Saturday 11 February 2012

A Bull Run

Since young, I've always been fascinated by the news reports in early July every year that mark the start of the Bull Run season in Europe. No, I am not talking about the climate of stocks and shares there but rather the dynamic pictures of people being chased (and sometimes gored) by bulls along ancient streets.

I found myself one morning standing on a street just like that waiting for the bulls to be unleashed. In front of me was a sea of men dressed in similar garb: white tee, red scarf, a waist cumberband and a rolled up newspaper in hand. We were supposed to hit the bull on the nose with it to make it even angrier. What, make an angry bull angrier? Are these people mad?

Well, a day ago, I was a spectator. I had come all the way from Singapore (via Paris, St. Tropez and train to Pamplona) to see this event for myself. I was reading Lonely Planet's thick Spain edition and discovered that the San Fermin festival had already started and that Pamplona was the best place to see it. At the time, I was staying with my sister in St Tropez in the south of France in her lovely little cottage and was wondering where to go next. After the north of France and the south of England, my next destination was Spain. Oh, lovely Spain, where people stayed up late after midnight and took siestas in the afternoon. My kind of life.

Seeing that I was already a few days late, I decided to scoot from my sister's place and hop onto a train "tout suite" (immediately) as they would say in France. My sister was very supportive and wished me well. The next morning, sans breakfast, I was already standing at the bus station in town around 7.00am and waiting for the bus to take me to the nearest train station at St Raphael. From there, I would shoot to the south-west of France and cross into Spain at Hendaye. It was already evening by the time I reached there and could only guess at what the place looked like in the semi-darkness. I was napping when the train stopped and was awakened by the conductor. Through a window I could only see a metal gate with the sign Hendaye awashed in incandescent bulb light. It was like a scene out of a movie. By the time the train resumed its journey, I remember thinking I was on the right train and fell back to sleep.

I reached Pamplona sometime before 10pm. At the station, I did a quick check of the Lonely Planet guidebook and learned that the best place to be was at some castle wall ruins. That would be a great vantage point to watch the nightly fireworks. Since I was early, I decided to walk the way there, but not before checking-in my luggage at the station. It was rather busy and I was amazed at the amount of rucksacks piled up in the backroom. Fortunately, I was carrying a hardcase (in eye-catching amber yellow no less) which had a combination lock. The staff guy at the luggage counter gave me a quizzical look (I think he was an American, temping) surprised that I didn't carry a backpacker's rucksack like the 99% of tourists there.

Although I was on a backpacker's trip, I liked using a hardcase for a variety of reasons. Chiefly, it was for security. Unlike a rucksack, a hardcase is not easy to slash open with a knife. Secondly, it has a secure handle with which I can chain to whatever I choose: a shared bunkbed at a backpacker's inn, a bench at a small, quaint train station, or the luggage rack on a train (without worry of it being stolen, allowing me to nap in peace). Thirdly, my clothes are not stuffed or compressed and hence stink less. Fourthly, I can better protect brittle souvenirs from being crushed.

People I've met were often surprised by my choice of luggage. But if they had travelled like I did, they would know that most major train stations had lockers that could even accomodate large hardcases. Mine was only medium in size. And many such lockers then were not time-based and hence cost-effective. I could leave my bag there and go gallivanting around a new place luggage-free.

All in all, the benefits of using a wheelable hardcase outweighs the negative and I am glad to have made that smart choice. I find it doubly important if one is travelling alone.

The only time this didn't seem a good idea was when I was holidaying with a girlfriend in Portugal and a bus dropped us a distance from our youth hostel. He directed us to a lovely but ill-advised short-cut through the forest. We ended up having to carry two hardcases head-over shoulders over some very big boulders up a hill. Other than this misadventure, using a hardcase was always a convenience.

Having checked-in my luggage, I am now light and free as a lark. I took that 15 minute walk to the castle ruins and waited with the crowd for the fireworks to begin. It started promptly at 11pm (Lonely Planet was pretty spot on with this, as in other matters as well) and it went on for 20mins. Twenty minutes! That's more than twice the amount of fireworks time typical in Singapore. It was amazing. Even more amazing was that the fireworks would go on every night during the two-week long festival. (With the bad economic situation today, this firework display might be reduced in showtime.)

At around midnight, there was some commotion. I found out that bulls and cows were being moved to their pens at the foot of the hill for release in the morning for the Bull Run. Since that event was many hours in the future, I decided to head to the Town Centre where all the night activities were. What I found at the main Town Square were white tents and stalls. A live concert was going on and people were sampling food and drink. It was crowded, but not crushingly so. Everybody was gyrating to the music, which was jazz, and really having a good time, clinking glasses.

As I followed the crowd and explored, I realised that there were four other concerts going on at the same time. Each concert catered to a particular type of music. Besides Jazz, there was Big Band, Pop, Disco and Flamenco. If you didn't like one, you could move on to another. I was beginning to think how wonderful this whole San Fermin festival is.

Throughout the night, I moved from concert to concert listening to music and chitchatting with people. As a Chinese I stood out. The place seemed to be filled with Amercian college kids on vacation. I also met quite a few from Down Under as well. Their accents were unmistakable. Many of the kids were surprised at my standard of English. Once I spoke, their apprehension melted away. Speaking with them, it wasn't as annoying as four years ago when most Americans thought Singapore was in China. Quite a few knew it was in Asia.

