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Mayhem and madness at Pamplona’s bull-run

Marginally less messy than the tomato throwing festival of Buñol (albeit with the looming threat of a more lethal kaleidoscope of blood-red stains), comes the nine days of San Fermin and the infamous running of the bulls.

Nestled up in northern Spain next to Rioja, Pamplona in the Navarre region transforms itself from a sleepy, picturesque little town into a hardcore haven for hedonism. The festival kicks off on July 7th, a day indoctrinated into the hearts, minds and souls of Spanish infants through the misleadingly chirpy chorus: ‘1 de enero, 2 de febrero, 3 de marzo, 4 de abril, 5 de mayo, 6 de junio, 7 de julio San Fermin!’ Put simply, La Fería de San Fermin is a national institution and rites of passage for any self-respecting Iberian male.

Despite the protestations of well-meaning locals upon discovery of our plans to run (communicated through a cryptic series of shoulder shrugs, raised eyebrows and the deliciously onomatopoeic ‘uuuuuuufffff!) we remained unperturbed. Determined to impart their wisdom on avoiding the wrath of a dozen charging bulls, it became clear that it was more a case of ‘el Señor doth protest too much.’ The suited madrileño at Barajas airport admitted, behind cupped hand and in a low whisper so as not to arouse suspicion that he had in fact, run three times in his youth- and survived to tell the tale. Encouraged by his living testament and insightful observation that ‘son toros eh? que no son vacas!’ we boarded a train up North to Vitoria and onwards to a small Basque town some forty minutes out of Pamplona, to meet friends who were to be our guides for the weekend. At this point I should probably add that women are not allowed to take part in El Encierro therefore the ‘we’ is actually a ‘them.’ I took the role of the travelling cheerleader- buoying up the spirits of the male contingents of the group while silently thanking the Lord for being chromosomally deficient.

Heading into town on the Friday night aboard a coach of drunken, charged-up Basque teenagers with unpronounceable names, facial piercings and the requisite mullets, we wound our way through the mountains. The city, lit up by fireworks and the streets, a sea of white and red wearing revellers- the San Fermin uniform of white trousers and shirt, a red bandana around the neck and scarf draped loosely over the hips. We drift from bar to bar in a drunken blur, intoxicated from a mix of cheap beer and carnival cheer; the cobbled streets awash with beer bottles and plastic cups, floating in a sea of sludge. Toilet trips become a dreaded inevitability- their blocked basins aching under a wad of discarded paper and other unidentifiable objects. Ankle-deep puddles of sloppy excrement swills around the floor as one hovers over a sawdust-sprinkled loo seat. With the new lease of energy that only a drained bladder can provide, we head over to the Giri-giri fountain, nicknamed after the tourists’ annual descent into drunken madness as they clamber up the stone statue, bathed in pro-ETA graffiti, and to the relish of their friends below, leap blindly into their arms as the crowds cheer and heckle them, ‘Que se tiren! Que se tiren!’ Every year someone ‘forgets’ to catch a compatriot, so we dutifully make regular trips to the fuente; standing alongside other macabre-minded spectators in the hopes of witnessing such carnage. La mejillonería opposite provides a welcome respite and a huge plate of mussels to mop up the excess alcohol from the docena of cañas.

We make our way through the crowds, now undulating to the beats of the samba drums, towards the Plaza del Castillo. Great hordes of people jump, jive and jota to the sounds of Spanish singers, performing on an enormous stage. Everyone appears to be drenched in red wine, their stained white t-shirts now a purpley, marbled hue. As we dance, hug and share our drinks with random strangers, sleep deprivation and drunkenness reduces us to a blur of boozy smiles and bloodshot eyes. We wind our way through various damp, cellar-like nightclubs until the inevitable cessation of party spirits and the need for an emergency siesta in the grounds of el Castillo.

Trudging through the pissing males and fornicating American students (tracksuit bottoms tugged urgently down to the ankles), as their silhouettes glowing in the castle floodlights, bounce up and down in a Pacharán-fuelled frenzy of San Ferminismo; we find a tree and pass out on the damp grass underneath. Awoken at six, by the human alarm clock of uncontrollable teeth chattering and full body shakes, we are reminded of quite how nasty and cold al fresco sleep in northern Spain can be.

