My 30th birthday is in less than 2 weeks, it’s a milestone that I never thought that I would reach. Partly because I don’t think any of us ever think about what it is going to be like to be 30, but mostly because I’ve done enough things in my life that would limit the probability of getting there. I’ve always been a nostalgic person, but with imminent arrival of my 30th year on this earth, I’ve been reliving some of the most memorable times of my life. One fond memory that I have had, both as an accomplishment and as a testament to how stupid I can be is when I did the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain in 2007. I was 21 at the time and had been traveling with my friend Wes through Europe. While I don’t much care for the treatment of the bulls or bullfighting, the time that I spent in Pamplona during the Fiesta de San Fermin is something that I will always look back on fondly.
The start of my time in Pamplona.
I traveled by bus from the coast of Barcelona into the city of Pamplona around 9am, the Fiesta de San Fermin had been going on for a couple days and the streets were already filled with revelers clad in their white outfits & red scarves. San Fermin is so much more than just the running of the bulls, it’s a complete transformation of the city filled with daily parades boasting giant 150 year old figures, dancing, traditional sports, and fireworks to honor the city’s patron saint. I missed the opening of the festival, but it was soon apparent that there would be plenty for me to experience for the remainder of the week. The celebration in the streets was unlike anything I had ever seen before, everyone was wearing the traditional colors of white & red and I felt left out because I was wearing a blue shirt.I was taking a festival tour via Topdeck tours, so I was with 30+ rather rambunctious Australians & Wes, we all walked into a small shop and bombarded the owner with a desperate need to fit the dress code. For 20 euros I bought the necessary garb for a proper celebration, a white shirt, pants, red neckerchiefs, a sash, and somewhere in the transaction I obtained a leather wineskin bota filled with sangria. The requirements were now filled and the celebrations could commence in the most sloppy of ways. I was told by our tour leader that it was considered bad luck to take off the neckerchief and clean your clothes during the festival, so you can imagine what things were like by the closing ceremonies.
The Encierro (A brief and incomplete intro to the Running of the Bulls)
The Encierro (the running of the bulls) is a half mile run going through the city streets . The side streets of the running path are divided by large wooden fences and the roads are cobbled stone. There are a total of 12 bulls, 6 light colored steers used to keep the pack running in the proper direction and are considered to be harmless(because they don’t try to gore you). The other 6 are black bulls (Toro Bravo), bred for the bull fighting ring and picked for their strength, stamina, and aggression. Many people who participate in the encierro roll up a newspaper to hit the bulls on the head to get them to run, but outside of that it is against the rules to harass or touch the bull (it’s also a good way for you to get punched in the face by somebody). It starts with everyone piling into the path and choosing their starting position, at 8AM the corral gates open and a gunshot is fired, there is another gunshot to signify that the last bull has exited the gate. The run ends in the Plaza de Toros, where the gates of the bull fighting ring remain open until the last bull goes through. Gunshots will then go off to signify that all the bulls have entered to bull ring and the doors are closing. They then let out younger bulls called vaquillas with their horns taped up and blunted while the runners inside the ring try to escape them. The black bulls that ran in the city would then be a part of a bullfight later that evening. Before the encierro began, we had to read a little pamphlet that told us the rules, I don’t remember most of them but the most important ones were:
- You have to be 18 or older
- Don’t carry anything while running/no photos while running
- No jumping over the fences or hanging on them
- If you’re impaired (drunk etc) you will be removed
- Don’t touch the bull (but it can certainly touch you)
I’m not sure if it was an official rule, but it goes without saying that wearing shoes was a MUST. Luckily for me, bare foot running had not become a thing yet so we didn’t have to suffer through people wearing their Vibrams & screaming about their Paleo diets (as if running from an upset bull wasn’t enough).
