Running of the Bulls . . . a beautiful disaster

26 07 2010

By Kinero Tan

Every year on July 6th, millions of people gather in Pamplona for a nine-day festival, where hundreds of adrenaline junkies get their fix by running ¾ of mile alongside 6 massive bulls.  Spectators rise each morning of the festival before 8AM, to watch from the sidelines and the safety of their balconies.  The locals call it El Enciero (literally translated “the enclosing”- taking these wild creatures through the course to be enclosed into the bull ring) . . . although the majority of us know it as the “Running of the Bulls.”

On July 10th I sat on the beaches of Barcelona, soaking in rays and enjoying the company of my friends.  Even in the midst of the most relaxing phase of my journey, Pamplona was constantly stirring in my thoughts.  The anticipation offered an array of mixed emotions from anxiety and fear to pure excitement of potentially crossing off this event from the bucket list.  I listened to a collection of stories from veteran participants, with endings ranging from blissful to horrific.  I watched the youtube videos, and had done the research, yet nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.

Before arriving to the San Fermin Festival, I would spend one night in Bilbao, a smaller Spanish city just west of Pamplona.  I was privileged to find myself in Spain as they battled it out in the 2010 World Cup finals.  I made my way to the center of town, found a lively bar to sit down in, and shared travel stories with some blocs from Manchester, England who had pure love for the sport, as well as drinking endless pints of beer.

They taught me a drinking game that night, I promised to take with me to the states.  It consisted of taking a coin and throwing it into a friend’s glass as the group chanted, “Save the Queen, Save the Queen, Save the Queen” . . . the victim would drink until the jar was empty, ensuring that the Queen was safe from drowning. Needless to say, we had a lot of jars that night!

In the 116th minute Andres Iniesta scored a goal that would erupt the entire country, a moment that would surely go down in the history books.  Celebration in the streets went late into the night with fireworks flying, drums beating, horns honking, and the unforgettable chant that still rings through my head weeks later, “Yo soy Espanol, Espanol, Espanol!”

After spending time in different parts of the country, I’ve come to learn that there is a great divide among the regions.  For example, Barcelona citizens for several years have been fighting to preserve their culture and regain independence.  Their claim being, “ We are Catalunya, not Spain.” Many northern cities including San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Pamplona consider themselves to be Basque Country.  That being said, on July 11, 2010 it did not matter what region you came from.  As you can see in this picture the Spanish flag flew high in the streets, and the locals sang, “I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish!”  This was an especially unforgettable moment for me, as I embraced a country that would unite under the game of futbol.

Despite the minimal sleep from the previous nights celebrations, I was far too excited to feel restless as I boarded the bus to Pamplona dressed in the traditional San Fermin festival attire.

I hit the streets running, and never looked back.  If I could sum up this town, this festival and how these people partied, it was like “Las Vegas on a Redbull overdose.”

In the hot Spanish summer sun, calimocha (mixture of red wine and coke on ice) was the best way to stay cool.  The narrow cobble stone roads were shoulder to shoulder with marching bands, drum circles, endless rows of bars, people drenched in sangria, and no reason needed to party like it was 1969. The firework displays made the 4th of July look like child’s play, cocktails were poured with an extremely heavy hand, and there was a hazy grey area between taking a siesta and just simply passing out!

Like many others who didn’t know better than to book accommodations for Pamplona months in advance, I found myself sleeping in the park, amongst hundreds of people who were trying to get at least a couple hours of rest before waking up to participate in what we all really came for, “Running with the bulls.”

As I attempted to shut my eyes with two hours to game time, my heart was racing and my mind began to wonder.  Unable to sleep, I walked away from the park bench, towards the sound of drums and back into the city lights.

I sat and watched the bulls sleep for at least a good hour . . .

I checked my watch at 7:50AM and the next 10 minutes would be the longest of my life. I tried to plan my starting place strategically, understanding that at some point 6 bulls would pass me and I would need to run quickly after them to make it into the arena before they shut the doors.  This was my personal goal.

The first gunshot was fired and I knew this meant the first bull was out of the gate.  20 seconds later another shot was fired signifying the last bull was out of the gate.  I stood in the middle of the road and jumped in the air 6 times to look over the crowd of runners to see if the bulls were coming.  I clearly remember on the sixth jump, seeing a mob of people frantically moving towards me, and the horns of the first bull in the pack.

There was a moment during that run where time stood still . . . when an 1100 lb bull stood by my side, his horn the size of my entire arm, froth dripping the sides of its mouth, and the sound of profanities in every language you could imagine.

Being next to something so wild and massive and watching as it passed me, I could feel the fear among those around me.  As soon as the last bull passed I ran as fast as my sangria fueled legs would allow.  I made it into the arena . . . I stared at complete strangers with no words but a mutual understanding. The joy that surrounded us was indescribable; as if we were victorious gladiators, sweat dripping, sun beating on our faces, and a packed arena with thousands cheering from the stands.

To my surprise only seconds later, they shut the gates and released 6 vacas (female version of the bulls) one at a time.  They cover the horns of the bull with something like a rubber stopper, so they couldn’t gore us, slice there ass slightly before letting them out of the gates to run around after 150 clowns that dare to stay in the arena.  Now that I think about it, probably the dumbest thing that I’ve ever done, at the same time one of the best experiences of my life.

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14 days, 4 countries, 7 cities, and a start I couldn’t have dreamt . . .

17 07 2010

By Kinero Tan

When mapping out my time in Europe, Iceland was nowhere to found on my original agenda.  Yet, upon meeting with my travel agent I would discover that the most cost effective route in getting to London included a 2-day layover in what is now on my list of underrated hidden gems in the world, Reykjavík, Iceland.

A combination of 24-hour sunlight, hot springs, exploding geysers, and a landscape that lives up to the pictures you see in brochures . . . for an unseasoned traveler like myself this destination was delightfully unexpected, igniting the fuses of the imagination.

My first day included venturing out to the Blue Lagoon, an outdoor geothermal spa.  This lava formation creating steamy water, is one of Iceland’s main attractions.  A tour for 3200 ISK (Icelandic Krona) the equivalent to approximately 26 USD would include entry to the Blue Lagoon facility, as well as a bus ride to and from your accommodations.

After a 5-minute walk surrounded by 10-foot high natural rock walls, I would approach a modern structure with a backdrop of Iceland’s beautiful countryside.  Thick clouds of steam hover above the water’s surfaces as visitors walk around enjoying waterfall massages, walk up bars where you can conveniently scan your wristband, steam rooms, saunas, and silica mud masks that are provided in boxes around the lagoon.

After spending hours soaking, I felt relaxed, my skin revitalized, and ready for another Icelandic adventure. Later that evening as I aimlessly walked around the narrow streets of Reykjavík admiring the beautiful people and unique architecture, I would stumble upon thousands of Icelanders enjoying a free concert in the park featuring Damien Rice and other local bands.

If you are looking to experience the real nightlife in this city, one suggestion I would make is to plan your stay around a Friday night.  This is the one night of the week Icelanders truly party hard.  Because of the high cost of cocktails, the youth enjoy drinking at home, or “prefunking” as we call it in the states, up until 1AM to 2AM.  The bars and clubs are at peak capacity around 4AM and during this time of year, partying till the sun comes up doesn’t apply . . .

Here is a picture taken at 3:45AM