Effin' A, Cotton, Effin' A!
~ Pepper Brooks
How many of you knew the Running of the Bulls was actually a very small part of a larger celebration in Pamplona called "The Festival of San Fermin"? Yeah, neither did I.
No one really knows when the festival started, but it has been going strong since medieval times. The week is devoted to Saint Fermin, who ironically is apparently the saint of safety. Hemmingway's book, "The Sun Also Rises," in 1926 popularized the festival, and particularly the Running of the Bulls.
I've always wanted to run with the bulls, and I expected some sort of accompanying ceremony or party, but didn't know much about it at all. A couple people I talked to before I left said it was an absolutely immense party with lots of drunk people wearing white and red. Outside the obvious poke I could make about a University of Nebraska home game, I admittedly wasn't too intrigued with the prospect of a massive party of drunk Spaniards and worse, drunk tourists. Maybe I'm getting old (ok, yes I am), but the idea of staying up all night, drinking until the buildings start spinning, puking my guts out (the sight of which incites more puking), and awaiting the inevitable pass-out in a strange place doesn't appeal to me. Never really has though.
My friends and I had been talking about doing this for a while. DG and I had talked about it before I left - way back in November or December of ‘06. While playing ball in Spain some years ago, he had the chance to run already, and tells some great stories about it. For whatever reasons, it was something I've always really wanted to do (admit it guys, how many of you have this on your "Do Before I Die" list?).
Anyone who knows both DG and myself, know that planning something six months out may be some sort of record for us. So, let it be known, we did indeed try. However, as we soon found out, to get a hostel or even a hotel in Pamplona for the week encompassing the festival of San Fermin you apparently need to book it a year in advance. We tried everything. We even have friends who live in Spain, and we came up empty. Not to be denied, we figured we'd experience the true San Fermin and rough it.
Obviously, roughing it means different things to different people. For some (Wilder), it means having to stay in a room with a non-beach view in an "old" Marriott. For others, it's a Super 8. However, when talking about Pamplona and San Fermin, it meant the prospect of sleeping in public parks with the rest of the crazies. Certainly not ideal, but we were running out of options.
Now, flash forward to July 4, 2007 in Madrid. Our crew (DG, TJ, JP and I) was sitting around contemplating our options, and thinking about the prospect of taking all our crap on a train, hoping we could find lockers for our stuff, thinking about what we'd do if we couldn't (and about all the people who were probably thinking the same thing), how we'd protect stuff while running, etc... One of us piped up and said, "who looked into renting a car?"
"Oh, it will be too expensive during this week."
"Just go check to be sure."
To make a long and exhausting story short, we ended up taking back our train tickets for an 80% refund and renting a Pugeot "mini-van".
In one fell swoop, we had transportation, hotel and security taken care of.
"Just when I think you can't get any dumber, you go and do something like this..... And totally redeem yourself!"
While in Madrid, we were staying with Javier, a wonderful guy who is a former teammate of DG and OG, and as would follow, a former adversary of mine in the infamous MSSC/Pitt State hoops battles of the late 90's (damn, that sounded dramatic). A quick aside: A cool thing about Javi (outside of the fact that he's a fully licensed pharmacist, speaks great English, is into cool music and one of the most hospitable guys I know - hell, he even kicked out his wife for a couple days while we crashed on the floor - I kid! She did go stay with friends while we were there though), is that he's a fellow member of the 6'9 club. Fun to talk to someone eye to eye every once in a while.
He taught us a good bit about the running of the bulls, being a five time veteran of the run himself. He outlined the best places in the park to sleep, strategies for the run, tips for surviving a fall on the track and more. His introduction of Calimocho was something that I'll never forget. I'd never heard of such a thing before Javi handed me a glass of it. It was deep, deep red, like wine, but had bubbles rising to the top. A taste revealed a fairly gross mixture of bitter and sweet, with a mess of carbonation. When asked its composition, Javi smiled and said, "Equal parts cheap red wine and Coke." Hmm. Nice. And, after a lot of it, I guess it would be alright. Go give it a shot if you feel adventurous.
Anyway, on July 6, after watching the opening ceremony on TV, we pulled out of Madrid in our Pugeot.
A few wrong turns and several curse words later, we ended up in the outskirts of Pamplona, Spain, ready to tempt fate. We lucked into a spot in a nice, well located parking lot just inside the city limits, but away from the chaos. We strategically parked next to a dumpster, making it a bit tougher to break into our little chariot.
As we walked from the parking lot toward the city center, the population started to increase. We passed more and more people with white shirts and pants and red sashes - the traditional gear of the festival-goers. Of course, our next order of business was to get our wardrobe shored up. We ducked into a small clothing shop and got our red bandannas and white shirts.
