Watching Sambo Panams and Sipping Terere in Paraguay

My friend Reilly Bodycomb won the Sambo US Nationals a few weeks ago. One of the perks for winning was securing a spot on the US team at the Panamerican and World tournaments.

The Panamerican was held in Paraguay this year. Since Reilly doesn't speak much Spanish besides asking for a cold Coca-cola, he asked me to come along to be his translator and guide. I've always been intrigued by the idea of going to a large sambo tournament, and I had never visited Paraguay, so after some planning, I booked two flights out of JFK and we were off in an adventure.

After nearly missing our flight (since we were too busy playing Magic: The Gathering to hear that our gate had change), we made it to Sao Paulo for a short layover, then we were on our way to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.

Asuncion was an interesting place. Their currency is the guarani, and it took a bit to get used to local prices because $1 USD equals 5580 guarani. Thankfully, most places accept dollars, but the locals are strangely obsessed with any imperfections on the bills. Any rips, stamps, or writing on the bills were deemed unacceptable. This made the line for arrival visas pretty long as custom agents shared this same dollar bill obsession.

After clearing customs, we met representatives from the Chilean and Mexican sambo federations at the airport. We shared a bus that had been arranged by FIAS and made our way to the hotel, where we were greeted by a giant sambo banner in the hotel lobby. 

After checking in, we did a bit of exploring around town. We quickly learned that Paraguayan drivers don't slow down for anything, so crossing the street became an exercise in survival.

One of the first things we noticed was the popularity of terere, the herbal drink (not the BJJ black belt.) Downtown had a vendor at just about every corner who would prepare the mate tea with some extra local herbs.

Bundles of medicinals herbs, or yuyos as the locals called them, are added to cold water and put in thermos to cool, then this ice cold concoction is poured into a container with mate tea with a straw that's used to sift the solids. It seemed that 3 out of 5 people were drinking this at any time of day.

As the rest of the US team arrived, something became clear: I was the only Spanish speaker traveling with them. Since most hotel staff do not speak English, Spanish became my superpower and my burden as I became the unofficial team translator.

Friday night I was able to escape from my translating duties and sneak out to Checkmat Paraguay. Profe Guillermo Hansen has an awesome set up on top of a lifting gym. On Fridays the various Checkmat affiliates in the area get together for an open mat. I was greeted by a mixed group, and was surprised by the high level of the room. A few of the lower belts and many of the upper belts had an impressive understanding of the bearimbolo/crab ride game. After defending my back for about an hour, we took a picture and I was given a ride back to my hotel by a local purple belt, but not before enjoying some post-training terere.

The sambo tournament began on Saturday morning. Team USA had some hard fought wins and few team members made it to the finals. For some strange reason, the finals weren't until after the opening ceremonies, which were held in the middle of the tournament. During the ceremonies you got to see the 22 countries that sent delegations to the tournament, which was very impressive. Reilly and the rest of the athletes weighed in around this time, then we headed home for the day.

On Sunday, Reilly competed and put on an impressive display of groundwork, winning with three submissions in three matches: armbar, ankle lock, and armbar. It was great to see my friend fulfill one of his goals. It was also amazing meeting the rest of the team and cheering them on as they won their respective divisions. Team USA won the team title for the men and took third in the female divisions. There were some amazing matches, and I highly recommend you check out the feed from FIAS once it becomes available. Reilly is working on a Team USA highlight as well.

After the tournament ended, we walked to beautiful steak house to celebrate. Since none of the waiters spoke English, my superpower was called upon yet again as I was tasked with ordering for 20 people. I was able to manage it and many a steak were had.

Monday morning we traveled home. On the plane ride I got to thinking about how amazing it would be to see a similar set up for a jiu-jitsu tournament: all the Panamerican countries represented by one athlete in each division, at a tournament held in a different country each year. This would be great for the development of BJJ in South America. Contrary to common belief, BJJ in South America is still in its infancy outside of Brazil. Most countries only have a handful of black belts, and many academies are run by lower belts. Maybe one day we will see a tournament set up this way. I'll be the first one on the plane to it if we do.