"Surviving Pamplona" by Sophia Smith
When my friend, Kate, invited me on a trip to Pamplona for the San Fermin Festival (or "Running of the Bulls," as we refer to it), with her brother, Patrick, and his girlfriend, Leyla, I couldn't pack my white clothes and red scarf fast enough! In preparation for the trip I hopped on Amazon.com and bought all the Pamplona books I could find (a grand total of three). Each described the all-night parties, the all-white attire, and bacchanalian nature of the festival, but none prepared me (and us) for the realities of Pamplona.
We arrived on a Sunday, July 5, in the afternoon - a few hours before the gates of town are closed to all automobile traffic for the next nine days. We found our piso (apartment), and had a nice outdoor dinner in the square nearby. We had a few drinks, met a few Americans from St. Louis and Cali, and talked to the locals. This was the calm before the proverbial storm. The next morning, we woke to throngs of white and red clad revelers drinking and chanting 800-year-old Pamplona cadence songs on the streets below us.
In preparation for the Chupinazo (the lighting of the rocket by the mayor of Pamplona, which signals the official start of the festivities), we were ordered by the landlady to "wear no jewelry, carry no cameras, and carry a minimal amount of euros in our bras or shoes," as the gypsies (pickpockets) are rampant and everyone who visits Pamplona has a pickpocket story.
As soon as we exited our piso after spending hours getting ready (washing our hair, putting on makeup, and donning our white Pamplona "uniforms"), we were shocked to be covered (yes, doused) with red wine and champagne by strangers (young, "overserved" Aussies). It was all over our freshly washed and blown-dry hair, eyes, ears, clothes, feet - you get the picture! So we made it to the Plaza de Ayuntamiento for the Chupinazo ... the rowdiest and craziest event during San Fermin, which the landlady warned us about at least 10 times.
Amidst all the partygoers - the Aussies (loudest), the French (drunkest) and the Americans (most were amazed this was all legal) - we were shocked at the behavior of the local Spaniards. The Spanish brought their children to this event! Babies in strollers, toddlers, teenagers and every age in between! For them it is simply a tradition and every family member - even the great-great-grandparents come along. We braced ourselves for the worst, but it was just one big, sweaty, noisy, jubilant scene with a bunch of different marching bands playing traditional Pamplona music after the rocket was deployed.
After a few beverages, we decided the worst was over and to go back to the piso, shower and put on a new set of white clothes, red scarves, and red sashes before heading back out for dinner. As soon as our feet hit the first cobblestone on the street - you guessed it - a few Spaniards ran up to us and said, "You're too clean" and happily covered us in red wine again! We finally realized we would most likely spend the rest of our time in this city covered in greater or lesser amounts of red wine.
Day after day, we adjusted to life in Pamplona. Party, party, party with no sleep (difficult when the people singing in the streets all night just get louder and louder). We decided San Fermin made Mardi Gras, New Year's Eve in Times Square and YYC's Level Regatta look like nursery school. BTW, Pamplona has a minute amount of pisos and hotel rooms to rent compared to the amount of people that want one, ergo the revelers without accommodations just stay up all night in the streets drinking and singing at the bars! We probably had the best piso in the entire city of Pamplona - no exaggeration! We had a huge, double-balcony piso on Calle Estefeta directly above El Encierro (the actual running of the bulls). After about five days, we considered ourselves old pros in Pamplona; we owned the place - ha, ha.
One afternoon, we decided to go to La Corrida - the bullfights. Kate's brother, Patrick, was sent on the mission to buy the tickets. I gave him two hundred euros and instructed him to "get good ones in the shade!" He came back to the Cafe Iruna an hour later brandishing the tickets in the air. "I got good ones where the party is! Some guy told me all the fun is in the cheap seats and that's the best place to sit!" He gave me back my change (a lot), and I looked at him skeptically, but decided to get ready and go.
I had been to a few bullfights before in Spain, but never in Pamplona. I put on a beautiful white suit for this event, jewelry, and even carried a designer bag to complete my bullfight ensemble. We arrived about two minutes late to our entrance, and could not get into the arena until the first bull was "finished." While waiting in the hallway, we witnessed several men exiting the door saying "joder" and trying to wipe wine off their faces and clothes. I said to Leyla, "OMG, I think they are throwing wine on people in there!" It was all a mystery what lay on the other side of the two gigantic, 200-year-old doors. We could hear the crowd going wild inside; screaming, booing, clapping - I swear I was getting nervous. I asked the next guy who came out, "Estan tirando vino a dentro?" (Are they throwing wine inside?), and he just looked at me like I was crazy.
