we have other ways to do that,” Mario explains. When I asked long it typically takes an absolute beginner to earn a blue belt, he said the fastest is eight to ten months but that, for some, it can take up to three years.

Mario referenced back to being held as a white belt for four years by his mentor and instructor Roberto Lage. He recalls the first day he trained with him, coming as a purple belt in Judo at the time. Roberto told him, “It’s better to be a strong white belt than a regular blue belt” and Mario has carried that outlook with him ever since.

“I prefer the white. A belt is just [there] to tighten [your gi].” He says. Knowing what you can do is internal; the color of your belt has no effect on that.

As far as ceremonies for awarding belt promotions, they differ per school but Mario personally says, “I believe everybody progresses differently. When a student is ready for the next belt, we order it and give it as a gift.”

He tells me that some schools have one or two grading days or ceremonies in the year and that it’s a good way to bring in a lot of money. However, he likes to promote each student when they are ready. On a fixed grading day, two students may end up getting the same belt promotion though one has attended 200 classes and the other only 100.

Just as he came up to instructor Salvador at the end of my trial class last month and surprised him with his black belt, every student is presented with their new belt as a gift precisely when Mario believes they are ready–even if that moment happens to be in front of the entire gym and brings them to tears.

The Good and the Bad

What Mario likes about jiu-jitsu here in Sydney is the fire with which people come to train. “Some people train three times a day,” he says, “some people come every day.”

On the other hand, he doesn’t like it when people come in with that fire but eventually stop coming regularly. Often it’s because something comes up, either with work or family, which is very understandable and often how life can be.

That’s also why myBJJ has classes from 6 in the morning to 9 at night. Mario tells me he sees extremely fast results from his students, even faster now than five years ago when they were already learning at impressive speeds.

Chances are you’ll impress yourself too. Jiu-jitsu is a beautiful sport and one I encourage anyone to try, for many of the reasons Mario gave above and more. If you’re still looking for a reason or a place to give it a go, your first class here is free.

Australia · Day Trips · Travel Reviews

Hunter Valley Wine Tour

The first sighting of European settlers in the Hunter Valley was in 1798 when a lieutenant drifted into the Hunter River in search of escaped convicts.

While it is said that the region was named after Captain John Hunter, I’d say there’s a good chance the colonists chose the name for how well it reflected their motives in the valley.

Regardless, the region continues to attract hunters from around the world searching for some its finest fruity intoxicants.

Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours

Today’s tour took us to four cellar doors in the Hunter Valley and one chocolatier.

With pickup scheduled at 6:55 near Sydney Central Station and some road closures due to a gas leak in the city, we were on our way to Pokolbin around 7:30 and arrived at our first stop twenty minutes later than the planned 10 am arrival.

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I’ve seen the sunset over the Harbour Bridge numerous times but catching its rise this morning already made the day worth getting up for–that early, I mean.

The two-to-three-hour drive up to Hunter Valley was both scenic and informative, with our driver and tour guide occasionally popping up with interesting facts about the area.

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For example, as we crossed the Hawkesbury River on the Pacific Highway, he explained that the area was named Brooklyn because a New-York based company won the bid to build the bridge with their then-leading underwater welding technology.

More interesting still is how the bridge divides the fresh water of the river on one side from the salt water bay on the other–a perfect environment for bull shark, apparently.

Having arrived in Hunter Valley, we received more information about the winemaking region itself. For example, we were told that the area was home first to a penal colony and only to vineyards after the penitentiary was relocated to Port Macquarie.

Another change in the Hunter region with an equally monumental impact on its winemaking history was a Sydney hand surgeon’s decision to buy up over two dozen hectares of vine territory.

As winemaking in the valley had begun to whither, Dr. Max Lake’s brassy purchase brought new life to the region when the first boutique vineyard was planted in 1963.

Though the land changed hands at the turn of the century, this gutsy buy is reflected ironically on its wine label. Lake’s Folly is now one of 150 wineries peppering the Hunter hills.

