mira, el toro
Madrid, 3 Junio 2006 (photo by Jamie)
Yes, mi gente, we went to the bullfight in Madrid at Las Ventas. This beautiful photo was taken by Jamie, who was part of the cultural search party sent out by the Builders to take in this extreme sport of Spain. Also in attendance were Neal, Claire, Jeff and myself. I will try and relate what happened, though I am still in a state of disbelief about the whole thing.
First, there were the snacks. Jeff and I arrived at the appointed hour after spending the day on a lovely trip to Segovia with Rizwan, who did not opt for the bullring but had other plans. He loves the nightlife, he's got to boogie, what can we say? Anyway, Jeff, or "Yeffie" as we have taken to calling him in Espana, went to the street vendors in search of pre-bullfight snacks while I waited for the rest of the group to find us. Yeffie came back with bottles of water (good move) and these delightful roasted corn kernels covered in salt and I believe cheese flavor. The rest of the group arrived and brought a whole other snack option, tortillas and cerveza frio. Tortilla in Spain is sort of like a big round omelet with stuff cooked into it. We trundled happily into the arena and found our concrete seats. Jamie rented little butt pads for us to sit on, as he is a gentleman.
So the thing began. There was live music coming from two bands which featured lots of brass, as in the Tijuana kind. Bullfights and Other Delights, but in a totally classical Spanish style. There was no public address and absolutely not a scrap of advertising anywhere in the place, unless you count the colors of Spain, red and yellow, which were everywhere. This was going to be serious business, which sort of worried me as I had convinced myself that the bullfight had to be more than just fighting the bulls and that there had to be Solid Gold Dancers between the acts. How wrong I was.
Horns blow, a door opens on the perfectly circular beautiful ring and out comes el toro numero uno for the night. He is not happy, and I could not blame him as someone has stuck a little thing in his back with a couple of ribbons flying off of it. He runs around looking for someone to express his anger towards and these guys that look fabulous in their shiny outfits come out and flap their bright pink and yellow capes at him. El Toro runs towards the taunters and they run behind some big wooden thing so they don't get hurt.
More horns and out come the picadores on horses. There are two of them and the horses have stuff covering their eyes so they cannot see that a very angry bull is about to run towards them, which he does and rams full-on into the side of the horse. The horse wears an outfit that seems to be made of a giant horse basket that protects him from being poked by Senor Angry Toro. The picadore has a big long stick with a pokey thing at the end that he jabs into the bull's back repeatedly as the bull is trying his best to ram the only thing that he is allowed to ram, the horse.
More horns and the horses go away and then comes the baderilleros who run on foot at the bull and stick six pokey things with little ruffles on them into his back, two by two, while the other guys in the team distract him so El Toro won't really have a chance to poke the guy back. The pokey things can be bought in souvenir versions outside Las Ventas and all over Spain. I think my brother had a set when we were kids, though I now can't imagine why.
More horns and out comes the main man, el torero, the one who is really going to fight the bull after he has been put through the provoking phases by the others. He has a fabulous outfit which glitters in the low sun of the Madrid evening. His movements are very graceful and strangely balletic, considering what his job is. Which is to mortally wound a bull weighing at least 1200 pounds with a sword so that he falls down. This is done by thrusting the sword up to the hilt into the top of the bull between his shoulder blades. At least, that's what I think was his objective. As I said, there are no announcements and you are just expected to know what's going on. When the bull is dead and being dragged off by a team of horses, there is no mistaking what has occurred.
So what can I say about this event without sounding like a militant vegetarian tree-hugger with an animal-substitute bone to pick? The outfits were fabulous. There was beautiful music. The dance of alpha male vs. alpha male was fascinating. The ladies in front of us where very, very sweet in explaining to us what was going on and when someone was good or bad. We were sitting in the next to top rows and it seemed to be populated by "real" fans of the bullfight. We were the only foreigners I spotted and it was nice when the people disapproved when a bull was not killed cleanly.
But still, the bull was killed. Except for the ones that were deemed not good enough to fight and were sent out after the initial tormenting by the guys with the pink capes. These lucky few get to go home and get their bullfighting instincts in order before they are shown the ring again. A herd of white castrated bulls with bells on come into the ring to get these spared toros offstage. The failed fightee joins the herd and trots off. That was a happy moment for me.
There are eight bulls for each night of fighting. No dance numbers in between, no Torovision scoreboard with highlights, no audience member winning a Ford Explorer by poking an untested bull with a sharp stick. Just angry bull against guys in good outfits. There is a fair amount of ceremony, the code of which I could not always read which makes it all go on for a substantial time.
Claire says that there is a "big polemic" happening in Europe right now to abolish the bullfight. I find it hard to imagine that this thing which is so a part of this culture will disappear from the landscape. I don't understand the appeal of watching this on a regular basis as a sport, but it is not my culture. It is for the Spanish to decide I suppose though for me, it was way hard to watch. I went to the bullfight, but did not see much of the important action, as my eyes were covered by my hands, which were salty with tears for the bull and cheese flavor from the corn. And call me unsportsmanlike, but I was rooting for the bull to get one of the teasing men in their fancy outfits and Strictly Ballroom hairdos.
I could go on at Hemingwayish length about this experience but I will close now. Like seeing the fantastic Goyas and El Grecos of the Prado, the bullfight is also a cultural slice of Spain. There is deep beauty but also there is deep pain, and that is life. At least I think that is the message.