A Hillsborough Community College Student Publication since 1978.
(Festival San Fermin, Pamplona, Espana)
It’s 8 a.m. on a humid, sweaty, Barcelona July morning. The hot, rising sun filters through the drapes, thickening the already pungent atmosphere of the crowded hostel dorm. I grin as I dump a chilled bottle of water over the sweat and grease-flushed face of my passed out, 18-year-old brother. “Get up buddy!!! Time to run with the bulls!!!” I slap him in the face and roughly shake him out of his alcohol and drug induced Barca night life coma.
Although you would never guess this, we are both suffering hard this morning. And even though I couldn’t let him see it, I have done all this for his experience. Drinking nearly twice his share as I led him and his friend, around all the best that the Barca bars had to offer, eventually meeting up with the club guest-list I had managed the previous year, my full intent focused on getting this guy I love so much his first non-American lay, on his first non-American night out. Our wild night ended eventually around 4, at a local, after party house where he over eagerly smoked too much grass, fully completing his Spanish idiocy. And the good older brother was left to navigate his drunk ass home… less than four hours ago.
Sometime over an only partially intelligible late-night call, I agreed to co-lead a party tour of thirty something, heavy drinking, college exchange students on a 24 hour epic to the Running of the Bulls. Unpaid, yet fun work in exchange for my bro and his friend’s free passage.
And that brings us to where we are now. Both dying of hangover in the unpleasant dorm, with Chris’s evil stare fixed up on me and less than an hour left to get ourselves together, get the group, the necessary gallons of sangria, and find the bus to settle into the long, tired ride to Pamplona.
The ride to the San Fermin was by far the calmest moment in the storm — intermission between the previous night out, and up coming madness. Thirty or so tipsy college students, from multiple countries, mingling together, and casually drinking on the large party bus, content that we were finally on the bus and on the way. My co-leader (a skinny, sloppy, tattooed Brit in a green tank top, named Pete) and I moved up and down the aisle, instigating the drinking, introducing people and building a good group vibe.
We all felt good, the calm of the highway and peace of transition, relaxed, the in-between moments… but as we cruised the highway in toward the city in the pre-dusk, orange glow, the chaos of the trip began again, meshing quite evenly with the tangibly insane, hyperactivity of Pamplona during the festival San Fermin. All of a sudden the questions started coming. “When are we getting there?” rose from the back.
“I’m sure it won’t be much longer bro, just have a Sangria…Chill and enjoy!”
“Where will we be sleeping?”
“I’m sure we will be camping somewhere…don’t stress!! We got this!”
“What time does it start in the morning?”
“I’ll tell you what! As soon as we get there I’ll ask one of the owners what the plan is. Cool?!” Pete and I answered, hilariously inaccurate answers to a myriad of questions, as both of us were totally in the dark with logistics.
And for the second time in eight hours, I quite adeptly “held my shit together” for the sake of the group, as Pete, furiously dialed and re-dialed the Stoked Travel Company owners, Buddha, Gravy, and Logan, each unanswered call compounding our frustration.
Eventually, after an hour of city traffic, (well worse than the worst rush-hour you have ever seen) we arrived in the dimly lit orange light of the partially filled yet raucous bus station.
As everyone unloaded, Pete and I made rough plans with the driver to meet at this exact spot, sometime in the early afternoon tomorrow. Figuring that a move to the center of town was the best plan of action by far, at least until we got a call from our organizers about what to do next, Pete and I roped everyone together for the briefing. Their excited anticipation, happy to be off that damn bus, was our fuel and life blood. And my brother’s groggy smiling face gave me the confidence I needed to BS through the logistics and deliver this speech right.
“ALRIGHT EveryBODY!!!!” “Listen UP!!!”
“HEEEYYYYY!!!” Came a fairly collective answer.
“Right! SO until we find out where the other groups are…”
“RIGHT!!! So… until then, we are going to the center of the festival… AND we are going to try and finish off the last twelve gallons of sangria!!! After we do that! Then we will find out were we will be sleepi-(RINNGNGGG!!!!)
“Everyone shut up!!! PETE’S got a call, lets find out what’s going on!”
(After a minute of hushed argument Pete hung up and came over to me.)