Before my run
A long night of celebration usually makes for the deepest of slumbers, but I was just too excited for the next morning, where I would have a once in a lifetime experience & cross something off of my bucket list. With every toss and turn in my bed I would think about what I would do if I happened to be punctured by a horn or stomped with an angry hoof. After about 3 hours of solid sleep, I woke up at 6AM and groggily got ready for the running. The bus ride to the city was quiet, everyone was still sleeping off the previous nights festivities, but it wouldn’t be long till most of us were wide awake and acutely aware of our surroundings (who knew that a charging 2,400 pound bull could wake you up?). I wore a shirt representing the mixed martial arts gym that I was training at during that time, “Joker’s Wild Fighting Academy” so I could identify my shirt in any pictures that were taken. The back of the shirt had the gym’s logo on it and the phrase “we punch people” on the front (feel free to judge me on that). Take note of the logo, because it will be important later:
We shuffled out of the bus and headed towards the entrance at the Plaza Del Mercado. Everyone headed in and waited by an area blocked by police. Wes & I were silent until they announced that they would be closing the entrance at about 7:30, there was no turning back at that point. They closed off the entrance and we began to walk down the path, trying to find a good position to start. As Wes and I walked the cobbled street we saw the press and photographers taking pictures from outside the heavy gates while other people watched from their balconies above the road. It was a bit of a slow stroll for us, we were still very tired but as the minutes pressed on the reality of what was about to happen began to build. I can’t speak for Wes, but I remember distinctly thinking at that moment about a scene from the movie “Gladiator”(starring New Zealand’s national treasure Russel Crowe) where the gladiators are in a room, all standing by the door and waiting to enter the arena with a blood thirsty crowd screaming. The run hadn’t started, but I began to feel the energy and anxiousness rise from within me. I’ll be the first to say that 21 year old Vy was not the brightest of people, he tried to convince himself that running away from 12 bulls was something that needed to happen (no doubt to prove his masculinity) and that it would be prudent to begin the run and wait for said bulls at Curva de Mercaderes hacia Estafeta.
What is Curva de Mercaderes hacia Estafeta you ask? well dear friend, it is more affectionately known as “Dead Man’s Corner” or “The Hamburger Wall” (have I told you how stupid 21 year old Vy was?). This part of the run is a sharp right angle that is known to be the most dangerous part of the Encierro, as the bulls running at full speed lose their balance and fall or bang against the wall crushing runners. So yeah… Wes & I started there.
My Run (and how a 21 year old learns about mortality)
The first shot was fired and we begin to hear everyone getting into a frenzy, the bullpen has just been opened and they started to run. Then the second shot was fired, the bulls have completely left the pen and I am suddenly stricken with inner dialogue:
“Vy, a bull crushing you or penetrating your flesh with a horn is not going to feel good.”
Well yes, I know that, but the gate is locked and I’m stuck here
“You asked for it, you dumb ass. Evolution exists for a reason.”
The crowds of people in front of us began to run, signifying that the bulls were close. Wes and I waited for the bulls to get into view (have I told you how stupid 21 year old Vy was?) and the second they came into view we began our leisurely jog through Dead Man’s Corner. The bulls crashed along the wall of the sharp turn and I heard a loud boom while people screamed in excitement (and probably a little bit of horror). With bulls directly behind us and a sea of white shirts fumbling around in front of us Wes and I did our best not to trip over the people who fell on the road (sometimes that’s more dangerous than the bulls are) and ran with as much ferocity as we could (all of the sudden, we weren’t tired anymore. Go figure). Now the run isn’t that long, but you would be surprised at how everything seems to slow down when you’re in the craziest of situations. My cardio failed me (Rule #1 of Zombieland), so I promptly wished Wes all the best and hugged up against a wall letting the pack pass me. I was trying to process the chaos around me, people yelling and moving about, injured people laying on the road trampled by angry hoofs while medical personnel tended to them, and a rather tall guy in the corner throwing up. It was at this point that I decided that I wouldn’t catch up with the bulls, but rather run over to the Plaza De Toros and try to get into the bull fighting ring. I headed down the path only to be stopped by a rather large aggregation of people who weren’t moving forward, I thought that the bulls had run well past that point and for the most part I was right…except for one. A rather large circle had formed around this bull, as if it were about to breakdance battle someone to a classic Eric B. & Rakim track. I’m not afraid to admit that I was kind of paralyzed with fear, so much so that I didn’t notice the large crowd around me receding away, leaving me open to a single moment that I will never forget. This bull, the noble bovine, this steadfast and powerful creature took it upon himself to break away from the pack and exact some justice upon the meatbags who would use him as a tool for their machismo. As he turned, occasionally lunging at ones who would get too close,he made eye contact with me. In that very second, our minds melded together as our eyes locked into a dangerous dance of wills. I can tell you exactly what I was thinking then:
“Oh FUCK, this can’t be good.”
