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Wednesday, 01 March 2017

One Ticket, Twenty Euros: Pamplona at the Running of the Bulls

Written by Caleb Lee Gonzalez
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I can’t help but wonder if anybody has passed by on the highway to see a clear image of my sleeping face smashed up against the window on the bus. 


Later, I open my eyes to see an almost empty little town. The streets are empty. Then again, it is 2 o’clock. The infamous siesta. When everybody goes back into their cave to eat, sleep, drink wine, do something other than being outside. The town still seems smaller than what I always imagined it would be. The buildings are rusty. I wonder where the bulls are at. 


As I step out of the bus, I immediately can feel a change in temperature. It is much cooler than Madrid. The air brushes against my arms. 


I walk around the quiet ghost town and notice a family dressed in white pants with red handkerchiefs tied around their necks.  The dad has his black hair slicked back. They slowly walk behind their child who runs onto the playground eager to get on the red swing with a few other children all dressed in red and white. The child has a tiny red scarf dangling from his waist.  


I decided to come to Pamplona to take a break from my study abroad semester in Madrid. I had always wanted to explore Pamplona out of curiosity (a curiosity that sought out to see firsthand how people were so willing to risk death to celebrate life) so here I am. I go to a tienda china, a Chinese store as the Spaniards say, nearby to purchase red and white clothes. I heard that these little shops are often times the most affordable. I tie a red scarf around my waist. The store clerk asks me what shirt size and he gives me a white shirt with red spots on it and a bull centered in the middle. The streets are so empty I decide to try on my shirt outside. No one walks by. I decide to buy the entire uniform including the handkerchief and the red scarf.


The size of the city cannot sustain the crowds. The sun starts to set upon the city home to the eight-day festival of Sanfermines. The festival honors the co-patron saint of one of the northern kingdoms of Spain who is believed by some to have met his death by being dragged by angry bulls on the streets of Pamplona. As I walk on the overcrowded streets I can see the same shirts I bought being sold at a cheaper price. I notice steam coming out of the many food stands. I follow the smell of grilled chicken marinated in lemon juice. A heavy man wearing a black polo shirt and a red beret comes out. His white hair sticks out of his tilted beret and his white mustache covers his lips. I see Paella, mountains of yellow rice in pans large enough to feed half the city. The pans are so big it takes four men to carry each pan. The yellow rice is plump, the Spanish call it Arroz Bomba or fat little grains of rice. Slices of red bell pepper lay on top of the rice along with large rings of calamari. The mussels are as big as my hand. The grilled chicken is to the side of the stand on a grill with sausage that’s literally on fire. The older gentleman serves me a plate of Paella with the biggest lemon wedge possible. I close my eyes with each bite. I’m expecting to wake up but every time I open my eyes, I see heaps of yellow rice and calamari on my plate. 


Walking in the city center is nearly impossible. People are jumping up and down shouting Spanish pop song lyrics from the top of their lungs with a bottle of sangria in their hand. I get sprayed with wine. It’s inevitable. This doesn’t bother me when I realize that in some small way, the people spraying me with their wine are celebrating. They’re celebrating life. I let the wine stay on me to join the celebration with them. I see fathers holding their children over their heads with one hand. I make it to the square where La Calle de la Estafeta or the Post-Office Street is located. This is known as the street of death during the festival for its dangerous corner. Runners and bulls alike usually slip and fall on the wet street making way for dangerous outcomes. The buildings in the square are old. They’re tall and covered in graffiti. The buildings date back to the Spanish Golden age. The most decorated building is the one where a few days ago, the governor of Pamplona walked out onto the balcony with a megaphone to officially validate the festival before all of Pamplona. All of Pamplona may be a bit of a stretch. Most of the residents go on vacation during this time. 