“Mate, that was Logan. There is no campsite, the plan is to just stay up on the Sangria piss all night.”
I knew I should have expected something like this, but that new fact still came as a shock.
“Oh… Right on.”
“Buddha’s group decided to stay in San Sebastian at the surf camp. So he’s coming in with Gravy and his lot, but they won’t be in till two a.m. Logan is here, but his lot is all fucked and messing about all over the city. He’ll meet us by the main stage in a couple of hours once he wrangles them back together.”
“Fuck bro, total shit, show huh?” I chuckled.
“Yup, that’s stoked for you, mate.”
We turned. “Alright everybody!!! Change of plans!!! WE’RE DRINKING ALL NIGHT!!! SIMPLE!! No more to say, down your glasses, fill them up, and let’s get the fuck out of here!!!!
“WAIT!! But YOU Said!”
“OY SHUT IT!!! We’re off now!!! DRINK UP!!!”
As we made our way out of the station with the throngs of other new arrivals, our vibrantly clean white and red outfits stood out like targets against all of the day runners and multi-day station sleepers, their white shirts now tie-dye purple with sangria, scuffs of brown arena clay, grass smears, and flecks of blood.
As we entered into the fresh cool evening air; the energy of our surroundings filled us. We found ourselves jumping up and down, smacking each others backs, and calling wildly into the air. I nearly toppled over as my brother jumped on to my back, shouting “Fuck man this is going to be sickk!!!” The flashing lights of concerts in hidden Placa’s down small crowded alleys, glowed over the tops of the antique stone buildings of the old town. Echoes of music, screams, and chants rang out in the night. The energy of a town turned nightclub engulfed us. Groups of Spaniards and tourists alike, emerged from the darkness in all directions, and headed for the living buildings like moths to a flame. Joining the thousands upon thousands, visible only by the hive of motion in the near distance. Cars stopped in the middle of five lane city roads, as we walked carelessly between them, heading towards the first concert, in a park just outside the old center of town.
We got our bearings, sitting on the grass by the park concert. The music was something like a folk Metallica, but in a Castilian dialect I couldn’t understand. This is where the calmer, Spanish drunks were. Sitting in groups of four or eight, sipping, laughing, smoking joints. As the gypsies walked by selling cervesa beer, sangria and red scarves emblazoned with a bull head. Pete, my brother, and I began finishing our sangria, sussing out the characters in the group and discussing excitedly what the run was going to be like tomorrow. With the prevailing question of would we, or would we not start the run before the Deadman’s corner. One bald, Scouse lad, with that fighter look about him kept my interest. I had met this fellow in the previous days around town, and knew that he had many friends in the Barca party scene. He kept leaving briefly with guys from the group in groups of two’s, and I assumed he had something to sell. His demeanor was that of a man on business. Slightly detached from the madness, yet still friendly with all of the guests, I decided to keep a mental tab on him, in case the need for potential party assistance arose, further in the night.
After arriving at a desired level of intoxication, fitting in with the rest of the masses, we made our move to the old center of town. We heard word that Logan had set up base at an electro concert in some Placa deep in the area, and used our ears to find him. It was an amazing scene, making our way through the alleys. A maze of twenty foot wide cobbled streets, crammed shoulder to shoulder with loud, merry, Spanish pedestrians, and shrouded on either side by six story high stone buildings with old worn faces dotted with wrought iron balconies and stained windows that exuded jubilant energy. Dancing lights, and sounds, of the local parties within. Smaller dark alleyways branched off these, reeking of piss, as lines of men found trashcans, and doorways, to relieve themselves, the occasional sinful act could be spotted farther into the darkness. As we turned down yet another slightly larger street, lined with bars, moving along with the mob, the sounds of electro music and Spanish shouts rang out ahead. We pushed our way forward through the crowds, until the Placa opened up in front of us, to the sight of a huge stage, flashing purple and red. On stage jumped around a woman in an outfit, that could only be described as S&M in technicolor, blasting the most unintelligible sounds into her mic, to the thumping waves of her DJ’s electro beat.
