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Broncos Abroad

Las fiestas de San Fermín, el encierro de toros, y los gigantes

This Saturday I went to Pamplona for the final day of the festival of San Fermin. San Fermin is a week-long celebration held annually in Pamplona honoring Saint Fermin, the co-patron of Navarre. Every year the festival begins at noon on the sixth of July when the party starts with the setting off of the chupinazo (firework) and ends on the fourteenth of July, with the singing of El Pobre de Mí. The encierro, or the running of the bulls, is the most famous event and that happens each day at eight a.m.

I woke up early on Saturday to catch a bus from San Sebastián to Pamplona at five a.m. I arrived at the bus station in Pamplona and it felt like I was walking into a war zone with trash everywhere, vomit on the ground and people slumped in uncomfortable positions trying to catch some z’s from partying too hard the night before. I made my way through the narrow streets to the start where the bulls are held in the corrals. This event has been on my bucket list since I read the Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemmingway.

I gathered near the corrals with the rest of the runners and asked them for advice as the time approached. I met a man named Ignacio who was running for the eleventh consecutive year. He gave me some tips and told me to stick with him to make the experience last as long as possible. He explained that it is like surfing a wave and that you try to be as close as possible to the bulls and stay in front of them for as long as possible. He said you are lucky if you can grab onto the horns of the bull. The people were chanting to ask for protection from the Saint.

A wave of energy surged through the streets as the start time approached. People started jockeying for position and the crowd started jumping up and down in anticipation. At exactly eight a.m. the firework signalled that the bulls were running. Like a wave pummeling a beach, the bulls rushed through the crowd and I took off running. I stayed in front of the herd and I reached the curves where it is suddenly more chaotic as people began to fall and crash into the walls. Ignacio lost me on the curves. I turned and saw three huge bulls running right toward me so I dove out of the way, underneath the barrier in the nick of time. My feelings were a cocktail of adrenaline, fear, and desire for more. After the bulls had passed, I jumped back in and ran with the steers with bells on their necks. I made my way into the plaza del toros in a much more relaxed manner. Within minutes, the event was over. The wooden barriers were dismantled and cleaning trucks removed the garbage from the previous night’s party.

A selfie of Ryan after the running of the bulls, calming his nerves.

After that, I took a walk around Pamplona to calm my nerves and grabbed a cafe con leche. I met a Mexican woman named Lilliana who was studying architecture in Madrid. She was willing to help me with my Spanish and we wandered over to the giants and big-heads parade (la comparsa de gigantes y cabezudos). During the parade, the giants dance to the rhythm of traditional music. While the big-heads simply precede the giants and wave their hands at spectators, the kilikis run after children, hitting them with a foam truncheon. Zaldikos, figures representing horses with their riders, also run after children with a truncheon. This is such a cool event for all ages.

Lilliana and I in the crowd during the parade of the big heads

Ryan and a kiliki with his truncheon

Zaldiko with his truncheon hitting the children

Gigantes dancing in the crowds

Finally, I watched some traditional Basque sports. There were strong men and women events where contestants would pick up heavy stones as many times as possible and another to see how far one could carry these heavy stones. My favorite sporting event was the wood chopping contest because it not only required strength, it required precision and endurance. After a meal with Lilliana and her friends from Pamplona, I called it a day and headed back to San Sebastián. On the bus ride back, I was already reminiscing on what a wonderful day it had been and I knew it was one day I would never forget.

Basque man chopping wood

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