Aug 9, 2006


I think it's best that I preface this post by saying that I'm going to try to give Pamplona the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledge the fact that I was so excited to be going to la Fiesta de San Fermin that I set myself up to be disappointed, and quite honestly, disgusted.

Before boarding our bus, which was late, we ended up talking to a few of the people in the crowd looking for information. There was confusion about which bus was ours and eventually, why our bus hadn't arrived. One of the guys who knew what was going on had lived in Barcelona all his life, and had been to Pamplona a few times for the festival. He told us with a sort of smirk on his face that Pamplona was much different than Barcelona, especially now. I expected difference, and so I thought nothing of it.

After about 4 hours on the bus, we stopped at a large gas station, that I would equate with a truck stop. Coaches were parked pretty much every where. There was a decent sized diner with bathrooms, and more vending machines than you could shake a stick at. On the road to Pamplona, this seems to be the place to stop. I noticed that many of the people there were either dressed in white, or wearing a red scarf. Like a little kid I pointed them out to Sarah because I knew they had come back from the festival. We were getting closer, and I was anxious to be there.

While waiting to leave I ended up sitting by a group of people that were clearly on their way back. I started up a conversation and asked them how the festival was. To my surprise I got shoulder shrugs and non-enthusiastic replies. "It's all right" would basically sum it up. I wanted to know why, but instead we started talking about where we were all from and shortly thereafter I had to board my bus.

I tried to figure out why all those people hadn't been ecstatic, or at least somewhat thrilled. It didn't make any sense to me, and so I dismissed it, thinking something must have gone wrong for them, or that they just hadn't understood what was happening.

I on the other hand had done my research. I knew where we could leave our luggage for the night, I'd read up on the customs and history, and I understood more about the festival than most tourists who show up every year. I'd read Hemingway and a book written more recently by an American who has run in several encierros. I liked the more modern perspective that was full of information, and I thought I had a more realistic picture of what to expect when I arrived.

When our bus finally pulled into town we passed a carnival in the park that was crawling with people. Really, everything was crawling with people. The streets were awash in red and white, and we were only on the outskirts of the festival.

Sarah and I found ourselves a map and made it to Plaza San Francisco where we could check in our luggage. Not wanting to feel left out, we changed into our traditional white skirts and shirts, and were ready to go. Music was everywhere, and we had already been passed by a few of las PeƱas waving their banners and singing the songs that only they know.
We hadn't been free of our bags for long when two guys started talking to us. They seemed nice enough at first, but when they asked if we wanted to follow them around, I'd had enough. We left them in la Plaza San Francisco to go buy our red. Neck ties are the most popular, but both Sarah and I wanted scarves, and we found ones we liked for a decent price. I thought I might buy a neck tie later, but never really found one I liked. A few hours later, we got a picture of the two of us all decked out.. Sarah and I in our white and red, standing in the main plaza.

We wandered the streets, past street vendors and performers, and eventually began to look for a place to eat. As easy as this sounds, it wasn't. Think of what would happen if you crammed the entire population of Lodi into downtown. Got the visual? There were so many people that it was impossible to walk, a feat made even more difficult by the streets. They were, putting it nicely, repugnant. There are no garbage cans, so people throw all their garbage on the streets. In addition, I've never seen so many people so drunk and still walking. They would spill their drinks all over the place, and public urination was not uncommon. We were effectively walking in grime and filth... in flip flops and good white skirts. Worst idea ever.

Unfortunately we ran into the same two men we'd seen before, and when they offered to show us a place to eat, Sarah accepted. They made me uncomfortable, and I avoided them as much as possible. I had no interest in associating with them period, let alone following them around town or dancing with them which was their suggestion after we ate. As soon as I saw my chance to get away, I took off into the crowd so that Sarah would follow me and we could escape. That stretch of an hour seemed like much longer, and I was glad to be free of them. And honestly, with the thousands of people there, the odds of us running into the second time were so slim I don't even know how we managed.

We spent some time in the main square, and saw part of the concert that was on for the night. These were the decorations above the main Plaza. Those angel looking characters represent San Fermin, the patron saint of the city and the whole reason for the celebration.

