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Border Patrol

Written by Danielle Preiss

Border Patrol

Thanks to its online presence, the movement's global reach spans Venezuela to Nepal.

Lifting his shirt to mop the humidity from his forehead, Carlo Peraza reveals a six-pack chiseled by four years of training. Like many around the globe, inspiring work on the Internet prompted the 25-year-old Venezuelan to pursue the flips and vaults he saw online. “I began to investigate it on YouTube, and then I found the contact for an academy in London,” he says, speaking via Skype. “Living in Venezuela, where there aren’t as many people who practice parkour, you realize it’s an international community.” Peraza says he struggled as one of the first to practice the discipline in the country, but relied on support from contemporaries abroad. He learned and trained with members of the London academy virtually, scrutinizing their videos and chatting about technique, before forming a training method of his own and founding the Academy Family of the Wind in 2011.

Parkour’s popularity owes much to the digital age. Technology facilitates connections between traceurs and helps send jaw-dropping videos across the globe that attract the curious and the committed and grow the community beyond its French roots. In 2007, the Red Bull Art of Motion competition included traceurs from the U.S., the U.K., and Sweden. By 2012, the competition featured 21 athletes from 12 different countries including, Portugal, Russia, and Latvia. Now, parkour reaches as far as Israel, where Tel Aviv teens practice before leaving for military service. Palestinian youth train in the tight spaces of the Gaza strip. Iranian women practice despite the challenges of confining clothing and disapproving morality police.

Even the most isolated of countries have become training grounds. Young Pioneer Tours’ summer 2013 parkour tour traveled to North Korea, and traceurs now move through the rooftop of the world: Nepal. With geography ranging from lowland plains to Mt. Everest, all in a country the size of Illinois, Nepal is a traceur’s dream. This small nation sandwiched between India and China maintains a tiny but growing parkour presence, thanks in part to the limited resource demands of the discipline. “We don’t need equipment. We don’t need space. It’s about our own ability and our own creativity,” says Amrit Gautam, 24, founder of the Facebook group Parkour Nepal. With an average per capita income of less than $2 a day, most Nepalis cannot afford to spend a lot on sports or athletic training. “You don’t need anything to practice parkour, just your shoes. That’s what attracted me,” says Gautam.

One of the first traceurs in Nepal when he started four years ago, Gautam estimates that there are 20–30 in the country. Most live in the capital city, Kathmandu, and often practice at an open field near the city’s bus terminal, Gongabu Bus Park. The city center is unsuited for training, according to Gautam, because buildings are far apart and of uneven heights. Though recent surges of development continue to change the cityscape, ancient city ordinances preventing building heights from surpassing the tops of temples mostly keep Kathmandu from being a vertical city.

“The main difference is that in [the] U.S., it’s like urban parkour, isn’t it? Like in buildings, walls, artificial walls,” says Gautam. “But in Nepal, it’s limited. Everything is limited. We have to depend on natural terrain, like trees, natural conditions, like rocks. We have to use that to practice parkour here.”

Without training facilities of any kind, Nepali traceurs invent their own. Gautam, who lives in Pokhara, the starting point for many high-mountain treks, practices on giant boulders left in the riverbanks during the dry winter season. When the monsoon rains fill the banks again in the summer, the walls of his family’s home suffice.

South of Nepal, in India, traceurs train in the middle of Bollywood and do so in the company of some Hollywood heavyweights. Since 2008, Parkour Mumbai has held classes at the Sports Authority of India Gym. Present at all classes are Megan Fox (a monkey-bar structure), Jessica Alba (an artificial climbing wall), and Halle Berry (a vault box). Parkour Mumbai’s founder, who refuses to give a name other than NOS, explains the decision to name the equipment after “bodylicious babes” on the gym’s Facebook page: “After all, we spend so much time hanging around and jumping up and down those things,” he jokes.

The discipline emerged in India in late 2006, with different groups practicing independently around the country. While Delhi and Mumbai led the growth, according to NOS, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata serve as the current hubs. With a population over 1.2 billion strong (higher than 18 million in Mumbai alone), India’s density means practice is typically confined to indoors. “In a super-crowded country like ours, you are not going to be appreciated if you are found climbing walls or jumping over stuff outdoors, when that space could be better-occupied by other people for other purposes,” says NOS. “So you may not always be welcome to continue with your training, even in public spaces.” Parkour Mumbai runs the only known gym as of yet, but NOS says other groups are starting to obtain spaces and create homemade obstacles.

“The Indian landscape — with the notable exception of the Golkonda fort in Hyderabad — sucks for any kind of parkour development,” NOS says. Parkour might flourish in India’s rural areas, though, where there are better spots to train and fewer people to chase traceurs away.

Venezuela boasts a more established presence, with a team, Street Family Venezuela, which attends Amateur Freerunning and Parkour’s Cross Urban Scramble. In homage to the Academy Family of the Wind, Peraza competed in the CUS singles division as Karl FOW. Around 400 traceurs practice in the country, and 50 are registered in Caracas alone, according to Peraza. “Parkour is something that knows no religion or social class or status,” Peraza explains.

But despite the peaceful sentiments, Venezuelan traceurs train in a violent world. Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, holds the record for the highest murder rate in the world, with 91 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available. Venezuela’s rate is 67 per 100,000. Compare that to 32 in Colombia and 14 in Mexico. The country also operates one of the biggest hubs of global cocaine trafficking. The government seized nearly 6,000 kilos in the first two months of 2011 alone. Peraza suggests parkour offers a distraction for Venezuelan youth. “Parkour helps them to dedicate themselves more to a life of peace. There are no drugs, no prostitution, nothing bad,” he says.

Peraza, now a World Freerunning Parkour Federation-affiliated athlete, is credited with the first Spanish WFPF-sponsored tutorial video, published on Oct. 29, 2012. Some of his other videos, such as a Harlem Shake tribute, earned more than 10,000 views.  As the discipline continues to develop, Peraza expects greater acceptance and respect. But for now, to most, he says, “We’re just the boys who jump around.”