LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Girl Runs With Bulls
I arrived in Pamplona for Sanfermines with flimsy shoes, blistered feet, and no intention of running with the bulls. It was a Monday afternoon in July, and the streets were jammed with revelers dressed entirely in white, the sobriety of their ensembles punctuated by splashes of red fabric around their hips and necks. Bums and drunkards took deep swigs from wineskins that were magically always full, and respectable onlookers soon joined them. During the seven-day festival Bacchus ruled the city, commanding anyone in the vicinity to gorge on red meat, embracing all strangers, and howling songs praising los toros. But beneath the celebratory mood lurked a gut-churning fear: pain, disfigurement, and possible death that waited for the foolish and unfortunate, on a narrow course in the heart of Pamplona where bull and man met.
The next morning, with sangria still coursing through my veins, I watched the encierro, the running of the bulls from their corral to the bullring where they would spar with the matadors in the afternoon. The 825-meter run usually takes about four minutes, but from my vantage point it happened in a flash. It was as if a tidal wave had crested, crashed, and receded in double-time. For a few seconds I marveled at the horror, the exhilaration, the beauty, the glory of it all. And I wanted to see more, to feel more. So what if Ernest Hemingway never ran with the bulls? I would.
Photo credit: www.goseewrite.com
That evening, although I had since acquired a pair of reliable sneakers, I felt unprepared to run with the bulls and slept poorly. When my alarm sounded at 5:30, I did not want to leave my bed, but an inexplicable urge (some might call it Thanatos) urged me on. My comrades, two valiant men I had befriended the night before, were waiting for me outside. Together, we walked through the sleepless streets where drunks collided with freshly showered, well-rested runners or those somewhere in between, like us.
En route to the starting gate we chanted a well-known fact: since 1924, only 15 people have been killed during the run. When we exhausted the comfort of this statistic we joked about our possible deaths – by goring, trampling, cardiac arrest — to dampen our fear. We arrived at the course one hour before the run started and the streets were being hosed down. The contents of the town’s collective bowels were now flowing into the gutters: sangria, beer, half-digested chorizo, coffee, and unidentifiable substances. Wooden barricades were erected at street intersections and from here, onlookers, police, and medics would watch.
I studied the street, noting the doorways that were carved deeper than others, and the fences that would be easiest to crawl under. But the police had us move to the start of the course and my escape plan was scrapped. When I looked around me I saw only men. I had heard stories of female runners needing to tuck their hair under baseball caps and dress boyishly, for if a man spotted them, they would be spat upon or harassed. But I was protected by a pack of guys, friends of friends of friends, and everyone else was too terrified to notice my intrusion. As we sprinted to the start I was relieved to see a few bobbing ponytails and jangling bracelets, a sign that I was not the only woman gone mad.
The crowds shouted from the balconies, howling our death march. Five minutes before 8 o’clock a silence washed over the area and, as tradition goes, the runners chanted in Spanish then Basque, “We ask San Fermín, being our patron saint, to guide us in the bull run and give us his blessing.” The first rocket exploded, announcing that the bulls would be soon released. When the second rocket sounded I knew that the bulls had exited their pens. Terror, absolute terror. It was a terror I never felt before that shot through me.
My feet reflexively leaped ahead, moving nimbly as if charged with electricity. I did not know when the bulls would come behind me, but soon I felt with absolute certainty that they were near. There was a thundering of hooves that filled the street, as if the horsemen of the apocalypse were approaching, and a gust of warm air was pushing me from behind. The panic was palpable, and when I turned around what I saw almost made my eyes fall from their sockets. Six black bulls plunging into the crowd, and they had no intention of stopping for anyone or anything. I ran and ran knowing that the charging mass was only feet behind me. I jumped out of their way, pressing against the wall to let them pass.
Photo credit: www.goseewrite.com
It was silent, as if my eardrums had been punctured. I watched as the bulls plowed along, seemingly without a care, globs of saliva coating their chins. Wild men slapped the beasts’ rumps with sticks while others tapped their noses with rolled-up newspapers, and soon the howling crowd could be heard again. The bulls charged onwards, and when I looked behind me I saw a battlefield, groaning bodies that were piled on each other while medics plucked the worst injured from the mess. I kept running, chasing down my mortality.
Suddenly the crowd reversed its direction. I feared the worst: that a lone bull had strayed from the herd and was now on a rampage. I looked at the bystanders, as if hoping they would tell me what to do next, and they urged me towards the arena. As I passed through the red gates of the bullfighting ring I almost collapsed from relief: I had cheated death. The bulls were contained in their pens, the danger was gone. I stood in the sand pit still tinged with blood from Monday’s bullfight. We were balls of exposed wiring, our adrenaline supply gone haywire.
Then a few minutes later, the fighting cows – which are smaller than the fighting bulls we had run with – were released. When a cow pinpointed a target, it charged and tossed the person in the air as if he was a rag doll, but this was done with a certain harmlessness and playfulness. Nobody was seriously injured. Some people pretended to be toreadors, fashioning makeshift capes from sweatshirts. The crowd roared when someone would make a graceful display. The six fighting cows soon returned to their pens and the runners and watchers poured into the streets to begin the cycle again: drink sangria, dance, sing, and repeat; pause long enough to sober up, and then run, run, run.
Paulina Reso is a freelance journalist whose articles have focused on literature, technology, and cultural oddities. She has contributed to The New Yorker, Village Voice, New York Daily News, and mediabistro.com. When she isn’t writing, she’s playing jazz clarinet, toying with HTML and CSS, or concocting vegetarian recipes.
Works by Paulina Reso
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