This shot would be infinitely cooler if the dolphin balloon weren't blocking the guitarist's head. But I still like the lights...

After a while we found a clean, dry bench to sit on towards the back of the Plaza, and ended up talking with a few pretty cool people. I met this guy named Alex, who went to the University of Granada but is originally from Argentina. Between his English and my Spanish we managed to have a pretty good conversation, and I was glad to have met him.

We then wandered the streets for a while, trying our best to stay clean. It's safe to say that I carried my skirt the entire night. We avoided the main square, and tried to avoid the busy streets. This was a mostly futile attempt, but sometimes we managed.

We came across some pretty interesting people, and sometimes, some pretty funny things. This guy decided to climb whatever statue this was, and was soon leading the accumulating crowd in a chant. The chant became a song, but it was interrupted by...People bowling! I don't know where they found the shopping cart, but they'd push it down hill, through the crowd, right into the wall with a very loud smash. It was funny at the time, but I'm sure it hurt in the morning. And it wasn't just one person, it continued for a while with different people taking turns. Crazy...

The night felt pretty long, and at about 4:30 am I picked the spot where I wanted to be for the run. I'd decided to set up towards the beginning of the run, where the bulls have to make a sharp right hand turn onto Calle Estefata. The bulls usually slip and run into the fence. It's also a common place for pile ups as the street narrows, and I figured that I was only going to do this once so I'd better pick a good place.

Standing in one spot doesn't seem to be the best idea, because more people that you don't want to talk to, stop and strike up conversation. Sarah and I had more than one group of guys decide we were easy prey, and they would introduce themselves briefly before asking us where our boyfriends were. Sarah and I may be single, but we both had boyfriends that night. I even moved one of my rings over to my left hand in hopes of deterring future inquiries.

Around 5:30 a truck pulled up and the crowd went insane. They rocked the truck so hard I thought they were going to knock it over. I'm not sure why they decided to stop, but eventually several workers began to construct the barrier for the running. They started with the outside barrier, and then moved to the inside barrier. I'd read about this, and unlike most everyone else, I knew that the outside barrier was for spectators.

I felt pretty bad for the men who had to put the fences up, and it seemed obvious that they were tired of dealing with drunk people. I was tired of dealing with drunk people and I'd only been there a few hours. They also constructed a tower to be used to overlook the run. We thought it was a media tower, but none of the photographers used it, and I don't think the television news crews could even get a camera up there.

As the fence started to take shape, people started to get pushy. I wanted a spot on the fence, but wasn't sure if I was going to get it. There was a group of guys that had been there since around the same time, and I figured they would take it all. But as the last plank went up, one of them tapped the fence in front of me and told me it was mine. I was pretty happy, but as everyone climbed up and sat down there wasn't enough room for me to get my legs over in my skirt. Like I said... worst idea ever. I was pretty mad at myself for wearing it from that point on.

Sarah left around 6am to get to the bus station in order to buy our tickets out. She'd had enough of the people, and really just wanted to leave. I couldn't blame her, but we couldn't get out of the city until about 10am.

Around 6:3o or so it got ugly. In order to clean the filth off the streets for the run, they flood them. That's right, flood. And water of course runs down hill. My luck being what it was, I was standing down hill. I clutched the fence while holding my skirt as best possible for a good half an hour. I bruised my forearms, but managed to stay clean... until someone decided to kick water everywhere and someone spilled beer all over me. It later took me a good half hour to get the stains out of my skirt.

As the sun came up the excitement began to build. I met a few girls who had been there since the beginning of the festival. One of them lived in Pamplona, and the other was from Florida, but they'd known each other since they were kids. They had some food with them that they were kind enough to share. We ate our modest breakfast and watched the people gather on the balconies above. A little after 7 the police showed up and began to clear out the space between the inside and outside barriers. The inside barrier is reserved for the runners when they have to escape, as well as for the police, medics, and media. The police are pushy, and as people begin to realize that they've lost their fabulous view, they want yours. Someone actually grabbed me around the waste and tried to pull me off the fence. He got kicked. They also rocked the fence and many of the people sitting on top almost fell. The guy to my right had been sitting on the post between the fence and the gate since 4:30am and he deserved to be there. As I found out, all the guys to my left were his friends, and they were all holding onto each other trying to keep their balance. I steadied the guy to my right and his friend on my left, until the crowd calmed down.