And I can only assume, but I’m pretty sure this is what the bull was thinking:
“Hmmm. I don’t think I’ve ever killed an Asian man before.
Suffice it to say I was as scared as I have ever been. So I turned tail and ran, as seen in this picture:
I thought for that second that it would be the closest encounter that I’ll ever have with that bull, but once again your old pal Vy would be wrong. I got to what I thought was a safe spot, hugged up against a wall somewhat away from the bull. I was, at that second the only one there, until a mass of people piled in front and around me. I initially didn’t like the fact that I was stuck there and unable to run away.
Then the bull charge directly into the crowd. I was looking at the back of someone’s head trying my best not to feel stuck only not realizing that the bull was directly in front of me with a handful of people acting as unwilling shields. As people gasped and yelled I found an opening in the group and slid out of the way. Someone had been able to get the bulls attention and get it running toward the Plaza De Toro once again. My heart raced and I forgot about getting into the bull fighting ring (although Wes did and he received a broken toe as a souvenir, somehow a charging bull stole one of his shoes). Shots were fired to signify that all the bulls had entered into the arena and I was shaking from the adrenaline. Things were very quiet all of the sudden as everyone who was left on the road began to walk around the now open city. I saw one of the Aussies that I knew and we decided to walk back to the entrance of the path. The chemicals in my brain must have been working overtime because I felt refreshed, excited, and in complete disbelief as to what just happened. The run lasted maybe 5 or 6 minutes but it felt like an hour. The last thing I remember seeing before leaving the path was blood on the cobblestone road, being soaked up with newspaper and the ambulances parked close by.
** I should warn you now that there is going to be a picture that is a little graphic**
Several days after the festival ended I was in Madrid, reading about it and looking at pictures of the Encierro. It was then that I realized how close I truly was to that bull, it will always be a topic of conversation between my friends and I. Remember the Joker’s Wild Fighting Academy Logo I told you to take note of? See if you can find it in the following image (I hid it because it is a bit graphic)
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Have I told you how stupid 21 year old Vy was?
The rest of my time in Pamplona was filled with all manners of debauched festivity. We spent our days observing the run & traditions of Fiesta De San Fermin while our nights were filled with dance, fireworks, and bacchanalian celebration. The whole experience was one giant sangria soaked realization that life is meant to be enjoyed (few can express it better than the Spaniards can). The ceremonies closed in front of the town hall at midnight on July 14th, there was no running that day. People brought candles and everyone held up their neckerchiefs while singing, it was a welcoming and sobering moment that closed one of the most intense experiences of my life. Some people tied their neckerchiefs to a fence, I couldn’t bear to part with it, it became a part of me during the festival. The next day the town was quiet, like the morning after a big party where sober minds had to clean up after their drunken alter egos. I ended up on a train to Madrid with Wes & some of the Aussies we met on this tour.
I have not seen or spoke to most of the people that I shared this experience with, but to the ones that I have kept in touch with over the years, thank you for being in my life and being involved in one of the greatest experiences I can think of. For those that I don’t keep in touch with, thank you as well, we may have only been friends for a week but it’s people like you that make traveling worth while. I could end this post with some cliche quote about seizing the day or living your life to the fullest but I wouldn’t dream of insulting your intelligence. So here’s a recipe for Sangria (there are no portions, just use your best judgement):
- Soak chopped up peaches, apples, and oranges in a hard liquor such as brandy for a day and then strain it. Discard the fruit (or not, and get trashed eating it.)
- Use some type of sparkling citrus drink (like sprite)
- add some cheap red wine
- mix some cinnamon and add a little sugar
- chop up some fresh fruit and add it to the sangria
- Remember, Sangria is not meant to be a fancy drink, it’s meant to be something that you make for a gathering of friends who don’t need to break the bank to have an amazing time.
Here’s to another 30 years of moronic decisions and life changing experiences. Salud!
P.S. Thank you to both Emmas, Kim, Trent, Sly, Marty, Cameron, Nadia, Scott, Andrew, Blake, Alex, and Wes. If I could remember more names I would list them, but you all were an important part of this whole experience. Also, thank you to TopDeck, I’ve used a lot of different group travel companies and I have yet to experience one that does festivals as well as them.
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