Universal Translator

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cannibalizing from School

I regret not posting for so very long.  I did not realize - back when I didn't have a job and wasn't going to school -- just how labor-intensive maintaining a website can be.  In my mind, I was just tossing off a coupla ideas whenever they struck me.  But in Reality, it really was a lot of work to try to spit-shine and polish my mental meanderings until they were something I wanted to share.

In any event, one of the classes the school is making me take is an introductory English, designed to teach me how to write.  Since I'm writing this stuff anyway, I figured there wasn't any real difficulty in sharing it.  

What follows is the first of the 4 or 5 essays we have to write.  It is a "process essay," in that it is intended to teach us how to explain to others how to do something.

The Festival de San Fermίn: How to Run With the Bulls

            I spent the summer of 1991 studying abroad in Spain, and I knew even before my plane left the States that while there I would run with the bulls in Pamplona during the Festival de San Fermίn. Every year thousands of drunken Spaniards and addled tourists take part in this lunacy and, every year, one or more bull runners are gored, trampled or even killed. But Hemingway long ago made the running of the bulls iconic, and I couldn’t see how in all good conscience I could let an opportunity to run with the bulls pass me by. In the event, I discovered that running with the bulls is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that anybody can do safely, provided one knows what to expect and plans accordingly.
            Of course, the first thing you need to do is make sure you are in Pamplona at the right time and that you have assembled the correct uniform. The running of the bulls takes place from the 7th to the 14th of July, so you have only one week to participate in this madness. The uniform is nothing more than a pair of white pants and a white shirt set off by a red sash wrapped around your waist and a red kerchief tied about your neck. The sashes and kerchiefs are for sale all over Pamplona, but you will need to provide the pants and shirt yourself. You should also make sure you have a newspaper, about which more later.
            Some additional necessary preparations are blindingly obvious. For example, it is probably best to run the bulls sober. However, you may find this slightly difficult to pull off. You see, the run (the encierro) takes place in the morning and so you will have to be in Pamplona the night before, and during the Festival de San Fermίn the entire city is a non-stop party. Literally hundreds of social organizations and political groups set up booths selling beer or wine, there is dancing and music on every street corner, and unless you lock yourself in a hotel room it is difficult not to join in the fun. If – like me – you find you simply cannot restrain yourself, then I recommend making the conscious decision to stop drinking no later than 2:00 am. This will give you six hours to sober back up.
            Of course, you might as well use those six hours productively, so that is a good time to locate the encierro and walk the course. In fact, walk it several times. In just a few hours you’ll be barreling down it at top speed, a thousand pounds of thundering hoofed death hot on your heels, and you’ll want to be familiar with its layout. How embarrassing to be trampled to death (not even gored!) because you were so careless as to trip over an unexpected sidewalk.
            You’ll also want to make sure you are in the encierro no later than 7:00 am, one hour before the run actually starts.  The Festival de San Fermίn is Spain’s most heavily attended fiesta and there may be more than a thousand idiot thrill-seekers just like you who want to run the bulls that day. You will need to find a place that isn’t too crowded. You won’t want to have to push past too many bodies in order to reach top speed.       
            When the 8:00 starting rocket goes off and the encierro begins, do not – I repeat, do not – wait around. Unless you decided to start at the very beginning of the course, the bulls are being released some place a block or more away from you. Do not wait until you actually see them to start running. First, nobody else is going to be waiting. (If you thought it would be embarrassing to be trampled by a bull, just imagine how much more humiliating to be knocked down and trampled by a thousand other runners who were smart enough to start without you.) Second, bulls at speed can move surprisingly fast; if you don’t start running immediately, by the time you glimpse the bulls it may already be too late. Just put your head down, grip your rolled-up newspaper tightly, and go.
            When you reach the arena you will pass through a short, high-ceilinged tunnel and then into the stadium proper. The entire mass of runners will then split in two, one half peeling off to the right and the other peeling off to the left. You should be prepared for your reception. The arena itself will already be packed with spectators who will rise as one and cheer you as you enter, and the noise is deafening. I remember thinking when I experienced it: This must be what it feels like to run into the Superbowl.   
            Of course, the bulls will be following right behind you, but that is precisely why the runners split off to the sides. For some reason, after they enter the arena the bulls seem to lose all interest in the runners on either side of them and simply run directly across the stadium field. On the far side of the stadium a gate opens up and the bulls trot right through. None of those bulls will be seen again until they are brought out later in the afternoon to be slaughtered by that day’s matador.
            But this doesn’t mean the bull running is over. After the bulls that have just chased them through the streets disappear behind the far gate, the runners assemble on the ground directly in front of that gate and start chanting, slapping their rolled-up newspapers in their free hands to keep time. When I ran the bulls I unquestioningly sat down in front of the gate too, and tried to translate what my fellow runners were chanting. I had just worked out that they were asking for the bulls to be released again when suddenly the gate opened up and one came charging into the arena, trampling a few people sitting directly in front. Thankfully, it was not one of the monster bulls that had chased us through the streets but a much younger, smaller bull whose horns had been padded to prevent anyone from actually being gored. 
            And that was how I discovered that after running with the bulls in the streets, a new game is played in the arena. Three or four young bulls are released into the stadium and the runners take turns rushing up behind them, swatting them with rolled-up newspapers and then running away. The bulls will chase the person who swatted them until somebody else comes up and swats them again; the bulls then instantly give up on whomever they were just chasing and turn to pursue this new affront. The easily distracted nature of bulls, coupled with the fact you can jump/clamber over the stadium wall if necessary to get away, makes this part of the bull running more fun than it is dangerous.
            Once I had worked out the nature of the “swat bulls and run away game” I played until – on my third trip over the wall – I landed poorly and broke one of my toes. Well, that’s that I thought to myself. I decided that I had accomplished what I had set out to do, that I had acquitted myself adequately, and that running the bulls in Pamplona was something I now could cross off of my bucket list. So I rejoined my friends, tossed aside whatever scraps of good sense I still had left, and availed myself of all the festivity San Fermίn had to offer.
            Done correctly – with foreknowledge, planning and relative sobriety – running the bulls in Pamplona can be a reasonably safe and yet still iconic, once-in-a-lifetime experience. In fact, the kind of experience that should be once-in-a-lifetime. Because having run the bulls once, you can spend the rest of your life secure in the knowledge that there is no need to ever, ever do something so crazy stupid again.

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