“HEEYYYY BUDDYYYY!!!!!!!!!” We turned abruptly as the beaming, obliterated face of Logan, one of our organizers, charged at us through the crowd. Ginger hair and beard, and sangria stained shirt, engulfing Pete and I in a bearish hug. “How you boys doing?!” He roared. “You made it okay I see!!” “HOW IS EVERYONE ENJOYING THE TRIP?”
“ALEX! Good to see you again! How’s France? I’M TELLING YOU BRO, you’re missing out!!! Shit is blowing up in Barca!! Anyways… this bench here,” he points behind him where a couple of tourists are making out, “That is base camp! Tell your people, and then free yourself from responsibility and get fucked up!!! We have 7 hours till 8 a.m., so let’s enjoy!!!”
As everybody went their ways, I started grilling Logan about the run itself. His demeanor shift really should have tipped me off more than it did. But the drop of his smile and quiet hard tone went right over my head. “ Yeah bro I ran today…”
“How was it man!!! You with me in the morning?!!”
“Naw, I don’t think so bro. I’m pretty drunk…”
“AWWW come on!”
“Naw dawg, once was good.”
“Really?… AH pussy!!! Well what kind of advice do you have?” I was a little apprehensive about the run having heard the stories and realizing all of the sudden, that we would not be getting a good night’s sleep prior. But I was dead set on doing it, and the real way, starting before Deadman’s Corner. So with the confidence only alcohol can give, I ignored the voice in the back of my head. And looked past the fact that up to this point there had been only chaos, and that the run itself would be probably twice as bad. I now focused on trying to get as much information as I could to prepare myself.
“Don’t fall down.”
“What?…Fuck dude, com’ on!! Give me some knowledge. Where does it start? How do we get our places? What is it like?!!!!”
“Just follow the crowds, and don’t fall down.” His face stone cold now.
“Okay thanks, Logan, big help. What about our group? How does this thing work?”
“Look Alex, when it comes time, most of these guys are gonna back out anyways. Don’t worry about anyone else. Just look after yourself, don’t fall down, and you’ll be fine.”
The smile returned to his face. “Now go enjoy!!”
And with that he turned around and moved off through the crowd, taking long swigs from his purple carton of Don Simon, 50 cent sangria. Pete, Chris, and I formed a little crew with a couple of other guys from the trip, and decided to head back to the bars and see what fun we could have. The following two and a half hours consisted of stumbling between bars, taking shots and yelling back and forth with the locals in embarrassingly broken Spanish, trying to make them understand how excited we were to be a part of their epic festival and run with their bulls. Between hugs, free shots and pee breaks down the alley, young Spanish girls came up to us seeing our red and white running attire.
“Tu correr con los toros mañanaaa?!” They asked in flirty giggles.
“Si, Si!” We grinned back.
“Noooooo… Es muy peligrosoooo!” They crooned in their sexy Spanish accents, inflating our testosterone and alcohol-fueled confidence even more as we hurriedly scribbled down phone numbers.
As we made our way back to the square, I could feel my energy leaving me. It was late and I was getting tired. I began to worry that at this rate I would be asleep before the run began. In the square, that seemed to be the case with many of the group. Guys dead set on running were sitting lazily on the ground with girls they had met, saying they were thinking of skipping out. I certainly wasn’t going to let that happen to me, and I thought back to the Scouse Brit. After searching him out, I found he had some good quality X’s, only a tenner a pop. That would do just fine.
Four blurry hours later, in the misty pre-dawn grey, still charged with rushing feelings and emotions, I reconvened with the groups at The Stoked Travel meeting point, in the thinning crowds of the now quiet electro square. And for the first time in the trip, the crazy Aussies, Buddha and Gravy gave the small group of everybody left standing a tense briefing.
“Ok guys, how are you feeling?”
A mixture of nods, coughs, and subdued yeahs, from the drawn faces of the group, answered back.
They began. “If you’re too drunk… leave now. If you have cameras, put them away. DON’T act stupid near any police, and NO pictures. When the first gunshot goes off, the first set of bulls has been released. When the second goes off, the second has been released. NEVER, be on the outside of a turn! NEVER, stop to help ANYONE. Doesn’t matter if it is the fucking president. You WILL get hurt if you stop for ANY reason. This is every man for himself… remember that. The run ends in the Bull-Fighting Arena, when the last set of bulls comes through the tunnel, they close the gates. SO, make sure you get through first or you’ll miss the craziness that follows. Anyone who wants to run with us, were going past Deadman’s Corner to the final hill. AND REMEMBER!!! DON’T FALL DOWN!!!!
