Running of the Bulls

July 19, 2010

Some say that there’s no better way to start a trip than to hit the ground running. Staying within the general theme of this advice, I decided to begin my journey by watching other people run.

The San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain can be best described as the world’s largest frat party. Liters of sangria may have replaced sweaty kegs, but, for two unforgettable days, the stick on the bottom of my shoes still screamed: Tau Kappa Epsilon! Let me further clarify this comparison by explaining that my brief appearances in the college Greek life scene consisted mostly of pocketing handfuls of Apple Jacks from the house kitchens and snacking mercilessly while watching friends and strangers play out their evenings. Fortunately, I was able to find a similarly voyeuristic niche in Pamplona.

To my amazement, Running of the Bulls made foam parties look like hygiene festivals. People everywhere sported wine stained whites, urinated without discretion, made out/gyrated on park benches, and sloshed about until the bulls ran at 8am. I, on the other hand, peed on the wall of a bull fighting stadium, made out with a bag of chips, and turned to forties after contracting a sangria induced headache.

During my two days spent in Pamplona, my thoughts vacillated between finding the entire scene beautiful and terrifying. This correlation may or may not have been linked to my varying levels of sobriety. On one hand, it is truly remarkable to witness thousands of people travel from all corners of the world to celebrate tradition. Young, old, foreign, and local willingly cast aside their individuality and step into the red and white uniform of San Fermin. The charm of this universal gesture, however, rapidly fades when someone pees on your foot.

The most remarkable moments seemed to occur as the sun rose each morning. Despite zombie like appearances and behaviors, those not yet resigned to park benches seemed to go to great lengths to remain vertical in spite of lost coordination. Words take a back seat to action as “excuse me” gives way to sharp elbows and clumsy pushing. The inevitable transition from celebration to end-of-the-world survival comes quickly as dawn breaks. While hanging on to a wooden barricade, I watched with amazement as the crowd transformed into a literal river of fluidity. Suddenly, average members of the general public become capable of twisting and bending their bodies to assume the shape and size of any available inch of free space. In awe of the supernatural elasticity of drunken strangers, I was fascinated to find that the square foot between my knees and feet had become a corridor for an endless highway of people. At some moments, I would see four arms, three legs, and a keg cup before a body emerged from beneath me. The more aggressive viewed my legs as railroad crossing arms, lifting them manually to pass free of charge.

Meanwhile, my brother, Jeremy, was perched on the same barricade several feet away. Judging from his look of intense concentration, he appeared equally transfixed by the sea of madness. Only later, when he held up a blue finger half the width of his other digits did I realize that I had drastically misread his facial expression. Jeremy’s middle finger had been trapped, for an eternity of painful seconds, between the behemoth wooden gates.

As time passed and injuries healed, it became increasingly clear that the prime viewing area we occupied had been reserved for media. Despite our protest, Jeremy, and I were eventually forced by the police to abandon our bravely held posts. With fifteen minutes remaining before the run, Jeremy and I managed to scalp tickets and join thousands of others in the nosebleed section of the bull fighting arena. The first few runners were greeted by the audience with airborne shoes and glass bottles. The early bird, in this case, received no worm. These “runners” were brutally shamed for their attempt to avoid the bulls and secure a free seat amongst the action. Once justice was restored, the true runners entered the stadium in stride with the bulls and received genuine respect from the audience.

After a few moments, five steers were released one at a time to the delight of runners and spectators alike. It didn’t take long to understand the general code of conduct that runners were to follow: wrestle with a steer, and you will, in turn, be wrestled to the ground by other runners; pull the tail of a steer and prepare to pull your head out of the ground after the crowd is done with you. To become a hero rather than a villain, a runner must either complete the difficult task of placing himself between the horns of the steer or, more realistically, submit to the pain of a horn in the spine or hooves on the head. My personal hero of the morning was a green shirted fellow who transformed the steer into a hurdle, launching over the unsuspecting animal during a rare moment of idleness.

Neither hero nor villain, Jeremy and I happily fulfilled our role as voyeurs for the remainder of our time in Pamplona. True to our title, we waited for the concussed, the drunk, and the proud to vacate the stadium before posing for a picture in the middle of the dusty arena. Plagued by sleep deprivation and impending hangovers, we chalked our survival up as a success, closed our slacked jaws, and hitched a ride to the beach town of San Sebastián.

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