7/08/2006

That's A Load Of Bull [JUNE 18, 2006]

The sweltering sun is beating down on the bloodstained dust as their eyes meet. Man and beast, standing there, nervous as to who will make the first move, while the crowds in the bullring bleachers – which eerily resemble those of the Roman Colosseum – cheer on the blood sport with a morbid enthusiasm not seen since ancient gladiatorial matches. The matador soon decides to break the deadlock as he waves a crimson red cape in front of the tired eyes of the enraged black bull and draws in their focus. The beast, a species known as el toro bravo (the courageous bull) and specifically bred for its ferocity in the arena, lowers its lethally sharpened horns and prepares to charge. The matador, whose name comes from the Spanish verb matar (to kill), arches his back and waves the cape once again, unwilling to allow the bull to succumb to the pain of the steel blades lodged into his spine and the numerous cuts and slashes that he has received over the past fifteen minutes. El toro bravo rubs his front-right ebony hoof against the ground, aims for the fluttering red cloth – which he has been conditioned to attack since calfhood – and takes off with the force of a locomotive. The streams of blood pouring down his torso and head, not to mention the excruciating pain, are temporarily forgotten. The only thing that matters now is the assault. Fight or flight at its most basic, except that flight isn’t an option. Just as the beast is about to strike his tormentor and end this torturous nightmare, the matador twirls about on the edge of his toes and effortlessly avoids el toro bravo’s lethal charge. The crowd goes wild as they salute the matador’s grace and poise in the face of death. He acknowledges them with a smug tilt of the head and turns to see where his foe has gone. The bull, confused by the whistles, cheers, and applause coming from the bleachers, soon realizes that he must have missed his target. The searing pain of those raw, open wounds makes the creature want to simply lie down there in the middle of the scorching arena and die. Ironically, the streams of blood trickling down his side are not only draining the beast of life but also serving to cool him in this unbearable heat. If only he could lie down in the dust and rest… slowly drift off to death as the ground sops up whatever blood his body might have left. But the matador won’t hear of it. He’s paid a hefty sum for this prize bull and is insatiably eager to hear more praise from the audience. He urges el toro bravo on and the docile brute, a slave to his instincts and conditioning, takes the bait as he prepares for another futile charge. He’ll have to wait at least a quarter of an hour to end this misery – until the matador has finally had his fill of applause and decides to plunge his sword into the beast with that skilled final deathblow. But a matador’s deathblow never actually kills a bull. It’s up to the assistants to lure the beast into a corner as he chokes up pints of blood and jab the creature two or three times in the neck with a dagger. Only then does the toro's nightmare end. Meanwhile, at the other end of the bullring, the judges are tallying up their scores as the matador takes his proud victory stride around the arena, accepting flowers from his countless cheering admirers. Success. Another Spanish bullfight has come to an end.


Dude! There's a bull on your balcony! I've got a BBQ grill on mine...

I went to my first bullfight within a week of moving to Spain. I had convinced myself, along with a little help from numerous guidebooks, Hemingway, and one vivid Cosmo article I can still recall (I swear it wasn’t my Cosmo – It was just sitting there on the dentist lobby coffee table. Honest!), that bullfighting was as much part of the Spanish national identity as inexpensive, quality booze and those green olives stuffed with the slimy red thing. Seeing as I had already gotten drunk my first night in Madrid and even found those tasty little olives at the bottom of some cocktail glasses, it was time to search out a toro. And so I came upon Madrid's Las Ventas bullring, the most famous building of its type in the world, and eagerly bought the closest ticket to the arena that I could afford. Search as I might, they didn't sell any popcorn or foot-long hot dogs once past the ticket window, so I sat down in the bleachers empty handed.


