Margaret and Dick   


July 2013: Pamplona

I confess that when I read The Sun Also Rises in college, I didn’t get it.  The Lost Generation, bullfights, guys running with the bulls in Pamplona, world-weariness, alcohol.  Lots of alcohol.  I chalked it up as a guy thing that I wouldn’t understand, and I dismissed Hemingway for the next forty years.  This year it was time to revisit to The Sun Also Rises:  my developing interest in toromachy, seeing the Cubans’ adulation of Papa Hemingway, and olé! a visit to San Sebastián with side trip to Pamplona for the famous running of the bulls.

During the Fiesta de San Fermin, which runs from the 6th to the 14th of July every year, a million visitors descend on this town of two hundred thousand residents.  Our hotel clerk in San Sebastián offered good advice.  Most importantly, we should skip the bullfights (pricey, better elsewhere) and just go for the general scene and the encierro, the running of the bulls.  We should arrive in Pamplona by 7 a.m. to find a viewing place for the 8 a.m. run.  

From our parking place in central Pamplona, it was easy to locate the action:  follow the dozens of police officers and hundreds of young men dressed in white clothes with red sashes and bandannas.  The encierro course was just being blocked to pedestrians as we arrived.  If we stayed at street level, we would be several spectators back from the barrier, effectively with no view.  We saw a local resident unlocking a door along the course and, with two other tourists, we scooted through the door behind him.  Balcón?  Sí!  For a mere 30€ each, we were in.

We alternated between watching the preliminaries on television (the traditional hymn to San Fermin, sung three times, at the starting line; the ceremonial walk along the course by police and dignitaries) and watching the action under our balcony.  Ten minutes before the bulls are released, the runners are admitted onto the course.  There were a few grey-hairs who are probably running the course for the 30th time, who looked calm and collected.  There were athletes warming up, stretching, and springing into the air, a skill whose value cannot be overstated for this event.  And there were people who are obviously in the wrong place.  Some faces were twisted by adrenaline, and many people were praying, as they waited for their turn at Navarran Roulette.  Contrary to our expectations, we saw no runners who looked inebriated.

Here's how it works.  The course runs about half a mile from the holding pen to the arena.  There are six bulls, weighing an average of about 1,300 lbs, that until this morning have had minimal contact with humans.  They will run this course only once, as they will be starring in tonight’s bullfights.  Six steers run the route every morning, providing guidance to the bulls and some element of order to the entire run.  There are roughly 3,000 runners who will have chosen their optimum location before the start.  A rocket is fired at 8:00 to signal that the bulls have been released.  A second rocket is fired a few seconds later to signal that the bulls are on the course.  At the beginning of the route, there is relatively little crowding, the bulls are still comfortably under the guidance of the steers, and there is the occasional barrier that can be climbed to duck out of the course.  For the last treacherous third of the route, the crowds are thick, the bulls may have become separated from their guide steers, and there is no escape.  (Feeling lucky, punk?)  When all bulls are safely confined in the holding pen of the arena, a third rocket signals the all-clear.  The entire run is typically over in three to four minutes.

Along the run, being trampled may be the least of your worries.  Most fatalities (fifteen since 1910) result from gorings.  Runners can suffocate from being at the bottom of a pile-up at the entrance of the arena, where one runner’s misstep can result in dozens of bodies, human and bovine, squashed together in a terrifying mass.  Most injuries are contusions incurred along the course, and the most successful runners are those who can leap over fallen colleagues.  Medics with highly specialized skills stand by to treat those who have been gored, trampled, and tossed.

On the day of our visit (Thursday), the run was relatively uneventful.  The next day was the bloodiest, with three gorings and the spectacle of one unfortunate runner being attacked repeatedly and thrown into the air by an enraged bull that had declared a very personal war on this individual.  But the encierro of 2013 may be best remembered for the horrific pile-up at the entrance to the arena on Saturday morning.

Most of the million visitors appear to come to drink, not to run … but then we knew that from The Sun Also Rises.  We joined the more sedate crowd that gathers on the Plaza de Castillo for churros y chocolate after the run.  There we reflected on what global lessons might be gleaned from the morning’s show.  Who are these guys and what motivates them?  Higgins (who, being a guy, has better insights) said it’s mano a toro.  Moments of truth abound.  It’s all about looking fear in the face.  I could die out here.  At any moment.  Blah, blah, blah.  But why, pray tell, do they think this is a good idea?  

Hemingway, of course, always has an answer.  “The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta.  Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences.  It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.”

In other words, what could possibly go wrong?

Pobre de mi!  It’s all over.  There is a better-than-even chance that we will do this again.

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