When the doors opened, the usher stood there expressionless and we showed him our tickets. He waved us past with his hand and said to sit anywhere. We were in the serious nosebleeds, and could not see any seats. We finally found a few seats, but the crazy Spaniards in that row wouldn't let us sit there when they realized Pat was with us and we weren't just two chicks alone! They literally kicked us out of that aisle. Finally we found seats near two young guys and squeezed in. The first thing I noticed was the peculiar fashion everyone in the "party section" was wearing. I don't mean not sporting the ole' white and red, I mean wearing rain jackets, slickers and goggles. Some guys even wore helmets! I looked at Leyla and Pat and said, "Holy schnikes! This is not what I expected," and two seconds later the guy behind us hoisted a huge Super Soaker squirt gun over our heads and was pummeling everyone around him with wine!
I looked at Leyla and said, "Let's go"! L & P said, "Hey, this is all part of Pamplona, so we just gotta go with the flow." Just then I was hit on the shoulder with something. I gazed down to see a shrimp looking back at me! What the hell? I didn't read about this in any of the Pamplona books! I looked at the chico next to me, who had a big white bucket at least two feet high filled with a white substance, which he was filling his squirt gun with and shooting at victims. I said, "OMG, is that rotten milk????? I'm gonna D-I-E!!! I'm outta here!" Meanwhile, Leyla made friends with the Spanish kid on the other side of us who spoke English and heard our whole conversation. He said, "Don't worry; it's champagne and sherbet - shampu - a traditional Pamplona drink," which make me feel a little better, but not that much.
Standing at the edge of our section was a scrawny, 6'2"-ish Spanish dude who weighed about 100 pounds. He was a trying to light his cigarette, but was a little borracho and was having some trouble. As soon as the crowd zeroed in on this guy, he was toast. They started singing "Happy Birthday" to him in English (I mean everyone), which apparently is the signal to go bananas on the poor sucker they're all singing to! Within seconds, about 40 gallons of wine, champagne and anything else nearby was pummeled on this poor guy. The sheer force of this tsunami whipped him to the ground, and he slinked out of our section, never to be seen again. I told L & P that next time we go to Pamplona I am going to plan ahead and get us VIP tickets in the front row with the mayor!
All of this time (while I was picking my jaw up off the ground), I was sunk down into my seat crouching near Leyla and trying not to get splashed by the wine and everything else (a good analogy would be like trying not to touch sand at the beach). The guy in front of us turned around and offered us a squeeze from his bota bag; P & L obliged and drank the (God knows what) contents. So I followed suit and drank some. After he squirted our mouths, he squirted our hair and faces and had the biggest laugh of his life. We were his grand entertainment for the day, clearly. I looked at L & P again, like, "Let's make a run for it!"
I could never imagine what was about to happen next.
The Spaniard next to me out of the blue poured an entire bottle of champagne on my head! I was really upset by this point (call me crazy); so I begged him in Spanish, "Please don't pour anything else on me"! Well, that was the dumbest thing I ever could have done, because guess who they sang "Happy Birthday" to next? Yes, yours truly!
I was so shocked, so flabbergasted - so soaking wet! Now my white suit was soaked from top to bottom and it was pretty uncomfortable (understatement of the century)! I didn't know if I should laugh or cry or pour twice as much back on him! Our new Spanish friend on the other side said, "Just ignore it or will only get worse if you have a big reaction."
So I sat there absolutely covered in red wine, champagne, sherbet and God knows what else. Pat ordered more Heineken and I sat there like I was enjoying watching the bullfight and trying not to freak out and trying not to cry. (I don't know why I'm such a baby, but somehow it was just not how I planned my afternoon at the bullfight!) Meanwhile, our Spanish friend, Javier, told Leyla all about the protocol of the drunk-off-your-ass section at the bullfight in Pamplona (or were we in the Coliseum in Rome)?
I just couldn't convince P & L to leave, so I had to escape to the hallway for a breather from the Barbarians. I was just about to leave and head back to the piso. I was staring at the doors (which I christened "La puerta de los animales" or "the door of the animals"), and decided when in Rome do as the Romans do. I bought three more Heinekens and went back in with my brave friends.
The next time I go to the bullfight in Pamplona, I will sit in the front row with the mayor, and wear a white Dior dress, which will remain pristine. Or ... maybe ... I'll sport a rain jacket, goggles and bring my Super Soaker 2012!