July 14, 2004
To Run Or Not To Run
DAY 261: Most non-Spaniards know Pamplona's San Fermin Festival solely as "The Running of the Bulls." However, the Running of the Bulls is just one part of an eight-day festival that transforms the normally peaceful northern Spanish town of Pamplona into a huge Spring Break party where even wild bulls are allowed to participate. It's sort of like the biggest barbecue where cows skewer the flesh of humans instead of the other way around.
Amongst the other events of the festival is the Txupinazo, the opening ceremony on the noon of July 6th, the festival's first official day, a day when one can really decide whether or not he/she wants to participate in the first of seven encierros (bull runs) on the next morning of July 7th at 8 a.m. sharp. All day I wondered whether or not the adrenaline rush was worth risking being impaled by a bull's horn.
Because of its huge international popularity, making a reservation for an accommodations is highly recommended -- some reserve up to nine months in advance in order to prevent the alternative: sleeping in the park, the plaza or on the street, leaving yourself and your valuables vulnerable to thieves. (That and/or the long lines waiting on the town center's baggage storage office.) My guidebook states that a better alternative for those winging it might be to find a flyer or tout at the bus or train station, inviting people to stay at his/her local residence, although one most be wary that he/she may end up spending a lot of money to sleep on a dirty floor in an inconvenient or unsafe location in town.
This option was our only real choice since every reasonably priced hotel in town was booked and the ones that did have rooms went for 200 euros per person, per night. We called some numbers from flyers with rip-off phone numbers. The first one had no answer, but the second had a ring. Jack used his soft-spoken Uruguayan Spanish to ask about the home stay. The man's voice on the other end gave us an address and told us to meet him them. After accidentally ringing the doorbells of two wrong buildings -- rudely waking up its residents -- we managed to find the real place: an apartment that almost seemed too good to be true.
For fifty euros per night per person (cheap, relatively speaking), we got a room to ourselves with two twin-size beds, towels and coffee in the morning. Luck was on our side again when we found out that our host Marlon, a Venezuelan immigrant, was one half of the gay couple living there. Translation: the place was super clean and with an artistic interior decor fit for a fancy hotel. And if that wasn't enough, the place was located in the most convenient place in town, in the heart of the action, complete with a living room balcony that overlooked the bull-run route.
"Si, es bueno."
We paid the 100 euros and Marlon gave us the keys for us to come and go as we pleased, any time in the day or night. "I'm amaze at how easy that was," I raved. It was the second time in a row we beat the odds; not only did our good fortune get us that place (a sheer miracle), but we had actually made it to Pamplona on the first day of the festival. (I had been warned that all transportation to Pamplona would have been booked solid, but we managed to get the last two seats on that overnight bus from Valencia.)
Drunk by 10:30 a.m. (our first drink was at 9:30), people poured into the plaza, continuing to drink their champagne, beer and sangria, singing the familiar "olé" chant I'd heard in Brazilian soccer games. Revelers clapped their hands steadily slow and then faster and faster to the chants of "San Fermin! San Fermin!" in the manner guys chant "Take it off! Take it off!" at a bachelor party (or The Jerry Springer Show). Some American guys (including yours truly) just switched to "Take it off!" when a hot chick stood out in the crowd atop her friend's shoulders. When she didn't taker her shirt off, she was drenched in streams of sangria coming from the Super Soaker water guns some Spaniards brought. She laughed it off, dismounted and drank some more.
Women weren't the only victims of alcoholic baths; guys would sneak attack their buddies and just pour champagne all over their heads. Eggs were thrown as were bags of flour. Some guys were covered in mustard.
However, food wasn't the only party favor going around; big inflated balls where thrown out, bouncing from place to place, kicked and hit by whoever was near it. Someone even threw in a real leather soccer ball in the mix, which at times turned the party into a rowdy game of dodge ball. The only thing worse than getting hit by that was the occasional flying champagne cork.
"This is the craziest thing I've ever seen," Jack told me.
Happy and a bit drunk, I put my hand on his shoulder. "Fuck it, I'm running tomorrow! Woooo!"
The sheer chaos (picture above) only got rowdier and more crowded as the clock approached high noon. When the clock struck twelve, the rocket went off, cueing confetti to fall from the balconies of all the revelers who had been watching the madness from a safer vantage point. Partygoers in the plaza raised their signature red pañuelos (bandanas) over their heads and waved them triumphantly. The excited voices of the mob yelled and sang in drunken celebration.
And so, the 2004 San Fermin Festival started with a bang.
"If that's what the crowd's like now, I can't imagine what it's like when a bunch of bulls are chasing them," I said to Jack, reunited again. Second thoughts of participating in the first encierro entered my mind.
Jack and I passed out from exhaustion early afternoon but were back on the streets by 3 p.m., fully rested for the long haul of partying ahead of us. In between beer sessions, Jack and I roamed town, trying to track down Blogreader Tom (TWH) who was also slated to be at the festival (I just didn't know what day), and to find out more about the bull run.
"So, what sort of official advice can you give me about running?" I asked a woman at the desk of the official tourist information office.
"Officially?" Don't run," she said. "It's too dangerous." She saw a slightly disappointed look on my face. "But if you must run, do it at the beginning [of the route] or near the end. It's easier to get out that way." She showed me the points she was talking about on a map. "Don't go here, it's a long way without a way to get out." She was pointing to the narrow cobblestone street just below Marlon's balcony where Marlon told us a guy had been mauled the year before just across the street.
Okay, fine, I thought, I'll just start really close to the exit point near the end of the route, like a block or so and run out. No one runs the entire half-mile course anyway, not even the professional runners that do it year after year. (Perhaps that's why they can do it every year.)
In my mind, the run was back on.
"I was going to run when I got here, but now I don't think so," the American guy said. My sentiments exactly.
But the hardest working people in the San Fermin business were the professional pickpockets who did their best to make a score -- although it wasn't so hard when the victim was usually drunk off his/her ass.
After watching a midnight concert of a Uruguayan rock band in the big main Plaza Castillo, Jack and I got separated momentarily. In that short period, I was standing around waiting for him when nothing much happened -- that is, nothing to the casual eye. In actuality, a guy "accidentally" dropped a coin in front of me and went to pick it up -- to distract me from the fact that his partner behind me (pretending to wait up for someone too) was reaching for my back pocket. Since I instinctively check to see if my wallet is in my back pocket three times a minute (a habit from New York), I actually caught his hand trying to open the pocket zipper. He felt my hand feel his and the two of them fled.
I stopped by beer consumption relatively early in the night so as not to have a hangover the next morning. While I was still iffy on the whole bull running thing, I figured I came to Pamplona to run, so I might as well be smart about it -- most people injured in previous runs were either drunk or hung over. It was only about one in the morning and I was fairly sober already -- sober enough to have thwarted those pickpockets. In my mind it was still up in the air if I'd run with the bulls the next morning at eight, but I figured I'd gotten this far following the recommendations for a runner: I was sober, I studied the route beforehand -- the only other recommended thing I was missing was a good night's sleep. I went to bed at a reasonable hour, still indecisive, figuring I'd just have my answer to the question in the morning. To run or not to run, that is the question.
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