I Went to a Bull Fight in Spain
The day carried an air of violence long before we arrived at the Arena de Toros. I had participated in the inaugural encierro of the San Fermin festival. The beasts of the infamous bull run had been announced across various media trading-card style: name, home farm, weight. The most intimidating of the day was one Fastuoso, weighing in at an impressive 605kg. The prospect of running clear of this black mountain of muscle is scary enough without the knowledge that these are not your mum-and-dad barnyard animals: the toro bravo is an ancient race that is only conserved in Spain, and bred for aggression and strength. Many civilisations revered the species back in the day and so the encierro is really more of a running of the Holy Dinosaur Bulls.
Being the first day of the bull runs, it was extremely crowded, resulting in the fairly inevitable goring of at least one individual who had been run down and trampled halfway along Estafeta, the long narrow gauntlet that comprises about half of the infamous route. I bolted past him as he was quickly surrounded by a sea of blood and paramedics, one leg split open, with police moving a barrier into place to protect him from the next wave of bulls.
At the same time, protesters were holding an alternative event called ‘Running of the Buses’, where they disrupted traffic completely naked, save for a large amount of corn-syrup-blood, decrying both the running of the bulls and the bullfights.
The less dramatically inclined chose to make their protests passively, in the form of distancing themselves from all bull-related activities. They kept to the company of the two-legged animals in the wine-infused stampedes of the plazas. Should I avoid encouraging alleged atrocities with my tourist dollar? Having travelled in North Korea, I’ve rendered this question moot. Moreover, bullfighting was doing fine long before tourism came along, long before Pamplona was put on the world stage.
After a few stiff drinks and a siesta back at my camp, I hitched a ride into town with several other travellers who had driven over from England, bound for the arena. At the end of our journey, we got caught in the middle of heavy traffic, attempting to turn left where we shouldn’t. A van stopped behind us and a man got out, asking us to pull over. He was dressed like everyone is during San Fermin – all whites with a red belt and neckerchief – the only difference being a prominent gun on his hip. The police (we desperately hoped he was police) are not exactly travelling light around here. Surrounding the bull arena itself are police so heavily armed that you have to wonder if they’re for the people or the bulls. It doesn’t stop locals picking fights with them, hot-blooded mammals and all. We played dumb and made the turn into a carpark instead of cooperating. He pursued us, catching up as we navigated a throng of fiesta-goers and demanded to see the vehicle and licenses. On the advice of my newfound friends, I took the opportunity to disappear into the crowd at this point. They informed me later they’d had to pay an on-the-spot fine of 100 euros, and not for the first time on their trip.
I made it to the arena just in time for the opening of the night. We would see six fights: the bulls we had run with in the morning would appear one by one before three matadors. I had purchased tickets with some of my fellow runners from a scalper in the morning (costly and not really necessary except for the first day, which sells out) so I dutifully found my designated seat amongst some American mozo (bull-runner) friends. We were all virgins of the sport. There were two women who were bracing themselves for the worst (only present due to their commitment to the “when in Rome” mantra); and a bloodthirsty sports fanatic type who was expecting to relish every moment. I was somewhere in the middle.
It would not be the first time I’d seen animals fighting to the death. In Ko Phangan, Thailand, walking up a mountain on the way to a monastery to practice vipassana meditation for ten days, I encountered a starkly contrasting community: a bunch of local punters shouting across a cockfighting ring. This is, of course, different to bullfights in many ways: it’s animal on animal, for a start, and arguably, bulls – fellow furry, warm animals – garner more sympathy from our mammal-centric minds than our feathered, bird-brained distant relatives. Still, I’ve met some downright roosters in my day, and it was somewhat difficult to watch the “carers’” antagonise the opponents to the point where they were pissed off enough to start fighting until one keeled over with a gravitas out of proportion to his happy-meal-sized frame, maybe dying in the ring, hopefully convalescing to die another day.
In any case, I was determined to be open-minded and get the straight dope by seeing it for myself. I was always going to see a bull fight in Pamplona. I went in with no knowledge and no expectations of loving or despising it, all the while being told by various parties that I definitely would have one reaction or the other. A lot of people have a lot of strong opinions about bull fights, and animal fighting in general, which is hardly surprising. Not even Spain as a whole has consensus: the sport is banned in Catalunya.
