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The Fiesta And The Fools Of Pamplona

Rajen Bali

In His infinite wisdom, God created Man without wings and fins. Man was expected to have his feet firmly on Mother Earth and was NOT meant to fly in the skies or go diving in the deep seas. The Lord also gave man a Head to think with and a Bottom to sit upon. But almost from the Beginning, Man appears to be doing his best to think with the Wrong End and go beyond reason to foolishly cross all limits to find ways of doing all that he was not equipped or meant to do. Time has been a witness to many, many men risking their lives - sometimes dying messily - in trying to fly, to dive into deep waters, to sail across stormy seas in flimsy little boats, to climb high mountains, to leave the security of home, hearth and earth to land on the Moon, and….. The list of these Great Follies where men and women show scant interest in staying alive and which often become addictions is seemingly endless. Somewhere on the top of the list have to be the fools who gather every July in Spain for Pamplona’s running of the bulls festival.

Why would anyone want to risk their lives running through narrow streets in front of a pack of angry bulls? I do not have an answer, but thousands think that it is ‘fun’ and annually throng to the San Fermin Running of the Bulls. The religious festival in honor of San Fermin, patron saint of Pamplona, dates back to the 14th century and was originally held in October. For better weather conditions, it was shifted and is held every year from 6-14 July. The running of the bulls was a later addition to Los Sanfermines, as the festival is called. Even though The Encierro (Bull Run) is the most exciting part of the festival, there are the religious and civic ceremonies, daily bullfights, processions, parades with Giants and Bigheads, much music and dance, fireworks and endless drinking and eating. For over a million people who come for the festival every year, it is only a non-stop Fiesta and hardly any Siesta.

The credit for drawing the world’s attention to the Pamplona Bull Run rests with Ernest Hemingway. ‘Ernesto’, as he got to be called in Spain, first came to Pamplona with his wife Hadley in 1923. He was fascinated by the running of the bulls and bullfighting during the San Fermin festival. He came back to Pamplona in 1924 and 1925, enjoying his trips immensely. A few days after the fiesta had ended in 1925, on 21 July, his birthday, Hemingway started writing a novel with the backdrop of the happenings in Pamplona. The first draft was finished in eight weeks and the novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1926 and drew the world’s attention to Pamplona, San Fermin and Hemingway. Ever since then, San Fermin has continued to grow in popularity and attracts thrill-seeking visitors from all over the world. Most visitors are mere witnesses to the spectacle and only a handful actually participate in the highly dangerous run. After all not many would qualify the Hemingway ‘specifications’. He wrote that he enjoyed watching two wild animals run together – one on two legs, the other on four. As a matter of interest, Hemingway never ran before the bulls.

Yes, there are some outsiders who run, but it is mostly locals from Pamplona and other parts of Spain. What makes these men indulge in this Great Folly where serious injury and death are waiting to happen? What kind of mindset do they have? What goes on in their minds? Is once not enough? Why do many come back year after year to repeatedly court serious injury or even death. After all, serious injuries are a common occurrence every year and 15 men have been killed since 1924, when records started being maintained. With the exception of one Mexican and one American, all who died were Spanish, mostly from the Pamplona region.

Coming back to the ‘reason why’ and the mindset of the runners, originally, it was like a rite of passage for the locals. You were not much of a man in Pamplona if you had not run before the bulls in San Fermin by the time you were fifteen or sixteen. So, to prove themselves, all men aspired to run. Now, you cannot run unless you are eighteen. “Why?” may be best understood by the words of some diehard runners. Cesar Cruchaga, born in Pamplona and the former captain of the Spanish first division club, Ossuna, did his first run when he was fifteen. He returned to the bull run after his football career ended. He says, “It’s a very different feeling to scoring any goal….so intense it beats any game of football I played….That sensation that death is so near – there is nothing comparable to that.”  Tony Moreno from Valencia has run many times, he thinks that “San Fermin is like the World Cup for bull runners.” Rick Musica, an American, has missed only four runs in a period of thirteen years. He says: “On one hand, you have this sheer exhilaration and on the other, sheer utter terror….balancing these emotions is the key…To see these magical beasts thumping through the narrow streets is something that defies logic and something unlike anything I have ever done in my life. It is truly a celebration of life.”

In the 2010 run, a 650kg bull plunged a horn as thick as a man’s arm through the leg of Juan Pedro Leucona. It was Leucona’s first goring in 22 years of running. He says: “It was a 22cm wound. I had not prepared well that year. I had knee surgery and dispensed with crutches only three days before the bull run….When I run, all is confusion and I am driven by instinct. You become a mixture of stomach, heart and mind. You want the bull to be impressive, to charge so that there is risk and excitement.” There sure is unimaginable risk-and-excitement during the one kilometer run which takes just about three to four minutes. The half-ton bulls can run 100 meters in around 6 to 7 seconds, much faster than Usain Bolt! Around 3000 jump in front of the bulls, but only about 100 run for about 50 meters before seeking safety.

It all starts at midday on July 6, every year when thousands gather in Plaza del Ayuntamiento to witness the firing of the rocket, Txupinazo and the declamation: “Pamploneses, Viva San Fermin, Gora San Fermin!” (People of Pamplona, Long live San Fermin). The party then begins with people spraying sparkling wine over each other, singing, dancing, eating and drinking – non-stop – till the midnight of July 14. Starting July 7, every morning at 8, rockets are fired and to signal the 3-4 minutes of sheer chaos of the Bull Run. It is a continuous celebration. Sangria is drunk by the bucketful and favorite eats include – what else, but – Bull Stew, Chistorra (fresh garlic sausage), Ajoarriero (salt cod in tomato, garlic and pepper sauce), Churros (long fried doughnuts) and the eternal Tapas. The party goes on and on till the midnight of July 14 when thousands gather with candles to sing “Pobre de mi, pobre de mi, que se han acabado las fiestas de San Fermin.” (Poor old me, the San Fermin fiesta has finished.)

During San Fermin, Pamplona is definitely The Happiness Capital of the World.

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