Running of the Bulls – Pamplona, Spain, Europe, Festival of San Fermin,
I was 18 years old when I made the decision to take the summer off before entering what I imagined to be four years of incarceration in university. I set out in search of an adventure so compelling, it would sustain me through the tedious and interminable life of a student. My inspiration to make the journey stemmed from my father, who, as a poet, writer, and avid traveler, had instilled in me a burning desire to explore the vagarious, exotic world of a rover. Countless nights I listened fervently to his tales of Spain, and of the splendor and pageantry of the bullfights that his hero, Ernest Hemingway, had immortalized through his prose. I knew intuitively that my first (and possibly last) quixotic quest before entering the realm of academia, would be to run with the bulls in the famous summer festival of Pamplona, Spain.
The fiesta known as San Fermin, a seven-day celebration deeply rooted in tradition is held annually the first week of July in northern Spain. It's most characteristic event, the encierro, running of the bulls, is a bizarre and ostentatious display of machismo bravado. The spectacle is promptly initiated each morning by fireworks, proclaiming that bulls have been released from their pens to run freely through the barricaded streets of the village to the nearby arena. Audacious thrill seekers test their courage by running ahead of the stampeding herd, often with disastrous results. Since its inception in the 13th century, (when butchers hurried slightly in front of bulls being led to auction to ensure themselves a choice place in the bidding), several people have been killed, and hundreds of others seriously injured. It was with this disconcerting thread of historical data weaving through my road weary head, that I circumspectly stepped down from the bus one pristine evening into the quaint and sleepy village known as Pamplona.
Arriving a day before the official start of the festival, I was hard pressed to find a room anywhere. Finally and with luck, I stumbled upon a run down hotel on the outskirts of town, where an assortment of like-minded adventurers had gathered together in camaraderie born of necessity. I found myself sharing a room with three sleep-deprived revelers, who having arrived a day earlier, enthusiastically briefed me on the previous night's activity. They consisted primarily of inhaling massive quantities of vino from a goatskin bag, the erubescent liquid invariably cascading profusely down their white linen shirts. Looking fondly back on that time, I recall a sea of scarlet clad men careening through the village streets in a state of exultation, no doubt a result of the generous amount of libation consumed, but more importantly, because they were young and carefree, passionately embracing the ephemeral, bittersweet joy of their youth.
The next morning my comrades and I began the day in the manner that anyone facing almost certain death would – we drank as much wine as possible. With a sense of dread and exhilaration in equal measure, we made our way to the threshold of the village's makeshift corral, where secured behind a massive wooden gate, stood a legion of ominous looking bulls. They appeared as apprehensive and fearful as ourselves, and I secretly hoped that through some inexplicable means of cerebral transference, we would establish telepathic agreement to stay as far away from each other as possible during the impending ordeal. I was stunned by their stupendous size and obvious strength, and realized, that as my sister had so adamantly informed me of the day I left, I truly must be insane to contemplate such an endeavor. With one long last pull from the wine bag, I resolved to scoff in the face of danger, and like a dauntless matador about to enter the arena, I cast my fate to the Mediterranean wind.
What ensued in the next few seconds, is referred to by ancient Zen masters as kensho, a moment so firmly entrenched in the present, that all mundane concerns of past and future concede to the all encompassing now. Upon the release of the formidable creatures, I remember sprinting blindly forward down the antediluvian road, my one consuming thought to reach the distant ring, where those who successfully finished the course, would be granted a seat to the afternoon bullfights. Propelled onward by a flush of panic induced adrenalin, I suddenly found myself running not from the beasts, but among them. A conglomeration of thrashing legs, arms, and gleaming sweat laden bull flesh had somehow intertwined, generating a pulsating throng of spasmodic motion that thundered along the narrow cobblestone passageways in a frenetic state of terror, aggregated with an emotion that can only be described as euphoric.
Running surrealistically amidst the advancing horde, I instinctively strived to remain upright, and as far away as possible from the myriad of horns that encirled me. Peripherally, I caught sight of one terrified participant overcome with fear, frantically attempting to make his way over the spectator-lined barricade, only to be pushed forebodingly back by the crowd, abandoned forsakenly to confront his precarious fate.
With a profound sense of relief, I spotted the tattered wooden doors of the stadium. Without warning I was flung violently to the ground from behind, overtaken by the onrushing vortex of pandemonium vehemently intent on bursting through the small gridlock opening that constituted the entryway. With a steady clicking of hooves resounding inches from my ears, I sprang to my feet in a desperate attempt to reach the sanctuary of the arena. Noticing a momentary breach in the deluge, I swiftly passed through the paltry aperture into the relative safety of the ring. Standing nebulously inert among the dispersing crowd, I was overcome by the realization that I was still physically intact, still breathing the crisp morning air – the life affirming touch of the sun's luminous rays reassuringly enfolding my trembling shoulders. Like the multitude of madmen before me, I had run with the bulls of Pamplona, and survived to tell the tale.
Jim Sherard is a freelance writer, traveler, and owner of jackaroo's, which features Australian outback clothing.