I don’t know if I had decided this before, or if it arose out of the emotions of the ecstasy comedown I was experiencing, but I knew I could not run with my brother. Images of him falling and being trampled in the melee flashed through my head. And the idea of just running past and not being able to do anything to help him terrified me. Plus, I was raging to see the madness at Deadman’s corner.
So with brief goodbyes and good lucks to my brother and the crew, I set off in the direction they pointed me, to have my own experience of the run. And oh God, did I get more than I bargained for. It started, as soon as I got on the way to the course. Looking around, the street once filled with laughing drunk faces not three hours ago, alive with happy energy, now was dead, sullen, covered ankle deep in trash and beer bottles, silently awaiting. The colors mute and monotone, not night not day, just enough light from the approaching sun but muted before sunrise. The acrid tinge of vomit and urine, wafting into my nostrils as I marched forward, totally alone, cut off from the eerie faces of the people around. Strings of dark haired men, stained white and red clothes, trudging forward, alone in themselves. I had never expected this. Last night we felt like kings, about to pit ourselves against the bulls in glorious battle. Now the only emotion that was present was fear, almost terror. The men were silently preparing themselves. Fearful anticipation, not excited expectation was pouring from them. They were getting ready to risk their lives, to run for their lives. I became nervous.
As the sun crept over the high buildings of old town Pamplona, I entered onto the course road. A cobble stone, two-lane street and two-person sidewalk, shadowed, intimidating, by the six story buildings, their street level doors dead-bolted shut. A steep hill led to a left turn, The Lazy Left. Then a short straightaway, and a sharp right… Deadman’s Corner. If you are on the outside of this turn when the bulls come, you will be crushed, mauled, or killed. Six, one ton Steers; huge, powerful and clumsy, smash into the barricade, unable to make the turn. And the six aggressive, black fighting bulls that follow become quickly confused and angry as they slip out of blind stampede mode and into the melee of the intersection. Stone faces milled tighter and tighter around me, as more men pushed in from the branching alleyways. The Spaniard’s stretching silently, looking around with animalistic stares. The tourists breathing deep, swallowing back nerves. The crowded balconies littering the walls, crammed with old women, children, and parents, peering like vultures at us. Like hungry dogs, waiting for blood, our blood, we were a spectacle of violence. Police sifted through the building crowds, confiscating cameras, kicking out drunks, most girls, people that looked at them funny. Scary police, nervous police. It was a cool morning and I was sweating bullets, more sober than I had ever been in my life. I lit a cigarette, trying to fight back my building terror and apprehension, as all around me, fifteen foot, heavy wooden walls, were hoisted into place. Blocking every exit. I suddenly had a flash of sanity, as the crowd became alert and moved into place on the right side of the street. Pushing shoulder to shoulder, and back to back. “What the FUCK am I doing here right now?!?” My breathing shallow and fast, and heart pumping out of
A cacophony of vibrating silence filled my pores from all around. A sensation of brotherhood suddenly coursed into me, fueled by fear. We were all in this together. I turned all around wishing good luck to everyone, shaking, searching for eye contact. Trying to find some sort of comfort. Terrified by the knowledge that in amoment, any one of these men could be stampeding over my broken body.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! A gunshot rings out from down the hill, echoing between the buildings. The chaos begins. Some, including me, try to start running, thudding face first into the locals in front, who have only begun to walk. They are here for one thing, and those beasts have not nearly made it up the hill yet. The police make one final push, getting the mob into a light forward jog, before scaling the barricades to safety. It’s insanity, nobody knows where the bulls are, or how soon they’ll be upon us. Looking backward, trying to read the view from the faces of the people behind, I see chaos. People push right and forward, realizing they will be in the middle of the road when the bulls come. Jogging, but not wanting to commit to sprint before they are upon us. Chaos! The faces of the mob behind us turn from terror to a look I have never seen before. Fear for their lives. Running for their lives. Pure animal fight or flight. We begin to run. Really run. The sound of clanking cow bells, rising from behind, jarring our senses.