When I arrived in Pamplona that night, I did not plan to book any accommodation. I was just going to party until morning and then decide what to do. I must thank Lonely Planet for being so accurate with the festival information. In any case, arriving so late at night and with such a crowd, finding any accomodation would be neigh impossible.

Well, you know what they say, time flies when you are enjoying yourself.  Pretty soon I was with the crowd at 7.50am beside the barricades waiting for the Bull Run to start. Pamplona is stituated on a hill. The main street up to the Town Hall is cobbled and winds its way from the foot of the hill to the bullfighting stadium at the top. All in all, it is about two kilometres long.

The Bull Run began at 8am sharp. A blast of horn and the bulls were released from the corral below. You could tell that the bulls were running up from the excitement of the crowd and the bull runners themselves fleeing. You could see it coming in waves as the Run progressed. Very soon, it came to my section where I was observing everything. It was not far from the Town Hall.

The Bull Runnners were easily identified by their white outifts and red scarves. The braver ones would hold a rolled up newspaper in one hand to whack the bull with it. Not the smartest thing to do when a beast that big and heavy is bearing down on you. But it's just a bravado thing; there's no wrong or right about it.

In a flash, the Run was past my observation spot. I ran along the side hopping to catch more of the action but the crowd was three-four rows deep.

I hurried to the stadium at the top of the hill and in all that excitement, was persuaded to buy a ticket to watch a bullfight that was slated to begin at 3pm.

As it was still early, I decided to check Pamplona out a bit more thoroughly. The castle complex was larger than what I saw last night. It was fun to explore as there were more open spaces than the usual nooks and dungeons. At an open space, someone was cooking paella in a giant pan under a tent. I ordered some for breakfast (it was delicious) and afterwards found a spot to lay down and sleep. Everybody else was doing the same. Bodies everywhere under the shade of trees.

What impressed me that morning was how the cleaning crews were so quick to get to work. By 9am, all the barricades for the Bull Run were already taken down. The streets were hosed clean of the previous night's revelry (mostly piss from kids drinking too much coke mixed with cheap table wine) and everything was soon back to normal. Apparently, all such actions repeat themselves day after day until the festival is over. It was all super super efficient. It's a cycle that starts every evening at 6.30pm and ends next morning at 9.00am.

I had a good nap sleeping atop the castle wall ruins and washed myself up a bit at a public tap. For lunch, I again went for paella. When overseas, I usually go local and do not hankle for home food. I am very fine with potatoes, bread, and pasta.

Near 3pm, I entered the bullfighting stadium and went to my bench-seat somewhere in the middle of the gallery. The place was almost full. To my surprise, two young Taiwanese girls were in my section. They were on a backpacking trip too. Naturally, we struck up a conversation. I was glad when they informed me that the apartment they were staying at had a free room. It turned out to be a very posh place (trust Chinese girls to find clean and decent accomodation) owned by an elderly Spanish lady. The floors were marbled and the furniture ornate. The best part was my room had a TV as well. I spent that night watching the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final there.

Back at the bullfighting stadium, the first bullfight had already ended. It was not a pretty nor fair fight. The bull is first bloodied by a guy on a horse with a spear. He does this twice. Thus bloodied, the bull is said to be 'agitated'. Afterwards, the bullfighter teases the bull with his red cape. In intervals, the matador (bullfighter) will stab the bull on its shoulders and neck with those fancy arrows they call banderillas. The whole point is to weaken the bull and lower its resistance. When enough banderillas have landed, the matador then draws his thin sword and plunge it diagonally down from the neck to the bull's heart. If the bull does not die immediately, it's spinal cord is severed near the top of its head with a small knife.

In a day's program, there would be six bullfights. But after seeing how unfair the whole thing was, me and the Taiwanese girls decided to leave the stadium after the third fight. They had their fill of photographs (one of them was clicking away with her SLR) and I, gore for the day. We went and had coffee somewhere.

That night, after watching the World Cup final, I made up my mind to do the Bull Run. I knew that if I'd travelled all that way there and not do it, I would regret the decision the rest of my life.

That morning after, dressed in my jeans (I had no white pants) and white shirt and red scarf and holding a rolled up newspaper in one hand, I joined the rest on the Bull Run street. I picked a spot where I thought was safe and stood looking down the street and hill waiting for that all-important signal. When it did sound, I could literally see and feel the ripple of excitement percolating up the winding street. Heads were bobbing and bodies were moving. Pretty soon, folks in front of me were turning to run away from the bulls (and cows). I did the same and caught a glimpse of the bull behind me. I quickly snapped a picture of it before I running a bit more and then slipping into a doorway I had picked out as a safe 'step-out'. The bull horde ran past me and continued up the street.

As I got out to catch my breath, everything around me was rather quiet and empty. I ran further up to see, but both people and animals have disappeared. Were they running that fast? Quickly, I made my way to the top where the stadium was. Everybody was there celebrating and feeling elated. The bulls had been run into the stadium and a lively one was kept in the centre arena for people to play and tease with. If it got dangerous, the folks would just have to climb or jump over the side walls around the arena. It was challenging in that way.

I happily asked someone to take a picture of me all fresh from doing the Bull Run. I looked a little flushed. But it's a picture I would treasure for the rest of my life.

Next story: A Monster To Live With

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