San Fermin starts with the Chupinazo on the 6th of July, the first day. In a drunken frenzy, everybody gathers in one of the many plazas (I didn’t know is just a public square) and a rocket is set-off to mark the official start of San Fermin. Apparently you get soaked in Sangria and all forms of alcohol, and it’s red all round with everyone waving their red scarves; a prominent feature at San Fermin as part of the red and white uniform. Running or attending San Fermin without these colours leaves you feeling a little silly and out of place.
There are loads of street hawkers and shops that sell the clothes though, and language isn’t a problem, you just point and negotiate – with the largely Chinese (soooo many Chinese in Spain!) and assumedly Senegalese immigrants that crowd the streets hawking their wares exactly like Nairobi CBD.
The fun part was approaching one of these my African bros (since from my experience, any black person is a ‘bro’ especially to Asians), lounging on a bench in the dim light of breaking dawn. He happened to speak English:
- Me: Hola! Are you selling the scarves?
- Him: No
- Me: Are you selling the pants?
- Him: No…
- Me: Nkt, so what are you selling?
- Him: (looking bored by my interrogation) something else…
Then the smell of marijuana hit us (I was still with the Mexican at that point) and we moved on amused. Drug-dealers are a-plenty in Pamplona – at least during San Fermin.
There are lots of interesting parades that happen over San Fermin, which I also missed because I only got there in time for the last 2 days. Even then though, the party is still going on full throttle, and brass brands seem to come out of nowhere banging the hell away, people in tow.
The actual run happens in the old town of Pamplona, up and down cobbled streets walled by tall narrow buildings that rent out balconies – for a shitload of money . Balconies are also pretty much sold out way in advance, but I did see a couple of hustlers hustling some last-minute balconies.
And then the actual run…held every day at around 8am. If you want to actually watch the run properly though, you need to be there at 6.30am to either sit on the fence, or anything high nearby.
I couldn’t believe it when I found myself crawling through the gaps in the fence, walking down the narrow streets, sealed in with hundreds of other excited, scared, crazy (my dad’s reaction when he heard I was running was far from endearing). We debated about whether to start running after or before dead man’s turn.
Until dead man’s turn, the streets are narrow and straight, the bulls have nowhere to run but straight on. Once they reach dead man’s turn, the momentum carries them straight on, and they slip and fall on the cobbled streets…that’s basically where all the bulls lose their shit, and charge anyone in sight. Unless you’re trying to be a statistic, you don’t want to be there. Aside from dead man’s turn, the only dangerous thing is you, your nerves and other people…I’d say other people are the most dangerous thing running San Fermin, just because it’s a bunch of strangers panicking.
We (by this time I’d bandied up with a crazy Aussie couple and a hilarious guy called Melon or something close) decided to take our chances by running AFTER Dead Man’s Turn, theoretically safer. We stood there, waiting for 1 hour until the launch of the 1st rocket that stops your heart, because you know after the 2nd rocket, the bulls have been let loose. We stood there jumping around and cursing in excitement, taking pictures with strangers (one of the Aussies had sneaked in a tiny camera). You can’t believe you are doing it. You hug. It’s an amazing hour, your life doesn’t flash before your eyes, but what could potentially happen does. You want to piss yourself, you wonder if a beer will help or a shot, you wonder if you’re shaking in the morning breeze, or it’s the adrenaline you can feel pumping through your forehead…yes you feel it pounding inside your head. You can also feel your heartbeat in your neck. You wonder if you should have slept more last night, drunk less, wonder if your reflexes are fine. Are my reflexes fine. ‘what am I doing, what am i doing seriously’. You look at the other runners, barely any women. You want to take a dump or is that the nerves, you watch people sniff some coke, you watch the cops chase a would-be thief and see them tackle him and give him a headlock before he hits the ground (don’t mess with Spanish cops, the headlock that guy was given was too ninja). You watch the people on the balconies, looking down at you through sleepy eyes and camera lenses. They look relaxed, will they cheer if you fall?
You watch people pray, you watch old men there to run. You watch their eyes fill up with tears, this is a spiritual moment for them, they shake hands with grim faces, crows-feet deep at the corners of their eyes. They are not hear for the rush like you, they attach a deeper meaning to this almost 100 year tradition. Then you see the runners in lycra, stretching their muscles. They look like they’re getting ready to do a marathon, it’s only a few hundred metres, what’s the big deal. The cops stop letting people in, it’s time, you feel people tense up even more – kukaza rasa mad. We talk about our strategy, what to do if we get separated, what to do when the bulls finally reach us. We don’t talk about getting hurt. The first rocket goes off, and you half scream half cheer…and huddle closer to the wall. The strategy is to stand there and let the bulls pass you and run after them. There’s going to be a 2nd rocket and then you will….oh shit, there’s the 2nd rocket.
Then suddenly EVERYTHING slows down…I hear screams, people rush past me. Some can’t take it anymore, and run to the fences, climbing through the narrow gaps to escape. And then comes the thunder, thunder in slow motion allows you to process every part of it. I remember clearly the look in one man’s eyes…as he ran towards me, the look in his eyes, I wasn’t scared until I saw the look in his eyes, I vaguely wished I had my camera, even as I became aware that this guy was coming right at me, and I was going to be on the street if I didn’t move/push him away. And then just behind me, OMG, i didn’t think they were that big…everything slowed down a little more. The Aussies are in a doorway, and I’m in-front of them, mostly on the street…I feel the girl pulling me in, I push backwards into her, trying to fit in that tiny space. But the guys is still coming towards me (yes, it is slow motion) and he’s definitely going to knock me over if I continue standing there. I’m going to be thrown into the street, I’m going to be a statistic, THE BULLS ARE HERE, SHIT! i measure the distance between me and the horns, no wonder the devil is drawn with horns, I am not going to make it, I’m going to make a run for it, but before I can move, the man ducks into a doorway, the brown and black bulls run past me, I hold my breath lest I breathe out and get caught by a horn…the bulls thunder off, and as if I was just coiled up waiting, my legs make the decision for me, releasing the tension as I run after the bulls, determined to keep them in sight, they are fast, much faster than I expected.
I stop because we got separated, I look behind me, I’m not much of a runner, but I clearly have some Kenyan in me, my mates are far behind, and I stop, wait I can stop. People are strolling now…’is that it?’ i wonder, just a 2 minute rush? Even in that slow motion, I am disappointed, I feel my shoes tear from glass on the street, and start to speak before I hear more screams…and the tell-tale thunder. I’m in the middle of the street. run to the left or the right? The struggling bulls that fell at Dead Man’s Turn come charging towards us. Hasty decision, don’t remember to what side, but we duck…another rush as the thunder past us. The last of the bulls.
I decided against another blog, wordpress or otherwise. So you’re invited to see the pictures that I take myself on my facebook page, jerejustjere.wordpress.com. Like that shit! I’ll only be posting 15 of the best pics per album.