Running of the Bulls – San Fermin 2015“>Running of the Bulls – San Fermin 2015

Five-piece bands march up cobblestone streets, players taking caution not to trip over empty glass bottles. Plastic cups crush under children’s feet as they follow those talented musicians close behind, clapping in rhythm. Men and women dressed in white and red greet each other with cheerful kisses. Storeowners decide not to return after afternoon siesta, opening shop doors only for mid-morning hours. Cervecerias serve the 18+ crowd twenty-four hours a day. Bedtimes are no longer aligned with the earth’s rotation, and heading home at 6am may mean you’re not only the laughing stock of your mates, but you’re also missing out on the day’s prime event.

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It is an event some say requires power, passion, speed, and guts. Others describe it as silly, stupid, dangerous, and too-too-risky.

Despite the varying characterizations,  the city’s visiting population (and most of the 200,000 common-day residents) will agree: This is an event not to be missed.

July 6th marks the beginning of nine consecutive days during which the city of Pamplona, Spain comes alive for San Fermin Festival, known to many as Running of the Bulls.

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While the days never truly end but instead bleed together in a less than sober harmony, some may say the mark of a new day can be made by the barricading of streets. Tough wooden barriers are put up each morning around 7am in preparation for the grand run. Men work hard and fast to wipe streets clean of people and objects.  Immediately following, the main drag is lined with paramedics, security, and eager fans. Within the streets crowds begin to build at designated starting points. Runners may choose to begin the run nearest the starting line, outside of the bull ring, or somewhere in between. As time comes to a close, adrenaline runs high and participants begin stretching, jumping, running in place, and preparing as they feel necessary.

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At the same time, fans have lined up along the railings, some sitting atop the highest rail, others sitting below. The fans who’ve come straight from the bar are ushered off fence posts after falling one, two, three times and eventually taking down a whole slew of people in the process. Policemen and women take their job very seriously, yet you can see a hint of amusement in their smirks as they watch a stammering fan sip from a bottle of brandy, soon after letting the same bottle slip like a piece of ice between their fingertips.

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There are cameramen, news anchors, and overhead helicopters available to broadcast the entire event. Guest appearances come from picadors and toreros, (men on horses during bullfights and the bullfighters themselves) while the bulls are brought into position. Rockets sound to signify the beginning of a new day: one to symbolize the release of bulls from their holding pen, a second to alert the town that all bulls are out on the loose. Immediately, tensions rise. Men hundreds of meters away begin to bounce like Mexican jumping beans as they wait for the rush to arrive. Faster than you can say “San Fermin”, the bulls have trampled through over half the crowd, taking down whoever and whatever might be in their way. Runners can be seen with faces of varying emotions: pure panic, elation, hesitancy, pain… it’s all there.

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The first day we watched from a safe distance of a second story balcony. The race went by in a flash of whites and reds intersected with large clumps of browns. The sounds of yelling mixed with the deep clanking of cow bells as the mass several blocks long was whisked away in the blink of an eye. Before and after the simultaneous arrival and departure of the runners and their bulls, we were able to watch the live broadcasting of the event on TV inside of our balcony’s apartment. We also had access to a spread of coffee, juices and pastries to make our morning that much better. A sweet couple allowed us into their home through AirBNB and offered us a better price than the one many online sites were asking.

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The next morning was an entirely different experience than the one before. A street-side view 50 meters from the bull ring’s entrance and final destination of the bull run, required an equally early wake-up call and a more skilled balancing act. At a few minutes past 06:00, I found what was the final spot on a wooden post. Straddling one leg on either side, I balanced in near stillness for two hours until the racing rockets rang. The view was spectacular, occasionally obstructed only by those with greater authority: media and paramedics. I held on for dear life as the crowd atop the railing next to me toppled to the ground like limp dominos. One brandy swig too many. After they all fell down a la Humpty Dumpty, the king’s men (aka police) told them ‘no more jumping on the bed’ and in turn gave the rest of us much more room to breathe up high while they stayed in a crumpled mess below.IMG_2392 2

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The bulls ran past with a vengeance straight into the bull ring, their bobbing heads nearly obscured by heads of scampering men. There, their horns were to be capped and frisky fans were allowed to act as toreros in theIMG_2210 2

During San Fermin, bulls are followed down the street by groupings of steers whose job is to keep the bulls moving forward. This is not always any easy task, as during our time there, a bull decided to turn right around and take a leisurely jaunt back to his holding pen.

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July 14th, the final day of San Fermin, the gates to the bull ring were nearly closed when a few bulls made their way down the street a full minute after the rest of the pack, to the surprise of the entire slew of onlookers. Even security forces were surprised at the lapse in time between the first and final bull pack. To myself and new found friends around me (the ones who had survived staying post-top despite quivering hamstrings), the slow pokes were cause for a good laugh as a woman nearby squealed in high pitches before yelling “Otra, Otra!!!”  and clapping in childlike excitement.

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After streets had been cleared, Big Heads and Giants paraded throughout town for family’s to chase after, and visitors had enjoyed dinners of freshly grilled sardines, we found ourselves in seats at the bull ring. (Side note: I have vowed to remain beef-free for one month as of July 13th after finding out the terrors which occur inside the bull ring. I also apologize to all animal activists for attending an event which I thought was of pure entertainment, not a slaughterhouse.)

Yet, after witnessing nearly three hours of bullfights, I must say: this is an art. Torreros dance in pirouettes with deadly bulls. They stand proud to display masculine authority, jutting their hips forward and slinging their shoulders back. Chins held high, they raise a red flag with one hand, sword with the other, and release all fears from their bodies.

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To watch from afar was a beautiful ability. We screamed the first time a bull was killed, its body dragged by three regal horses from the ring and its blood quickly skimmed away by fast working men. We shuttered as knives plunged deep through tissue. We grimaced as bulls bowed down in pain in a final surrender. And though I don’t support the idea of killing innocent animals, we did admire the grace and athleticism with which each bullfighter danced.

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Realizing the difficulty of undermining such endeavors, I raise a toast to the fine men and women who constantly swept and washed the streets, cared for the inebriated, and assisted runners who came in contact to a bull’s sharply pointed horns. It was no easy job, but those on duty during San Fermin were extremely proactive and altruistic. Monday’s run involved two injuries just outside our balcony. One of the bulls slipped on the cobblestones while turning a sharp corner and took down some runners.

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All but one runner immediately got up to continue. The fallen one was quickly snatched up and put on a stretcher to be looked at further. After some examinations, paramedics wrapped a blanket around him and performed simple first aid on his bleeding backside. Soon after, he walked away: head tipped down and white pants torn. A bull’s horn right to the behind. What could be a better keepsake than this? Perhaps walking away without incident, but it’s all a part of the occasion. For many, it’s the main reason to visit Pamplona. For others, its the reason to stay home and watch on the tube.

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