Wiping the sleep from our eyes and fighting the urge to vomit, we head off back to the bar to meet our ridiculously energetic friends and drift off en masse, towards Plaza del Ayuntamiento, to join the heaving throng awaiting El Encierro. Sliding up and down the sludge-filled streets, I wearily step over the jagged remains of San Miguel bottles and learn to breathe through my nose, in order to escape the pungent smell of old piss and new vomit. Such a potent mix of gag-inducing flavours is surpassed only perhaps by the morning spray of ammonia to disinfect the bars. I witnessed men retching as they wrestled with the need to urinate while choking on the suffocating fumes rising up from the lavatory.

We push and jostle against the wooden security barriers, hastily erected to keep the bulls and runners on course, and decorated with a series of Spanish stunners, all clad in tight white and barking orders at friends below with hand-held megaphones- a noise that grates on the tired and hungover, the soundwaves crashing against the pounding skull. Rockets are launched to mark the release of each group of toros and vajillas, and the crowd whoop and cheer at the thunderous pounding of feet as a flash of white and red runners sprint down the street. The footsteps give way to the unmistakeable smell of cattle and the noise of hooves on the cobbles is matched by the excited screams of spectators. I elbow and shove my way forward, determined to squint through a small gap in between an impenetrable wall of broad backs and stretched shoulders. Guys hang from walls and window-sills, astride lamp posts and trees; desperate to get a glimpse of that split-second moment where man meets beast. A group of giggling, marinaded youths favour a different type of adventure and fix their attentions instead on a small gaggle of girls, wearing hotpants and mini skirts. As they push up onto their tiptoes, clamouring for a better view, the guys angle their cameras under their pert little bottoms, seeking out their own buena vista. Thus the gap between man and beast narrows somewhat. ‘Que ojos tan bonitos!’ one laughs to the other, their faces flushed and blotched with pride as they assess their photos; more verminous than San Fermin(ous), I note to myself.

Convinced that the flash of feet, hooves and horns has passed, we break away from the madding crowd. The zombie, pissed-up males spill out onto the streets and we drift off for a top-up beer and a pre-breakfast boogy at discos as tightly packed at 9 am as they were twelve hours previously. ‘Osasuna!’ we cry as we toast new found friends and jig to the Celtic rhythms of Basque music. We polish off a few montaditos, stuffed with jamón Serrano and chorizo and wearily admit defeat by the afternoon. Staggering towards the bus station, we siesta on a small mound of grass on a traffic island in the middle of a main road; a tangle of loose limbs and lolling tongues, with our backpacks as pillows. The roar of engines mixed with the noxious exhaust fumes of passing traffic, lulls us gently to sleep and we wake only to crawl onto the bus and sleep our way back across the mountains.

Upon arrival, we are struck by the comforting calm of the town; its clean empty streets seem to sparkle in the sun and across the park, the babbling brook is the very antithesis of the river of muck that seeps down through the gutters of Pamplona. The day is spent in deep comatose sleep and we emerge from our sarcophagi, to meet our equally exhausted friends in a local sidrería. We rapidly rehydrate, aided by half a dozen oak barrels of cider (glass tipped expertly an arm’s length away from the shiny tap, as the spurt of amber nectar crests and hits the cool crystal). We order a feast of local foods- great spears of asparagus, chunks of cod with peppers, cider-soaked chorizo and the juiciest, smokiest meat, its flesh falling off the bone only to melt in one’s mouth. Washed down with a couple of glasses of rioja del año, we heave our achingly- full bellies out of the restaurant to chorus of ‘Aguuuurs!’ and collapse into a blissful Bacchus-like sleep.

Sunday comes and the saintly girls appear at 5.30 am, to ferry us over to El Encierro. The boys are uncharacteristically quiet and their pre-run jitters make the tense atmosphere in the car, almost palpable. The Basque girls brief them on top tips for minimal injury while simultaneously reminding them that they are locos. They sit bolt upright in their obligatory white trousers and t-shirts, beating out imaginary rhythms on their knees in a vague attempt to calm themselves. We arrive and whizz off to buy red neck-ties and scarves, stopping at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento for a final bear-hug and kiss. Sneaking a Catholic scapula around one of their necks for divine protection, I, like them, attempt to ignore the threat of impending doom and possible loss of life and we simultaneously swallow the rock-like lumps in our throats and exhale. As the guys man-strut their way through the crowds, like two cockerels- (all chest and plumage), the women zoom over the Plaza de Toros, to score tickets and spiral up and up to the nose-bleed seats. We hastily arrange a blanket of cardigans and jumpers on the wine stained concrete slabs for seats to protect our pristine white-clothed bottoms. As the band circle the sand, we join in with the clapped rhythms and ‘Olé, Olé, Olé Olé…Olé! Olé!’in a frenzied climax that culminates in the arrival of runners and bulls.