Seconds later, the sight of wide-eyed men, splitting in an instant rush. Like a school of sardines, fifty feet behind. Something else takes over. My heartbeat shakes my senses, and my veins pump boiling blood. They are on us faster then we can comprehend. I am not me. My feet churn in the air as I am lifted sideways by the mob’s rush to survive. My body pressed into the falling men to my right, as they are crushed into the buildings. A torrent of smashing, clanking, brown rages chest height, two feet to the left of me. Giant horns and death is all I can register in my peripherals. And the loud clank compounding twelve times over into my brain.
In a split second they are past. Slammed roughly back to my feet I keep pace, legs churning desperately to stay upright in the fray of feet, stones, and air.
Freedom!!! The crowd disperses back to a normal run. Sprint more like, but without the fear of death driving our flow. The gunshot cracks off in the distance. I have just under half a mile till the tunnel, and the bulls will be here in less than two minutes. This running feels free. We are alive! We made it! The first wave. The elation is vibrating through us. I see some friends and wave. It is nearly over.
Somewhere down the line, a mile back, runners see the fight or flight eyes behind them and take off. We go. I cram right in advance. We are pushing, looking at our feet. Selfish. I feel a shock, jolting through my shoulder of a fist. Directed at a gringo, from a bloodthirsty Spaniard. Every ounce of my body flexes, tightens, churns, fights as I careen forward, face toward the ground. I flex for a roll but am jolted sideways by a forward moving knee. My elbows, knees smash. I am fighting for my life. Pure terror grips me. A millisecond of dying fear as the gun fires at my face. I grab, kick, pulling up on a belt, gaining brief footing on a shin, slapping and kicking at the air. My body rises through the suffocating human melee in frenzied pursuit of life. I feel agony of hope as my toes slide, gripping back on the stones. Air! My head resurfaces into the light, color, the world of the living, and my body writhes ahead in terror. Less than a second. It was so slow. The runners around me oblivious, terrified in their own realm. Alive! I’m filled with the most passion of my life. Not happy, just awake, scared, alone, grateful, running. I want it to end. Muscles churning. ENOUGH!! I hear those fast echoing bells of terror behind me. No way out. I don’t want it!! No room in my life force for emotion. Just the pumping of my thighs and acute awareness of a hunted animal. My arms are spears. Out of my way! I will kill you. I will make it. The tunnel looms left.
I power forward.
A shape shatters through my focus. Sharp colors, contrasting vividly the shaded dark of the stone tunnel. I see a fallen man. Bulls at our heels. My humanity rears its head. I want to care. To help this hopeless man. But, I don’t stop, I fight through its shock like hail, as I dive for the spectator barricade. Spanish hands try to fend me off, back to the mayhem. I repel their efforts, as my body vaults over the five foot wood partition. Their bodies softening the blow as I land sideways on the ground.
They don’t know what they are dealing with. I jump up and look, as the bulls power through the tunnel. Careening like a missile toward the exit on the other side. Tearing the vibrant throngs of reveling runners down the middle. My eyes scour the crowd. Searching insanely. Where is my brother?
The bulls gone, I am lost for several moments, wandering the ring. Wrapped up, floating in the frenzied energy of the crowd around. The bloodthirsty spectators, the dust and breeze and noise, sun pounding down. Almost not aware, drifting through the madness, searching for my brother.
Then, out of the corner of my throbbing vision his shape comes into focus. His face, smiling but not, the look in his eyes of someone not there, shock, elation, fear. Swept truly out of your league. Still stuck in that moment of disconnect from yourself, having risen past it to survive. We make eye contact and his face slowly changes as he recognizes me. We collide in a rough hug. A handshake, our eyes meet, still settling into ourselves. We laugh and hug again.
“Fuck, bro, glad you made it.”
“Yeah, man, you too.”
We both knew that more was to come, that more madness would be unleashed soon. Exactly where we stood. But it didn’t matter. We smiled wild smiles. In that moment, I appreciated being alive more than I ever have.