From the time I started jiu-jitsu, I was keenly aware that I was a part of something bigger than what I experienced on the mats. Perhaps it was the mixture of cultures and languages I was lucky enough to find in BJJ class from day one, but I always had the impression that travel was deeply ingrained in jiu-jitsu. Yes, other sports held tournaments around the world or featured teams comprised of people from various countries, but travel and jiu-jitsu seemed to mesh in a very different and special way.
Over the years, I’ve understood the relationship between the two slightly, both from a practical and emotional standpoint. For example, jiu-jitsu is easy to pack for; a gi can be heavy and take up a lot of space in a suitcase, but even then, you’re really just bringing clothing on board, and you don’t have to check any oversized, oddly shaped items. Plus, jiu-jitsu sits right in the sweet spot between being an individual sport and a team sport. You don’t need five other people with you if you want to train or compete somewhere else, but as long as there’s a BJJ gym near your destination, you’ll still be able to do what you love while being welcomed with open arms by a group of strangers.
This is part of the reason why, when I moved from the U.S. to Australia a couple years ago, I was relatively at-ease given all the risks I was taking. I was moving across the world to close the gap in a (very) long-distance relationship, heading Down Under on a work-and-holiday visa that would keep me there legally for a year. I could then extend it for another year by doing three months of farm work, and once my second work-and-holiday visa was up, my partner and I would spend thousands of dollars for a partner visa. The entire process has been a series of ups and downs, getting to experience the continuous wonder of being in another country and being with the person I love after almost a year apart while also gritting my teeth through visa headaches and constant homesickness.
Through it all, jiu-jitsu has been a constant for me. I was lucky enough to already know where I wanted to train when I came over, and my partner and I were both purple belts (now brown belts) and very invested in BJJ. I never had to worry I’d be told that I was spending too much time at the gym, and I soon had a constant support system in my team. I didn’t have to go out and search for amazing friends – they just came up and asked me to roll.
As a writer who covers martial arts, being across the world from almost every major jiu-jitsu hotspot is a considerable career disadvantage from a practical standpoint. But being here has also helped me get to know a jiu-jitsu scene that is highly underrated – or at least was highly underrated until Craig Jones and then Lachlan Giles created a massive stir at different ADCCs. I have no way of knowing if or when I’d ever make it out to Melbourne to train with the Giles family and their crew of killers, but it became much easier when the trip out there was an eight-hour drive instead of multiple days’ worth of flights.
I’ve grown comfortable in Australia since coming here, though driving on the opposite side of the road is still too scary for me, and I can’t always tell if someone is using legitimate Aussie slang with me or just trying to mess with my head. Seeing kangaroos – dead or alive – on the side of the road will always blow my mind, and though I say “to-MAH-to” instead of “to-MAY-to” now, it’s really only to avoid getting teased for my accent. Having grown up in the cold winters and damp summers of Pittsburgh, PA, I make a conscious effort to appreciate every beach I get to see and try not to complain about every dry, hot day we get in the summer (which, yes, takes place during the USA’s winter). When things start to feel uncomfortable, though, I center myself again with jiu-jitsu.
Frankly, as much as I love living in Oz, it’s stressful at times. Visa applications can be complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. Maintaining relationships with stateside family and friends is considerably more challenging. I’ve had to miss funerals for both my grandfathers and COVID has kept me from seeing the rest of my family for a year and a half. There has been as much sacrifice as there has been happiness – an equivalent exchange. And in these stressful times, I’ve leaned on the thing that’s constant no matter where I go.
Even when there’s chaos around me, when I’m in an unfamiliar place, and I’m stressed to the gills, I have jiu-jitsu. I’m lucky to have had it throughout most of the pandemic. South Australia has managed things reasonably well, and COVID really isn’t a “thing” for the general public; we just have to check in with QR codes for contact tracing purposes, and hand sanitizer is everywhere. I’m at the gym almost as much as I’m at my own house, the people there an adopted family that can’t replace the one I have back in the US, but certainly do their best to fill the holes in my heart.
Jiu-jitsu has given me a soft place to land – literally and figuratively – no matter where I go. It’s reminded me that when problems seem overwhelming and insurmountable, you just have to tolerate them, one step at a time, just like you do when you’re squished beneath someone heavier than you and trying to break your arm off. Perhaps most importantly, it’s taught me that this big old world is smaller than we think, and no matter our differences inside or outside the gym, we all take our shoes off before we step on the mats.
Averi is a brown belt under Nick Hughes of Trinity MMA and an ambassador for Grapple Apparel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bjjaveri.