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As I ran down the cobblestones, a bull mere feet behind me and seemingly honed in on my derriere, I was thankful to have a belly full of San Miguel to mask my fear
'We ask San Fermin, because he is our patron, to guide us through the bull run, giving us his blessing," the song goes. This ode to the patron saint of Pamplona is sung three times before the inaugural run.
The first time, it is sung with bravado and zeal. The second time around, a slight nervousness can be detected in the brave few that gather in front of the Cuesta de Santo Domingo, where the powerful black toros are eagerly awaiting their morning jog. The third time, the gusto returns, but under a veil of slight trepidation, as the choir zips through it at a much quicker pace, knowing that the cohetes, the rocket announcing the bulls have left their pen, is about to be fired off, starting the famed running of the bulls.
The rocket soars, the bulls run and the masses scamper in every direction while summoning every last iota of courage and agility, at one point or another along the 825-meter cobblestone street of old Pamplona's Calle Estafeta, to get out of the way of these charging black missiles.
It's a funny thing seeing a bull charging right at you as you run top speed praying he will, at best, only nick you. It is different - and infinitely more terrifying - than seeing a speeding motorist coming up in your rearview mirror. Because if you get hit, it's not a simple insurance claim, but rather a sharp, jagged horn in your backside.
Each year, this is the incentive for coming to Pamplona, a normally sleepy Basque town in Spain's northern Navarre province. Once a year, this usually forgotten town is invaded by an international horde, seeking thrills and danger, tradition and romance, and, like me, there are those who make this pilgrimage to Pamplona to pay homage to the inspiration found in the pages of The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway's titillating tale of Spanish lore, or James A. Michener's Drifters.
While many of those who participate in the run are tourists who have come to satisfy their curiosity, there are also many like Rafael, my running mate for two years now, who has been running down the streets of Pamplona for 27 years to pay tribute to what he calls Spain's most important fiesta.
This fiesta begins in a furor: A day before the first run, the festival officially begins as thousands pack into the main square in front of the city hall. They sing and beg the mayor to set off the chupizano, a pyrotechnic which announces to the entire town that a week of Navarrian chaos has begun. Above the square, the locals, as well as those fortunate enough to have proper lodging, stand on their balconies, pouring wine and sangria onto the people below, clad in white pants and shirts, with a bright red sash around their waists - the traditional festival attire.
As the clock strikes noon, the rocket is shot up into the air, and the party begins. The once homely festival has given way to a spring-break type debauchery of round-the-clock discos and bars with 2,000 partiers packing themselves into a city square meant for 500. From noon until 8 a.m., when the run begins, the DJs do not stop, the games in the parks go uninterrupted and the booze flows like water, which is not a bad thing, Rafael points out. "Without their booze, these children will be too scared to face a toro," he says, adding that it is a test of will and courage that only real men can conquer, thus showing a bit of renowned Spanish machismo.
Rafael was right: A morning dram is a must when you actually come to grips with what you are about to do.
AS I ran down the cobblestones, a bull mere feet behind me and seemingly honed in on my derriere, I was thankful to have a belly full of San Miguel to mask my fear.
To run with the bulls is an almost magical experience. I watch the Spaniards - the seasoned veterans - run beside and in front of the massive bulls, taunting them and jabbing them with rolled-up newspapers. While death could very well be a slip away, these makeshift matadors demonstrate a boisterous joie de vivre, smiling and laughing along the way. This is a far cry from most of the North Americans, who are running with a look of primal fear seared onto their faces.
To run is to be a local hero for the day. The town maidens come over to those dressed in their white battle garb and place a red panuelo, or handkerchief, round their necks and offer an explanation that their miraculous survival was due to the protection of San Fermin's cloak. "You must have been scared," they tease. "Not at all," you reply with mock bravery. You are rewarded with a kiss on both cheeks and an invitation to sit by their side at the bullfight later that afternoon.
As you walk back to your hotel, or patch of grass on the surrounding knolls, it hits you: Are you insane, you ask yourself. You put your life in danger for a simple thrill and a slice of tradition. Never again will I be so careless, you tell yourself.
And then, the next morning you put on your white pants and white shirt, tie your sash around your waist with a touch more ceremony, and head back to the Calle Estafeta to do a little reconnaissance for the route of the day. After all, nothing can get your blood pumping like being chased down the street by a two-ton toro. No bull.
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