Sep 13, 2009

Lost Diaries 11

Beaches and Bulls:
Running in the Steps of Hemingway, well, sort of

Thursday, July 7, 2005

It was finally here. The weekend we had been waiting for all summer. When we first began planning this crazy trip, Damon’s main goal, and at times obsession, had been to run with the bulls at Pamplona. Upperclassmen had regaled him with tales of their own “runnings,” and one even had a prominent posterior scar that he offered to share, an offer which Damon respectfully declined. When we had first asked about reservations at the train station weeks ago, the French worker told Damon it “was not possible” to take a train to Pamplona. Maybe not for her, but Damon found a route, and tackled the reservations desk again with a plan and a dream. So Thursday, around 21:00, we left Lyon on a train bound for Paris. It was our latest train out of Lyon so far, and gave us an opportunity to fill up on jambalaya before we left. With full bellies and one backpack we set out. In Paris we had to change not only trains, but train stations as well. It was walking distance, so we trudged through the chilly Parisian night, keeping our fingers crossed that this couchette experience would be better than the last one. When we arrived at the train, our tickets were checked before boarding. This was a first, and we were not sure if it was a response to the terror attacks in London, or if they just did not want to disturb you on a sleeper train. We found our car and Damon was delighted. The reservations were for first class couchettes, which meant four to a room and made for much more spacious bunks. I was not as thrilled, as the bunks were musty and of questionable cleanliness. The hairs of former passengers were clinging to the brown upholstery, and my bunk had a mystery stain. I was glad the CSI people were not there with their blue light to tell me what it was. The atmosphere of the train was very much a party. Except for the crew, I think we may have been the oldest people on board. Apparently many of our fellow travelers had already been hitting the bottle that night to gear up for the festival. As people filed past our bunks, we crossed our fingers and held our noses. I almost passed out when a girl with long and very well-developed dread locks poked her nose in our room as if it may be her assignment. She had the pungent aroma of youthful rebellion against things like capitalism and soap. I let out a sigh of relief when she moved on. After an agonizing wait, the train finally took off, and we discovered that we were to be the sole inhabitants of our couchette. What joy! We located our “sheets,” a term which I use loosely in this case, and settled in for what turned out to be a long and lovely night’s sleep. Of course, there were the occasional disturbances, like drunken young people banging into our door as they wandered aimlessly through the train, loudly giggling and speaking very slurred French, but overall it was a peaceful night in our cabin.

We arrived in Irun, which apparently is just over the French/Spanish border, around 9 the next morning. We could tell we were in Spain because: 1)the signs were in a new language that we did not speak, 2)the bathrooms were free, and 3)the water in the bathrooms was potable. We gleefully took advantage of the absence of a “no tooth washing” sign and brushed the morning breath away. When we inquired at the reservation desk about some Spanish trains that we needed to reserve, we were again pleasantly surprised. We could cancel a ticket that we already had, get a 16 euro refund, and buy intercity train tickets for about 3 euros total to get to the same destination. Using this blessing, we were in San Sebastian for 11, and had a Pizza Hut breakfast. Large with real pepperonis, pan crust literally dripping with grease. Ahhh. The taste of home.

It was beginning to rain, so we taxied our way to the hotel. Damon told me to watch carefully so that we could walk back later, but it soon became apparent that our hotel was way too far away from the train station to walk. Plus it was halfway up a mountain from the beach. When Damon booked it at the last minute on Expedia, they advertised a location 300 meters from the beach. Maybe they meant kilometers, because it was a long hike. I am also sad to report that the rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain, contrary to popular belief, and it is also a good time to note that the portion of Spain that we visited does not even consider itself Spain. The area is Basque, and they are somewhat considered terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on whose side you are on, who want to be declared independent of Spanish rule. As we were checking in, I perused the local tourism brochures, and found a snazzy looking one offering guided tours of the running of the bulls. While I watched Dawson’s Creek in Spanish and enjoyed how Katie Holmes talks out of the side of her mouth, Damon called the tour company to ask questions. The tour was exceedingly expensive, but offered us an opportunity to stay in our hotel room until 5 the next morning, be driven to the running, view it from a private balcony, get a tour of the old town area, attend the bullfight, and be back to the train station on time to get back to Paris Sunday morning. We were sold. Our original plan had been to sleep in the hotel room all day and take a 23:00 train to Pamplona, arriving at 1 in the morning and wandering around all night until the running the next morning. This plan was not a good one, because after you stay up practically all night and run, you are stuck at the festival until the train out at 8 that night. Damon booked the tour and we gleefully set out to explore San Sebastian, since we were no longer obligated to nap the day away, and the rain had stopped.

