Sangria floats into the air, creating an alcoholic cloud over thousands of sweaty bodies. The crowd jumps up and down in a comically unsynchronized motioned. Elbows hit faces, knees hit backs, shoes are trampled.
I can’t move, I can’t breath, I am covered head to toe with Sangria, and I am amidst the second craziest experience of my life. The craziest would come the next morning, but lets not get ahead of ourselves. Lets talk about this city center in Pamplona.
Seconds before the sangria went flying and our shirts turned from bright white to drenched sangria, the mayor had announced the start of The Fiesta of San Fermin, more commonly known as Running of the Bulls. The mayor walked out on the balcony and every person in that, mostly men, total sausage fest but its cool, crowd lifted their red bandanas into the air. The mayor did a couple Spanish chants and half of the crowd interacted with him. I was amongst the non-participatory half, not because I am too cool, but because I don’t understand Spanish. Also, I was way too drunk for 8 o’clock in the morning.
As soon as he spoke the magic Spanish words, we wrapped the bandanas around our necks, shouted out in celebration, grabbed our bottles of Sangria, and let its remnants fly into the air.
I won’t lie, I was extremely selfish when this took place. I showered in the Sangria that others so kindly tossed into the air, but I’d be damned if I lent them even a drop of mine. I instead chugged my bottle while other’s Sangria became best friends with my skin, my shirt, and, unfortunately, my socks. This hectic Sangria tossing, sweat exchanging, borderline orgy continued for the next hour.
I feel like you guys aren’t picturing this quite right. Imagine you are standing in the center of an empty courtyard that extends about twenty yards in an all directions. Now imagine thousands of sweaty, drunk, Sangria filled bodies squished into that tiny center. Feel your neighbor’s arms against yours, the stomachs of the belligerent tourists behind you, and your less ab-filled than desired stomach against the backs of the jumping men in front of you. Now, that is where I stood. Sangria filling the air above me, pelting the top of my head, flooding my arms, drenching my shirt, and blinding my eyes. I have never felt more alive.
When this incredible fiesta, party, celebration came to an end, the courtyard slowly emptied. The disappearing crowd revealed the mess that we had left behind. Hundreds of empty bottles floated atop the red sea we; lost bandanas floated down the stream and through of the cracks of the now slippery cobblestone road. The party had ended and yet it had just begun, because tomorrow is Running of the Bulls.
My crew, which consisted of people I had only just met, and I walked through the small town of Pamplona. Everywhere we looked we spotted drunken men and women, children and infants, cats and dogs passed out in the gutters. They laid against restaurant walls, in the walkway of bars, in the middle of lawns, atop patio tables, and anywhere and everywhere in between. We, however, walked into a nearby grocery store and bought one more bottle of Sangria for the each of us.
It is incredible how affordable getting drunk is in this town. We were able to reach a level of incoherent obliteration for the cost of a single Big Mac. Like I said earlier, I don’t know a lick of Spanish, but at this point I assumed Pamplona was Spanish for heaven. (I just googled it and heaven in Spanish is actually cielo… So, if anyone reading this knows anyone in charge of the Spanish language, please forward them this request: Hello, my name is unimportant, but this here is a formal request to change the definition of Pamplona to heaven and the definition of cielo to something else… I don’t, maybe hot dogs or something like that. Sincerely, Bye.)
We walked around the streets of Pamplona, stepping over drunken bodies that now served as sidewalks, and continued to throw back Sangria after Sangria. We did this for a few hours, until we too became the passed out bodies in the middle of walkways.
When I returned to semi-consciousness, it was time for the festival’s nightly firework show.
We rose like zombies and followed the crowd like blind mice. We walked throughout the puke filled city streets until we found ourselves facing a large, empty lawn.
We found seats and opened up our fresh bottles of Sangria. Oh, I forgot to mention, we broke off from the crowd when we saw a grocery store and bought another bottle of Sangria. After all, the party must go on, baby!
As the Sangria touched our lips, the fireworks were sent high into the sky. The first one burst bright green, followed by bright red. The popping noise, to be completely honest, was a little loud for my liking, but my god was it beautiful.
We stared at the night sky mesmerized, the drunkenness certainly helped, by the beauty in front of us.
The show, unfortunately, came to an end. The crowd stood up and we made our ways back to wherever it was we were staying.
We need to get some rest; Running of the Bulls is tomorrow.
