My first Easter in Spain, I went to Arcos de la Frontera for the running of the bulls. This is unlike the event held in Pamplona in some important ways. Instead of letting loose a stampede of bulls, they release one bull at a time. A stretch of the main road is blocked off with barricades at both ends and at each side street. The bull is released at one end of this thoroughfare and before they release it, the handlers get it really riled up. The angry bull charges down the street after the foolhardy and the brave.
Arcos de la Frontera is a gorgeous town of white buildings in a typical Andalucian style. Most first floor windows have bars on them and for running of the bulls that means they have men hanging on them as well. The barricades are generally made of large horizontal beams with occasional man sized gaps for escaping runners to get through. Behind these barriers, there is usually a mass of people packed solid with blood crazed spectators.
When the first bull was released, I was off to the side but inside the barricades. I figured, if this bull was giving his life for people's entertainment, the least I could do was give him a chance at mine. This is not a popular choice with the military, and drunk US military are often casualties at the event, with severe disciplinary repercussions ahead of them for reckless endangerment of government property.
I watched the bull charge off after all the men wanting to challenge their manhood. I followed along trying to stay close enough to see what was going on. The bull charged back and forth for a while and eventually he and I ended up in about the same place.
It is said to be good luck for a year if you can touch the bull, and good luck for three years if you touch his blood. Yes, unfortunately, this is a tale that ends in blood. I am far from immune to the cruelty of taunting an animal until it makes its heart burst from the running and then spearing it to death. On the other hand, the bull led a better life than the millions of animals slaughtered in the United States to feed the hungry masses. We should clean up our own messes before pointing fingers at others.
After a while of staying close to the action, I decided to see if I could give myself some luck. As I approached the bull and the mostly drunken men who were taunting it, a strange thing happened. Suddenly, I was face to face with an angry, tired bull turned sideways to the road. There wasn't another person within five meters of us. I was standing only two meters in front of the business end of a pair of horns.
I should reiterate that this was Easter weekend. The weekend before Easter, they hold a procession through the streets with everyone holding candles. The roads were all cobblestone. After the procession, the cobblestones are covered in wax. This is an important detail for the ongoing action.
Standing two meters from 800 kg of angry cattle with only air to protect you can be a defining event. Handled poorly, it can mean severe injury or worse. As far as I could tell, most of the men there countered the intensity of the moment with copious amounts of alcohol, and were never that aware of the danger they were in. I hadn't been drinking that day, and I was crazy enough sober to put myself in harms way.
I stared the bull down for a precious few seconds, and then, decided to act. I feinted to the left before dodging to the right. The bull started to follow my initial movement, then tried to reverse with me. Waxy cobblestones are slick. This is less of a problem for running shoes than it is for hard hooves. When the bull tried to reverse direction, it lost traction on the slick, waxy stone and fell over onto its side. I took the golden opportunity to place my hand firmly on its back and then got away.
I was running with my friend Jon. Jon and I stayed close to the action while the bull charged this way and that. Drunk men taunted it ceaselessly, sometimes paying for their disrespect, usually not. After a bit, Jon and I moved off into a cul de sac formed by the barricade at one of the side streets. We intended to let the action pass us by. Unfortunately, a drunken teenager chose this exact moment to startle the bull into that cul de sac. Jon and I sprinted for the gap at the side of the barricade. It was only large enough for one person to go through at a time. It was obvious there wasn't time for two of us to get through the barricade and the thronging mass of people behind it, so while Jon hit the gap, I jumped as high as I could and grabbed the top of the barricade.
I must have looked like a pinata to the angry bull. I cleared his head, just as he initially rammed the barricade. From there, he proceeded to try to gore me for the next twenty seconds. I must have made quite the comical sight there, sitting on the head of an angry bull, between its horns, feed uselessly kicking it in the nose as it thrashed its head from side to side, failing only by relative position to gore me. I like to say that I touched the bull and then he returned the favor. Finally, either through frustration at my continued existence, boredom at the lack of blood, or from a well placed kick, the bull decided to try his luck with some other brave soul and moved along.
When the bull had run itself out, a matador came along to kill the bull in the usual fashion, with a sword thrust through the heart from above. My friend Jon was at its side and earned his three years luck. The end of this bull's life did not do it justice in my eyes. I was honored to share the street with this noble creature. I did not return to Arcos de la Frontera in the coming years, but I will never forget this animal.