We took in the beach first, and since the weather was so overcast, we kept trudging on after taking a little video. The person from the tour company had told Damon to buy his running gear in San Sebastian, so that was the main goal of our walking tour of the city. The official running of the bulls uniform consists of a white shirt, white pants, red bandanna about the neck, and red sash around the waist. We had been told that the items were plentiful and cheap in Pamplona, but we were in San Sebastian, an hour away, and they were decidedly harder to come by. Especially since we did not speak Spanish and had to resort to using hand signals for running and the word “toro” to ask where we could make the purchase. Another thing working against us was the tradition of siesta. All the shops were closed for 2 hours in the afternoon for everyone to take naps. Businesses could never get away with that in America, but I will explore that topic another time. We finally gave up on Damon’s outfit and grabbed me a white skirt and shirt from a Pimkie, which I guess is like Rave or something in the US. By that time siesta was over, so we were eventually able to stumble across an open shop where we felt ripped off, but bought the shirt and pants anyway. Our tour company was supposed to provide our bandannas, and we figured Damon could get a sash once we got there.

By this time we were starving, so we looked around for a cheap eating option that we thought we could ingest, and found a diner that featured VH1 and hamburgers. We ordered two and enjoyed the sounds of Phil Collins when he was in some band. I tell you, Europeans LOVE Phil Collins. The hamburgers were alright, but there were sadly no fries to be had. We set out again to find the train station and cancel some reservations that we would not be using since we were taking the tour. Of course, this is the busiest day of the year at the San Sebastian train station, so we ended up having to take a number and wait a while for service. The numbering system was totally confusing, consisting of three Spanish options, so we took one of each and figured we would go to the first one that came open. The first one that came open was manned by a bald Spanish gentleman who obviously hates his job and all travelers. He yelled at us that this was the wrong number, and he would not help us. Damon tried to ask him which was the right number, but he was not having it, so he yelled at us some more until we sat back down in frustration and waited for our next turn. When it came, we were helped by a nice lady at the information desk who was very courteous and calm and helped a lot, even though she spoke little English and could not make any of the necessary changes. She put notes on the tickets in Spanish about what we wanted to do, and we waited for our third attempt. Turns out Smiley, Employee of the Month, drew our name for a second time. This time he had to help us, because it was the right number, and it was very clear what we wanted. After we got the tickets straight and were refunded some more cash, Damon told the man he did not have to be rude to us before, and Smiley took that opportunity to decide that he did not speak English. Damon told him he spoke perfect English before, and walked off. It was all a very dramatic, Pourciau-esque exchange. I was mortified.

By this time we were amazed at how many miles we had walked in the search for the uniform, so we hopped a bus and rode it back to the beach. The whole day had been overcast and chilly, with the sun teasing us occasionally but never poking through completely. The beach was full of people all day, though, so we took off our shoes and enjoyed a stroll. Some kids were boogie boarding, and one guy was even trying to surf, although the waves were much too small for that, so we enjoyed watching them a while before climbing the mountain back to our hotel. We set the alarm and got in bed early since Saturday would be a long day. We fell asleep watching Tour de France highlights in Spanish.

