It was about 9pm on a mildly warm Tuesday night when our bus came to a meandering crawl in Requena, Spain. This was not just any Tuesday night. It was the night before the annual tomato throwing festival known as La Tomatina.
Tomatina was to be held in the small town of Bunol the following afternoon. That didn't stop the entire province of Valencia from joining in on the celebration, however. This was the night of the annual Water and Wine Festival in Requena. I had been looking forward to this event for some time. Not just because I wanted to party, but because I always relish in the opportunity to have genuine cultural interactions when I travel.
We were hastily escorted off the bus when it stopped and asked to follow our tour guides through the quaint Spanish village. My brother Rome and I chatted comically with a few of the other English-speaking tourists that were joining us on our hike through the town streets. It was already pitch black dark when we arrived, so photo opportunities were at a minimum. That was a shame because Requena is a picturesque village full of fountains, statues and mission revival style architecture.
True to the rhythm of the typical Spanish day, many of the town’s restaurants and cafes were buzzing with customers. Most watched us pass with smiles on their faces, eager to share their local festivities with us. After a 10-minute walk we arrived at a giant open air arena. Due to the events of the evening, the arena felt larger than life. The outer stone walls were eroded and dilapidated...in a good way. As we approached the edifice, we could feel the heartbeat of the entire city contained inside the walls.
The triumphant sounds of the chants, cheers and brass bands leaked through every crack in the coliseum style building and swam their way through our eardrums. There was a large, disorganized line already forming at the entry for people that had their tickets. For people that had to buy their tickets, or people that already had tickets in advance and forgot them (like me), the line was even longer and more disorganized. At most bullfights held during the daytime, spectators are given the option of purchasing seats in the sun or seats in the shade for a little more money. Being that it was already night time, sun and shade had no bearing on seat selection and the line moved relatively quickly. I purchased my ticket and did my best to squeeze and maneuver my broad shoulders through the narrow arena stairways.
By the time we actually entered the arena, it was already jam packed and rocking. Hard bleacher style seating ascended at least 30 rows high. Rome and I sat as close to the stairwell as possible about 20 rows away from the arena floor. Many of the local people brought snacks into the arena that they readily shared with anybody in their immediate area. On a couple of occasions, I was handed a convenient, savory snack of Spanish ham baked directly into an olive oil infused bread. The atmosphere in the Collirena (that's a new word I just made up combining coliseum and arena) was very reminiscent of a college football game at my beloved Florida A&M University. The audience cheered, sang songs and did the wave ad nauseam.
There were also bands in almost every section of the crowd playing traditional Spanish revelry music mixed with contemporary renditions of their favorite pop songs. Prior to us boarding the bus, our guide gave us a brief description of the events that would take place. We were told that this would not be a bullfight in the traditional sense. The bull would not be slaughtered after this event. The goal was to simply taunt the bull and dodge his enraged attempts at seeking revenge. This event was to serve as a rite of passage for many of the young men of Requena. There is a great deal of pride taken in honing the matador spirit.
Another caveat that made this bullfight unique was that it was open to ANYBODY with enough balls to get in the ring. Never one to shy away from a challenge, my eyes glazed over with delight when I heard I would be afforded to opportunity to play with a bull.
Rome and I looked at each other with childlike grins as we boarded the bus. We both knew, without even speaking a word, we would have to get in the ring with the bull. That is why we picked seats close to the stairwell. We knew when the time came, we would need to make an obstruction free exit from our seats and head down to the danger zone.
The bullfighting ring was a circle approximately 50 meters in diameter. The ground was coarse brown loosely packed sand. Smack dab in the middle of the arena floor sat an orange cage approximately 10 feet in length, width and height. The bars on the cage were wide enough for an average person to slip through sideways, but not anything much larger....like say....A BULL. This cage was the safety cage; made to be slipped in and out of while teasing large ungulate bovine mammals.
Shortly after the cage was placed, a few brave Spaniards...and one or two drunk tourists....ventured out onto the arena floor. The crowd cheered fervently in anticipation of the bull to come. The brave first participants huddled into the safety cage and close to the walls of the bull ring floor and in a flash a large, cantankerous black bull came darting on to the arena floor. I would be lying if I told you I wasn't.....we're not going to use the term "scared" here. This is my blog entry after all, and I would like to maintain my image as savage global conqueror. We will use the term phrase "taken aback." I was taken aback, not because there was a gargantuan steamroller of a bull on the floor. I was taken aback because this was the first, and smallest bull that we were going to see this night.
