Every fiesta morning at eight o’clock, a rocket fires and six bulls are released into the streets of Pamplona to run toward the bullring. They do not run alone. They are accompanied by a pack of steers, whose docile influence hopefully keeps the bulls running close together. Also running beside them are thousands of people who’ve been waiting in the street for the chance to run with the bulls even for just a few moments. This is the encierro.
I have been to the Fiesta San Fermín nine times and have never ever considered running with the bulls. It is a dangerous tradition that I respect, from our balcony. I’m told it started when the shopkeepers along the route, having closed their doors while the bulls run by, decided to join in, with the permission of the pastores who herd the pack of animals to the bullring. It grew into a local ritual. Hemingway made the fiesta popular among foreigners, who joined the party and the run. I’m privileged enough to be friends with some of the foreigners who are loved and respected by the local bull runners, for whom the encierro is an art and a serious sport. These are men easily distinguished from the drunken college students who show up and know nothing about the bulls or the run and whose presence in the street is often the greatest danger of all.
A good encierro is a fast run. It can take less than three minutes to cover the 800-meter distance. It’s a good run if the pack of bulls and steers stick together, if the bulls remain focused on running forward and pay little attention to the throngs of people running beside them, trying to maneuver their way to the plum running spot, just ahead of one of the horns. It’s not such a good run when a bull gets separated from the pack because he falls behind or literally falls down, and when he gets up he’s lost his mates. The toro suelto, a loose bull, stops and spins around, charging at any runner who happens to be in front of him. Usually a green-shirted pastore will appear with his long herding stick, a stick sometimes used to whack idiot runners, and redirects the bull forward to join the others at the end of the run. Sometimes it’s up to a courageous bull runner – the experienced ones know how and will dare – to turn the bull around and provoke it forward, before getting out of the way.
The entire encierro is broadcast, so the parts I cannot view from my balcony on the calle Estafeta I can see on television. It’s something to see the toro suelto stopped and spun around, confused. The bulls are so beautiful and noble; it’s perplexing to see them out of sorts.
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Each and every fiesta I have my own suelto moment. The week starts out bright and convivial, with champagne and cheer and old friends greeting, music and dancing in the street, a whole week of unscheduled wildness ahead. But midway through the fiesta there’s a dip, from lack of sleep, too much drink, getting fed up with the gray sludge in the streets and the constant press of people. I always have one restless night when my mind won’t shut down and my train of thought is only of the dark side. I become convinced that everyone I know, in Pamplona and elsewhere, merely indulges me and that I’m a terrible mother abandoning my family to come to this sloppy party. It’s a lonely moment, laying in the dark, unable to sleep, the dull roar of constant revelers in the street audible even with the best of earplugs. It’s the moment I feel out of the pack, and turned around, but fortunately, too tired to charge.
It’s remarkable to me that even in the company of so many fun-loving, open-hearted fiesta-thriving people – anyone you meet in the street will nod and smile at you – that such a lonely moment can prevail. The only thing to do is ride it out; the mid-fiesta plunge always passes and with the rising of the sun, the spirited alegria of the fiesta returns.
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Another always: how I leave Pamplona before the fiesta ends. Two days of incessant partying remain, but I never finish with my friends. There have been years when I lamented my early departure. Other years, like this one, I felt ready to leave. My farewell breakfast included some beautiful jotas, a reprise of singing attention from Puchero, hugs and kisses and goodbyes, followed by the sound of suitcase wheels rolling along the pavement to my last bar in town, where the taxi meets me. It’s just over an hour’s ride to the train that takes me to France and to my family. I always keep my pañuelo and my faja on for the entire ride. I’m the only one in white and red, the suelto amongst a train full of people dressed in blue jeans and regular colors.
At the other end of the train ride, De-facto – donned in white pants and T-shirt and a thin red pañuelo bearing the name of a cheapest brand of patxaran, something I must have left behind after a previous fiesta return – swept me into the car and on winding roads through villages, fields and forests to our country house. Short-pants, Buddy-roo and my mother-in-love cheered my arrival and sang a song they’d rehearsed for my return. There were fierce hugs from my not-as-little people, both of whom had grown taller since I last saw them. Dinner was waiting on the table. Ten days of stories were flying at me from every direction. I looked around, stunned, not unhappy to be in their presence, but somehow not quite in sync, not yet facing their direction. Like the toro suelto, I’d been somewhere else, out of the pack, loose and turned around.
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A few days pass and I am back in step with my herd. Little by little I take up the routines that we follow here: writing in the morning, a run to the store before midday, pruning grapevines and rose bushes and attempting to keep up with the laundry. My dirty white clothes, soaked for two days in a mix of Coca-cola and bleach before they were washed – a secret recipe for removing the gray sludge – are now draped across every clothesline, drying in the sun. Long, thick nights of sleep, deeper because of the country quiet, restore my energy and return my attention to my family. I was away from them for three weeks to walk the Camino, and another ten days before and during the fiesta. I’ve had plenty of time away from my pack. But that’s something I need, that time away, and it’s exactly what makes it feels so good to be back, running side-by-side with them now.