We then headed toward the nexus of the festivities. It was easy to spot - the noise of the crowds of people, the music, the smell of fried food and beer. We stumbled upon a massive carnival-like atmosphere - stages for live music, neon lights, street vendors and a lot of people. It was like walking into the Chase County, Nebraska fair grounds, except it was in the middle of a park in a Spanish town.
We proceeded to walk around for a while, taking in the sights and checking out the people. Even though the "Official" party hadn't started until noon, we were obviously well behind.
As we turned a corner and crossed the street towards the old town, I noticed some commotion down the road. A decent-sized crowd had gathered and was yelling at some unseen disturbance in the street. I ran forward and looked over the top of the crowd to find several police officers in a little tussle with some belligerent drunks. There were people on both sides of the road, shouting and yelling in all languages. Seems all ethnicities love to see people fight with the cops.
Things were fairly tame until a dude with dark, curly hair, a red-stained white shirt, torn white pants and a red sash (pretty much like everyone else in the crowd) got in the face of one of the cops and started pushing him a bit. Not hard, but enough to make things interesting. The cop was a bit older, a little white hair protruding under his helmet. He handled the guy pretty well, having obviously seen a few San Fermins in his day. Once shoved, he calmly moved forward and attempted to restrain the guy. At this, the drunk pushed back even harder, and of course started yelling louder. This in turn excited everyone else in the crowd. "Kick his ass!" "Beat the hell out of that guy!" "F the Police!"... and lots of stuff in Spanish. You get the picture. Still, the cop was pretty calm, and still seemed to have a handle on the situation.
However, one of the younger officers had apparently had enough. This cop looked like your typical type-A a-hole. Some dude who wasn't popular in school, but now has a badge and a night stick and thinks he's a bad-ass. He reminded me of Farva in Super Troopers. Anyway, he came up behind his fellow officer, reared back and absolutely jacked the drunk guy in the left hamstring with his night stick. You could hear the smack across the street.
The drunk guy was now indeed pacified, dropping right to his knees. The crowd exploded in equal parts cheers and disbelief. Some friends came to plead the case, but the action by Team RamRod made them keep their distance. Two minutes later the dude was cuffed and stuffed, along with a couple other guys and a girl. Quickly thereafter, the scene started to break up, as people seemed to remember there was drinking to do.
All in all, a fun way to start the festivities. 30 minutes on the scene and we've seen some police brutality. Awesome.
At this time it was about 7:30 or so, and the setting sun was starting to cast longer shadows on the old brick walls. We headed down the main street toward the city center with hopes of walking the track before running it tomorrow. To say it was mass chaos wouldn't be quite right. "Controlled mania" might be better. The scene was tremendous. There were people everywhere. Spaces where maybe twenty people would be comfortable were packed with 100. And the cast was made up of all makes and models. Old and young, male and female, black and white, tall and short, thin and fat. And, with rare exception, the entire cast was dressed in a white shirt, white pants, a red sash and red bandana around the neck. And unlike many street parties I've seen, it wasn't just one main street. Every street through the entire old town was packed. It was surreal.
Old, narrow cobblestone streets just wide enough for one small car were guarded on each side by old stone buildings three or four stories high. Small shops ranging from pubs to gift shops to meat markets lined the first level. The second, third and fourth floors were dotted with small windows occasionally filled with a wide-eyed face taking in the scene below.
Proving Javi's prognostication powers, the drink of choice seemed to be calimocho, visible first by people walking around with two-liter Coke bottles filled with the dark red drink. The second sign being the huge red-wine colored stains all over most people's shirts. Rest assured, there was plenty of beer and mixed drinks going around, but it looked that most people were looking for quantity over quality at this stage of the fiesta.
Further inside the city the party intensified, as did the number of people. It became unbearable just to walk through. It was like being a packed club the size of a town. As a quaint side effect, we noticed the streets had become a veritable garbage heap - plastic cups, beer bottles, newspapers and everything else were strewn about on the wet, nasty stone. To make it even more disgusting, the smell of urine was everywhere. And, as you might expect, every so often you'd see some guy leaning against a doorway peeing all over the wall and himself. And girls, don't feel left out, there were plenty of chicks copping a squat in alleyways and side streets.
Anyway, we continued our journey through the masses, finding our way to the start of the run, and walking all the way to the arena at the far end. We stopped to talk to several people along the way, including some very drunk Americans who were just out of college. If I had to guess what type of people actually were of a higher percentage to get gored, these guys would be at the top of my list.
At around one in the morning, I became painfully aware of both my increasing nausea to the environment (mainly the smell of urine, vomit and old beer emanating from the streets) and the fact that if I was indeed going to run with huge bulls in the morning, I should probably get some sleep.
I made it back to our hotel... err... mini-van, and proceeded to brush my teeth in the parking lot with bottled water, and settled into the front seat for a little shut-eye. I noticed a guy propped up against a nearby dumpster relieving himself on its side.
Who said budget travel wasn't glamorous?