The arena crowd was typical of any game day, with old and young, families and couples: a far cry from the scruffy masculine mob of ne’er-do-wells I’d mixed with at the cockfight. A local had attempted to reserve a space in the bleachers next to my friends by laying down newspaper. I followed international bagsies law and moved it aside, imagining that my ticket trumped any token, bag, shoe or otherwise that might be proffered as a chair champion whilst one endures in the sangria line. Of course, this being a full-house in rural Spain, nobody was in their correct seats and I soon received an angry poke to my right shoulder.
“Hey!” a sun-bleached old man said, gesticulating in the direction of his relocated rag.
“No, esta bien ”, (“No, it’s fine”) his wife countered pointedly, half to me and half to him. A heated argument ensued, and eventually ended with a re-shuffle of the the patrons around us to allow the gentleman’s ass to find a new home adjacent to mine. Five minutes later, he was offering me a prawn baguette, some peppers and a few nips from his hip flask, in what strikes me as typical Spanish fashion: hot-blooded mammal, ultimately friendly.
The arena presented a different side of itself than a few hours ago, when it had comprised the final leg of the bull run. Where there had been a hundred idiots dodging wild animals, there was now an empty, neatly combed circle – a gladiatorial zen garden. The chaos had been pushed out of the centre and into the stands. A water/sangria fight broke out in the section next to us, and several unofficial brass bands had arranged themselves in proper configuration upon multiple rows of stadium seating. They would spontaneously belt out tunes whenever they saw fit.
The evening officially began when three judges arrived to sit at their panel, to that derisive whistling that Latin crowds do in place of booing. The three matadors presented themselves in pompous fashion, all dressed flamboyantly in traditional gear that hasn’t changed much since the 18th century, each accompanied by his six deep cuadrilla (entourage). Turns out fighting a bull is a team effort, which came as a surprise to me, uninformed as I was…
“Bullfight” is a misnomer for two reasons.
First: it implies more fairness than is actually there. A boxing match is a fight. Some of the ire directed at bullfighting comes from our humanist desire for a “fair crack of the whip”. I’m sure I’m not alone in craving a much dicier, higher stakes, Juan-on-Juan fight to the death. Of course, Fastuoso woke up at 7am that morning and ran across town unaware that he was running to his eventual assassination, but perhaps we can’t help but root for the under-bull when we see the imbalance, and part of me wanted the smartass with the cape get too close to the pointy end. It’s harder to root for Russell Crowe when he has a team supporting him. Of course, the concept of a “fair fight” makes little sense when facing a bull, and I’m sure that from the dawn of time, men have teamed up to kill any bulls that needed killing.
Second: the aim has more elements of performance art than a straight-up death match would. The matador shows his mastery over the bull to establish an artistic symbiosis between man and beast, and if the bull should win, the gates are opened and he is allowed to walk free – to enjoy the fiesta and join a street parade or two. He’s earned it. I would love to see a Man vs Wild special with Bear Grylls and his bunch of fives facing down up to 700kg of angry beef. The odds are very much stacked against the bull, but every now and then a bull can “win” and be indultado (pardoned), meaning his life is spared due to a strong performance in the ring. The bull is returned to the field where he will live a long and natural stud life, having sex with the fairest cows in the land. Unfortunately for Fastuoso, a less sweet fate awaited him.
The proceedings were divided into three tercios (thirds) of different character.
Fastuoso came out of the gate at full pelt, running at anything that moved – in this case, a trio of banderilleros (flagmen) waving colourful capes. The arena had three gaps in the barrier, each shielded by a wooden panel close enough that a bull couldn’t fit through but a man could. The banderilleros would each in turn attract the bull, then duck behind the panel at the last second. This lasted for several rounds. On several occasions, these rug-wavers would distract the bull in order to help each other out of tight situations.
