Thursday, August 28, 2008
So, the Running of the Bulls takes place every July 6 - July 13 in Pamplona, Spain and the 8-day festival is called the San Fermin. Every morning at 8pm, a number of bulls (6-8??) are released at one end of town and they run as hard as they can through the streets of town until they get to the end of the course, which just happens to be inside the stadium where bullfights are conducted. At the start of the run, a loud gun goes off to tell everyone in town when the first bull has been let out, and shortly thereafter another gun goes off to let everyone in town know that the last bull has left the holding pen and that they are all now running in the streets. The bulls run through a street course with no exits (it's either tall buildings or erected barricades holding them in), so they can't get out.....and neither can the people that have chosen to take part in the run. The bulls go forward, and if anything gets in their way, they go over it or through it. They just run until they're in the bullring and there's nowhere left to run. It sounded moderately dangerous to me, and pretty thrilling to watch, so I hoped I could get there to see it during my Spain trip. I knew before I left for Spain that San Fermin was known worldwide and that getting a hotel room that week in Pamplona would be next to impossible. I tried looking onilne for a dorm bed in a hostel sometime during the festival, but the cheapest I could find was $300 for one night (and, for obvious reasons, no one on couchsurfing.com was offering a free couch for that 8-day period). Needless to say, I didn't book the bed and decided instead to just go to Spain and see how things all panned out.
All over Spain, in the first two weeks or so that I was in the country, I kept hearing about the Running of the Bulls...how crazy and death-defying it was from one person, how fun and totally NOT scary it was from the next. Many people were telling me to run (anyone can run that wants to) because it was the experience of a lifetime and not nearly as bad as the rumors make it sound. However, the closer I got to Pamplona, in both time and distance, the more the majority started to shift and I started hearing more and more stories of people getting gored and trampled or having very close calls with really big, scary beasts in really tight spaces. I was considering running, but logistically it was going to be tough because I didn't have a room or a safe place to leave my stuff, nor did I have someone that I knew and trusted to watch it. I figured I'd just play it by ear.
As it turned out, Pamplona is essentially on the way from Barcelona to Lourdes, France (where I was ultimately headed to watch the Tour de France bike race). So, as I was doing throughout Spain, I went online to the RENFE website (Spain's official train website) to buy a train ticket. Pamplona is 7.5 hours from Barcelona by train, and I happened to find a train that left Barcelona at 10pm and arrived at 534am in Pamplona. Sweet! That meant that not only could I get to Pamplona, but I could avoid trying to find a hotel room or a dorm bed there by just sleeping a little on the train ride. Then, I could see the run with the bulls at 8 a.m., hang out for a while, and get on a bus heading out of town somewhere toward Lourdes.
It all started out pretty well. I bought a little more expensive ticket in which my seat was one of six in a private room with a door that closed. As it turned out, there were two rows of three seats that faced each other. When I boarded the train and found my seat, I was the only one in there. After a few minutes, two other girls came in. One girl was from Pamplona and spoke really good English, so she could give me the scoop on what to do there. (I hoped she'd invite me to stay at her house so that I could stay an entire day instead of just a few hours, but she never did and I didn't want to push it.) The other was Brazilian and was able to speak both Spanish and English with me. Both were really nice and friendly. We made small talk for the first 45 minutes or so, and then we when we were all friends, we decided to fold down all 6 seats so that they made into three beds. There were three of us so it was perfect...except that as we were making beds, another girl came in. She came in late so she didn't bond with us - she just sat in one seat in the corner next to me while the rest of us still got horizontal and squirmed around trying to get comfortable. At first we were all trying to be polite and not touch each other....after a short while, that became way too much of a hassle and everyone's legs were thrown over everyone else's in an attempt to stretch out and get some sleep. It must've looked pretty odd (or impressive, depending on how you think of it) the way we were all stacked up together. Anyway, the train stopped now and then and it was pretty windy so there really wasn't a lot of sleep happening. At some point, though, I realized that I must have been sleeping because I groggily woke up to a really grouchy old guy and his wife coming in, flipping on the lights, and demanding that we put all the seats upright because two of them were theirs. He was right, so we complied, but so much for the sleeping on the train idea. We rode the last couple of hours in the dark, wide awake, trying to sleep, sitting upright without any leg room. It kind of sucked.
Upon arrival in Pamplona, the local girl from my train cabin offered to take me downtown (a short cab or bus ride away or a 20 minute walk away), but I'd have to wait an hour for her sister to get there. I didn't have an hour to spare so I thanked her and went on my own way. The reason I didn't have an hour was because I'd learned that the long-distance bus station on the other side of the small town had "left luggage" room so I could check my stuff in and go reclaim it later after the festivities...and then I'd already be at the bus station so I could get a ticket out of town going somewhere toward Lourdes. Perfect!!
Usually I would have just walked downtown, but I was tired that morning so I was trying to flag down a cab, along with a few other folks I met outside the train station. No cab would stop for us and we were getting pissed, and no buses were coming to the city bus stop that we were standing at in front of the train station. Just as we were about to walk to town as a group, a city bus came up. Given that it was filled with a bunch of local-looking people dressed in all white with red bandannas around their necks and red sashes around their waists, we knew the bus would be going to the right place (that white/red outfit is what everyone wears to San Fermin). We got on the bus and in 5 minutes we were downtown. I got off and asked a local where the bus station was. After another five minutes on foot, I was waiting in line in the 'left luggage' room of the bus station. Unfortunately, it took quite a while to get to the front of the line and leave my junk and by the time I got out of there and walked back downtown and figured out where I needed to be for the festivities, I had missed the window of time to be allowed to get into the course to run with the bulls and they had locked the course gates. I guess the decision was made FOR me to not run....I had been seriously considering it but hadn't yet made up my mind.
