I didn’t run, and I don’t regret it.
We caught the bus to Pamplona at 4:00 PM on Friday, July 7. Everyone stared at us as we waited for the bus, dressed entirely in white. There were a few other groups dressed like us too, obviously waiting for the same bus. In the bus, we were seated behind some college kids from California who were trying to play Go Fish with a deck of Spanish playing cards. It’s depressing how young college students seem now. A combination of uncomfortable seats and being seated next to a blaring speaker with a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie playing at full blast meant that there was no rest for us. About two hours into the three hour trip, the other bus traveling with us broke down and we had to spend 45 minutes at a rest stop while it was repaired. It was warm without a cloud in the sky, so we weren’t too unhappy at our picnic table.
Upon arriving in Pamplona, we completed our first task of buying a red scarf to wear. It was severely overpriced at eight euros, but a great souvenir. We now blended in perfectly with everyone else. The city was full of people in all white with red accessories: scarfs, belts, purses, etc.
Now, it was off to complete task number two, buying tickets for the encierro the following day. I kind of thought that we would be seeing a bullfight, but the bullfights happen in the evenings and we had to leave in the early afternoon on Saturday. The term encierro refers to both the running through the streets and the crazy people taunting the vaquillas in the bullring after the run. After waiting in a line for almost an hour, we finally had our tickets (5.50€ each) to get into the bullring the following day. Now, we were ready to party the night away.
Before going, there was something I was unclear about. The bull run is through the ancient cobblestone streets of Pamplona, right? And the older part of cities is usually where the bars and restaurants are. But since the streets have to be perfectly clear for the run, I thought maybe they would have that street blocked off and the partying would be in another part of town a few blocks over. Surely they don’t do the run on a street that is full of drunken hedonists just a few hours before, right? Actually, they do.
The city of Pamplona has this festival running like clockwork. The encierro takes place at 8:00 AM. At 6:00 AM, they start putting up the barriers to isolate the run. The street is then cleared of debris (and there’s a lot of debris) and is washed down with water. Marga had heard stories of the police having little patience with anyone passed out in the street, kicking and dragging them with little care. In only two hours, they take a filthy urine-soaked street filled with broken bottles, plastic cups, and other garbage, and convert it to an international stage for the most famous annual Spanish tradition.
A friend had told us that something that many people did was go to where the bulls are kept in their long term housing and watch them run through the streets up to where they spend the night at the start of the run. So we walked the entire bull run in reverse, but the police had blocked off the route that the bulls would soon be taking to their temporary housing. Two young men who were also stopped by the police headed down another road, one of them saying, “I know another way,” so we followed them. We followed them down a hill, through a park, over a river, through a residential neighborhood, and finally decided that our assumption that their destination was the same as ours was slightly flawed. We turned back and soon saw a throng of people gathered around what looked like stables, so we headed over there. We saw when they released the bulls and the handlers chased them up the street. Having seen them run by us for just a split second, Marga said, “One of them has a tumor.” I guess you don’t work four years as an abattoir vet without becoming an expert in spotting bovine flaws.
They made us wait for a few minutes until news that the bulls were safely contained came in, and then we followed the same route that they had taken up the hill to the town center. The trip that had taken us 30 minutes the long way shadowing two unsuspecting strangers took about 5 minutes this way.
In the streets all night, there was never more than five minutes between hearing a group of drunken Spaniards singing their World Cup song, A Por Ellos. “A por ellos” means roughly, “let’s get ‘em!”. And even more popular was the same song, but with different lyrics:
Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol!
Venimos a emboracharnos!
Y el resultado nos da igual!
The last two lines mean, “We come to get drunk, and we don’t care about the result.” Slightly disturbing. Marga pointed out that replacing “result” with “hangover” would make a lot more sense, since you really do care about the result of your “getting drunk” efforts; you just don’t care about what happens after you get drunk. I guess the author wasn’t thinking clearly when he penned the lyrics.
