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A bullish immersion into Spanish culture

Illustration by Cody Angell
By Jeff Sklar
Arizona Summer Wildcat
Wednesday July 16, 2003

MADRID - Thanks to Ernest Hemingway, Americans are probably more familiar with Pamplona's running of the bulls than any other aspect of Spanish culture.

So when I left America three weeks ago for a study abroad program in Madrid, Spain's capital, I was expecting I'd make it to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, an event made famous by Ernest Hemingway in "The Sun Also Rises." I was expecting a huge party, lots of music and dancing, and little sleep. And I knew that the people who run through the town's streets every morning for eight days alongside 10 bulls are putting their lives at risk. But I wasn't expecting that, right in front of me, I'd witness something that would remind me so powerfully of how fragile life can be.

Last weekend, about 200 foreign students in Madrid, including seven from the University of Arizona, hopped on four buses for a daylong trip in Pamplona. We partied all night, and even our 200-student-strong group made up just a tiny percentage of the people celebrating the weeklong festival of San Fermin.

Even the town's young children stayed out late celebrating, dressed in the white shirt and pants with accompanying red waistband and neckerchief that make up the traditional San Fermin costume.
Jeff Sklar

All night long, the town bustled with concerts, dancing, fireworks, drinking and way too much public urination. By morning, the whole town reeked, but we didn't mind. It was time for the festival's centerpiece: the running of the bulls.

Every morning during the festival, 10 bulls and thousands of people from all over the world crowd into the town's streets for the half-mile long run. It's a chance for the runners to prove their courage (or their craziness) as they, armed with nothing more than rolled up newspapers, go head to head against 600-kilogram bulls.

Ever since they found out we were going to Pamplona, our teachers here in Madrid warned us not to run. Admittedly, I'm not very courageous (or maybe I'm just sane), so I never considered running. But two others from the UA, including my roommate, economics junior Andrew Collins, decided not to heed their warnings and ran anyway.

Now, those two made it out fine. From what they told me, they were never even close to the bulls. They even said they were happy they did it, that it was a huge rush and a chance to experience an important part of Spanish tradition.

What I witnessed was much different.

Along with a friend from the UA and two Russian students, I found a place to watch the bulls run by. We were situated about 100 meters from the bullfighting ring, where the running ends, but behind about three rows of spectators who had arrived earlier than us. There are no bleachers in Pamplona, only two wooden fences that separate the bulls and the runners from the spectators. So unless they're bold enough to climb a light post or a building to watch from above, spectators have to jostle for position to get a spot as close to the second fence as possible.

Frustrated that our view was obstructed by three rows of people, not to mention the fence, my UA friend and I took action. We managed to get the people standing right behind the fence to let us sit in front of them, and squeezed into the tiny space between their feet and the fence. We couldn't move, but now we had front-row seats.

People started running by long before we saw the bulls. The first runners were well out of harm's way, and that was the group that included the two guys from the UA contingent who ran. So maybe they weren't too crazy.

As more people passed by, the pace of the runners grew more frenetic. The bulls were close. Then, in a sudden rush that couldn't have lasted more than five seconds, we saw the bulls run by, surrounded by people wearing the traditional costumes. A few of those people were tapping the bulls with their newspapers as if to say, "Gore me, I dare you."

Others were falling to the ground, tripping in the chaos that inevitably ensues when thousands of humans and 10 large angry animals are enclosed in a small space.

I didn't see anybody seriously injured when the bulls ran by, but a few seconds after they passed, I saw something I'll never forget. The man didn't seem conscious, and he was too weak to walk. Watching as a few men dragged him off the street to a safe area behind the wooden fence, I could see his shirt was torn. He was bleeding from his head and barely moving. It looked like he had been trampled. For the next few minutes, I watched him receive emergency medical treatment, unable to turn my head away because the area was so crowded. As the man was loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance, I prayed he would be okay. I didn't see anything later in the news about a man being injured on Sunday morning, so I imagine he wasn't hurt too seriously.

But as I walked to the bus for the ride back to Madrid, I could feel myself trembling, just a little. I could put all the sights, sounds and smells of San Fermin out of my head as I tried to sleep on the bus, except one. The image of that man surrounded by those doctors stayed with me, a powerful reminder halfway around the world from home of how lucky we all are to be alive.

Jeff Sklar is a journalism and political science senior studying in Madrid this summer. He can be reached at

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