As the first handful of runners appear, (their nationalities revealed by the ‘Italia’ slogan on their jumpers), the crowds erupt with a verbal attack of ‘Puto!’ and ‘Hijo de Puta!’ as they lob beer bottles and red wine at them, incensed at the sheer cowardice of any male who would run so far ahead of the bulls. Any momentary inflation of pride they may have experienced at being in the very epicentre of the stadium, surrounded by thousands, soon evaporates and, like a sun dried caterpillar, their shoulders seem to turn in on themselves as they curl up in shame and dissipate rapidly to all corners of the ring to camouflage themselves amongst the masses.

A stream of runners arrives and we stand erect at the prospect of unfolding events. I pick up the camera, determined to document the action and then more and more runners spill into the bull ring in bursts, as we scream and screech in thrilled fear. Suddenly the pace picks up and their feet skid and slide on the sand, their torsos flexed back and jaws tense; three bulls rush past them. We are now jumping with cameras lowered as we check to see everyone has made it.

The bulls rush straight through to the exit, whipped on by pastors as yet more and more runners seep in; the ring now a vast ocean of white and red moving dots. Another three shoot through, followed by the smaller bulls speeding through the men with alarming fluidity and suddenly male bravado takes over. Wielding rolled up newspapers they compete to whack the animals on the backside, pull tails or vault over their backs. Unsurprisingly this is where we start to witness the injuries and guys somersault and get bucked off their horns, scrambling up only to get high-fives and back-slaps from their peers. I see a Scot with a yellow kilt getting bashed against a wall by a huge set of horns, spinning round and round until someone distracts the bull and it charges off in the opposite direction. He emerges with said kilt hanging of his left thigh, his dignity intact by his decision to wear boxers that morning.

The toros and vajillas charge in continually and a guy draped in a New Zealand flag gets picked out of the crowd and bounced up and down and right across the ring on the horns of a monstrous black bull. His ripped white t-shirt hangs like a trophy on the tip of one of its horns and he picks himself up and runs to some semblance of safety as the crowd applaud his efforts.

As the hour passes, individual acts of bravado/sheer stupidity leave me open mouthed and aghast at the motivation of these individuals. The men run amok; amok in the original Balinese sense of the word, where the country’s pre-nineteenth century reputation as vicious fighters was cemented by this battle technique- running wild against the enemy in a bloody blur of kamikaze combat. At one point a big group of them converge on a small, young bull and in a scene reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, jump on the animal and start beating it. The bull eventually wriggles out but the animal is clearly exhausted and terrified, its hooves slide and circle the sand like a Cuban salsa move and white its spine moves to right, its head tilts to the left, a long grey tongue hanging out of its mouth. A Japanese guy, wearing a giveaway flag symbol on his t-shirt, is bounced by the escaping bull and the audience screams encouragement to the non native ‘Aaaaallá chino!’

Led back into the arena by a whip-wielding pastor, storm the enormous toros; the infamous Miura breed- their staggering size and weight as record-breaking as their history for killing the highest numbers of matadors and men. The very same animals that occasionally, at the end of a Corrida are ‘pardoned’ for exceptional courage and liberated to a life of chud-chewing on the Spanish plains. At the mere sight of the first one bolting towards the crowd, the audience takes a collective gasp and, screaming in surprise, I attempt to yell warnings down below, a laughably pantomime ‘He’s behind you!’ Needless to say they don’t hear me and we see groups of guys milling around in the centre, catching their breath for a moment as they see off the smaller bull only to get nudged by this massive, dinosaur of a bull from behind and they fly in different directions, propelled by some magic springboard of adrenalin, like escaping popcorn from a hot pan.

It becomes hypnotic to follow the bull around, guessing which direction it will turn, which runner it might pursue, and just observing the ridiculous lengths that a man is willing to go to in order to gain the respect of his peers. I find myself however, completely drawn in and whether it has something to do with all the testosterone floating through the air, passed on through some visceral osmosis-like process, I actually begin to heckle the men who avoid the gorings; those that jump onto the wall to escape the bulls or hold out their jumpers like faux matadors, only to pussy-foot it out of the way of a charging bull. I have clearly been brain-washed as I cheer on the man who back-flips over a bull, propelling himself off the sand with such agility that it seems entirely natural and commendable to attempt such blatant exhibitionism in the face of fear.