When I got down to the course, I was near the end and had no idea where the beginning was. The place was already JAMMED with people and I knew if I farted around looking at different places to see where the view was best, I'd soon not have any view at all so I stayed put. There was an approximately 5-foot high wooden barricade set up to hold the bulls in, and a few feet behind that was about a 6-foot high second fence on which people were seated or standing, craning their heads to get a view. I'm taller than most Spaniards, but with the people standing on the fence I still couldn't see a thing - all this way, all this effort to get here and I can't see?! Screw that!! I had to think quickly. I saw a dude standing on a plastic dumpster, alone, looking out above the chaos. I walked up, introduced myself, asked him if I could hop up there with him, and soon I had a new German friend named Stefan with whom I was able to take in the event. We let a few other dudes up there with us, but after a while, we had to keep kicking people off or pushing them away or telling them no..whatever worked. In a crowd like that, you stake out your spot, you don't move, and you hold your ground, trying not to be too much of a dick if you can help it.
Do you know it isn't easy to stand for over an hour on a plastic dumpster with a flimsy lid with six other drunk partygoers? I feared that the dumpster fall would be more devastating than any bull goring that happened to take place concurrently, but fortunately I never had to find out. It turns out that the spot was pretty decent and I got a few decent photos (see above). You can see from the photos that there were a lot of people and they were scaling walls, lamp posts, etc. to try to get a better view. There were a couple of ambulances just waiting around, and there were passed out people everywhere. Did I mention that San Fermin is pretty much the biggest party in the WORLD!? I have never in my life seen so much drunken debauchery, honestly (and to be sober was, in fact, a bit sobering). From my sweet, standing, dumpster view, there was one chivalrous guy below who had a passed out friend's head resting on each of his feet, just so that his buddies wouldn't have to lay their heads on the pavement. Of course, if you saw that pavement, you'd understand why. Everyone had told me NOT to go to San Fermin in flip flops because the streets were disgusting, and I really didn't get it until I saw it. There was piss, vomit, broken glass, and trash everywhere; it was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen, and yet somehow the whole event was still charming and electrifying. The streets were so littered that every morning after the bulls run, the fire department comes out with their hoses and hoses down not just the streets but the BUILDINGS, from the ground to about 6 feet up!! They flood the place with so much water that you need to be really careful that you don't get near the roiling, boiling mixture of said piss, vomit, broken glass and trash that flows downhill to wherever they collect it all.
Ultimately, the gun went off and we knew the gate had opened. Then 20 seconds later another gun went off so we knew all the bulls were running. Keep in mind we were about 200 yards from the finish of a 3-mile run and we could see the end but wouldn't know the bulls were near us until they were right in front of us because there was a big building blocking our view to the left. Within about 2-3 minutes, we could see the people up on the balconies beginning to fidget and pointing their cameras down the road so we knew the bulls were near....and then, just like that, the runners on the course that were waiting right in front of us started sprinting away...then a few bulls entered the picture.....some people outran them and made it into the stadium before the bulls did (they got ridiculed and people threw stuff at them for being pansies and not running WITH the bulls)....and amongst the rest there was a lot of scurrying, pushing, shoving, jumping, screaming, avoiding, etc. as the bulls charged through the crowd...and then, calmness. Slowly all the people on the course that had run with the bulls came walking past us, cheering, singing, yelling, drinking, reveling. Stefan and I just looked at each other. Was that it?! I only saw 3-4 bulls, and it didn't look all that dangerous....but click on the lowest photo above to see how big those bulls actually were and how close those big bodies and horns are to the people running in front of them. Ok, maybe I'm glad I didn't get the chance to run. :)
Stefan and I jumped down and said "adios" to each other. I quickly walked over to the stadium and walked into the stands. No one charged me money or asked for a ticket - it was like controlled chaos and no one cared who went in the stadium or how many went in. People crowded the aisles when all the seats filled; it was a fire marshal's worst nightmare. But I was there in the middle of it, checking it out, holding my camera high above others taking video of what was happening below. All the people that had beat the bulls into the bullring or those who'd run with the bulls and gotten to the stadium quickly enough to be inside before the gates shut were now actually IN the bullring. What they do is they let one bull at a time out into the crowd. The bull really has nowhere to run so it just runs at people, who stay in its path as long as they can until they jump aside at the last second, hoping not to get gored, trampled, or thrown in the air. People just want to touch the bull, to get close to it, and to not get killed. Most succeeded. No one died or got seriously hurt, but I saw a number of people tossed in the air the like ragdolls by a well-placed bullhorn, and I also saw a number of people trip and get stampeded by a thousand pounds of frightened mammal. The ambulances took away far more people with alcohol poisoning than with bull-inflicted wounds, I'm positive.
After a little while, I didn't need to watch bulls running around helpless in a sea of people anymore, so I left and I walked through the course and through town watching people party their asses off, at 810 a.m. All the bars were open and they were PACKED. People were wasted drunk, dancing, yelling. People were passed out everywhere. I meandered and just took it all in. I bought a t-shirt. I ate a popular Spanish breakfast, churros and chocolate (basically fried dough dipped into hot, thick chocolate milk the consistency of pudding). I didn't feel like going on a beer bender. Maybe if I'd have been with someone else I'd have felt a little more festive and wanted to party. I know if I'd have had a room, I'd have been able to relax and stay longer. As it was, I was glad I saw San Fermin, and equally glad to get the hell out of there.
Maybe I'll go back next year. If I book now, I can probably find a dorm bed for only $200 a night...