On to our first tasting stop:

McGuigan Wines

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Although McGuigan only planted its first vineyards in 1992, it is now Australia’s largest wine producer and four-time international winemaker of the year.

If you are a lover of full-bodied white wines, a trip to Hunter Valley won’t disappoint. As the Bordeaux region is to its wine, so Hunter Valley is becoming to Semillon.

Though this French grape hails from Bordeaux, it is McGuigan Wines that has produced the best Semillon in the world for seven years straight. You’ll indubitably get a taste of their Semillon on your Hunter Valley wine tasting tour, along with sips of Portuguese Verdelho and German Gewürztraminer whites.

Tastings flow from whites–and sometimes roses–to reds and end with tawny-colored dessert wines.

Our wine of the day–since we’re both red drinkers–was McGuigan’s 2015 The Farms Shiraz, a limited new release provided for tasting at the cellar door.

Besides pouring the first glasses to quell the thirst of our drive from Sydney, the McGuigan tasting also provided some curious information on such things as Australian wine regions, the difference between American and French oak barrels, and the impact on local wines.

Hunter Valley Resort

At the Hunter Valley Resort, our wines were paired with cheese. At such occasions, one is reminded never to venture to the moon without crackers. Additionally, a Pinot Gris might not be a bad addition.

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At the cellar door, we tried a pleasant variety of wines, each paired with a different cheese–from labna to feta and cheddar to brie.

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These tasty bites of milk and yogurt curds certainly whet our appetites for lunch, which was also served at the Hunter Valley Resort.

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The meal was enjoyed by a blazing fireplace and the warmth was a more than welcome respite from chilling winds.

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Hunter’s Dream

After lunch and a cup of tea, we were ready to resume the sampling of inebriants.

Next on the tasting tour was Hunter’s Dream, a small vineyard now owned by Nature’s Care–a manufacturer of health food and skin care products.

This gorgeous, small-scale winery had a wonderful appeal to it but unfortunately its bottled goods were somewhat lacking compared to earlier tastings.

Mistletoe Wines

Our last wine stop on the tour was a true Aussie-family-owned vineyard with a defiant and somewhat loud overture into the winemaking world.

Mistletoe was certainly the most generous of the wineries, providing nearly a dozen wines for tasting. In addition to whites, reds, and tawnys, Mistletoe offered us our first and only rosé of the day.

As the third-generation daughter of this family-owned estate prepared tables for the tasting, her grandmother explained considered rosé to be old-fashioned. However, her husband–in his seemingly stubborn nature–chose to make it regardless.

I’m not sure where this idea comes from, by the way, but back in Europe, we love our rosés–especially on a picnic or a midday terrace stop.

My only complaint about the Mistletoe experience was that is was very text heavy, with signs, posters, and pamphlets filled corner-to-corner with black ink. It’s not that I don’t respect the choice to use refrain from the environmentally unsustainable use of cork or to give your Muscat the Aussie “Mozcato” twang, but why not let the wine speak for itself?

Hunter Valley Chocolate Company

After drinking our fill of Hunter Valley wines, a chocolate stop was well in order.

At the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company, Peter the chocolatier gave us a sampling of the fine Belgian chocolates used to make their tasty treats and we had a few bites of their fudge as well.

Remarkably, in the last moments of the day, as we stood near the van waiting for our return to Sydney, rain began to fall from a sky that had been otherwise perfectly blue since sunrise.

Just as all the members of our group were fastened in and the driver revved us on our way, the downpour began and we fell into a blissfully inebriated sleep.

Just after sunset, we found ourselves back in the center of Sydney.

In all honesty, after an entire day tasting wine, my man and I were ready for a beer. Having been dropped off on the outskirts of Chinatown just after 7 pm, we were minutes away from Chinese Noodle House–a favorite stop for dumplings.

The cold, crisp brew we picked up along the way paired fantastically with dumplings, braised eggplant, mapo tofu, and more.

So yet another beautiful day was concluded.

Signing off, with gratitude.

Cheers.