This bullfight, as with many in Spain, was going to feature a round robin cavalcade of bulls that only got bigger, faster, stronger and more aggressive as the night progressed. Rome and I both looked at each other and said "Oh hell no" in unison. We watched on pins and needles as the first two bulls ran roughshod around the circumference of the bull ring chasing all who dared to enter directly to the safety cage. One innocent bystander in a purple shirt got caught taking in the ambience of the arena and was absolutely pummeled by the bull. He was literally bowled off his feet and stomped by the bull's massive hooves. As he stood to his feet the bull caught him flush on his legs and literally whipped him to the ground. The entire audience gasped in horror. A handful of participants distracted the bull to draw his attention to anything but the man in the purple shirt that was being stomped to bits.
As the third bull came shooting out of his pen, Rome looked at me and said "Come on Ice, let's go." I told him there was no way I was going down there. Rome looked at me and said the four words no man of honor can sit idly by and hear without taking action. "Don't be a pussy." I leapt to my feet and said let's go with the eye of the tiger playing in my head.
We galloped gut wrenchingly down the 20 bleacher flights of stairs to the ground floor of the arena. We stopped briefly to pull up our pants, tighten our belt loops and tie our shoes. Rome latched his new Go Pro camera to his chest mount and we approached the bull ring gates. The arena security guards, smiled sheepishly and motioned us to jump over the bull ring wall whenever we were ready.
Just before we entered the ring, I stopped, looked Rome directly in his chest mounted camera and did a quick last will and testament. We waited until the bull was on the other side of the arena and jogged out onto the arena floor. It was at that very instant that I could literally feel all my senses heighten. My peripheral vision got more acute. My sense of hearing tuned itself in a very peculiar fashion where I could no longer hear the crowd, but I could very distinctly hear the sand crunching under my feet. My mouth became surprisingly dry and I darted straight to the safety cage.
I didn't enter it immediately though. I grabbed the bars of the cage with one hand and watched the bull chase a participant over the wall. The bull then turned around and saw me hanging out of the cage with no cover. He darted for me with surprising speed, hell bent on cremating another victim. I held off as long as I could before I spun in the sand and slipped through the safety cage bars. At that point, I heard a collective "Ohhhh" from the audience. I knew the bull had gotten entirely too close to me for comfort. The fighters that were in the cage with me were patting my back. Their wide eyed stares were enough to let me know that I more than likely almost took a horn where the sun don't shine. The fact of the matter is that the cage is built for svelte Spanish toreadors. My American football playing frame was not built to slip through the bars easily. I looked down the front of my shirt while in the cage to make sure my nipples did not get ripped off by the bars.
After a few deep breaths in the cage, my wits returned to me. My eyes darted around looking for Rome. He was nowhere to be found, so I stepped out of the cage to take a look around the arena. I strolled casually around to the other side of the cage and noticed the bull chasing yet another group of young men over the wall. I stood cautiously about 20 feet away from the cage. The bull turned around and noticed me immediately. He darted for me blowing what looked like combustion engine smoke out of his nostrils. I stood my ground as long as I could before I turned around and high tailed it to the cage. Once again I slipped through with a little friction to my nipples. I didn't care though, I was safe from the surly toro's advances. This is where things get a little dicey. I entered the cage and kept my back to the bull. I got cocky, I was more interested in receiving approval from my compadres in the cage than I was in watching the bull. This particular rascal was able to slip about half his head and one of his horns right through the cage and use his powerful neck muscles to wreak havoc at the cage edge. With one jerk of his muscular neck, he was able to get up under one of my legs and begin to lift me off the ground.
Please, bear in mind that I am 227 lbs. Next time you go to the gym, try to lift 227 lbs with your neck. Needless to say, I was startled out of my mind when I looked behind me and saw a massive bull head and horn prying away at my leg. My cage buddies pulled me away from the edge of the cage as the audience gasped once again in horror. It was a short three seconds of terror but it was the most panicked I have been in a long time.
Almost immediately after my encounter with the business end of the bull, I saw Rome run around the cage. I stepped out and told him I got gored. He gave me a high five because that's what bros do when one bro almost dies. My only regret is that I don't have a scar to show for it. If you're gonna meet a bulls horn, the least the bull can do is leave a little mark for you to show your grandchildren one day. If you are an adrenaline junky, I highly recommend participating in the bull fight at the water and wine festival. I don't know if it is something I would do again, but I am very proud of the experience. Remember, the bullfight is just the first part of the festival. There is a parade afterwards, and everybody loves a bullfighter.