My alarm goes off at 5 o’clock the next morning, but I haven’t slept for a second. My mind has been racing all night. The anxiety has overflowed my veins and leaked out through my pores, along with the smell of yesterday’s festivities. I cannot believe the stupidity I am about to participate in.
Running with bulls, I must be out of my goddamn mind.
My vision is flooded with videos I watched religiously before coming here. Strategies of runners, disasters that had come from recklessness, the gory imagines of bull horns slicing into the human hip; entering through the backside, disappearing, then reappearing through the stomach. I saw tragedies, some that were preventable, but others that were caused by a mixture of unlucky circumstances, like being bumped by a nearby runner, and pure bad decisions, like deciding to run down a narrow street with full-grown bulls.
I must be out of my goddamn mind.
I slowly rise from bed and throw on my uniform. White karate-esque pants, a brand new white shirt, and a red scarf around my waist. Finally, I pick up my bandana. The same one I, just one day earlier, raised toward the sky to signify the beginning of the festival. I tie it now around my neck.
I look into the mirror and take in my reflection. Game time.
I walk out of the hotel and into its tiny lobby. I see many people just like me, dressed like a red belted karate kids with fear stricken faces.
We must be out of our goddamn minds.
We walk out of the lobby and join the march of stupidity, leading us to that same city center that we partied so hard in the morning before.
When we arrive, we arrive to a similar setting. An overly crowded center with far too many tourists, but the mood has completely changed. What was once an eager crowd has now transformed into a crowd of terror.
Also, they have put up these walls that restrict the runners and the bulls to a tiny path. This path is about ten feet across, just big enough to fit a bull and a couple people clinging to its walls for dear life. Other than that, space is limited.
The crowd sits in the city center in nervous anticipation.
A rule, that I still don’t understand about the festival, is that you cannot leave the city center to reposition yourself anywhere else on this quarter mile or so long path, until only moments before the bulls are released. So, just because you stand in the city center now, doesn’t mean you will stand there at the time the bulls begin to run towards you.
I, however, have an airtight strategy. Like I said earlier, I studied past runnings religiously. I figured out what the safest routes were and which routes would lead to certain death.
The best strategy was to stand near the beginning of the run. This seems sketchy, because it is probably the narrowest part of the path, but it is also when the bulls are still running together.
You see the bulls are not likely to attack unless they are scared. So, when they are all together at the beginning of the race they feel safe. Their only mission is to keep running forward. It isn’t until the bulls are separated that they become dangerous.
This often happens at a place called Dead Man’s Corner. Dead Man’s Corner is around the half waypoint of the run. It is a ninety degree turn, a turn far too sharp for a large, full speed bull to make. So what often happens is they slip, slide into the wall, become separated form the others, and, often, begin to panic.
This corner is where people get impaled. This corner is where bulls charge after crowds of horrified and idiotic runners. This corner is where the blood is spilt and the lives are forever changed. This corner is where I learned what panic truly is.
Here is how it went down. About four minutes before the bulls were released, a line of cops began to push the crowds back. They were placing us into our starting positions.
I was ready for this, so I began to slide up in the crowd, trying to get closer to the front. Unexpectedly, everyone else had this same plan in mind. So, as I attempted to shove myself to the starting point I desired, I felt myself moving nowhere. My heart began to race. I began to sweat. I began to feel, what I thought at that point was, panic.
I watched as the police neared, continually shoving those in front of me further back. I tried to slide against the walls, but to no avail. Instead, I was only pushed backwards.
No. No. This cannot be happening. I had this all planned. I was going to be in the front. I was going to be safe. I was not going to die today. Why god have you forsaken me? Why did I come to Pamplona? This isn’t cielo, no, this is hell. Oh, lord, please make this stop!
He didn’t. I felt myself being pushed further and further away. I looked around to discover I was now closer to Dead Man’s Corner than I was to the beginning of the race.
3 minutes until they release the bulls.
I try to force myself into a crevice in the wall, I will hide here as the police walk by, this place is at least safer than where I could end up.
The police grab me tightly around my arms; I can feel their grips deep in my bones, as they drag me further from safety.
I am only a few yards away form Dead Man’s Corner.
The shot of the gun goes off. The bulls have been released. Fuck. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
I look around; the life in every face around me has vanished. I now stand in a crowd of pale faces.
If I didn’t know exactly where I was, I would have thought I was in the middle of train tracks, because the sound of a train was certainly coming my way. The ground below me began to shake. This was no longer a video I watched safely from behind a computer screen. This was real. This was happening.
