Monday, July 11, 2011

Like Nothing You've Ever Experienced

On the bus on the way to Pamplona, the tour leader said we were about experience something ‘like never before in our lives’. I’d say she hit the nail on the head. We were on our way to the San Fermin festival, more commonly known in English as the Running of the Bulls. We weren’t actually on a tour either, Courts had just talked our way onto the bus of a tour group staying at the same campsite as ours.

We had been advised by several experienced San Fermin-ers to arrive in costume or be ridiculed by the Spanish (which includes having things thrown at you). The day before we left, we spent 20 Euro each on our costumes – white shirt, white pants, red scarf and red belt. Everyone on the bus was wearing the same and arriving in Pamplona, an hour and a half from camp, at 9am and seeing people in costume was awesome.

Even at 9am the town was buzzing. Everyone was in costume, a fair few were already having beer at the bars in the town square, and a crowd was building outside the town hall ready for the Mayor to launch the Chupinazo rocket at 12 noon, marking the start of the week long festival.

Once we got our bearings and knew where the Chupinazo would be, we went exploring. Exploring basically means buying leather drinking pouches and bottles of Sangria. The thing is, if you’re there on the first day, you don’t wear white to stay white, which was proven before we had even made it back to the town hall. By 11am, the small square in front of the town hall was packed tighter than any mosh pit we had ever been in. We pushed through the mobs of people to a spot near the middle but towards the back, because the square is on a slight hill and we had been told it was more squashed at the front (the bottom of the hill).

Before we were even in the crowd we were pink with Sangria. This entire ‘ceremony’ is basically a giant Sangria fight. It’s all in good fun, the spirit of the festival, so we joined in. I don’t think I’ll get another chance to pour Sangria over Courts head and have him laugh about it! The buildings in Pamplona open directly onto the streets and raise 3 or 4 stories high so people on their balconies were out as well. The nice ones threw water to cool the crowd down, the rest threw more Sangria.

Finally, the clock struck 12 and huge cheers rang out as the Mayor stepped out with the Chupinazo. Several rockets were fired one after the other, the crowd going crazy for loud puffs of smoke. We stayed for a couple minutes and then made our way out to the toilets. The rest of the day was spent exploring the town. Many parts of it were just as crowded as the town hall, including one square with a several-metre-high statue that people jump off, relying on the drunken crowd to catch them. The tour group were warned not to do it because ‘people die’ – kind of obvious but when you’re headed to run with bulls that gore people you would think the bulls would be more dangerous.

We tended to stay on the outskirts of town, drinking and napping in the sun like the Spanish. Our plan was to camp out the night and see the first bull run the next morning then go back to camp, so we were preparing for a long night. Other than the Chupinazo, the highlight was definitely when we walked the bull run course just for laughs, and instead stumbled upon a carnival. We filled up on Paella and Churros and went on the highest, fastest rides they had.

Around 8pm, as we were settling in to sleep in the last hours of sunlight while it was still warm, Courtney went to the bathroom in the bus station and came back with bus times ‘just incase’ we wanted to go home. We were both very tired and a bit over the insanity and the mess (I don’t know how but heaps of travelers we’ve met stayed for days with no actual accommodation) but the problem was getting back for the bull run. The only bus early enough was with the tour group and we weren’t sure if we could get on. We decided to go home, rest for the day, and if we couldn’t get on a bus, ride the bike in for the second bull run instead of the first. Courts was a little bit sick from a combination of flu, drinking and heat, so once we were on the bus home we were a bit relieved. The whole day was awesome fun, and the tour guide was right, you don’t experience that every day!