I managed to keep my spot on the fence, but couldn't climb up because there was no room. As a reward for helping them all out, the guy to my left grabbed my bag and he and his friend pulled me up. The police wouldn't let us sit, so we stood, with our shoulders leaning over the fence in the best hamstring stretch of your life.

My feet and the feet of the guy next to me on the fence. Notice just how dirty we are, and the ring on my left hand. Told ya...

We watched them clean up the rest of the garbage before all the photographers showed up. I learned that they guy to my right had lived close to Pamplona all his life but that this was his first fiesta. Mmm... garbage and dirty icky streets.

Every once in a while, someone in the crowd would decide that they wanted to be on the fence, and much like a concert, would start pushing. All of us on the fence would steady each other, and wait for the wave to subside. We'd make sure everyone was all right, and the waiting would continue. I have to say that the few hours I spent on or around the barrier were my favorite in Pamplona, simply because we built a sort of camaraderiee around not only our shared experience, but our desire to see the run.

The "run" started about 10 minutes early. Basically, so many people want to participate that they let the less serious runners, or the runners who want to join the run towards the chute and the bull ring to walk ahead and find their spots. Those that are deemed unfit to run are pulled out by the police.

One guy was dumb enough to try and run in sandals, and was pulled out by an officer in front of me. When he tried to lead the guy towards the fence to exit, the guy resisted. He didn't speak a word of Spanish, and the cop didn't speak English. The cop got pushy, and I tried to explain to the guy that he couldn't run in the shoes he was wearing. He didn't hear me, and the cop kept pushing. He eventually shoved the man to the ground and rolled him under the fence. In the states, it would have been classified as police brutality.

Eventually the rocket went off to signal that the bulls were out of their pens. I watched as the runners began to pick up their speed, and as the bulls got closer, the runners that came around the corner were sprinting for dear life. Unfortunately, I picked such a good spot that the barrier in front of me was filled by photographers and I hardly saw a thing. If I had been on the other side of the turn, my view would have been completely clear as there were no photographers, medics, or police to fill the viewing gaps in the fence.

As the bulls passed, they closed a gate along the route so that the bulls couldn't turn around. About a minute later I heard another rocket signalingg that the bulls were inside the ring, and then the final rocket indicating that the bulls were inside their pens.

At this point I began to walk towards la Plaza San Francisco, where I was supposed to pick up my luggage and meet Sarah. Someone had been hurt along the run, and streets were still closed. It took me quite a while to make it back to the Plaza, but I was amazed at how quickly the streets emptied. Most people go to sleep after the run, and wake up in time for the bull fight to do it all over again. I found Sarah in plenty of time and we made our way back to the bus station. We were both glad to be leaving the city, and I understood why the people I'd met could only shrug their shoulders. I think it would have been a better experience if I'd been there with at least one guy, just because it would have prevented situations that I would have much preferred to avoid. I also would have been happier if I weren't worried about my skirt the whole night. If you ever go, don't wear good clothes. And tennis shoes are a good idea... a very good idea.

But even if those two things had been different, I still think I would have felt disappointed. Between Hemingwayy and Gray I had a more romanticisizedd version of the festival. I read that sometimes the parties spilled out into the streets. What I experienced wasn't spillage, it was ridiculous. I couldn't get anywhere near Hemingway's favorite restaurant, and never even made it to the bull ring. The history and culture seemed mostly lost to me, and it upset me. I believe that Pamplona is a beautiful city, and I would like to see it again, but not during the festival. I'm glad I went, but the only way I'll ever go back is if I'm a photographer and don't have to deal with the people.

1 comment:

Chris Bergsma said...

Again, I am intensely jealous of your trip...Anyways, email me or gimme a note on DA.