Valar Morghulis: The Running of the Bulls
They say there’s no rest for the weary. Leaving Nowhere two Sundays after I had arrived in Sariñena, I was certainly weary. Previous to the diversion in the desert, I’d resigned myself to the fact that I would miss the Festival San Fermin in Pamplona, the Running of the Bulls. The timing was just not right for me to make it, with my original schedule, as I’d be 10 days gone from Spain when it began. I’d decided not to spend the extra time in Spain waiting for its commencement. Another benefit of the happy accident in the desert, I’d now be in Spain while the bulls ran. The timing was still tight, though. The bulls would run only two more days after the Sunday when I left Nowhere. It was a two day bike ride from where I was to Pamplona, if I made good time. It was time to make a decision. Did I want a trip that made the most of every opportunity, that included every experience that I wanted to have, or did I want to stay in the saddle and push for every inch? It was an easy decision. I got on a train to Pamplona.
I felt a brief twinge of regret while boarding the train, as though I’d sacrificed the integrity of my “bicycle” trip by taking an easy ride on the rails. I soon worked out, though, that the reason I chose to tour Europe on a bicycle wasn’t so that I could one day say, “I toured Europe on a bicycle. Completely on a bicycle.” I chose it for a number of reasons, mostly explained in the inaugural post of this blog. To travel slowly, so that I was able to soak up the land and culture. To truly see the place without a pane of plexiglass between my eyes and the vivid countryside. To more genuinely interact with the people whose paths I crossed. This is all still true, though I realized that jumping on a train didn’t really take much time out of the saddle, it only fast-forwarded me along the route, to a place I was more keen to be. All in all I’m happy with the decision I made, and feel no regret. Since then, I’ve ridden another train as well. I skipped the majority of southern and central England in a bid to give myself more time in the country this trip was built around, Scotland. We’ll get to that later, though, if I ever catch up with this writing……………..
While headed to the train station, I was lucky enough to make another new friend. A Nobody that I’d not met during Nowhere, but now I’m happy to call another friend for life. Christine, “Chris,” was sitting with my friend Jo during the ride. Before we arrived she loudly asked the group, “Anyone headed to Pamplona?”
“Yup,” I answered.
“Awesome, want to travel there together?”
So for the next few days, I was graced with a wonderful traveling companion. Chris is on a summer backpacking trip around Europe, and has so far covered an exceptional percentage of the continent. I’m not sure of the exact number of countries, but it’s an impressive route. In addition, on the day we met she learned that she had just been accepted to Columbia University to study creative writing!!! So fantastically exciting! Congrats again, Chris!
The two hour train ride to Pamplona was a blur. We fell into the robotic existence that I’m not sure I remember experiencing since college. More specifically, those couple of days after every finals week. The physical self has little to nothing left. Precious sleep can be found in any environment, even sitting in a hard seat on a bright mid-day train, holding up a loaded touring bike. The mental self is even more misaligned. Every thought was mechanical and pragmatic, with absolutely no synapse to spare on anything non-essential. Thirst? Water. Hunger? Vending machine junk food (and lot’s of it). A place to sleep for the night? No luck there. Phone’s dead, no outlets, no wifi for the computer. It’ll wait. That’s 8 hours from now, who cares? Precious sleep.
It seemed like we arrived quickly, but we had no complaints. The train station in Pamplona is situated in a low river valley, in the new part of the city that is far under the old town. The surrounding countryside is made up of beautiful blue-green mountains. Very steep, but wooded and lush. I’m not sure exactly why I wasn’t able to capture its beauty in photograph, but I wasn’t. I’m sorry for this, as it was a view I’d have loved to share in all its glory. The walk to the old town looked to be about 25 minutes from the station. I was deflated upon seeing this. Oh, how quickly that would change.
After the short stroll across the river to the base of the hill, the view opened up to the magnificence of the medieval city. A proper fortress on a hill, it is. From our approach, the hand-laid stone walls stretched 40-50′ into the air up the side of the craggy ascent. A veritable barrier, but for the old portculises, which have since been molded into simple paved and painted streets. How dangerous and unpredictable life must have been a thousand years ago, to warrant such a tremendous effort put forth to the defense of your homes and families? What would life have been like, if that threat was so great and so persistent? Besides the Sagrada Familia in BCN, the walled fortress of Pamplona was likely my favorite view of a human creation in Spain.
