Puerto Rico is known for its beautiful beaches, fun-loving culture, and delicious cuisine mixed with Spanish, African, and indigenous ancestors. I had the fortunate experience of growing up there, but it was a mental prison for me. I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression most of my life rooted in my past growing up as a foreigner in a strange homeland there.
I looked at it as an island surrounded by water where you need to save as much money as possible to find life experiences and opportunities that don’t exist. However, after leaving four years ago, I decided it was time for me to visit the place I once called home to see my friends and family.
My coach, Nate Harris, head coach at 10th Planet Albuquerque, and one of my best friends, decided to make the trip to see the island life and brought my training partner, Joseph Goodman, along for the ride too. At first, I was worried that they wouldn’t have a good time, but I also realized that they were not there. So every day on the island was an adventure for them.
The night we bored our “red-eye” to New York en route to Puerto Rico, I had a bit of my old anxiety creeping up. Not only was I going back in time, but I found out a couple of days before that we didn’t have a place to stay, so we had to find an Air BnB, and I wasn’t sure if we had a reliable source of transportation either. You really need a car if you are going to get around on there.
Finally, after figuring things out, Nate told me we were invited to train with John Danaher and his team at the DDS camp. Garry Tonon invited us because he is good friends with Nate. I have always been a massive fan of the team since I have started doing jiu-jitsu, so I was very excited.
There were times after we landed for our layover in New York that I wanted to find a way out. I was afraid of confronting my past. But we got on our flight anyway, and as we coasted to our destination, the view of the island of Puerto Rico woke up my inner demons a little more.
My mother, who I haven’t seen in four years, picked us up from the airport and drove us to the island’s west side and. Her tears made me feel the joys of childhood again and also guilt for not being there to help during the hard times after Hurricane Maria.
My friends were pretty much amazed by the scenery of Puerto Rico, and I was a tourist of my own roots. We stopped at a restaurant because I wanted seafood mofongo (deep-fried mashed plantains with garlic butter usually smothered in a stew), and I had my first drink to loosen up after the tiring flight. My mother and I told stories from the past while sharing a very memorable moment reminiscing about significant people I’ve met at different stages in my life.
After a few days, we decided to take the two-hour drive to San Juan to train with Danaher. After arriving at “Combat 360”, we later realized that we were an hour late, and Garry felt so bad for forgetting about telling us that John invited us back to train the next day.
While we were there, Matt Page, aka Master Ken, was flying into the area, and we picked him up from the airport. He decided to join us for the training session the next day because he was already planning to film with Danaher and the squad. So, we drove back two hours, rested, woke up, and decided to drive back to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with the DDS.
It felt surreal to train with one of the best teams in the world, accompanied by my friends. The environment of the gym was superb, and everyone was so humble and friendly. Craig Jones already knew us from a seminar at 10th Planet Albuquerque he taught, so he made us feel at home.
Like a chill older brother, Craig has laid-back energy, play wrestling with his teammates before John entered the room. Then it got quiet. He sat in the corner while everyone went up to him to shake his hand before they sat in a circle waiting to be taught by their master. John asked each of his students how they were doing and what was next for their journey before teaching began.
It was a DDS seminar. John, Garry, Nicky Ryan, and Craig were all teaching their techniques for 2 hours, and then we rolled five rounds afterward. After the training session was done, Matt Page decided to change into his Master Ken attire, and nobody knew it was him until he put on his mustache. It was a funny surprise he was there the whole time as just Matt before he shot a video with Garry, John, and Craig.
The day after our training session, I knew we only had one day left on the island after spending a whole week there. Nate and Joseph decided to just relax for the day while Matt was flying out, but I had unfinished business with my past, so I drove around my old hometown and visited the memories I tried so hard to forget.
I saw my old high school, my old hang-out spots, and a few of my old friends. It caused me to cathartically concluded that the island wasn’t my home anymore. I found the closure I so desperately needed. It was a chapter in my life that I was ready to close the book on, but I needed to flip back to the pages and smile a bit first.
On the night before I flew back to the high desert of New Mexico, I had one last drink with my mother and two childhood friends in Puerto Rico. We talked about our shared memories, the friends we have lost, and the future of our journeys before we parted our ways. This trip was a life lesson that taught me I needed to confront my past to be at peace with my present. I have a great future ahead of me, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so without the people I have in my life.
So, until next time, Puerto Rico. You have made me the man I am now, and even though I am proud of where I am from, I am even more proud of the man I will become.
Gian Carlo is a 10th Planet Blue Belt and a comedian from Puerto Rico. He currently resides in Albuquerque where he trains under “Nasty” Nate Harris, and hosts 2 podcasts (Unemployed Commentators & The Shoot)