Sunday, May 11, 2014

Extreme Caged Combat In the City of Brotherly Love

First of all, if anyone is curious about a few thoughts I had about writing 24 Hours Dublin, The Irish Times kindly published a small article I wrote about it.  The editor came up with the description "a long-term love affair condensed into a day," which I thought was just charming!

It sometimes occurs to me that, having traveled and lived in so many different countries, I take the United States for granted and assume there's nothing here I haven't already seen.  Which is unfair of me, because I've only lived in two states and visited a few others, and I'm well aware that there are tons of different cultures and and modes of life and wild things to see across the continent.  I just tend to be less motivated to explore places I don't need a passport to visit partially because I've found it's more expensive to travel within the States.  You seem to need a car to get anywhere, for one thing, and we don't have as widespread a hostel culture as the rest of the world does.  Aside from couch-surfing, in many cases the only option for budget accommodation is a $50 motel room.  Plus, having grown up here I tend to think there's nothing particularly unique to visit in my area.

Anyway, I made amends for my complacence and nose-turned-uppery by taking a mini-vacation up to Philadelphia for the weekend.  My college friend Silas, whose wedding catalyzed my return back to the States from Peru, picked me up from 30th Street Station and we drove out of the city to the National Guard Armory.  Our friend Anthony, an old comrade from back when we studied Goju Ryu at college together, was competing in an MMA cage fight, so we showed up for moral support purposes... and also it was his birthday.  I'd never been to a cage fight before, though Silas has - both fighting and watching from the sidelines - so I was pretty excited alright.  And the whole atmosphere of the place was so uniquely Pennsylvanian, a weird melange of good-natured family sporting event and gun-crazy, truck-driving right-wingers who if you stand within a five-foot radius of them will bowl you over with the smell of beer and weed.

At the beginning there wasn't much of a crowd, but then once the energy of the place got cranked up, it seemed like the entire gymnasium throbbed with a massive swell of people roaring and cheering.  The girl I sat next to kept laughing at how into it I was getting - I was waving my fists around and jumping up out of my seat with sheer excitement.  And it was exciting, watching extremely ripped guys pummel each other good-naturedly (all the contestants were very sportsmanly as well, which I wasn't exactly expecting,) and made me really miss practicing martial arts.  It's been about six years since I practiced Goju Ryu, and I always saw it as one of those things I'd get back into once I have a stable lifestyle and enough money to afford a membership at a dojo.  However, that hasn't happened just yet.

Anyway, the night was a series of nine amateur fights, three rounds of two minutes each, leading up to two professional fights.  About halfway through, everybody stood up and turned towards the massive flag on the far wall as a girl with platform shoes and gold bangle earrings sang the national anthem, which I'd forgotten was a thing Americans do.  Then Anthony's fight was the last of the amateur section, both of the contestants weighing in at 155 pounds.  Now, it is customary in XCC for whoever's fighting, when he's being introduced by the emcee (I say "he" because I don't feel like being PC about it, but there were actually two women fighting in the pro ranks that night, and they were really intense), to have scary death metal or aggressive rap music blasting as he swaggers into the arena, shooting the audience looks like he's going to go out and chew up their hubcaps after the fight.  Anthony strode out to the tune of the Ninja Turtle Rap with this sardonic smirk that didn't budge from his face for the entirety of his fight.

His heavily tattooed opponent charged into the ring to a tune that went something like, "DEATH DOOM DIIIIIE BLOOD GUTS DIE DIE DIE!!!" and man, this guy was huge, no way he weighed 155 pounds.  (I believe what had happened was that Anthony's original opponent had dropped out and was replaced at the last minute by someone much heavier.)  As he steps into the cage, Anthony's sister is sitting behind us is freaking out that she's going to have to watch her brother get torn apart by this terrifying behemoth.  The fight lasted 23 seconds before Anthony KOed the guy, boxed him in the side of the head and rendered him completely dazed for the remainder of the event.  All of us in our section of the bleachers went absolutely wild, and I still have a scratchy throat from all the screaming I did.

Afterwards we ended up at Frankford Hall, an open-air German-style beer hall where we drank many steins of fancy IPAs and had the best curry bratwurst and cabbage I've tasted in my life.  The place was jam-packed and lacked only a brass band in liederhosen playing proper German oom-pa music.  (Though apparently they do have those on special occasions.)  On Saturday I had the whole morning free to explore downtown Philly which, astoundingly given how close I've lived to it most of my life, I've never done before.  It was actually a cool town, with a few modestly arty sections and a few modestly elegant buildings (it seems overall to be a very quiet, modest city... their one claim of fame is that 200 years ago they were the stomping ground of the Founding Fathers, and they don't even make much noise about that,) and every now and then you'll run into this fantastically post-apocalyptic, gargantuan condemned building covered in rust and graffiti where you're sure some mad scientist is hidden away creating an army of zombies.

However, there were a few lovely parks where you can lounge on the grass and eat ice cream, and I had the good luck to stumble across one where there was a fine arts and crafts fair going on, where I lingered and perused through all the quirky ceramics and hanging mobiles and hand-woven textiles and eventually bought a little dill plant for my mom for Mother's Day.  (Dill is a criminally undervalued herb on this continent... you can only find it in special grocery stores in Maryland, and it's practically nonexistent in South America.)

I wandered through City Hall which was very impressive indeed, and discovered Philadelphia's Chinatown, in which I was hoping to find fresh dumplings and those rice flour buns with red bean paste inside, but instead bought what turned out to be the worst dumplings I've ever tasted.  It was like eating glue with peas in the middle, and only too late did I realize that it was because they were vegan dumplings.  Darn vegan dumplings.  However, the proprietor was very friendly and gave me a glass of hot tea and then pointed me in the direction of the Liberty Bell and Benjamin Franklin's grave... the grave I visited, but not the bell because I was quite tired and the line to see it curved all the way around the park.  But I could see a corner of it through a window, so I figure that counts.  (Whereas once in Moscow I waited in a line in Red Square for two hours, in the subzero wind and heavy snow, just to go inside Lenin's mausoleum.... I am a bad American.)

So it was a great trip overall, and good to know that I can satisfy wanderlusty feelings and the need to do something different without decimating my life savings and jetting halfway across the world.  Also, in my mission of scoping out American cities to eventually settle in quasi-permanently, Philadelphia is definitely a contender.  We'll see...