I see the crowd in front of me begin to part. Soon, two massive bulls immerge in the middle of them, parting the crowd that now dives for safety. These are the pacing bulls, the bulls that keep the 6, soon to be coming bulls, in line.
I stay in my spot, as the rest of the people around me do, as the two bulls approach. You are not supposed to start running until the two pacing bulls have passed you and the 6 raging bulls are in sight.
We leap towards the wall as the pacing bulls pass. And then, my heart stops. Literally, my heart was so terrified that it forgot to beat. Now, in plain sight, were 6 bulls larger than I had ever imagined. 6 Bulls, large enough to destroy cars, came rolling through the crowd. This is when everyone began to run.
I take my first steps, my first steps away from the bulls, my first steps closer to Dead Man’s Corner. What at the time I believed to be panic once again surged through my veins. It screamed into my subconscious. It became all of me. I continued to run.
I reach Dead Man’s Corner, the 6 bulls are only feet behind me, I make a sharp turn and watch as the person behind me is clipped by the horns of the leading bull. He falls to the ground and covers the back of his head for protection.
I turn back, I want to help him, but I cannot. I keep moving.
I look over to my left to the see the first bull slam into the corner. He stands up quickly, more quickly than I anticipated, and continues running forward.
I should not stay in the middle of the road, it is far too dangerous. I need to find shelter, safety, anything. I continue running as I inspect my surroundings. A few yards in front of me, I spot a crevice in the wall. I head for it.
This will keep me safe. I must let them run passed me, that is the only way I will survive.
I press myself into the wall as I watch the bulls one by one hit the corner and continue on their way. The last one slides into the wall. He hits much harder than the previous 5. He takes much longer to stand than the previous 5. He seems much more disoriented than the previous 5. He turns to me and I see, he is much more afraid than the previous 5.
I gulped deeply as the eye contact between this bull and I continued for far longer than I desired. His stare turns angry. He begins to flare his nose. He lowers his head as he growls. He begins to scratch his horns on the cobblestone. His front leg paws at the street.
And, before I could even finish muttering the word “fuck,” he begins to charge. This is when I learned what panic truly is. It is when your heart says fuck beating, there is no longer a point. It is when the blood stops flowing through your veins, because all it can do is stop and stare at the disaster in front of it. It is when your brain shuts off. And it is when your body is left to fend for itself.
Without me even instructing it, my body collapses into a crouch. I feel my head duck down only milliseconds before the bull’s horns crash into the wall I once leaned on. He backs up a few steps, and then lunges at the wall once more. This time I feel his horn scrape the skin of my forearm that covers my head. I see a small drop of blood trickle down onto the street. The same street that was red a day earlier with Sangria, is now red with my blood.
The bull, frustrated with two failed attempts, backs up again. This time a few feet further. Again, without instruction, my body dives to the left and towards Dead Man’s Corner.
I look behind me to see the bull, his head now ducked to the ground, hit the wall at the exact spot I so recently crouched. His nose only centimeters above where my blood had spilt.
He turns towards me, how dare I attempt to flee. He kicks once more. He flares his nose. His eyes squint with determination. But I keep running.
I see a couple locals jumping over the railings as I run towards them. They grab the gates that close Dead Man’s Corner, intended to prevent bulls from running backwards on the path, and yell out encouragement to me. (Again I am only assuming, since I don’t speak Spanish.)
I get closer and closer to them, the gate closing as I approach, the bull closing in on me, their yells only getting louder. I am maybe fifteen feet away from the gate, I turn back to see the bull only fifteen feet from me.
I turn back towards the locals. Their faces have changed. Their expressions have gone from hopeful to regretful. They look sad. They look… they look helpless.
They have changed their actions from closing this gate to protect me and are now closing it to protect the others who are already safely behind the gate. Those are the ones who need protecting. Those are the only ones who can be still be protected.
I am now ten feet from the gate. I see the gap shrinking. It is barely large enough for me to fit through, even if I made it in time. Again, I panic. Truly, truly panic. My heart stops. My blood stops flowing. My brain stops thinking. My body, with no acting captain, seizes control.
I feel myself striding longer and quicker than before, now only five feet from the closing gate. I feel myself lunging forward as I dive through the small opening. My arms make it through the gap, followed by my head, then my upper and lower body, then my feet. I turn around, just in time to see the gate close and hear a loud thud from the bull ramming hard against the gate.
My heart begins to beat again. The blood flows. My brain switches back on. They all write letters of thanks to my body, for not panicking, and for saving us all.
I have survived. And I think only one thing.
I must be out of my goddamn mind.