Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Run Bulls Run: A San Fermin Story

The five of us pour out of our tiny Euro rental car after the long voyage from Madrid to the Basque country.  We’re decked out from head to toe in our white digs, smacked in the face by the rapid temperature drop,  and totally unprepared for what will become one of the most fantastically chaotic weekends that can only be summed up as a perfect debacle.  Little did we realize that in just moments we would be covered in red wine, dancing in the streets, and beginning a sleepless marathon with thousands of heavy party animals from all around the world.

The highly anticipated annual festival of San Fermin, held in the northern Spanish city of Pamplona, is a week long time honored tradition where hordes of crazy locals and visitors run through the streets with massive bulls taking their final journey from their corrals and into the main bull arena.   It is considered the most internationally renowned celebration in Spain. Its roots date back to as early as the 16th century but San Fermin’s boost of worldwide fame can be attributed to Earnest Hemingway’s account of his experiences in the 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises.  For some, San Fermin is a chance to witness a part of history; for others it is an opportunity to party nonstop; and for those brave (or crazy) enough, it’s the possibility of being able to get a glimpse of the bulls while run alongside them.

Our group was here for all of the above.  As Spain expats, my fellow English teacher buddies and I couldn’t miss this highly anticipated event.  How perfect that a few of my dear friends and brother decided to make the voyage thousands of miles from the US to join in the revelry.   We agreed to rent one car and squeeze in to meet other friends who were already way ahead of us.

Accommodations for the week were slim pickings and cost an arm and a leg, so we jointly shared a tiny hotel room outside of town for the seven of us.  The tight sleeping arrangements were of little concern to us as we arrived and eagerly hopped on the regularly running shuttle where the party was already underway.  It dumped us off in the city center and we dove into the sea of white and red that was buzzing with excitement.

Our first mission was to make a few essential purchases:  signature logoed red scarves to finish off our uniforms, bocadillos to provide sustenance (these common Spanish hoagie sandwiches were the only food we were able to get our hands on for the entirety of the weekend), and lots and lots of red wine.  We filled giant clear plastic cups and peculiar leather satchels with cheap boxed vino tinto (red wine) and hit the streets.  Before we knew it we were completely immersed in the celebrations, jump-roping with strangers in the center of a spontaneous dance party, frolicking in the bull stables, and having an all out wine fight in Plaza de Castillo, Pamplona’s central square.  Hours slinked by as we lost all conception of time and reality.

Eventually our brave bull runners, my brother and Carolina friend, decided a bit of shut eye before their daring dash was a wise decision.  But with more of my local friends joining us to continue the all out fiesta, it took little contemplation to conclude that a few of us would probably not be seeing the inside of that hotel room before the 8 a.m. run.  We proceeded to let the good times roll as the streets became even more chaotic and the real party heated up.

More hours slipped away and before we knew it the street cleaners were clearing the way for the morning event.  My local amigo brought the three of us that remained to a spot that was prime real-estate to be front and center for the main show.  Makeshift wooden fences were constructed each morning for a select few to grab a spot above the crowd.  We wrestled and elbowed our way to a sliver of fence and at 5:00 a.m. we proceeded to shiver away the next several hours, straddling a wooden log as our buzzes wore off and a mean rush of hunger and sleepiness swept over us.  All we could do was wait and hope that we would at least get to witness my brother and friend’s proud moment as they dart by us, triumphantly outrunning a herd of agitated bulls.

Three hours have now past since we found our tiny sliver of fence to prop ourselves up on as we eagerly wait to see our companions run by.  The hunger and exhaustion have past and at this point we are simply delirious.  The others from our group have joined us, comfortably squatting behind the fence, and all of us are eagerly await the big show.  

There is a sea of heads in front of us, packed into the narrow streets of the old town and pouring out into the clearing ahead.  Thousands of adrenaline pumped runners are bouncing up and down, bursting at the seams with pent up excitement and anticipation.  Spectators craning their necks, squeezing onto the tiny balconies, and climbing anything they can find, fight for a glimpse of what is to come. Reporters take their position and rescue workers prepare stretchers for the fallen ones.  This continues for the next half hour.  Finally a ripple of shouting and intensity rushes over the jumping participants. 

The first bull tears through the crowd and a herd of men barrel past us.  My hands full with cameras and trying to prop myself up on the wobbly post, I fix my eyes on the plethora of people running for their lives.  The next several bulls run by in mere seconds.  Desperately scanning the scene for my brother, all I can see is a mass of white shirts and red scarves, and the frantic expressions of those crazy enough to take on this adventurous endeavor.  At last I catch a glimpse of one familiar face as my brother is triumphantly completing his mission. 

 It’s been less than five minutes since the run began and the crowd is already dwindling.   Once the last of the runners reach our spot, we at last can peel ourselves off of the fence and begin to make our way towards the bull ring, the bulls’ final destination.  At this point, a new level of tiredness falls upon us as we approach the 24 hour mark of this sleepless adventure.  Desperately, we search for my brother and friend becoming increasingly hopeless to finding our needle in the haystack.

Finally, after an hour, the boys proudly march into sight, glowing with elation.  We discover that after the run, the true dare devils convened at center stage within the bull ring to go toe to toe with young steers.  With nothing but a thin layer of rubber separating the sharp tips of their horns with the novice “bull fighters”, the steers frantically bucked about and crazy thrill seekers got their fix.  The boys share with us their unbelievable accounts of this rare experience.  My brother recalls: 
“There was a pack of guys, 30 of them or so, crouched down at the opening of the gate where the bulls run out.  They expected the bulls to jump over them, but to their horror, one bull lowered his head and plowed right through the bodies… The craziest one of them all was a Texan, adorning his cowboy hat.  He jumped on the back of one of the steers and rode him as if he was in a rodeo. “

Their enthusiasm pumps us up with an essential second wind.  There is nothing more to do than celebrate, so at 10 am we find the nearest eatery where we pop a bottle of bubbly and share in the revelry over bottomless glasses of cava.  We find ourselves in a new state of delirium and spend the afternoon roaming about the streets yet again, as parades march by, children and adults play in the streets, and a new batch of visitors join in the fun.  With nothing but a short siesta on the grass in the central plaza, we all are running on nonexistent fumes.

Once arriving at the final anticipated event of our journey, a live outdoor concert by a local celebrated band, we are dead.  Our mission has been accomplished: we squeezed as much excitement as possible out of our San Fermin weekend.  Like sardines, we finally crash in our tiny hotel room, all seven of us somehow managing to carve out enough space to slumber.  And in the morning, we hop back into our little car, saying farewell to San Fermin and still in a foggy state of disbelief about this incredible two days that we would not soon forget.    

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