The main plaza was full of people. I asked Marga what percentage of the partiers were Spanish, and she guessed 60%, but I think it was more like 90%. Definitely, as the night wore on, the Spanish percentage crept up closer to 99%. Still, you’d occasionally hear some American frat boy say, “Dude! I am, like, sooo drunk!”
At 6:15 AM, we started waiting in line to get into the bullring. No, that’s not actually true. I think the bulls preparing for the run were in more of an orderly line than we were. When the finally opened the gates to let us in, there was pushing and shoving, elbows everywhere. Eventually we got in and got to a great seat, right next to the entrance where the bulls would be entering. Then we had to wait for 90 minutes for the encierro to begin. Of course, there was singing. Every crowd has some leaders, and there were a few trying to start waves around the stadium.
The time waiting for the encierro to start was the worst part of the trip for me. I didn’t bring a jacket, and I was only cold during this period until the sun entered the stadium. My feet hurt and I was exhausted. Although I wasn’t at all drunk, I was certainly in no shape to be sprinting anywhere. The bull run doesn’t seem very dangerous at all, really. As I mentioned in the comments to my previous blog entry, it’s all about the illusion of danger. Marga, who, through her work in British slaughterhouses, has spent more time with cows and bulls than anyone I know, and she’s terrified of the bull run. When I commented that the runners are almost exclusively male, she avoided the easy “Women aren’t that stupid,” response and said that it’s probably because women don’t have any of the social pressure that men do to do the run. She says that if I really want to do it (and I think I do), then we should plan ahead and get a hotel room and sleep a few hours before the run. So we might do that next year.
At 7:58, people started running through the entrance into the bullring. These are the people that had lined the run, and just before the bulls are released, they jump over the fences and run into the stadium to get in without paying. The crowd started chanting, “Hijos de puta! Hijos de puta!”, which means, “Sons of bitches! Sons of bitches!” The non-paying entrants didn’t seem to mind. I just hope the cheap cowards don’t go home and say that they ran with the bulls.
Finally, the fire cracker signaling the release of the bulls went off, and the crowd got excited. There was a steady stream of runners, so it’s hard to know which ones actually ran the whole run. You could always tell when a bull was going to appear because the running got a little more frenzied.
Vaquillas are young heifers with padded horns. It’s kind of like nerf bullfighting. It lets normal people pretend to bullfight without getting hurt. You can be knocked down, thrown in the air, and butted while on the ground and still get right back up. In most normal encierros there are no more than a dozen people running around with the vaquillas, and the crowd applauds when someone does a particularly daring stunt. But in Pamplona during San Fermin, there are hundreds of people in the ring, and things get a little more dangerous.
During the first encierro of 2006, the day before we were there, a 31-year-old man from Charlotte, North Carolina, (not New York, as the media and I had previously stated) had his back broken and is now a paraplegic.
I only witnessed one incident that could be serious. Right in front of us, someone got hit in the back by the vaquilla and collapsed to the ground. He was completely unconscious. Despite concerned shouts from the crowd to not move him, some of the other participants picked him up and carried him to where the medical teams were waiting along the side of the ring. I know nothing of his current condition. It was pretty scary. If I do run with the bulls one day, I’m gonna go sit safely in the stands when the vaquillas come out.
I really wanted the balloon to eclipse the sun, but I wasn’t that lucky. That might have been a great picture.
Here are a few vaquilla videos. Sorry about the camera work. I was watching the action, not the viewfinder.
Sitting there, now fully awake, in the warming plaza watching marching bands go by, sipping an icy traditional Spanish beverage, was just divine. After an hour of relaxing there, it was time to head for the bus stop.
We stopped for a sandwich in a bar called Bar Arrasate. “Arrasate” is the Basque name for Mondragon, Marga’s home town. Everyone on the bus home passed out immediately. I didn’t really fit in the seat, so my legs were dangling in the aisle. I was in and out of uncomfortable consciousness for the last thirty minutes of the trip, having slept the first two hours solid. After a much needed shower, we went to bed and fell immediately asleep.
I dreamt of bulls and cobblestone streets.