We made our way into the old part of the city, and were lucky to quickly find a small cafe with good WiFi. It was late afternoon, and we remained homeless for the night. Chris found us a table with handy electrical plugs while I grabbed us a snack, water, and a cold San Miguel. As you might imagine, a place to stay was hard to find, being the pinnacle of one of the largest events in Spain. The few available hotel rooms sported exorbitant prices, the hostels were booked, and the campgrounds were charging near $100 for a small patch of grass to pitch a tent. If the campgrounds were free, they would not have been an option, for after the long stretch on the playa, a real shower, sheets, and a bed were near priceless to us. It took some doing, but after a while Chris found us an airbnb flat to rent at a reasonable price. A real apartment with real beds and an actual bathtub. I felt like we’d booked into the Taj Mahal. We made our way there and had a simple, early night in.
I’m grateful for the fact that we arrived with two full days of the festival remaining, for the extreme lack of sleep had taken hold, and we missed the running of the bulls the next morning. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve slept in and missed something important, but on that morning, there was nothing doing. My alarm went off, and I either slept through it, or it was immediately silenced. Chris’s alarm actually woke me up when it went off down the hall, but I didn’t give its importance much credit. We even spoke down the hall about getting up before the snooze was hit. Nevertheless, at 7:55 I jumped from bed as if I was late to take the MCAT. The bulls run at 8:00 on the dot. We rushed out, and ran most of the way to the sight of the spectacle, but still missed it by 10 minutes.
This was a bit unfortunate. The plan was to watch the run on the first morning, then run ourselves on the second, and last, morning of the festival. Everyone we’d talked to said to watch once before you run. “Get the layout,” “See where to be to stay safe,” “Do NOT run on your first day,” that kind of thing.
We’d have to run it blind. Ah well. Valar Morghulis.
We made the most of the few hours in the old town after we missed the bulls. We saw the gorgeous old cathedral, which was ancient before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. A few museums were open, but like many museums I’d previously visited in Spain, I didn’t enjoy them too much. The only reason being that the signs and information on the exhibits are monolingual. No English placards or information posts. You can see many things that you just know are exceptional, if only you could know their story. Nevermind, though. After the museums we inspected another long stretch of the impressive ancient battlements, which more than sated my desire to feel a connection to something from times long past.
After a quick and early lunch, the remainder or the day was spent… in bed. Glorious sleep. Whomever holds the tickets for one’s sleep debt was not a kind entity that day, and we did our very best to even up. Even after sleeping all day, it was an abbreviated dinner and a very early night. I was determined to be up not much after 5:00, and be near the bulls starting line the next morning with plenty of time to spare.
And so it was. And so we ran. Of course I ran. Of course I did. Despite all of the protestations, and being forbidden by so many people, I ran. I’m sorry Mom, Kendall, etc., but you had no hope. There was never any question. There was nothing you could say. There is not a scenario that exists in any of the infinite galaxies in our universe that would put me in Pamplona when the bulls ran, and have me on the sidelines. Foolish as it may be, this was a big deal for me. I don’t have a formal bucket list, but if I did, running with the bulls would probably be the experience that has rested on that list for the longest time. I can remember being very young and learning about this event, and my desire to experience it has not waned over those decades. For some reason, I secretly suspect that I can see Nan at home with a smile on her face and fists raised, cheering me on! Of course I did. Of course I ran with the bulls. And it was glorious.