An acoustic guitar begins to play in the square. A tall woman with long black hair begins to dance. The man picks the guitar. He doesn’t strum it. He picks it because Flamenco is simply not the same without this. The woman wears a white flower in her hair. Her long white dress is spotless. Even her nail polish is white. Her maroon lipstick matches her blouse. She moves her hips with the rhythm of the music stomping her feet on the cardboard box under her heels. She claps to the rhythm of the guitar. Men and women gather around with their arms folded gazing at the woman as she quickly twirls her hands above her head. She spins. She spins again. She spins a third time and claps her hands. The guitar stops. The woman ends the show with her left hand above her head, her right hand is above her waist. 


“Olé!!!!!” The crowd shouts. “Olé!!!!!!”  Everyone bursts in applause. 


The guitarist stands up and takes a bow. His brown curls almost cover his face. 


I need to purchase tickets for the running tomorrow. I walk further into the city center. It is impossible to get by. I push my way through the crowd. Everyone has a bottle of liquor in their hands. A two-minute walk quickly turns into a thirty-minute maze through thousands of people huddled together on a small one-way street. I ask around to find my way to the plaza. 


The bullring is smaller than I imagined. The words Kingdom of Navarra are written across the bullring. I can see the chipped red paint on the doors of the entrance that the runners will go through tomorrow. Ambulances zoom by as people continue to party on the streets. Broken glass bottles are shattered all over the streets.  I step on used plastic forks and spoons. Young people sit on yellow buckets in groups in front of the bullring to drink and smoke. It’s ten o clock at night. People are barely starting to eat dinner.


A man comes up to me as I wait in line. 


“One ticket, twenty euros. Everything is sold out. I promise you.” He shows me a ticket. I notice his glossy eyes and wrinkled face. 


“If everything is sold out, why are there people still waiting in line?” I ask him in Spanish. 


“It’s all sold out.” He repeats. “One ticket, twenty euros.” 


I walk around the plaza to notice ticket kiosks. I purchased my ticket for seven euros. 


I figure an alternative route back to my room. I immediately leave my room again at midnight for dinner at a local Spanish Fast Food place a couple of blocks from where I stay called One Hundred Little Sandwiches. I was intrigued by this place back in Madrid when my Costa Rican friend recommended that I go there especially on Wednesdays and Sundays where every item on the menu including the sangria (cheap sangria but sangria nonetheless) is one euro each. The place is crowded with almost no place to sit. Crowds of people are smoking outside. Others sit around tables with pint glasses full of wine and sangria. I get my usual order: Manchego Cheese Mini Sandwiches and a Spanish Omelet Mini Sandwich with a sangria of course. I enjoy the moment. I enjoy listening to the roars of laughter coming from each table and I’m hit once again with the reality that I’m actually in Spain. It’s a thought that often comes to me. Dude, you’re actually in Spain. 


As I open the door to my miniature dorm room, I open the window. I can hear fireworks so loud that if I closed the window, the sound would still permeate through. I hear people singing songs about wine and beer. I decide to leave my window open. In some odd way, the sound of fireworks and wine choruses put me to sleep. 

The noise starts to diminish by six o clock. At six thirty I run to catch the bus to the city center. I’m almost late. I start to sweat as I run. As I step inside the bus, I quickly realize that my definition of late in Pamplona means that I’m still pretty damn early. The bus driver takes my euro coins and gives me a receipt. No questions are to be asked. No smiles. He quickly hands me my receipt and motions for me to move along with his hand. With each bus stop, more people, all dressed in red and white, step inside the bus. A few people yawn while others are still asleep. As more people get on the bus, people start to sing the festival anthem. Everybody on the bus eventually joins in. 


“A mí me gusta el pipirivipipi, de la bota empinar parabapapa. Con el pipirivipipi, con el paparabapapa al que no le gusta el vino, es un animal, es un animal!!!!!”


This is Spanish for I like wine, I like it a lot and he who does not like wine must have serious problems. 


As I step off the bus, I notice a young gentleman with a red scarf dangling from his shorts sleeping on a bench with an empty bottle of alcohol by his side. He looks peaceful. I see a young man taking a selfie next to him. He puts his thumbs up and opens his mouth with a wide smile. 