Everyone loves a good bullfight here in Spain,
even the drunkards wandering the streets and wearing crazy hats

What followed was the most gruesome, bloodthirsty and barbarous act that I have ever witnessed being committed in the name of sport. Thank God I hadn’t found any food before settling into my seat because, if I had, I doubt that I would have been able to keep that foot-longer down (Get your mind out of the gutter, you perverts). First off, an angry and confused bull ran into the arena. He had no idea what was going on and I could already see some blood on his sable coat which must have been the result of what is done to the beast backstage in order to enrage even the most timid of toros. Then a man bearing a lance and seated on a padded horse entered the arena and cornered the bull. The mounted man, known as a picador, proceeded to plunge his lance a number of times into the spine of the beast. I was seated close enough to see the bits of flesh and specks of blood which flew into the air each time the sharp blade pierced the raging bull’s hide – and I’m not talking about Robert DeNiro’s ass. After he had inflicted his share of the damage, the picador left the arena, proudly waving his hat to the audience. Next came a group of three banderilleros who each held a pair of ornate knives known as banderillas. One by one, the banderilleros would run up to the toro and lodge their banderillas into the creature’s spine. More bits of blood and gore went flying to the left and right. Finally, with the hope of putting the pitifully weakened bull out of its misery, the matador made his grand entrance onto the arena’s yellowish dirt. He glided elegantly to the center of the arena with his characteristically red cape... It would be another fifteen minutes before I saw the pathetic blood-drenched carcass of what was once a proud toro bravo lying there motionlessly before me. I couldn’t believe the amount of cruelty and inhumanity I had just witnessed and left with the stench of blood drying in the sweltering sun still fresh in my nostrils.


You won't see any Golden Arches or cigarette ads on Spain's highways...
Only Bull

I was shocked, awed, overwhelmed by what I had just witnessed. Was that barbarity in the name of art the same thing Hemingway had romanticized and Cosmo had raved about? If so, I never wanted to see it again – well, maybe once more. I returned to Madrid's Las Ventas bullring about a month later. Call me a heartless tyrant, call me an immoral hypocrite, call me a bloodthirsty sadist, call me Ishmael... But whichever name you choose to call me or how you judge me, know that I am human. I have a curiosity that is built into my psyche – it's helped my ancestors discover fire, create the wheel, and invent multi-angle DVD pornography – and it's that curiosity that drove me to the bullring a second, and ultimately last, time. One of the most well known matadors in Spain was going on stage that day and I had to see if his performance was as brutal as the first one I witnessed. Perhaps it had all just been some murderous amateur's fluke. Well, a fluke it was not. That day's events were even more barbaric than the first's. I swore off bullfights from that day in 2004 onwards and, since then, have stood by my decision happily. Hemmingway, Cosmo, and those tour books, I'm convinced, had it all wrong.


Hey Ernie, does this really look romantic to you?

The next time I saw a live bull was during a pleasant walk in the countryside a year or so later. He was grazing and stopped to take a shit. I took a picture and continued on my way.



The time after that, the last time in fact, that I saw a toro bravo was at a small running of the bulls. It was so small that it was actually a running of the bull. That's right, just one. It took place on Easter Sunday in a town called Arcos de la Frontera and located about a one hour drive north of Cádiz. My lovely fiancée and I had gone with a friend of mine who was visiting from the States. Guidebooks and Hemmingway had also promised him feats of untold bravery in the face of impending danger. Cádiz, however, does not have a bullring (the last one was torn down in the 1960s to make room for housing) so the unique one-day event in Arcos would have to do.


Ah, the local village's running of the bull...
Except that there doesn't seem to be much running going on

Now normally, the running of the bulls takes place in early summer. A bunch of bulls are herded off a truck at one end of town and plow through the streets until they reach the local bullring where they wait over the next few days for a matador to have his way with them. The most famous of these events takes place in Pamplona, a town in the north of Spain, and now draws in thousands of drunken tourists and Spaniards alike willing to pit their beer-muscles against the charging might and horns of a dozen or so hysterical beasts. (Newsweek recently quoted Julio Bernavides Alvaran, a Valencia resident, who was visiting Pamplona to participate in the famous festival, "Life disappears, and you feel your blood moving in your veins. Either that, or it's all the whisky.") Needless to say, there are dozens of injuries and even a number of deaths recorded each year.


"Charge the defibrillator and hook up the IV drip! Oh no, we're losing him...
There's no time for the Coke. Give me two CCs of whisky, STAT!"

