Tarifa, Spain - April 8, 2006
With only one day to go before our departure, we spent most of the day lazing around camp, washing clothes, and enjoying the fantastic spring weather. It was a wonderful, relaxed way to spend our final day in Europe. All day long however there was a bit of a nervous undercurrent. Not so much because we were nearing our departure for Africa but moreso because the hour was growing near for us to attend our first bullfight. At 4:30pm we climbed into Betty and setoff for the 6pm fight. On the drive over we were a bit anxious. Partly because we’ve always wanted to see a fight and learn more about an event that’s so much a part of the Spanish culture, and partly because we’d seen some footage of fights on television and it seemed pretty cruel. We arrived at the stadium at 5:30. It was the opening fight of the season and locals and tourist alike were pouring into the tiny stadium. On the way into the stadium we purchased two tickets for 30 euros each. This bought us the cheapest seats in the house located directly under the intense afternoon sun and beside perhaps the loudest, drunkest, most passionate, and perhaps popular spectator in town.
On the card for the evening was 6 fights. The first fight began at 6pm as the band announced the entry of the bull with a blast of horns. Here’s a summary of what took place (note: these are our observations based on attending 6 fights and clearly include our editorial comments):
In each fight, a team of toreros (bullfighters), led by a matador, battles a clearly enraged toro bravo (fighting bull).
When the band begins to play, the gates open, and often with a significant amount of thrashing and banging of bull against metal, a clearly angry bull comes racing down the tunnel and into an empty stadium to the roar of the crowd. Once the bull is in the ring, four peons enter opposite corners of the ring dawning bright capes. At this point the bull is spitting mad and eager to charge anything that moves. At the first sight of a peon he charges across the ring to attack. Just as the bull reaches the peon, the peon steps behind a protective wall and the bull either skids to a halt or, in some cases, rams the wall head on. Next, another peon steps out on an opposite corner of the ring and the same action plays out. This goes on for several more times, each time with the bull charging across the stadium and the peon stepping behind the wall for cover. With each charge, the bull expends precious energy and as he begins to tire, the peons move further and further from the protection of their walls, eventually dancing around in the center of the ring as the, now tired, bull charges their capes. This concludes act one. In my view, the goal was for the peons to wear down the bull in preparation for act two.
As the peons continue to dance about the stadium confusing and tiring the bull, act two opens when a picador armed with a long lance enters the ring riding a huge fully armored horse (picture a knight on horseback). Once in the center of the ring, the picador moves into the bull’s line of sight, which gets his attention. Without fail, the bull charges the picador. As the bull charges, the picador drives his razor sharp lance into the bull’s withers. Enraged and clearly in pain, the bull continues to ram the heavily armored horse as the picador continues to work his lance into the bulls back. By the time the joust is over, the picador has inflicted terrible damage to the bull, which is now covered in red and hemorrhaging massive amounts of blood. Perhaps most unsettling to us is that the joust between man and bull is so stacked against the bull. The horse is so heavily armored that the bulls charge has no effect and if the bull is successful in dislodging the lance, as was the case in one fight, another member of the toreros team races out and hands the picador another lance. The act ends with the bull standing in the middle of the stadium, bleeding profusely and panting heavily.
With significant damage now done, banderilleros enter the ring armed with banderillas (basically picture hunting arrows with razor sharp, barbed heads concealed under colorful streamers) and charge the tired, injured bull, stabbing the banderillas into the bulls neck as they pass. At my count, 6 banderillas are driven into the bull before the banderilleros exit the ring. The act closes with the bull gravely wounded, completely worn out, standing in the center of the stadium with it’s tongue hanging out of it’s mouth, letting out loud cries of pain.
The toro bravo now hardly resembles the strong, beautiful beast that charged into the stadium some 15 minutes earlier. The bull now tired and motionless, the peons have to work to get him to charge their capes. At this point, the matador enters the ring. Armed with a red cape and sword, the matador works the exhausted bull further, demonstrating his fancy footwork as the bull halfheartedly charges the cape. After several passes, the matador reveals his sword from behind the cape and, as the bull charges, drives it squarely between the bulls shoulder blades and presumably through it’s heart, in theory killing the bull. When done correctly, the bull drops almost immediately and another member of the team arrives with a dagger, which he drives into the bull’s brain stem ensuring the bull is dead. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go to plan and in one fight, it took the matador 8 attempts to kill the bull. Each time he drove the sword in, it missed the mark, putting the bull through more agony before it was finally killed.
If the crowd likes the fight the bulls ears and tale are cut off and the matador parades around the stadium tossing them to eager fans. Meanwhile, a team of horses enters the stadium and drags the bull away while a cleanup crew uses shovels to clean up the blood soaked dirt that’s left behind. Once everything has been cleaned up, the matador exits the stadium, the horns sound, and a new fight begins.
6 fights later, the event was over. Leaving the stadium we watched a front end loader carry the slain bulls to a waiting butchers truck. Are we glad we attended the fight? Yes. Do we endorse bull fighting? No. It was difficult to watch. Perhaps mostly because there’s nothing fair about it. Everything is stacked against the bull. The peons have walls to hide behind. The picador sits high atop an armored horse with a team ready to come to his aid if he gets in trouble. And, most troubling is that the matador doesn’t even enter the ring until all of the fight is out of the bull.
In any case, it was a worthwhile experience and we’re not always going to agree with what we see while traveling. It’s all part of experiencing new things both good and bad.