Before the start of the run, all of the crazy people who will participate mill about on the course. The adrenaline in the air is palpable. You could filter it out and sell it in little vials, it’s so thick. It didn’t take much to see that a large number of the future bovine prey had spent a great portion of the night in their cups, as is seemingly the tradition. I’m glad that I attended this event now, rather than a decade ago. Back then, the chances are that I’d have been among their ranks, bleary eyed and tired. Rather, Chris and I were both bright eyed, fresh and seething with anticipation. The crowd is a sea of white, covered with bright red accents. Almost everyone seems to spend the entire festival in the defacto uniform, and it makes for an impressive sight. A good while before the start, while having a coffee in the street, my eyes caught a sight that made me nearly sprain my neck when I realized what I’d seen. When you grow up in rural Texas, you learn to quickly differentiate between a high quality cowboy hat, and the rubbish imitation that’s cheaply sold and almost exclusively worn by the masses as a quasi-stylish accessory for outdoor activities. I spotted a truly nice felt cowboy hat. Brown beaver with an attractive crease. I immediately made my way towards it. I knew without question that this was a person that held something of a similar upbringing as me, and I would go and meet them. It turned out to be worn by a middle aged veterinarian who was there with his wife and youngest daughter. He was an OSU vet, and they came from Norman, Ok. The daughter had just finished an internship in Spain, and they were enjoying a holiday before she returned home. Yes, they ALL THREE ran with the bulls! It was amazing to talk to people from so close to home.
The course is laid out through part of the old town, starting at the edge of the hill, and terminating at the Plaza del Toro, where the fighting arena sits. I don’t remember the exact length, but it’s much longer than what I can sprint, and all uphill. They block off the side streets, shutter up the shops, and wish everyone the best of luck. The entire course is full of people before the start. It’s amazingly crowded, even before everyone begins running. We guessed correctly, though, in that you need to be near the center of the run at the start, if you want to make it into the arena before they close it off. At 8:00 sharp, one cannon sounds. This means MOVE! An almost non-existant 30 seconds later, a second cannon rings. With this cannon, the bulls are off. There are six bulls that run, along with six large 3-4 year old steers. The steers wear bells and are trained to run straight up the course. The plan is that they will lead the bulls along the streets with less distraction than if they were just let out into the maelstrom of people on their own. I can see a long string of disasters if the steers weren’t in the group.
We were near the half-way point of the course when the second cannon rang out. The double turn and open area referred to as “Dead Man’s Corner” was just behind us. We moved with the crowd, all at full speed ahead. It was a good long run along the long home stretch to the plaza. The long street we were on was typical for any downtown, old area of a Spanish city. A narrow lane with solid shopfronts supporting four to five story apartment complexes above. Besides the small corners in doorways, it was a smooth line all along the path. With the adrenaline coursing, it seemed like less than a flash before we heard the bells of the steers ringing behind. I slowed a bit to look back down the lane, conscious of the fact that I didn’t want to let Chris get out of my sight ahead of me. I doubt I could have done a lot if trouble really came, but the confidence I had in growing up and working with cattle my entire life made me want to keep her close in case I could potentially keep her from getting hurt if things got dicey. A minor commotion at the bottom of the hill was the only irregularity I could see in the throngs moving along behind us. A few more strides, and I saw the black forehead and yellow horns of the first bull in the mob.
The crowd of runners parted before them. We were already over to the left a bit, about halfway between the center of the street and the looming walls above. The crowds condensed around us as the bulls passed, as if they were moving along with a bubble around them. Their focus was ahead, and they seemed much more interested in making it down the street to their arena than they did bothering any of the white and red clad targets around them. They were past us in a breath. Oddly enough, the steers were in the back, with the bulls leading. They moved so quickly that I didn’t get a good count as they went by. Maybe there were six? I hoped. Chris and I bet on this, and moved to the void in the center of the street to run behind. They close the arena very soon after the bulls arrive there, and we wanted to make it in, with a good stretch left to run. Luckily, it seemed like there had been no stragglers from the small herd, and no bulls overtook us as we ran for the arena.
We made it, and the gates were open. I admit I was blowing air, tongue probably hanging out after the long sprint, likely much more tired than the bulls who’d already entered their pen and been locked away. We found out later that the run we had participated in that morning was the fastest that had ever been recorded. I believed it. I knew that a lot of it was the adrenaline talking, but it seemed like it was over as soon as it began. They ran like hell was on their heels for the entire way, with little nonsense in the turns and corners where people usually are hurt. No one was seriously injured on the morning we ran, but we did meet up with one young guy who took a horn to the rib somewhere along the path. It wasn’t a bad injury. The piercing wasn’t much deeper than the skin. As you might imagine, he was feeling not one trickle of pain in that moment. “I got gored by a bull!” he proudly shouted to us as he lifted his shirt to brandish his new badge of honor. I suspect that the next morning he possessed a large and aching bruise in place of the trophy he so proudly displayed to us then. Even more disappointing was that the flesh wound was probably so small that he won’t even get a good scar out of it to carry around for the next few decades.
