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Friday, July 11, 2008

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!”

A firework is rocketed into the air on July 7th to mark the opening of the Festival of San Fermín, a yearly icon in Pamplona, Spain heavily romanticized by Hemingway. I have visited the lovely city of Pamplona but haven't attended the festival. I can't really say one way or the other how I feel about bullfighting. I've been a few times to see bullfights but I don't plan on going to San Fermín. Maybe I'm too old although even as a young man I possessed an abundance of survival instinct and common sense. I do enjoy watching it on television every morning when they broadcast the daily encierro. This is when 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 close to 700 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. 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 two years of watching it on television. In an accident unrelated to the encierro, an Irish tourist died at Pamplona this year falling off a high wall (in 2007 two people fell to their deaths at the same spot on the Redín Wall). It's a little like spring break with bulls. Pamplona seems like a dangerous place to be during San Fermín so for now I don't mind being a TV spectator...or I may take a train up there this week. Anyone feel like going with me?

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 bulls have sharp horns are just a few of the complaints from those who have survived. 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.

Spanish television broadcasts the encierro every morning and they treat it 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. If I were a taxpayer here in Spain, I would be a little upset about government health care paying to have some drunk's butt stitched up after a goring.

In 2007 there was a big brouhaha over a man who took his ten year old son to the encierro. They showed the kid running down the street ahead of the bulls. He looked like he was having a blast, something the authorities should consider when the father is sentenced. They have since changed the rules at the festival. This year on the last day of San Fermin, kids under 10 get in free! People do a lot of dumber things at San Fermín than bring under-age children to run with the bulls. In fact, from my view from the couch in my living room, just about everything people do at San Fermín looks pretty stupid.

How many times were you told as a kid not to play in traffic? How many times were you warned of the dangers of alcohol? To me, San Fermín looks like a few thousands people completely ignoring these two bits of sage advice. After the encierro, if you are not already one of those laid out on a stretcher speeding towards the emergency room, they have an even more dangerous game for you to play. People feeling suicidal, and those who have always wondered what it feels like to take a horn in the ass, file into the ring of the Plaza de Toros and get chased around by a young bull that always looks thoroughly pissed off. There might not be any ambulances available after the initial wave of casualties during the encierro so remember to apply direct pressure until help arrives. Keep saying that prayer to San Fermín and see if that helps.

I would never run in the encierro for a lot of reasons—physical cowardice being somewhere near the top of that list. An even greater fear for me than getting gored in the stomach is the total embarrassment of being injured, because you just know that they will show it over and over again on TV. I'm not looking to be the day's entertainment, not like that. I completely understand why other people do it, as stupid as it may seem to me to risk your life in some drunken festival in a remote corner of Spain.

I think the encierro is no different than doing tricks on a skateboard or any of the other “extreme” sports. I think that humans have evolved to such a degree and we have eliminated just about all of the risks faced by our ancestors where now just about everyone can expect to live to a ripe old age. In the past simply surviving the birthing process was a fight against the odds. In an era of seat belts, knee pads, guard rails, non-slip shower mats, child-proof medicine bottles, and life jackets, people sometimes need to feel a little bit of risk in their lives. Everyone rebels against the certainty of life in different ways. Instead of running down a narrow street being chased by crazed cows, I'll stick to ignoring other safety advice, like not closing the lid before striking a match when I smoke a cigar, or leaving my bike helmet at home on occasion. That's about as extreme as it gets for me these days.

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