Gradually things come to a close, and we chatter excitedly about what each of us saw and attempt to identify the boys from this distance. Incredibly we actually spot one of them and, encouraged by the unmistakeable evidence that at least one of them has survived, we stand up and make our way down the stalls, climbing through safety barriers and scaling walls to get down to the ring; (no mean feat in a white dress I might add- even if I didn’t manage to run with bulls, I can proudly say I did some inadvertent flashing of flesh at San Fermin). Despite getting tangled up in the metal ropes around the arena, we unhook ourselves and, passing our bags to each other, plop onto the sand below. Stepping over the piles of blood/red wine, I feel the sand under my toes, smell the animal sweat of man vs. bull and look around at the enormous bull ring. From where we had been sitting, and as things started to wind down a bit, it all started to look so easy. I found myself bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t down there in the thick of things, complaining that women should be allowed to run and we cheered at the sight of one girl, sprinting alongside her fellow runners, sensibly hopping to safety on the walls at the sight of the toros. However, suddenly, now, here on the sand- squashed and pushed by the crowds, came the realisation that if the bulls really did look that monstrous from such a distance, they must be absolutely terrifying up close. The run from town to the bull ring is fenced-in on both sides, meaning that once you start there is no choice but to keep going until you hit the arena.

The streets are narrow and uneven; a mix of sharp corners and bends and the runners fire ahead, avoiding both the crushing stampede of other pumped-up runners and the frenzy of charging bulls. I found it hard enough slipping and sliding down the streets at a walking pace, with a notable absence of bulls; the most dangerous species being the drunken pervy male- lunging and grabbing at oneself from every corner. Clearly, I was delusional and had momentarily, been taken along by the high spirits of San Fermin-fuelled machismo, with maybe just a hint of feminismo.

We find our way back to the Fuente Giri-giri  (or foreigners’ fountain), where we had arranged to meet the guys and, sure enough, two exhausted and mud-splattered visions in white are collapsed on the wall; their faces a paradoxical complexion of blanched-out fear mixed with the ruddy flush of success and cardio-vascular activity. Like excited puppies, we jump up to embrace them, relieved beyond belief at the apparent absence of haemorrhages or lost limbs. As a ginormous great bottle of cheap, warm beer is swilled and swallowed, we float towards a bar, high on life- to be regaled with tales of heroism and tomfoolery. Through the sharing of eye-witness accounts (along the lines of  ‘Dude, did you see the Kiwi guy get smashed?!) we worked out coordinates of their positions in the ring at such specific moments and over a steaming cup of chocolate con churros, sift through the video footage, attempting to identify them in  a sea of blank, egg-like faces. The next few hours passed in a blur of stories and exasperated sighs, their eyes misting over with the kind of post traumatic stare that people don’t traditionally volunteer upon themselves. Such silences were punctuated with a constant stream of us girls, leaping up to provide the next round of hard liquor and a bit of tortilla to be chewed open-mouthed, as fat drops of yellow grease seeped down the chin and onto their sweat drenched t-shirts.

When we had almost lost feeling in our buttocks, we were reminded of the need to continue our pub-crawl and headed to a friend’s bar just off Plaza del Ayuntamiento for a welcome bloody mary and the most wonderfully clean loos. We smoke and drink, eat a few croquetas and fight off the drunken advances of old men; their stinking, (verging on inflammable) breath a clear signal of their level of intoxication and almost as telling as their pendulum-like swaying.

As hard as it was to pull myself away from such wanton longing, we beat a hasty exit to Vitoria station, after much bidding of ‘Agur!’ and proffering of ‘muxus.’ Clutching the obligatory San Fermin souvenir t-shirt and a handful of postcards to reassure worried mothers, we boarded the train and amongst other drunken, washed-out, wine-stained revellers we collapsed in an orgy of slumber, roused only by the not-so-dulcet tones of a megaphone-shouting drunkard in the nearby carriage.

The weekend had been an unmitigated success. Clearly we would need half a year to recover from our hangovers and then maybe the remaining months to bore friends with the endless regurgitating of stories and waving of photos; but I have no doubt that if I am within spitting distance of Spain this time next year, I will be back in a flash. Whether I fly the flag for women’s lib and get right into the bull ring remains to be seen, but I guess if I start training now I might just have a fighting chance.

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