After the bulls were penned, the arena crammed with people. Pretty soon they let a small fighting bull with stubbed horns out into the throng. The newly amateur bull fighters of the crowd went to town. It surprises me that this part of the event isn’t where most of the injuries happen. Hundreds and hundreds of people in that arena, with many having a desire to get up close and personal with one of the little bulls. They juked and jived, ran and dived. I have a strong suspicion that most who were wanting the closest experience with the bulls have had very little previous contact with large livestock, if any. It was quite a show. Several bodies were seen to fly into the air. Chris and I stayed on the edge and just enjoyed the spectacle.
One of the evenings, I can’t even remember which it was now, I found a ticket into the bullfighting, and so trekked out to see the matador’s epic contest. I’d never seen proper Latin bullfighting before, and I’m glad I saw it at least once. Once may be enough for me, but I can’t be sure at the moment. There’s no question that it was quite a spectacle. The matadors are very skilled, I’ll give them that. They could turn the bulls in so tight a circle around themselves that they were able to stand by their side, with a free hand on the bulls hip as it endeavored to take them from their feet. Very early on in each fight, though, one of the guys on an armored horse would draw the bull in and spear him above the shoulder. I don’t know the nature or depth of this cut, but it was a clear handicap for the bull, and I wondered the entire time how much longer it would have taken to wear the bull down if they hadn’t done this. Do you remember the last scene in Gladiator, where Commodus has Maximus strung up in the holding cell in the coliseum? It’s just before their final encounter on the arena floor, and he sinks a dagger into the helpless Maximus’ ribs before they fit his armor and send him to fight. We all know that General Maximus Decimus Meridius would have never succumbed to the flimsy emperor in such a contest of arms, had he not been so handicapped (damn you, Ridley Scott). How much of this effect was present for the bulls? The entire remainder of the contest simply boiled down to the matadors completely wearing the bulls out physically. Before sword is drawn from the scabbard, the bulls were blowing so hard and were so tired that they would hardly take a step. So tired that at the end, the previously vicious beasts would allow the matador to kneel on the ground directly before them, the most demeaning taunt, and they’d not even charge. At this point, it wasn’t much of a job for the anthropomorphized peacocks to bury the thin sword deep into the bulls chest. The bulls were well fed and in good shape. They were worn down in just a few short minutes. I find it hard to believe that it would have been so easy a contest for the matadors if the bulls had been on equal footing. All in all, I did enjoy the show, but wished it could be modernized a bit. The romance of the event, and the Spanish people’s love for it will likely never allow this, as the greatest cheer came when the bull finally fell. It would be easy though, to have just as exciting a spectacle without killing the bull in the end. Probably it would be an even greater show, as the handicaps I mentioned above wouldn’t be necessary.
The city itself was a madhouse during the festival. I commented to Chris that I’d never seen such a tourist trap in my life. She countered that I’d obviously never been to New York City, her hometown. It was a good point. I’m sure she is correct in that there is much more there catered to tourists than this hilltop city in Spain. However; I still stand by my opinion in this, if only in a slightly different way. What I mean is, I’ve never before seen such a collection of tourists. It wouldn’t surprise me if 9/10 people in the streets were tourists. With the locals either tending shop, on holiday, or boarded up inside their cozy flats. The streets in the city were bustling, with a crowdedness that I would expect only in the most populated downtown areas, or maybe Disney World. The crowds were thick, day and night. Revelers and merrymakers patronizing every bar, cafe, and memorabilia shop with open doors. All in white with a red bandanna ‘roud their necks or a belt upon their waists. It truly was another spectacle to see. The partying and drinking began early and continued until hours unknown, as we had only the slightest participation.
As I said before, a decade or so ago, this would have been the ideal place for me to spend a weekend. I’d have been in with the carousing and partying head over heels. As it was, it turned me off so that I felt near revulsion. I wanted no part of the all day and all night race to consume as much of the light, sweet Spanish beer as the fellow next to me. It wasn’t my scene. That may be due to the extreme sleep debt that I still felt, but I think after a week of rest I’d have felt near the same. It was a bit too much. Maybe the years have done more to me than I’d be willing to admit. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe admitting it makes me just the slightest bit sad, reminiscent, and relieved at the same time.