Much like Emperor Commodus sucker-stabbing Maximus prior to their duel in Gladiator, the next phase saw a picador, a mounted spearman, “lightly” stabbing the bull in the back, on his stronger side. The horse seemed totally fine with the bull attempting to gore it in the ribs, purely because it was protected by heavy chainmail and blindfolded – as far as it was concerned, it was receiving a slight nudge to the side.
A banderillero armed with twin banderillas, small colourful knives, posed with them in the centre of the arena to the cheers of the crowd. Fastuoso charged as he strafed at right angles to the attack, timing a downward stab perfectly. This was repeated by each banderillero and each time he was so quick that I have no idea how he escaped fate.
After this, the matador himself appeared on the field, armed with a sword and muleta (red cape). Draping the latter over the former, he goaded Fastuoso into charging him down, pirouetting aside at the last moment.
The display was more dance-like than anything, for the most part. Fastuoso was covered in a lather of blood and sweat, six blades still protruding from his back but with some fight still in him. The combat became more close-quartered and measured, the bull taking his time to observe and then attack, their circling becoming so tight that the matador sometimes dodged an attack while facing the wrong direction, causing Fastuoso to sometimes wipe himself out in his turn, skidding on the hot sand.
Emboldened, the matador took his shoes off and got very close to the pointy end of the bull. Doing a kind of careful hip-shimy, he shuffled into place directly in front of the horns with a cautious flair. For his finale, he got onto his knees, face to face with Fastuoso.
I knew Fasty’s number was up when the matador retrieved his shoes and held his sword high. Resuming their previous tango, the bull charged. The matador, in a lower stance, elicited a ground-level strike, allowing him to step lightly aside and counter with his sword. It entered between between the bull’s shoulder blades all the way to the hilt and pierced his heart, a perfect hit confirmed by the cheers of the crowd.
Fastuoso stumbled, moving drunkenly. A clean hit is still not that clean. He shambled along, spilling black blood out of his mouth all over the barriers and the sand. After thirty seconds he collapsed, and the descabello, a killing blow, was administered via a knife to the back of the neck, severing the spinal cord.
There were five more murders on the dance floor: all of the bulls that had run that morning had reached their end.
Hemingway was originally interested in the fights because he wanted to learn to write about death (if you want a really detailed account of bullfighting, with lots of run-on sentences but a beautifully vivid vision that immortalised both the author and Pamplona, check out Death in the Afternoon). I’ve been on enough farms to be unsurprised by slaughter, and I hesitate to classify the bullfight as more than that for the unfairness of the challenge. I attended not as an exploration of how I would react, as some travellers did, but because it is how I choose to travel.
I want to immerse myself in other cultures. We like to give lip service to embracing cultures other than ours, but sooner or later, if you’re on the other side of the world, you’re going to see some culture that is just downright “wrong”. In that moment, your choices are to fight it, walk away, or embrace it. I believe that in many cases, the first option is more arrogance than goodwill. This isn’t your fight. You’re young, and bullfighting is old. People do things for reasons, and the tradition has lasted 10 times your total lifespan because it serves a purpose. Perhaps that purpose has disappeared in the present age, but I’ve decided this class of fight is not my fight, and will take as much of the “embrace” option as I can stomach.
I don’t easily lose my cool in the face of injustice. Maybe I was born without the outrage gene, maybe I’ve watched too much Game of Thrones or committed too many simulated acts of violence in virtual worlds and am now emotionally dead inside. Maybe it’s a little weird that if the Aztecs were still around and I was on vacation in Mexico, I would attend the daily virgin sacrifice at least once.
I did feel sorry for Fastuoso, no doubt, especially as the crowd cheered as Fastuoso’s carcass was paraded around the arena drawn by horses (“Are you not entertained?”). I also felt admiration for the matador and his evident prowess. And I’m sure I’ll feel many more emotions, both positive and negative, before this trip is done.
In true San Fermin fashion, it all ended with the arena being flooded by the crowd. Where moments before there had been brutal combat, there was now a street party, the only evidence of the former being huge gashes in the matadors’ wooden barriers, now garnished with spatters of blood. The American girls were happy to be back in fiesta land, having covered their eyes for most of the fight. The American hombre, meanwhile, had loved every moment and proceeded to take bull blood off the barriers and smear some under each eye, NFL style.