LOOKING FOR ADVENTURE “No time for pondering why I’m wandering.”
I first became
interested in The Running of The Bulls (Festival of San Fermin) after reading
an account of the event written by American author and all-around “badass”
Ernest Hemmingway, in his 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises.” Hemmingway made it
sound like the ultimate challenge for a male. I wrote “male” because up until
1974, women were prohibited from participating. I was in the middle of a
world-spanning quest to milk life for all it was worth. My partner in crime and
I had been enjoying the first phase of this long journey (equipped with a small
tent, sleeping bags and a small camping stove) by hitchhiking around Europe,
camping out, picking up whatever odd jobs we could find (illegally, of course)
and attempting to woo the local females wherever we could. Sometimes we were
successful, and sometimes we weren’t, but shame on the person who stops trying.
At some point in late June or early July (we barely knew what day it was), we found ourselves in southern France, Biarritz, to be specific, enjoying the sun, fun and surf at this fantastic beach resort. Geographically challenged as I was in those days, I had no idea that we were less than 150 kilometers north of Pamplona and the Festival of San Fermin, the event that had intrigued me for so many years. Once I heard that the event would start in about a week, we decided to hitchhike there. Based on past travel times, we figured we would need every hour of that week, perhaps due to our shoulder-length hair, ragged appearance and poor personal hygiene.
Border crossings were always a pain in the ass in those days. Long-haired, dope-crazed “hippies”- which I admit we resembled – weren’t welcome in many countries, especially in Spain under dictator Generalissimo Franco’s time (1939–1975) and his ill-famed Guardia de Civil, a Spanish law-enforcement agency founded in 1844 (more about them later). We camped out just a few kilometers from the border to tidy up as much as possible before attempting to pass ourselves off as ordinary tourists. We bathed in a small creek, shaved (sort of), and did our best to hide our long hair under hats. We even managed to retrieve a set of “semi-clean” clothes from somewhere in our backpacks. At this point, we had been on the road for a couple of months and had developed a “cleaning system” whereby dirty clothes (only considered dirty after being worn for several consecutive days) would be placed in the bottom of our backpacks and forgotten. At some point, they would magically resurface “clean,” or so we told ourselves.
The border crossing went as usual. We were singled out, questioned, searched and “fined” for having long hair before the guards would let us in. It was the same procedure we had undergone at the border of Mexico months before. The “fines” went straight into the pockets of border officials. But hey, we were finally in Spain and on the road to Pamplona. The running of the bulls takes place every day at 08.00 between 7 and 14 July. We arrived a few days before the first running and set up camp outside of town (no hotels in our budget). I think the only time we spent the night in a hotel before Egypt was the first night in Reykjavik, Iceland because it was so damn cold, and we were so damn hungover. Our next move was to purchase Bota bags. A Bota bag is a traditional Spanish receptacle for carrying liquids and used mainly as a wineskin. The next step was to fill them with cheap, local wine.
We thought it best to watch the event a few times before we attempted the run. The problem was that the 08.00 start time was tough to make after drinking and partying until the wee hours. Consequently, the days leading up to our run were spent lounging around in hammocks that we had somehow acquired (bought, found, stolen – age and wine have dimmed my memory) and partaking of the “hair of the dog that bit us” the night before, i.e., drinking more wine! The days passed quickly and suddenly, the last day of the festival was upon us. It was time to “man up” and run with the bulls. We decided to eat a good meal, drink little or no wine and get to bed early. Of course, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, the enemy being the never-ending fiesta in town. We ate a good meal and had a couple of glasses (OK, maybe more) and were about to return to our campsite when we encountered some local senoritas who were partying hard. And that’s when the train went off the tracks.
Delighted and excited about our new-found acquaintances, we abandoned our common sense and followed the ladies on a cantina crawl (think pub crawl except in Spain). We ate, drank and partied our way from place to place. Actually, I’m not sure much food was involved at all now that I think about it. Anyway, we were having a blast and the young ladies seemed to enjoy our company more and more as the wine flowed and the night went on. Strange that! We began to brag to the girls about how brave we were and how we were going to prove our manhood the next morning. At that point, they reminded us that since it was now 01.00, it already was the “next morning.” Our evening companions decided they had had enough of the “ugly Americans” and chose to go home, much to our bewilderment and disappointment. How could they resist such “fine specimens of manhood?” As I hinted before, sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don’t. It was time for us to go home.
As we made our way through the streets and crowds, wobbling on unsteady legs and not paying attention to anything except our poor balance, we suddenly heard a loud noise that sounded like a bottle exploding with great force. We turned to each other with surprised looks on our faces as if to say, “what was that?” As the blood trickled down our necks and faces, we realized the “that” was wine bottles (empty, of course) striking us on the top of our heads. When we turned around to see how this happened, we met 3-4 local teenagers hoping to rob the drunk Americans. Unfortunately for them, the copious quantities of wine we had imbibed during the evening had kept us from feeling any pain. They stopped dead in their tracks and were as surprised as we were. They froze. We didn’t. And the fight was on.
That was not what these poor guys were expecting. We were outnumbered but winning when suddenly the Guardia de Civil appeared and arrested us. WTF? They tried to mug us and we get arrested for fighting and being drunk and disorderly. The teenagers explained how we attacked them for no reason (we later heard this account at the police station). The policemen who arrested us couldn’t speak English, and the only Spanish I knew was swear words I learned while growing up in Tampa, Florida. This was bad “ju-ju” on steroids! We were hauled to the police station and thrown into a dark and dirty cell. Throughout the remainder of the night, we could hear fellow inmates screaming in pain as the police “interrogated” them. We thought, “shit, if they do that to their own people, what will they do to us?” We made a pact to stand back-to-back and go down fighting.
Several hours later, two guards opened the door, gave us a cup of coffee and a sardine sandwich on freshly baked bread. And then, as suddenly as we had been arrested, we were released at 09.00 with a smile and a friendly wave. Again, WTF? As we emerged into the bright morning sunshine hungover, sore and licking our wounds (emotionally and physically), I realized my quest to be like Hemmingway and run with the bulls was over. The “universe” had decided that running with bulls was not a good idea for me. I heeded that warning and haven’t returned to Pamplona since the 1970s. But maybe it’s not too late? Maybe I’ll return and “hobble” with the bulls one day.
Lesson learned: Pace yourself when drinking and know when to stop.