Thursday, July 7, 2011

San Fermín

A San Fermín pedimos
por ser nuestro patrón
nos guía en el encierro
dándonos su bendición

(San Fermin, as our patron, guide us in the run, giving us your blessing.)

-Prayer recited three times before the running of the bulls (encierro) in Pamplona. Sung to the tune of “Caesar, those who are about to die salute you!” I don't think that was a tune but I think that you get my drift.

A firework is rocketed into the air on July 7th to mark the opening of the first encierro of the Festival of San Fermín, a yearly icon in Pamplona, Spain heavily romanticized by Hemingway. The bulls, accompanied by the calming effect of an equal amount of steers (also with long horns), run through the streets of Pamplona among a bunch of people (somewhere between 1,500-4,000) dressed in traditional white shirts with red handkerchiefs around their necks. The idea is to outrun the bulls, some weighing over 600 kilos, as they make their way through the narrow streets to the Plaza de Toros. The six bulls come from a different breeder every day and will be featured later in the day in the afternoon bullfights. In a Spanish dictionary I found this definition for the verb encerrar from which encierro is derived: to put a person or an animal in a place where it cannot get out. San Fermín covers both of those. The only defense runners have is a rolled-up newspaper and their own swiftness. Sound like fun to you? Me neither.

The encierro begins every morning promptly at 08:00 during the eight days of the festival and is over in a matter of a few minutes; it’s also broadcast on national television. Just about every day at least one person requires the skill of trained medical people. Deaths are not unheard of during the encierro and there have been 14 since they began keeping records in 1924. I have seen many, many serious injuries in the past years of watching it on television. Pamplona seems like a dangerous place to be during San Fermín so for now I don't mind being a TV spectator.

From my Spanish friends I have heard nothing but bad things about the festival at Pamplona. There is nothing but drunk, belligerent tourists; there is no place to stay; everything is overcrowded; and the bulls have sharp horns are just a few of the complaints from those who have survived. One friend told me that before the daily encierro a truck goes along the route and loads up drunk people in the back, like picking up garbage. Most of the people I have talked to admitted to going to the festival when they were teenagers and wrote it all off as foolish disregard for their own safety. I think that I am talking myself into it. I may take a train up there this weekend. Anyone feel like going with me? No hotel rooms? So what? I'm not afraid to sleep at the train station. I've done it before.

Spanish television treats this event like a major sporting event. They go over every meter the bulls traverse and show instant replays and slow motion clips of exciting moments. They actually time how long it takes for the bulls to run from the corrals to the bullring. On the coverage one morning they showed doctors and nurses in a Pamplona hospital emergency room watching the broadcast, anticipating the injuries they would soon be treating. I bet they have some stories to tell, most of them beginning with, "So this guy comes in who got stuck with a horn right up his..."

I went to an encierro in a village near Valencia a while back. There were barricades along the street to keep the bulls from rampaging through parts of the village not intended for the run. The spectators stand or sit behind these barricades. Before they had released the bulls I stepped through the barricade to stretch my legs a bit in the empty street. From about three blocks away I saw the first bull galloping towards me. I got the hell back behind the barricade and quickly. Although I wouldn’t exactly call my retreat cowardly, let’s just say that I didn’t do it with the highest degree of dignity.

I'm absolutely mesmerized by the spectacle and get up every morning for the coverage. I guess that I find it appealing because you just don’t know what is going to happen.

Watch it live here at 08:00 in Spain.

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