As soon as I read about them in Lonely Planet, I knew I had to go see the bullfights. Despite numerous trips to Europe I had managed not to see the feria in Pamplona, so I decided that now was my chance to live the life of Hemingway.
The bullfights near Bukittingi, however, in the hill country on the west side of Sumatra, Indonesia, are a bit different from what you see at a Spanish corrida.
For one thing, it’s not a man-against-beast affair. Two water buffalo bulls lock horns with each other, and no humans are involved in the actual combat. Hemingway would probably not have approved. Another difference is that the fights take place in a large open field surrounded by a flimsy fence, with the spectators lounging on the grass either just outside or, for the brave, just inside the fence.
It was four o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, an hour before starting time, and the crowd was gathering for the weekly bullfights in Koto Baru. Having arrived an hour earlier on a local minibus from Bukittingi, the local backpackers’ hangout, I watched the crowd slowly assemble.
I had been concerned that the fight might be a contrived spectacle, strictly for the gawking tourists, but the 500 or so people milling around were almost exclusively Indonesians. Male Indonesians, to be precise; I couldn’t see a single local woman. The men were a mixed group: old-timers in their black cylindrical Suharto hats, 40-somethings in shabby clothes and floppy hats, well-dressed 30-somethings and cool 20-year-olds making the scene with elegant hairdos, fake Ray Bans and shirts unbuttoned halfway to the waist.
In the last hour four bulls had been led into the ring and allowed to wallow in one of the mudholes scattered around the grassy circle. Most of the crowd clustered in knots around the combatants, probably sizing them up for betting purposes. A lot of cash was being flashed about by the local bookies, and everyone seemed to be betting. Meanwhile, tinny loudspeakers blared Indonesian pop songs that were so distorted that they sounded like the Muslim call to prayer. In the distance, far from this cacophony, the verdant slopes of Gunung Singgalang, the local volcano, rose against a clear blue sky.
As the starting hour neared, the crowd swelled to somewhere around 2,000. The tourists, maybe 30 in total, stuck out tremendously, their blond heads towering over the sea of short Indonesians. We gravitated towards each other to chat and compare impressions.
Westin, an American who was staying at the same guesthouse as I, kept trying to get a surreptitious photo, of a man in the crowd around one of the bulls. The man looked like an Indonesian Don King, complete with finger-in-the-light-socket hairdo, although our imitator required a small mesh hairnet to reach the heights of the real Mr. King’s coiffure. It was unclear if this Don King was the promoter of the bullfights.
Finally, without much fanfare, the first bout began. The owners led their animals through the circle of onlookers, into the middle of the ring. The bulls immediately lowered their heads, almost to the ground, and locked horns to a tremendous roar from the crowd. A tight circle quickly gathered around the two bulls.
My Lonely Planet guidebook had said that the bulls didn’t get seriously injured in these fights, but that’s not what it looked like in the first fight. The bulls frequently pulled away from their clinch and twisted their heads to gore their opponents with the tips of their horns. As the fight progressed, cuts opened up on the necks and cheeks of both bulls. When they butted heads, the sound of clashing horn and skull was enough to make me flinch. Both bulls soon had blood oozing from the tops of their heads, between the horns.
The fights continue until one bull gives up and runs away. After the initial few minutes of sparring and locking horns, the bulls seemed to tire, and spent most of their time eyeing each other while the owners and the referee shouted encouragement. In contrast, the pace of betting in the crowd quickened as the bout wore on.
I scrambled around the outside of the crowd, trying to get some clear photos of the bulls. Twice I skipped away in a slight panic (along with all the people standing near me) when it looked as though one bull was about to make a run for it. This bull, the bloodier of the two, started to turn his head away from his opponent, almost as though he were offering his neck to him: "Go ahead. Gore me! See if I care!" His eyes rolled back in his head, giving him a crazed look, and then without warning, he swung his head back toward the other bull, their heads meeting with a sickening crash.
Slowly the other bull moved Eye-Roller back into one corner of the ring, where earth ramparts six metres high enclosed the bulls and allowed hundreds of people to look straight down onto the fight. I climbed out of the ring to get a better view from above, but just as I was about to take a picture, Eye-Roller decided that he had had enough punishment. He turned his head and fled at top speed, hotly pursued by the victor.
They raced through a muddy watering hole and out the gate in the fence, disappearing out of sight into the village. Dozens of people ran behind, trying to catch the runaway animals. Westin told me afterwards that when they bolted, the bulls headed straight towards him and he ran for dear life for a few seconds, before throwing himself to the side. Hemingway would have approved of this echo of Pamplona.
The second bout was a different affair. The bulls were bigger, and a lot keener on fighting.
They locked horns instantly and stayed like that for nearly the entire fight, which lasted for maybe three minutes, rather than the 10 that the lightweights had taken. Like two sumo wrestlers, they tried to force each other straight backwards by sheer strength, their legs straining and their hooves straining for grip in the muddy parts of the ring. Their neck muscles had to be astonishingly strong to endure the twisting that they were inflicting on each other while they locked horns. I gave up trying to take pictures, as people were clustered so closely around the bulls that I couldn’t get a clear shot. I stood and watched, waiting for another spectacular fleeing finish.
This time, the fight ended with little warning. The loser suddenly turned tail and fled, but instead of heading straight out of the gate, he began to run laps around the inside of the fence, before crashing through the gate and continuing the orbital manoeuvres around the outside of the fence. Onlookers scattered to either side of the onrushing mass; I wondered idly how many people get run over every year by fleeing bulls.
Then it was all over – except for the paying of betting losses, which provoked at least one punch-up, between a loser and his much larger creditor. We tourists congratulated ourselves on having come to a genuine spectacle of a vibrant local culture, and piled into bemos for the ride back to town.
Westin was grinning from ear to ear after his narrow escape, and we relived the moment over cold Bintangs back in Bukittingi. It wasn’t quite a bottle of Rioja in a Pamplona bar, but it had a touch of Hemingway anyway.
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