Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Matthew Hansel - Málaga, Spain

Matthew is a senior at the University of Utah studying Economics and International Business Administration. He traveled to Malaga, Spain last summer with the ISA Program.

It was about 10:00 pm when I stepped off of the bus into a swarm of color and action.  Thousands of red scarves and sashes danced, flitted, and paraded across my field of vision; they moved randomly in every direction, contrasted sharply against the stark white of the shirts and pants worn by every person in city, like pure ghosts draped in red gore.  The crowed seemed to pulse and teem with a fervent vibrancy.  Everything seemed to have an intense glow of life about it, of raw energy, though it may have simply been the shadow of death that pervaded the festival, which threw the living into sharp relief.  Without a second thought we walked into the current of people, and life, and noise, and color, allowing ourselves to be swept up towards the center of the city.  After all, this was Pamplona, and it was the Festival of San Fermin.
My best friend and I had been studying language in Malaga, Spain, since June.  We had both been enthralled with the history, tradition, and passion of the country, and we had taken every opportunity out of class to traipse across Spain and meet people, see the sites of famous battles, and see the tombs of famous people.  We had explored caves, cliff jumped, and hiked through Park Guell in Barcelona.  We had mastered the bus lines of Malaga and the underground metro train systems in Barcelona and Madrid.  We had favorite restaurants, bars, cafes, and clubs in eight different Spanish cities, and had made friends in each one from Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, Germany, Australia, the UK, and Serbia.  However, what we most anticipated was the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.  It was with eager and nervous minds that we dressed in traditional white and red and boarded our first train to the northern Navarre region, taking only a bag full of “Bocadillas” from our senora, some money, a camera, and a beat up paperback copy of Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises.
It took us about an hour and a half to locate our friends from Barcelona, who we were meeting at the festival.  After eating a quick dinner and watching a crazy European rock concert in the park, we hopped in a taxi and headed to the hostel our friends had rented for the night, where we were planning to sleep on the floor until the Encierro. Although the first rocket that would signal the release of the bulls would not sound until 8am, we rose before the sun at 5am, so that we might have a chance to walk the street, and to come up with a plan to avoid being trampled or gored.  The Taxi got us as close to the center of the city as he could with the huge crowd. That’s the thing about Spain: 5am is a normal time to be out partying on a Tuesday, let alone during a festival. We walked towards the Plaza Del Toros, where the Encierro would end.  Starting from the plaza, we worked our way up the street, trying to talk to and extract any sort knowledge or advice from as many locals and knowledgeable foreigners as we could.  Eventually coming up with a plan of action, we began to feel less nervous about running, and settled in to wait for the rocket.
Our plan was simple. We were going to sacrifice a little pride for a lot of safety by starting after what is known as “Dead Man’s Corner.” From that point, we had about three to four hundred meters to run before we reached the bullring, and we would enter it just after the first group of bulls and well before the second group.  For those not familiar with the Encierro, or the “Running of the Bulls,” at 8am, from July 6-July 14, the first rocket of the Encierro will go off, announcing that the first bull of the first group of nine bulls has left the corral.  Several minutes later, another group of slightly fewer bulls is released, and when the last bull has left the corral, another rocket is set off. The bulls run down the street leading from the corral to the bullring, a distance of just under 900 meters.  Our starting point, just after what is considered the most dangerous part on the course, would leave us with just over a third of the total distance.
We were leaning, stone-faced, against the wall of a house just past “Dead Man’s Corner,” when a blazing rocket could be viewed rising above the tops of the buildings.  A deep boom echoed over the scene as the rocket exploded.  My heart began to race. The bulls where out.  The runners which were scattered across our part of the street began hopping up and down, craning their necks to see when the bulls would come into sight. An eerie silence hung across the street, like even the quiet knew that it would soon be shattered. As my friend and I jumped, we began to see people running.  It was just a few at first, but each time we were able to gain a millisecond of sight we noticed more and more people beginning to run.  The crowd that lined the rooftops and balconies all along the street was beginning to murmur, and further up we could hear yells, first of anticipation, and then of gratification. My next jump showed me a wall of frantically running men. My next jump showed me a forest of sharp horns.  I turned and ran.  Feet racing, hearts racing, feet really really racing, my friend and I careened down the street, hurtling fallen men, trying to stay together.  Thunder filled my ears, and the cobblestones seemed to shake under approaching hoof beats. We hugged the walls of the street.  I looked to my right, the center of the street, just in time to see the head of the first bull pass me by, an arm’s length away.  It was huge.  At 6’4” I was looking it in the eye.  The horns curved forward into razor points, elegant and deadly. In a flash, the first group was passed us and we endeavored to run even faster, not wanting to get caught in the bottle neck leading into the bullring as the second group of bulls came through.
Down the decline leading to the tunnel we ran faster and faster – finally emerging into the light and letting our speed and the strength of the crowd carry us into the center of the ring.  My ears rang as the deafening call of 20,000 Spaniards who lined the seats of the ring boomed “OLE!... OLE!... OLE!...” Confetti rained down as we moved to the side of the ring just in time to watch the second group of bulls enter the ring in a storm of dust, and pass into the corral at the other side.  I seemed to float off of the ground with relieved exaltation as both my friend I broke into huge smiles, shaking hands and congratulating each other.  OLE!... OLE!... OLE!…”

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