It was a wild party, though. Participating in an event like the running of the bulls, an event that pushes such a shot of andrenaline into your veins is something that carries the anxiety and euphoria much past the few moments you’re in the street with the majestic, but angry beasts. It carries throughout the day and night. I understand why it was such a party. I don’t think it could have been stopped. Though, I was happy to celebrate it in a more subdued way, and I’m glad Chris felt the same.
The experience of running with the bulls was all I every imagined it would be. Unbelievably exciting. I’ve never thought of myself as an adrenaline junky, and I don’t think I am, but coursing up that street with the bells, horns, and hooves passing just a couple of feet from you is something I’ll never forget.
The remainder of the San Fermin experience, though, took a turn for the worse in my head and heart. The festival-goers also gave me another feeling, upon closer inspection. When you looked closely and read between the lines, the remainder of the experience was disappointing, almost to the point of disgust. With all of the novelty and high spirits, it was as if the common decency of the majority of the people there had gone out the window. People seemed to forget what a trash can was, and even what a bathroom was. Even though both were to be found within a few short steps of any place you could pick to stand, none were used. Any piece of trash in someones hand was immediately thrown to the ground, while not a dozen yards from a trashcan or dumpster. Remember, please, that I’d just left Nowhere and my hippies less than a day earlier. Two weeks in a place where people epitomized the “Leave No Trace” philosophy. This was an extreme shock. Believe it or not, it was painful for me to watch, and it made me feel regret to have once been a part of a group that might have treated someone’s home in such a way. During my previous, intense, two weeks of existence, not even a gum wrapper was dropped to blow in the wind. Amongst the festival-goers of San Fermin, you couldn’t place your foot on the street without it hitting at least one discarded piece of rubbish. Broken glass was so common that I was constantly cringing while rolling Lagertha through the streets on our first evening there. People, mainly guys but also a few ladies, were answering the call of nature along the edges of the narrow streets as if it was a perfectly fine thing to do. As if every other door along the street didn’t offer a public restroom. Immediately after the bulls were in the arena each morning, massive crews began a cleanup effort on the streets. First in each crew was a sweeper truck with articulating arms that would roll down the street, spinning the trash to the center of the street where it would be sucked up into it’s belly like a Vermeer hay swather. Then a crew of guys on foot would follow grabbing what was missed. After that, a water hauler would slowly follow with another guy at its back, using a massive pressure washer to spray down the streets and try to wash the filth away. I don’t know how many of these crews were employed each morning, but it was no small number. You could’t round a corner without seeing another of them. The civic effort this took was astounding. What was the city to do, though? If they didn’t do this, you wouldn’t have been able to walk down the streets by the second or third day, and the smell would have kept you from trying if you thought you could. How much must the city hate this? They have no choice, but it is mind boggling that they have to go through the effort. It’s no wonder that they say most of the locals leave on holiday for the duration of the festival. I would too. It’s completely unnecessary for people to treat a place in such a way. I feel I may really risk coming off as very sanctimonious in this tirade, as not too many years ago I’d probably have been right along with the rest; however, experiencing this fallacy just four short hours after I’d left the utterly opposite experience of Nowhere left me profoundly affected. I couldn’t help it, but I was disgusted with that part of the festival in general. I feel deep down that that is a good thing, and so thanks again, hippie friends.
Though still rather tired, the adrenaline rush of running with the bulls precluded any chance for sleep during that day. There wasn’t a chance anyhow, as Chris and I had to check out of our flat around lunch. I’d already decided to stay another day or two in Pamplona to rest and try to catch up on writing before I got back on the bike. Chris was leaving that day, with her sights set on Barcelona. We spent a couple of more hours in the city, mainly looking for a bed in which I could spend the night. With the festival at an end, it wasn’t too much of a chore. After it was sorted, we made our way to the train station. With a long hippie hug that I’d now become so very fond of, I sent her on her way to seek her next adventures (which have all turned out to be extraordinary and beautiful, as you can see on her fb page).