Saturday, July 10, 2005

What happened to Friday? You know I never count a night spent on a train. Anyway, Saturday dawned bright and early at 4:10. The hotel had been reasonably clean, but the hot water took 10 minutes to heat up, so that was a little inconvenient. I cleansed myself thoroughly, knowing that this would be my last bath for 2 days. I dressed in my white garb while Damon showered, and then packed our meager belongings into the backpack. You may recall that we only brought one backpack this weekend. We usually bring two, but knew that we might not be able to store our bags, so we opted for one. It was full when we left, and we bought new clothes for the festival, so now it was positively bursting. We were downstairs checking out at 5:10, when Javier pulled up in a van to pick us up. An older couple from Colorado and a California girl about our age were already inside, so we hopped in the back. It was still dark, so we could not see much of the scenery as we rode towards Pamplona, but what we could see was beautiful. When we had woken up on the train we were chugging along the northern coast of Spain and I was sorry that it had been a night train and we were not able to enjoy it more. There were some spectacular views. The terrain we saw from the van was mountainous, but consisted of small, tree covered mountains. Once in Pamplona, I became even more thankful that we had deviated from our original plan. The streets were littered with the remnants of one of the biggest parties on earth: bodies of people sleeping on the grass amidst broken beer bottles and puddles of urine. It felt like the streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras, except everyone was wearing “white” (or what I’m sure began as white) and red, instead of gold, green, and purple. Javier dropped us off and went to park the van. The older couple had balcony reservations with a different company, so they set off alone and Javier came back to take us to our balcony. Winding our way through the streets we witnessed too many things to describe in this diary, but let’s just say that drunk people do the darnedest things, and Pamplona needs more port-o-potties. While we wound our way through the crowd, Javier gave Damon rules and regulations for running, such as: “Do not touch the bulls or men with green sticks will hit you,” and “If you fall, cover your head and ball up.” He showed Damon how to come to the balcony after the running. I kissed Damon goodbye, told him I loved him and be careful, and he set off. California and I climbed the stairs to a second floor apartment. A family lives there, and they rent their balcony to the company that we booked the tour through. A breakfast of baked goods and hot chocolate was there, and it was the best hot chocolate I have ever had. It was thick and creamy, and almost tasted like chocolate pie filling before it hardens. We alternated between munching on breakfast bread and filming out of the windows while Javier explained what we were watching. At 7 the streets are teaming with drunken college kids and broken glass and trash from the night before. Around that time, street sweeping trucks start to make the rounds with armies of people with brooms and containers to collect the filth, as well as trucks with sanitation workers with high pressure water hoses. They clean the streets relentlessly, even though it does not appear to be doing much good at first. At the same time, others are erecting fences in the street in pre-made slots in the cobblestone, and even painting plywood at the turn. Our apartment was right at the big turn where you always see the bulls sliding and crashing, so it was a prime location. Next came the police, and they began to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to say, or in this case, those sober enough to run from the rest of the drunks in the street. They contained the runners behind a barricade of policemen, and forced the rest, sometimes physically, outside of the fences to watch. There are 2 layers of fencing in the streets by that time. The first is to make the street more narrow for the bulls to run through, there is an empty space behind it for the paramedics, and then the spectators are behind the second fence. People were climbing onto balconies and rooftops to watch the running, and when the balcony owners opened their shutters, they would evict the squatters very quickly. I got a lot of good footage of the police arguing with kids in the streets. In all the commotion, Damon had gotten my attention from below the window. He had managed to find a newspaper and roll it up (that is also part of the uniform) and had bought a sash off of some Spanish guy for 10 euros. He literally bought it off of the guy, who was wearing it but needed more beer money for breakfast, apparently. Finally about 10 minutes before 8, the streets were spotless (but wet) and the police moved aside to allow the runners to begin. Now, the bulls are not released until 8, so most of the 10,000 people in the street simply jog for a few blocks and then bail out the sides of the fence after they actually start to think about the prospect of a bull chasing them in such an inebriated state. This mass exodus through the side fences is what makes the event even more dangerous for those actually crazy enough to run. At 8 a.m. a rocket went off, and that signaled that the corral was open. A second rocket moments later meant that the bulls had cleared the “safe” area, which is simply the beginning of the run where people are not allowed. After the rockets went off, the jogging in the street below got a lot more frantic, even though there were still no bulls in sight. A few seconds later the bulls came charging down the street and around the corner, and I can tell you that there was even a rush of adrenaline to be had from watching it on a balcony. It was over within seconds, and they instantly replayed it on TV, along with a highlight reel of the worst gorings. Since I did not see Damon on this reel, I assumed he was okay, and spent my time filming some people outside the balcony who were not okay. One that we could see had been gored in the derriere, and another was on TV because his shirt got caught on the bull’s horn and he basically got dragged and trampled. He was outside our apartment getting medical aid from the EMT’s, so I got some shots of him. The family recorded the running, so we watched it again, and replayed the highlights. The apartment owner’s nephew had gone down to the street to see the bulls run by, but when they passed, one of them turned and came towards him, so he was not planning to run but ended up having to run for his life.