I push my way through the crowds to climb up the red painted stairs. The bullring is bigger inside then it looks on the outside. In front of me is a man reading a newspaper as the band plays before the chupinazo, the first gun shot. His blond mustache and blue eyes gaze upon the local newspaper that reads, “People Who Are Celebrating the San Fermín Festivities Across the World”.  Ernest Hemingway sat in this very same bullring possibly like this gentleman reading the local newspaper. Maybe he wasn’t reading anything at all. Maybe he sat waiting impatiently to see the bull run. He must have observed the marching band as they played their trumpets and trombones in the bullring before the start of the run. Maybe he was late from partying so much the night before. Beside the gentleman are two young boys both drinking glorious coffee with milk – the wonder of a true Spanish breakfast – with the front part of their light brown hair gelled up. I wonder where they got the silver metal tin cups. The paramedics enter the stadium and set up their equipment for the festivities. The crowd grows silent as we all gaze upon the big screen in the bullring. There is a moment of silence. We all wait to hear for the rocket launch. I don’t know what to expect and in this very moment, I can feel an adrenaline rush as a spectator. I’m not sure why I’m so nervous. Maybe I’m nervous for the runners. Maybe I’m nervous for the bulls. As the rocket launches into the air, there is a gunshot that follows. The gates are opened for the runners. The bulls are released a few seconds later. 


The noise from the crowds watching the run from the streets can be heard inside the arena. As I watch the big screen, the men run looking back at the bulls chasing after them. The herd of bulls run so fast that the runners step aside, some climbing up the walls to be pushed back onto the street by the crowds. One of the bulls gores a man’s shirt and he falls to the ground. The crowds continue to shout. The same bull gores another young man throwing him to the ground. The bull steps over him as he covers his head. The bulls continue to run beside the runners. Some of the runners grab onto the horns of the black bull. He thrashes them around towards the entrance of the arena. The entire run occurs in five minutes. As the runners and the bulls enter the arena a man with a thick black mustache and a green beret peaks out of a door to make sure the bulls are making it into the arena. The runners hurry inside like an army of working ants. 


“JALISCO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The announcer shouts over the speakers. The crowd shouts back, “JALISCOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!” The runners make their way into the stadium most of them with purple wine rings on their shirts. I see a man dressed in a Waldo outfit and I decide to play the live version of Where’s Waldo. The first bull leaps into the arena. It’s a dangerous move to sit at the bottom rows of any bullfight. Bulls have been known to jump into the crowds. The bull’s name is Jalisco. The men start to pull his tail. They anger Jalisco. He gores a young man flinging him into the air. The man smacks the dirt and gets up. The next one waves his red handkerchief in his face. The bull charges at him. The man is barely able to escape the bull’s wrath. After two minutes, the shepherds herd the bull out of the stadium. People are on their feet waiting for the next bull. The next bull jumps in with sharp horns goring an older gentleman with white hair and wrinkled skin. The man’s body hits the dirt. Passed out, some of the other runners throw him over the edge where the paramedics are stationed wearing bright orange vests. The men begin to taunt the bull with their handkerchiefs. As the bull charges at one runner, the rest of the runners move in sync the other way creating space for the bull to move.


“OOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHH!!!” The crowd gasps as the bull gores another runner. 

“AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” The crowd shouts again when another runner is able to get away. 

The last bull is shepherded out of the ring. I jump to my feet with the rest of the crowd. Everyone starts clapping and cheering to celebrate life in the midst of immanent death. I decide that I will go tomorrow morning to see the run from the streets instead of the arena. I am fascinated by this festivity. I’ve never seen anything like it. I go back to my dorm room to eat ham, cheese and toast for breakfast. This is only the beginning of the festivities. Even though my body has not gotten enough rest, I fight my own eyes. I can still feel the adrenaline. Sleep can come later. 


©Caleb Lee Gonzalez 


Last modified on Wednesday, 01 March 2017