In the mountains of Cádiz Province, though, we have no Pamplona. What we have is Arcos and its traditional running of the Toro del Aleluya (literally, the Hallelujah Bull) each and every Easter. The local vendors proudly sell tacky t-shirts with "Toro del Aleluya" printed on them and banners wave gloriously off balconies. As noon strikes, the Hallelujah Bull is released from its cage after a few jabs and sword slashes and charges through the streets of Arcos in pursuit of those stupid or drunk enough to cross the protective barriers erected by the town council the night before. Now, whereas the beast's warpath would normally end at the local bullring, the problem with Arcos de la Frontera is that it doesn't really have one... So they just sort of let the bull wander around town for an hour or two. When the Hallelujah Bull starts getting tired, or rather, when the locals get tired of looking at it just stand there and prodding it on, they rope up the bleeding, exhausted brute and drag him along the cobblestone street back to his cramped cage. A perfect way to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Hallelujah. Amen.


Don't Christians just do the darndest things?

In the end, I may find this whole fixation of torturing toros barbaric, but I acknowledge that I am a foreigner. I’m not Spanish and it’s not part of my culture. So who am I to judge? Besides, most Spanish people I know find the American system of not providing at least basic free healthcare to all of its citizens while, at the same time, spending billions abroad to protect business interests far more barbaric and inhumane than killing a few bulls could ever be. Who am I to decide whether bullfighting is morally reprehensible or not? All I can do is express my opinion and say I don’t like it. No sir… I don’t like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I don’t like Roger Moore as James Bond, and I don’t like bullfighting.

I feel that Spaniards, however, do have a right to criticize bullfighting. It is their nation and their duty to condemn something as barbaric and uncivilized, not ours as foreigners (unless, of course, human rights violations are involved). In this respect, trust me, condemn it they have. One thing Hemingway, Cosmo and all those other romanticized notions of the bullring neglect to mention is just how disgusted many Spaniards are by the “art” of bullfighting. They call it brutal, bloodthirsty, barbarous – well, basically all the adjectives I’ve used to describe it. Anti-bullfighting organizations can be found in every city and major town of España. As far as their growing numbers are concerned, the Shame of Our Nation – as these protesters have dubbed the toro’s trials and tribulations – has no place in their homeland. It should be banished to the age of the Roman Empire and the gladiatorial matches from whence it came.


translation of a poster found in Cádiz:
"OLGA denounces The National Shame: Torture is neither art nor culture"


So, where does all of this leave the future of Spain’s national pastime? Well, with one third of the country cheering on the matador, another third boozing it up so that they can get enough courage to race in front of toros, and the final third disgusted by the entire spectacle altogether, the nation is as divided as ever. But as long as the sable toro bravo remains a symbol of national identity and ingrained in the cultural heritage of the populace, it looks like the status quo won’t be changing anytime soon. Meanwhile, that very symbol will continue to be slowly and gruesomely slashed, stabbed, tortured and mutilated in front of thousands of cheering spectators as stocks are dependably replenished and conditioned for next year’s fighting season. After all, the entire sport, art, or whatever you may call it runs on one thing and one thing alone… a huge load of bull.

8 comments:

nenenka said...

Haficku, moc Te miluju!!!!!!!! ;)

Franje said...

What the heck did Nenenka just say?

Cynthia Rae said...

I saw a lot of nasty stuff during the eight years I worked on an ambulance in the city of Indianapolis. Nothing turned my stomach the way it turned when I watched a bull fight, and that was just on tv! I just don't get it and hope that the bulls get chance to even the score once in a while during the running of the bulls.

As for Roger Moore, I can agree with you on that BUT you don't like pb and j??? hehehehe!

Cyn

Angie said...

Very well-written and interesting take on bull-fighting! I also felt conflicted when I watched my first bullfight at Las Ventas. I wanted to experience the culture (thanks, Hemingway!), but I could barely stand to watch. (Although that's the way I am... I cried the other day when a rabbit ran out in front of my fiance's car and thump-thumped under us.)

And you're right about Roger Moore... but what do you think about the new Blond Bond?

Angie said...

oh, and LMAO at "it's helped my ancestors discover fire, create the wheel, and invent multi-angle DVD pornography"

Expat Traveler said...

haha - ok those pics were funny. But I guess maybe seeing it once is enough. It's just too crazy for me these days.

pussy said...

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Anonymous said...

I have never understood the glory or motive in bull fighting. I agree with your point of view. Who am I to judge them? Perhaps they view a lot of what we do as barbaric?
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