After what seemed like forever, there was a buzz at the door, and I heard Damon’s voice coming through the intercom. I filmed him as he came back in, and he was really excited and still in one piece. Since you know that he is okay, I will relate his bull running story as he told it me. Don’t be afraid, because as crazy as he is, he is still alive. He started behind the police barricade, and when the 10 ‘til joggers began, he trotted with them for a while. While he was doing this, he decided there were no bulls coming, so he slowed down to wait. This is when he spotted Hayden, Slattery, and LeProto, three buddies from law school. They began to run together, and quickly outpaced Hayden, who was the slowest of the three. About this time they were approaching the 3/4 mark of the 800 meter run, and here came the bulls. Unfortunately, Slattery chose this opportune time to fall down, tripping LeProto, and causing Damon to take evasive maneuvers to avoid tripping himself. As the bulls bore down on them, LeProto and Slattery tried to get up, and Damon ran for his life right in front of the horns. His actual first words to me upon his arrival back at the apartment were, “Slattery almost got killed, and I got drilled by a bull.” Sure enough, it is hard to be in front of the horns for long without coming into contact with them, and the bull’s head hit Damon on the left side of his back, with the horn scraping along the right side. It knocked him down, but also out of the way. He was able to jump back up and run into the arena. This was the scariest part for him, since this was the smallest opening that you run through. Fortunately, no bulls came while he was there. Once in the arena, he reunited with his friends, and affection ran rampant. Something about near death experiences makes men want to hug and tell each other their true feelings. Enough mushy stuff, once they are in the arena, the big thing to do is lay down and let a bull jump over you, but Damon decided he had had enough foolishness for one day and he needed to come back and let me know he was alive, so he climbed out of the arena and came back to the apartment.

Once Damon was back and I filmed his battle scars, he watched the replay, told us his story, and ate some breakfast. The lady who owned the apartment was so impressed with his bravery that she gave him the video tape of the running along with a souvenir guide for the day. We decided it would be a good time to do the old town tour, so we set out for that. The streets were calming down, and all the people who had been up all night were falling asleep anywhere and everywhere, so things were pretty peaceful. Javier showed us the corral where they keep the bulls, and explained to us that the running of the bulls started because the arena for the bullfights was too small to keep the bulls there. Since they had no cow trailer, some local guys decided that they would dress in white with red sashes, and use their getup to lure the bulls from the corral to the arena. It was a small thing when it started, with about 12-15 crazies doing the job of one Sundowner the hard way. Then Ernest Hemingway came, and since he wrote of his own running experience in The Sun Also Rises, it has become a right of passage for men all over the world, and now attracts about 15,000 people daily to the festival. The television announcer said that the number of people running on Saturday was the most that he had ever seen in his 35 years of announcing the event. Javier told us about the song that the runners sing to Saint Fermin, a black saint, who they petition to protect them during the running. The festival started off as a religious one with some type of procession between churches, but as the running got bigger, the religious people got increasingly aggravated by the lack of respect from the crowds, and eventually moved their portion of the festival to another time of the year. From the corral we walked the route of the running, and Javier pointed out items of interest along the way, like a digital clock that counts down between San Fermin festivals. Once we made it to the arena, Javier left us on our own for the day and told us where to meet him later. He had given us a tip that photographers took pictures of the running and sold them in a local square, so we made our way there first. Sure enough, the whole Slattery/LeProto/Pourciau incident was captured, and we bought 5 pictures that do an excellent job of illustrating the story. From the pictures we discovered that Slattery and LeProto fell down, and bulls basically passed on each side of them, one of which went on to gore Damon. The pics are great and will definitely be on display in LaPlace soon. We bought some souvenirs, wandered around with California, and took her to the van when it was time for her to leave. Javier was taking her to the train station early, so we were able to stash our purchases in the van and enjoy the rest of the day. The bull fight was not until 18:30 that night, so we spent most of the day walking around and enjoying street performers. They had the standard big city stuff, like the copper cowboy, and the silver cowboy, plus some other things like bands, people who make bird noises with their mouths, and a drunk on a chair making fun of the street performers, who was actually the most entertaining one. Another fun thing was the street bands. All day long, even before the running, marching bands wind their way around town playing festive songs and leading groups of dancing festival goers. It was really neat. We also enjoyed walking around seeing all the sleeping people, and what cruel things their friends were doing to them, like tying balloons onto their clothing, or jumping over them. At one point we walked by two couples sleeping in very passionate embraces, and I pointed them out and we were about to film the display, until Damon realized that it was Slattery and LeProto, and two chicks that they picked up somewhere between 8 and noon. Later, we were watching a drunk man perform wildly with a street band, and when we zoomed in with the camera, it was LeProto. That footage should be good for blackmail one day, if he ever grows up.