I spent the rest of the day in the little hostel I’d found re-sorting all of my gear, and showing a little love to the dusty and neglected Lagertha. I bought a cheap toothbrush and a little bottle of oil and went to work. I stripped her nearly completely down, and endeavored to remove all of the latent playa dust that had accumulated while she stood patiently in the desert, waiting out my diversion. She was unbelievably dirty, and I hated to even work the chain around the gears in that state. After a few hours of scrubbing, brushing, and oiling, the mechanical parts looked as good as new. I then unpacked all four panniers and my duffle, and repacked with a little keener eye to efficiency. There was a post office just down the street, so I took a close look at every single item in my packs as I did so. I found plenty of things that seemed completely unnecessary after nearly a month on the road. When I boxed them up, I was disappointed to find I’d only saved myself 8 pounds, but every little bit helps. Sleep came easy again that night, and I took advantage of the moderately comfy hostel bed to get in another good long night.
I awoke with a purpose. After having nearly three full days of rest, I was mentally awake again. Though, I admittedly still didn’t have a good grasp on the Nowhere experience I’d had. I was still struggling to truly process those days in the desert. I wanted to preserve every moment in a Pensieve, if only Dumbledore had been around to loan me his. Alas, I was in the wrong country for a few more days. I desperately wanted to record what I could while the memories were still so raw and fresh that I could easily imagine that they were ongoing. In short, I wanted to write.
I emerged from the hostel and for a moment, I thought I’d somehow been transported to another place. Not a single white and red uniform could be seen. I had thought that there would be quite a bit of carryover from the festival, it being such a big event for the town. This wasn’t true in the slightest. If I’d shown up that morning, you couldn’t have convinced me that 12 hours previous, San Fermin was on in full force. The faces had changed completely. Somehow you could tell that the locals were back. Rarely could you pick out someone that you thought might possibly be a tourist. It was beautiful. The literal overnight transformation of the city from a tourist ridden mad house to a friendly and traditional mountaintop Spanish city was nothing short of magical. The relief of the townspeople was tangible. You could tell how overjoyed they were that the festival was over at long last. The friendliness in the air was more present than anywhere else I’d been in Spain. By the time I’d walked a few blocks down the first street, I knew that I would be in Pamplona for several days yet.
My goal was a quiet little cafe that sported both WiFi and air conditioning. Neither are very prevalent in the small, locally owned establishments in Spain, so it wasn’t an easy quest. I came across several that had both, but they were all large and loud. One of these was the Cafe Iruña, the old stomping grounds of Hemingway. It was the place he made famous in The Sun Also Rises by enjoying martinis and Spanish wine while attending the festival to which he brought so much notoriety. These days it is large and bright, polished and commercialized. It didn’t suit my needs for a place to settle in and write, but I did enjoy lunch and a beer there, just so that I could say I did. Finally though, I did find the very place I’d been looking for. A small cafe under a hotel, just a few short blocks from the main square. About six barstools and no more than five tables. One of which was conveniently tucked around a corner in the back. It was hidden from almost every view in the place, with an electrical plug directly underneath the seat. It was cool and quiet. In a word, it was perfect.
There I sat for three days. Each of which was a carbon copy of the others. Sleep in moderately, walk down to the cafe, have breakfast and coffee, then start writing. Lunch. Write. Dinner. Write. Back to the hostel for fitful, restless sleep. By this time, I wasn’t the zombie I had been previously, so sleeping in the non-air conditioned room was tough, as there seemed to be no breeze at all through the small windows. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but the two nights in an artificially cool room had me back to my spoiled self more quickly than I could have believed. The writing took the full three days. I seem to write slowly, and I didn’t want to rush it. By the middle of the second day, the guy and three nice ladies who worked the cafe were full of smiles for me, and we were on a first name basis. They were as friendly as could be, and served as my muses while I recorded my thoughts on how I’d spent the previous two weeks. My few days there were very cozy. Good food, good coffee, cold beer, and great hosts. I’ll remember that cafe forever.
After all of my time in Spain, if you asked what city I’d chose if I was to move to Spain, I’d easily pick Pamplona. Though during the festival, I’d leave town with the rest of the locals.