Having nowhere to go and relax made for a very long day. We bought more souvenirs, drank an obligatory sangria, and finally made our way to the arena for the bullfight. The bullfight was beautiful and full of pageantry, but also very unfair and cruel for the bull. The bull enters the arena with 6 matadors with pink capes. They taunt him for a while and tire him down. If he gets too close to them, they run cowardly into protective seats built into the sides of the arena. Next come out two men on horses, with long spears and body armor surrounding their steeds. The bull proceeds to butt the horses (who are blindfolded) while the men on horseback plunge their spears deep into the bull’s back, causing profuse bleeding and encouraging the bull not to butt the horse again. Next, three of the matadors take sticks about 2 feet long with hooks on the end and stick them into the bull’s back. Now that the bull is covered in blood, weak with the loss of it, and has 6 hooks hanging out of his back, the lone matador with the red cape enters the arena. He uses some type of sword to extend the cape and wears the bull (who continues to gush blood) down. After a few minutes of this, when the bull is really in bad shape, the matador casually walks to the side of the arena and changes swords, to a real sword. He then uses his cape to make the bull take one final charge, and takes that opportunity to plunge his sword into the bull’s back, usually up to the hilt. The bull usually stumbles around for a minute, and then collapses. Another matador plunges a short knife into the bull’s head behind his horns, and a couple of men secure a leather strap around the horns, attach it to three horses, and pull the body out of the arena before the matador takes a victory lap and the whole process starts over with another bull. Last night the fight featured 6 bulls, so the bull responsible for Damon’s scratch is no more. I think that sometimes they do not slaughter so many, but this was the biggest night of the festival, so the fight was bigger than usual. After the bullfight was over, we rushed back to the rendezvous point and met the older couple. Unfortunately, the tour company was 30 minutes late picking us up because of traffic, so by the time they arrived, there was a bit of a rush to get us to the train station on time. The tour guide asked if it was okay with the couple if they went to the train station first so that we would not be late, and dropped them off about 30 minutes later. The driver was driving pretty fast on curvy, mountainous roads, and the wife was scared, so the man told them in Spanish that they would not agree to that, and to drop them off first. This made the man have to drive even faster (170 kilometers an hour….I don’t want to know what that is in miles), so I spent a lot of time in the back praying and holding on for dear life. Colorado people. Good grief. In spite of their inconsiderate act, we made it to the train station on time and alive. The tour guide told us that this was actually a very historical train station, since Hitler met the dictator of Spain there during World War II to discuss Spain joining the Nazis. When we got on board the “night train” in first class, there were no couchettes, but instead, upright chairs that did not even recline. Welcome back to France. We had not had time to eat dinner, so we planned to hit the dining car in a big way, but it was not open at all on the night train, so we gathered all our euro change and enjoyed a vending machine meal. Our main course was chicken chips. Chicken chips are potato chips that, much like most other things in life, taste like chicken, therefore the name: chicken chips. They are all the rage here, and I think Damon’s friend Clarence likes them so much he’s shipping a case home. After the main course we enjoyed some fromage crudités, or the French version of Cheetos. The cheese is white, so you don’t get the infamous Cheeto fingers, but they were not very tasty. We followed that with some sweet crackers, and a Kit-Kat before settling down for the night. We laid across two rows of chairs and slept the night away in the fetal position. By 6 we were back in Paris and decided that rather than spending the day in Paris as we originally planned, we would catch the first train back to Lyon and be in our apartment bed by 11. We met a nice couple from South Carolina on the train. They were over for a State Farm Convention in London and the man is now doing a bike tour in France, which is another dream of Damon’s, so we talked to them all the way back to Lyon. They will be at the tour start on Tuesday when we go, so maybe we will see them again. When we got off the train I forgot Damon’s contacts, so that bummed me out, but he has more so it is not the end of the world. We grabbed some breakfast at McDonald’s (France can even manage to ruin an Egg McMuffin, in case you were wondering) and crashed and burned at the apartment around 10:30.

1 comment :

dara said...

...."Damon told the man he did not have to be rude to us before, and Smiley took that opportunity to decide that he did not speak English. Damon told him he spoke perfect English before, and walked off"......o my gosh....i cant believe he did that, it cracks me up!!!